Ramona Lisa Caroline Polachek Amanda Vincelli WILD mag


Et in Arcadia ego

What is it about modern living that makes us long for a simpler time? The phrase “Et in Arcadia ego,” first thought to mean “I was once in Arcadia, too,” was for centuries misattributed to the poet Virgil, whose idealization of pastoralism stood in contrast to his weariness of a sullied urban life. The line can be more accurately traced to two baroque painters from the 17th century, first the Italian Guercino, then more famously to French artist Nicolas Poussin. Both depicted a bucolic scene in a cloistered land called Arcadia in which shepherds gather at a tomb etched with the grim warning. The true origin of “Et in Arcadia ego” is lost to history, but scholars now agree it to mean “Even in Arcadia, there am I.” This inscription represents the voice of death, who, it seems, exists even in the mythic perfection of Arcadia. It is said that ancient Greeks living in coastal cities came to sentimentalize the pure, agrarian lives of Arcadians. The scene symbolizes a loss of innocence, the moment at which the shepherds discover their own mortality. But all is not lost—art, you see, serves to challenge death. Through art we are able to navigate our emotions, overcome isolation, and connect with what we’ve lost.

Ramona Lisa Caroline Polachek Amanda Vincelli WILD mag

Arcadia, the the debut solo album from Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, opens in a similarly ominous fashion. With allusions to the myths and literature of the ancient Mediterranean, Polachek performs this conceptual side-project in character as a porcelain-skinned girl named Ramona Lisa. As the title track opens the record, clock tower bells toll a diminished-sounding melody that she then spells out with signature intonation: “är-ˈkā-dē-ə / är-ˈkā-dē-ə / Now I know time forgets us too.”

Ramona Lisa’s Arcadia isn’t exactly that of mythos but, rather, a sort of 8-bit pixelated rendering of her own utopia. This idyllic but unreal setting plays to modern anxieties of losing touch with the organic world and having to reconstruct that which was lost. Polachek recalls, while bouncing between dense European city centers on tour with Chairlift, looking on with wonder through a jetliner window to see the canopy of Germany’s Black Forest miles below. Arcadia is the product of Polachek’s experimentation and field recordings, documents of being alone she calls them, that began during a performance residency at the Medici villa in Rome. The sonic investigations continued on the road, in hotel rooms, and airport lavatories. Polachek at first wanted to toy with house music, “I had to allow myself to make really bad stuff,” she says. But the ideas began to evolve into something else entirely. She kept recording directly into her computer, and soon enough a new world began to take shape. On screen, the compositions appear graph-like: horizontal lines from left to right, spaced atop one another, with few discernible patterns. To the listener, however, Polachek had engineered a complete vision. Ancient feelings in a virtual place. Synthetic but sensual.

Polachek describes Arcadia as “pastoral electronic,” which, she says, takes direct reference from esoteric folk singers of the 1980s who made forays into early electronica with their use of nascent synthesizers. She cites classically-trained English singer-songwriter Virginia Astley’s collaborations with experimental composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Japanese new wave artist Chinatsu Kuzuu’s pairing of medieval poetry with early MIDI composition. Polacheck’s contemporary take is, in many ways, high-concept, heavy on ambient instrumental tracks with asymmetrical patterns. Still, the emotive world she creates is as old as time. Ramona Lisa sings love songs. “They are about me,” Polachek says, “they came out of my heart.” And what is more real than the complexities of romance? On “Lady’s Got Gills,” she tells the story of an ill-fated relationship between a woman that belongs underwater and a man that does not. On “Dominic,” we relive a brief love affair that ends blissfully in the “pale morning after.” “Forgive me if I was too forward too fast / But not being yours would be wasteful.” Ramona Lisa could be a character of antiquity or one of science fiction, but human nature is human nature.

Ramona Lisa and the world of Arcadia have been more fully realized in vision through a pair of music videos and a handful of intimate live performances. On film, we see a solitary girl, lost in flirtation with the chaos of nature. Cicadas and alligators, with tough exteriors representing the masculine, stalk the fair-skinned maiden. On stage, the story is conveyed through movement. Polachek initially began performing solo but hadn’t managed to bring the visual element to its fullest. She’s now accompanied by a pair of backup singers, identical in dress with fringe wigs and facepaint. They wear sets of false eyes on cheeks and fingers, likening the masquerade to an evolutionary defense mechanism found in certain species of insects and fish—predator deflection. “It’s hypnotic,” she says. Polachek explains that together, the trio is akin to a musical chord: a harmonic set of three that the audience experiences simultaneously as one. The triad represents the full manifestation of Ramona Lisa’s spirit.

Ramona Lisa Caroline Polachek Amanda Vincelli WILD mag

Arcadia began as loose experiments in composition before turning into something very specific. Sounds and ideas were cordoned off from what Polachek had been making before, or what she thought she could create in the future. One piece that was dropped from the final cut for Arcadia was “No Angel,” which she felt was too R&B, not the right feel for the Ramona Lisa character. She thought she’d save it for Chairlift—that was before the song found itself of Beyoncé Knowles’ 2013 surprise album, a career highlight for Polachek. Arcadia was just going to be a one-off, she insists, but the ideas keep coming. Polachek has said that going into character is not about possessing multiple personalities, but about reenacting dreams. Navigating between identities, though, has become a hazy adventure, and what began as a very narrow project in concept has grown into something seemingly permanent. “I want Ramona Lisa and Caroline to eventually go forward as one,” she now reveals.

Polachek sniffles with allergies on a wet and unseasonably chilly spring day. She notes the strangeness, that Arcadia evokes a feeling of eternal summer despite having been created during a lingering winter that couldn’t seem to pass. She’s right, Arcadia might be most enjoyed during an unrepentant heatwave on your back with eyes shut. The record is subtly transporting. It teeters between bliss and anxiety. Like drifting off into an altered-state, finding yourself on lakeside dock beneath the sun’s rays, only to awake on the holodeck of the starship Enterprise.

The album concludes as it had begun. On “I Love Our World,” organs reprise to the pastoral theme, but pulsating bass and arrhythmic soundscapes return the listener to the realm of science fiction, where nature is all but lost. It’s this sentiment of longing for days bygone that ties together Arcadia, a project that ultimately feels dystopic in its virtual rendering of Eden. It was always the city that gave meaning to the myth of Arcadia, whether that city was ancient Rome or post-modern Manhattan. Polachek shares a similar sentimentality, imagining Ramona Lisa as a “nostalgic school teacher on Mars, 300 years in the future, trying to make her students appreciate the nature of our lost world.” Polachek, who as a teenager cataloged insects for the Department of Environmental Protection, worries about today’s ceaseless environmental degradation. It’s something that is always on her mind. “My WILD Wish is that we somehow find a symbiosis with our planet.” The only home we have, or ever will.

Ramona Lisa Caroline Polachek Amanda Vincelli WILD mag

Launch Gallery


text by: Blaine Skrainka










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