During the first few weeks of my freshman year at a Mennonite high school, the Twin Towers fell. As a politically unaware adolescent, making sense of what unfolded that day and our nation's resulting decisions was difficult. Thankfully, I had the privilege of unpacking the complicated history that led to these events within a pacifist space. My teachers assigned essays by activists and academics from both sides of the political divide. They dedicated class time to teaching us how to discern the difference between propaganda and discourse. They encouraged us to challenge the concept that our worldview was universal. They taught us that it was OK to examine our failures, not only as a nation but as individuals as well.
For Channy Leaneagh, the lead vocalist of the synth-pop outfit Poliça, considering such shortcomings is essential for growth and progress. In her songwriting, Leaneagh taps into her folk roots in order to address the many ironies of American identity. On United Crushers, tracks like "Wedding" (an irresistibly rhythmic protest song against police brutality) and "Lately" (a love ballad that isn't afraid to examine the fragility of romance), Leaneagh reflects on the complexities of our limitations as individuals and as a nation while celebrating the lessons that can be learned from our failures. Whether it be on "Lime Habit" or "Lose You," Leaneagh challenges listeners to consider the impact of the stories that we tell ourselves about who we [are] while managing not to sacrifice melody or memorable hooks. A few weeks before the album's release, I spoke with Leaneagh about the importance of honesty in artistry and the way that the intersection between the personal and the political has influenced her songwriting.
Dianca Potts: You experienced a few monumental life changes while working on this LP: you got married and became a mother. How did those changes — and the new roles that came along with them — impact your identity as an artist?
Channy Leaneagh: I was pregnant during the whole writing and recording of the record, so I think for women, when you start feeling the baby inside [you], you start looking outside of yourself more. You start thinking about the world through the eyes of the person that you're bringing into it, and that played a part in wanting to write a record where I started each song as a story about someone besides myself.
DP: On your prior LPs, you wrote a lot about endings and breakups. After hearing songs like "Lose You" and "Lately," its seems like you've reversed your approach on that theme, that you've embraced being more earnest and direct when it comes to sharing your emotions with those closest to you. What led to the switch in perspective?
CL: I think that [this time] I'm writing a record about breaking up with myself, with old habits and old ways. In these songs, I'm discussing with myself about how I want to live my life, about how I want to do love this time and how I want to be better at things and make the world better.
DP: Thematically, love has always been central for you as a songwriter. How is your approach toward love on tracks like "Kind" and "Lately" different than the way that you've written about love in the past?
CL: In the song "Lately," it's the idea of remaking love and marriage into something that works for you, and rewriting old ideas and making them your own, like having a child. I [had] a lot of anxiety about bringing a kid into the world that we live in today, but also there's an argument for raising your kids to help make the world better. Those ironies are constant.
DP: Remaking old ideas of parenthood is very present in your video for "Wedding," especially in the way that it addresses the importance of activism. It reminded me a lot of the informational segments on shows from my childhood like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood or Sesame Street. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration behind this song and the video?
CL: When I wrote the song, it was based on how unsuccessful the war on drugs has been and yet it gets more and more militarized. You have tanks showing up at protests and SWAT teams coming in to bust someone for a bag of weed … that stuff is escalating. Violent crimes are down, but the police are treating us as if we're an occupied people. All of this has been erupting, and it's been going on for years, but now we have social media so we're seeing it all of the time. It's not just hearing from a friend; we're watching it happen. Here in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter is really strong and friends [and I] take our kids out to protest.
We're all trying to talk to our kids about it, and it comes up in conversations a lot, so the discussion was, how did we learn things as kids? I started thinking about Sesame Street. I wanted to teach kids to think critically about the news, like how a headline says "Violent protesters" when everyone is protesting peacefully; and the idea that a cop is not a warrior, or a soldier, that police need to be protectors of the people and they're public servants and we pay taxes to have them protect us. I didn't want this to be an anti-cop video, although I'm more on the peaceful-anarchy side, I don't believe in killing cops. I just want us to talk about how we can rework the structure of police and the culture of violence. All of the kids in the video are the kids of my friends. We all want to teach our kids how to be activists and protest but also know how to protect themselves and know their rights.
DP: Were there any other themes that you intentionally set out to explore on this album?
CL: When we started talking about writing this record, we wanted to make something that was closer to our influences and the music that we listened to — something that was harder, more influenced by hardcore. But they ended up being these really sweet songs. It kinda cracks me up, but you just roll with it. It just feels right.
DP: United Crushers has a mesh of genre influences. Was that intentional?
CL: Sometimes I wonder if that's because none of us are really coming from [an] electronic influence or background. The drummers both come from hardcore bands like Building Better Bombs or the hip-hop [scene], and then Chris [Bierden], the bass player, comes from rock. I came from a folk background, so I still write in a folk format. I'm very heavy on melodies that could even just be a cappella, that it could be carried without anything. In that sense, we're using electronics to make music that we're familiar with. Each of us is collaging our musical background into synths and beats, so you get something that's a little bit of each of us as opposed to just one person's sound. We're eclectic.
DP: In the past, you've been really open about the way songwriting has negatively impacted your relationships. How has that experience impacted the way that you portray your personal life in your lyrics?
CL: In the beginning, I wrote very personal stuff because it was so cathartic for me. I didn't communicate as openly in face-to-face conversations like I did in song with those who were close to me, like my husband at the time. I wasn't even that conscious of it. I wouldn't even realize what I was thinking about until maybe a year or two later, and I'd look at a song [and] I'd be like, I wouldn't even be able to say that [in conversation], but I'm saying it every night. I started to realize that it was damaging, and it wasn't necessarily fair to the people that I was writing about, especially as more people started listening to [the band] and it was more public.
Now I feel like it's less about something that I do just for myself, because I have band members. I still include personal things in my songs, but I don't want to address things that I could never speak to someone about. I'm trying to be more conscious of my feelings, to not be passive-aggressive as an artist, to be honest.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca London is an assistant at Lenny.