Joanne Pollock: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Lush dreams of the electronic Prairies.

File next to: Kate Bush, Venetian Snares, Cocteau Twins, Austra

Playing: “Sex and Death” co-presented by Broken Pencil Magazine and Wavelength, Thursday May 18 at the Monarch Tavern. Get tickets!

Joanne Pollock is a stunning new Canadian talent, a gloriously unclassifiable electronic producer and vocalist whose often captivating songs are simultaneously sparkly electro-pop, dirgey goth-pop, and pensive dream-pop – but they’re not really “pop” either. More like tuneful pieces that tell autobiographical stories while pulling you into a beautifully detailed soundscape. A Torontonian-turned-Winnipeger, Pollock is also one half of Poemss along with her friend and on-and-off roommate Aaron Funk a.k.a. breakcore pioneer Venetian Snares. After turning heads and ears with her debut EP Optimist in 2015 and last year’s shimmering single “River Flood,” Pollock is set to make more friends with her debut full-length album, Stranger, out on the Timesig label in June. Wavelength’s Jonny Dovercourt chatted with Joanne about confirmation bias, vintage synths, and the endless fascination with death.

You’re about to drop your new album! How are you feeling about this occasion, does it feel momentous?

Mostly I just feel relieved! The album process is weird because once it’s released to the world, that’s when I’m finished with it, so it feels good to be able to put it behind me and work on the next thing. I’ve lived inside of it for a long time, so it’s nice to put a bow on it and give it to the world and be done.

It comes across as a very honest record lyrically, and right off the top, you say, “I can feel this town rejecting me.” Do you want to talk about the experiences that fueled this song (“Carnival”)?

During the time of making the album I was going through a really intense period of change, and it threw me into a place where I felt like I lost everything I was and had to build myself back up from scratch. Each song in the album deals with a different aspect of identity, and “Carnival” focuses on how the place I was living in was affecting my psyche and self-perception. It’s hard to sum up this song in a few sentences since it encapsulates such a complex feeling that just morphed and grew over time… it deals with failure, perception, the dichotomy of life and death, loneliness, uncertainty, aging, and winter and spring, metaphorically and literally. A lot of lines from that song come directly from conversations I was having with people around that time. If you look into the lyrics there’s a lot there, some of it is probably confusing, because that’s how I was feeling.

A few years back, you packed up and relocated from Toronto to Winnipeg, and the experience of your first winter(s) there was wonderfully captured in your single/video from late last year, “River Flood.” How do you communicate what’s great about living there to skeptical Toronto people – or do you even bother?

That’s such a great question! Have you ever heard of something called confirmation bias? It’s a psychological phenomenon where people tend to interpret information in a way that confirms their pre-existing beliefs. From my experience, whenever people ask me about Winnipeg, they totally tune out whenever I tell them what’s really cool about it. Then they’re like, “isn’t it cold though?” and once I agree that it does get cold in the wintertime, they’re like, “YEAH ISN’T IT FREEZING?! COLDER THAN MARS! HAHAHHAA!” and walk away having heard nothing. It’s like people have no ability to take in information that is contradictory to what they already believe, and only hear information they already think is correct. 

I think the funniest thing about it though, is that people from Winnipeg are ALWAYS dissing Toronto as well! Like if someone finds out I’m from there, I always get, “oh wow, I can’t believe you’re from Toronto, the people there are so awful and there’s no trees and everyone is so sucked in to the rat race, you must be so much happier here,” and if I try and explain that actually, I really like Toronto and people aren’t monsters and the city is quite nice, they just shut down. At first I tried to explain to people the way I see it, but I’d never get through. Eventually I grew so tired of talking to people about things they don’t actually want to hear. It’s made me be more aware of my own cognitive biases, and I feel sorry for people who don’t realize what they’re doing, because they’ll never experience the great things they’re intent on not seeing. 

You hit some mighty high notes at some moments on Stranger. Is there classical training somewhere in your background?

I’m really excited for the credits to finally be released on that album because that high note on “You Know I Would Do Anything” is NOT ME! It’s my friend Sarah Jo Kirsch in Winnipeg and she is absolutely amazing. She is classically trained and a professional singer and I am so honoured to have her voice on my album! She has actually given me a few vocal lessons, but other than that I have no formal training – though I would love to take more lessons in the future.

Tell us a bit about your favourite piece of musical gear, how long you’ve owned it, and one time it was really there for you.

For a while I was using the Juno 106 [vintage analog synth] all the time, but then the one I was using broke and I don’t think I used it at all on this album. I use the Analog Rytm a lot, and also this software synth called FM8… oh and also my friend lent me this great vocal mic for a while, and when he wanted it back I had no choice but to buy it from him because it was just so good. Honestly I get really attached to a piece of gear and then get attached to something else and just circulate pieces in and out of rotation. There was a time when a lot of stuff in my studio was borrowed from Aaron Funk, so when he wanted it back I’d just grab something else to put in it’s place. I think for me it’s less about specific pieces and more about what I’m vibing on. 

I kind of think of synthesizers and gear as just a means to an end. Like, it’s all about the song, and whatever is best for the song is what I’ll be all about. Sometimes I will be all about one method of working, and then I’ll be in a mood where I’m most inspired by just me and a keyboard. In fact, once I was having an emotional breakdown and couldn’t finish a song and thought I needed another synth to complete it, so I ran out to a stranger’s house at 11pm and bought an expensive synth and then used it maybe twice. Once I calmed down I was like, oh, I didn’t need another synth, I just needed to chill out. 

The story of how you met Aaron Funk sounds like a good one, do you want to share it?

Yeah, me and Aaron met in Belgium while I was traveling Europe. I was a huge fan of his music, so I went to multiple shows in a row, and we ended up meeting outside the venue in Brussels. We were the only two Canadians at the club so it was notable. It was funny because everyone at the venue assumed we were friends, since we were both Canadian… Europeans don’t get how far away cities in Canada are!

Can we ever expect to hear any more material from Poemss?

Yeah, Aaron and I spent the winter working on more Poemss that is really intense and banging. I’ve never actually heard anything like it. This new music sounds more like, what if you took Joanne Pollock and Venetian Snares and smashed them together. I am insanely excited about it. We had our first show in two years in Winnipeg a few weeks ago playing all new music, and it was totally wild. There’s a little video on both our Instagrams from one of our practices, to hear a taste. The new tunes are loud as hell and are so, so, so fun to perform live. I can’t wait to perform with our band more.

You’re performing at “Sex and Death,” our collaboration with Broken Pencil Magazine at the Monarch on May 18. Which side of this existential binary are you more drawn to as an artist? And did you ever get into zines when you were younger?

Oh death, absolutely. Sex is fine of course, but death is just endlessly fascinating conceptually. I didn’t get into zines too much when I was a kid, but later on I’ve taken an interest. A friend in Winnipeg recently showed me a punk zine that reviews churches and church services, I thought that was pretty neat.

What can eager Wavelengthers expect from your live show on the 18th?

A bunch of songs from the new album and maybe a cover!