"I was born in New York, but I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut—that's where I went to school. I remember begging my way into choir in the 3rd grade, because you're not supposed to get in until 4th grade. I'd sing everywhere. And I would bang on our piano, which my dad didn't like, so he got me a little Yamaha PSR. I was into music from a very early age, and I was also—I don't really talk about this that much—really into horses. I learned a lot about rhythm and about voice from that. Like, you don’t always have full control of your instrument. You have to trust it, you have to give it space, you have to know when to push, give it air. The two are very similar.
After high school, I went to the University of Colorado—that's where Patrick [Wimberly] and I started Chairlift. Then we moved to New York, and we've been doing it ever since. I didn’t think it working in music as an endgame was possible. From where I was standing, the music industry was like this mafia that you had to be inducted into. You had to have a parent who knew someone or you had to sleep with someone. I thought it was an untouchable thing. I never for a second considered that I could be a professional musician. I mean, I had a job lined up to go work behind a desk at a gallery, and then suddenly we're opening for Ariel Pink.
Growing up, I was so compelled by artists whose looks were inseparable from their music. Björk was my hero. With bands like Nirvana or people like Marilyn Manson, just hearing their music would sort of be incomplete without the whole image. I can’t help but think of David Bowie—I love the photos of him doing his own makeup because it’s clear how much vision he had. The man had a serious talent for it. When the Ramona Lisa [solo] project came along, I wanted her to be a character...kind of classical, timeless, like a ballet paper doll. But she has these eyes on her cheeks, which are a foil. I drew them on my friend one Halloween because she didn't have a costume, and I was so captivated by them, so I started wearing them out. I enjoy interpreting music in other ways. With each project I'm like, 'How can I convey this visually?'
At this point, I know my face so well that I actually have a hard time working with most makeup artists. I’m always trying to grab the pencil out of their hand the whole time, like, 'Do it like this!' Because I know what looks good on me. Every day, I wear a little bit of smudged Maybelline Ultra Liner under my eyes, and I fill in my brows with Define-A-Brow in Medium Brown. I've always been making them big, and the Maybelline goes on intensely and blends nicely. I set with Maybelline Brow Drama Sculpting Brow Mascara. It’s really good, it doesn’t get crusty. My mascara is Maybelline Full ‘N Soft Waterproof Mascara. A makeup artist I worked with on the "Crying in Public" music video recommended it, because we needed something that I could cry in and not get all over face. Nars Skorpios Soft Touch Shadow Pencil is a great product, too. I'll use it as eyeshadow, as eyeliner, as bronzer, everything.
On my lips, Maybelline Color Sensational Red Revival is the perfect red, as far as I'm concerned. It’s a slightly dark red but it goes pretty close to matte. I swear they don't sponsor me! [Laughs] It's just my favorite drugstore brand. I actually used one of their red Matte Lip Colors under my eye for stage makeup. I also love the MAC Chromacake in Pure White, which I use for the Ramona Lisa eyes. Kryolan Liquid Body Makeup in Silver, too, is so beautiful. I bought it to paint my face silver to perform with SBTRKT at Coachella two years ago. But recently, I wore it to a Vogue party on my eyes.
My mom is my hero when it comes to skincare stuff. I remember her telling me, 'If you have a little bit of money to spend on yourself, spend it on good moisturizer, not on makeup—if your skin looks good, you don’t need makeup.' That made a big impression on me when I was young. In college I couldn’t afford fancy face creams, so I would just get vitamin E face cream from the drugstore. Now, my daily routine is to use Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser with a light moisturizer. I like Kiehl's Super Multi-Corrective Cream in the summer, and when it's colder I'll switch to Fresh Seaberry Moisturizing Face Oil.
I’ve never had a facial in my life. Whenever I have a music video or a big shoot coming up or if I do have breakout, I’ll give myself a facial. It’s a couple steps. I take a shower first so my pores are all open, then I use Freeman Avocado Clay Mask from the drugstore. I put that on and let it get dry and itchy, and then I take it off and use Freeman's Charcoal and Black Sugar Scrub. I feel like you can’t fully get the mask out unless you exfoliate. Sometimes I mix a little bit of a grit exfoliator with Cetaphil and just use that as a regular face wash, when my skin looks a little dead.
My current stage look is based around not having to wash my hair that much. On the last record I was blowdrying, using a ton of product, and it not only was a lot of work but it also fried my hair. I cut it off last week. You can see the point at which I stopped using heat on it. I haven’t touched it with heat since 2012—since then, it just looks more colorful and more lustrous. I'd been growing it out, too...I only recently cut it short. I’ve had this undercut since 2005, and I did it myself! You draw a line in the back and then just chop. Sometimes I have my husband or friend straighten the line.
I use a very basic Pantene shampoo, but I only really use it every two weeks. And I’m using a Wella mask as a conditioner. You leave it on for 10 minutes and then rinse it out. It’s really rich, so it doesn’t drip off when you’re in the shower. It makes it really shiny and detangled and it smells nice.
In high school I wore Clinique Happy for Men. I feel like in the '90s there were all these perfumes that came out that were very synthetic-smelling but kind of cool. Like what does CK One really smell like? Or Gucci Rush. Those smells that just felt like, 'What is this?' For the past two years or so, I've been wearing Armani Privé Figuier Eden and I love it. I found it at a duty free store in an airport while we were on tour. I’d been wearing Comme des Garçons Guerilla 2 for six years prior which I liked, but it’s really intense and spicy and in the summer it feels too intense. The Armani smells kind of like grass and palo santo. I blend it with other stuff if I’m in a funny mood.
This is the craziest one I’ve ever owned, it’s from India and it's called Sand. I got it from a tiny hole-in-the-wall Muslim perfumer who's been there for years. It’s apparently made with dirt...it’s made to smell like a dirt road right after it rains. Sometimes I put on too much and I’m like, 'Shit, I smell like burning tires.' It's so good. My husband doesn't wear fragrance, but he'll wear that sometimes.
Before I play a show, I put on lavender oil—it's sort of a ritual. I put it on the boys too and they love it. They just stick their wrists up before we go on stage. It’s definitely a placebo. But I think at a certain point, it’s an association thing, because we do it every time. Now, the smells just excites me."
—as told to ITG
Caroline Polachek photographed by Tom Newton at her home in Brooklyn on May 12, 2016.
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