Art School Girlfriend is Polly Mackey, her recently released new album Soft Landing is superb; a record of poetically drawn euphorias, capturing small moments of joy. It also has an immersive and meditative quality, each song possesses the beguiling depths of dream pop but there’s also the major influence of electronica and dance music, with illuminating synth-textures, dappling trance and breakbeat-inspired elements, that combine into an engrossing, detailed tapestry. Mackey’s songwriting craft and depth is matched by a voice of knowing, longing and experience, yet it has a comfort of a Tracey Thorn, but it is her own voice that wraps itself around you like a warm duvet as she’s dealing with emotional peaks and lows.
Mostly recorded at home, the rest at Crouch End’s Church Studios with friend and co-producer Riley MacIntyre, her second album is the culmination of many years of graft in the studio, years spent studying for her Creative Practice MA, and on the road. Mackey started out in a band in Wrexham called the Pleasure Principle, then to a band called Deaf Club, before finding her own voice and sound on a series of wonderfully conceived EPs, that surfed the lines of gaze pop, alt pop and electronic music. Her debut album released in 2020, Is It Light Where You Are, a record of emotional punctures and cinematic backdrops, although nominated for a Welsh Music Prize, didn’t get the full light it deserved due to the weirdness of the industry during COVID and lockdown.
Now she’s back with Soft Landing. It’s a full circle release for Mackey in more ways than one. During a fascinating two part discussion I had with her, we touched on her musical journey, her new songs, her sonic palette, how your debut album isn’t always your best album, the state of the music industry and how hard it is to make music a viable career and how her hometown of Wrexham has grown as a music city in the last ten years.
Hi Polly. One of the things I really like about your songs is you’re really good at capturing a mood or a time. There’s a complexity musically, yet your voice is comforting too even though you’re singing about quite difficult things…
Well, that’s what I find really funny. When I’m thinking about the themes I’ve written about on this album, and how it was feeling when I wrote it, this is my second coming of age, joyful album, looking at contentment and joy and even when I’m looking at difficult subjects but looking at them with a slight like wisdom and not lamenting after it just thinking well, this is just life.
But it’s funny because I actually listened to it yesterday in the car, because I haven’t listened to it in ages, and I was actually thinking it’s still really quite moody and melancholy. I cannot get away from that, but for me in my head and in terms of how I see it it’s not that.
I could hear that throughout the album the idea of just allowing things be what they are….
Exactly. I might try and challenge myself to write some, like, completely non-melancholy music, even when it’s like a happy song it somehow sounds sad. So we’ll see.
What I found quite interesting as well is a lot of the songs have this dynamic of how they build up to a release...
Yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of DJing in the last couple of years, which is very different to my shows, I mean, a lot more people dance now because they are a bit more danceable. But previously it was very, like the shoegaze audience, where everyone kind of just stands and watches. But doing DJing it’s really interesting, because your purpose is completely different. The purpose is to keep people dancing. So that definitely fed in a little bit in terms of the sound. I definitely wanted a lot more energy in these tracks, and I was always thinking about how it was going to be live a little bit more and then yeah, they’re kind of always building up to this build and drop, which obviously, occurs in a lot of dance music as well.
I just read that on this record you wanted to capture a more of a live and more instinctive sound compared to your first album?
Yeah, I was thinking about a lot of the music that I grew up listening to, that stuff that got me excited about getting into music in general, when I was a lot younger, I was a skater when I was 10. So that was, you know, like Linkin Park and Offspring and really like Korn and Slipknot, quite like heavy guitar music. Then as I got older, it was the Pixies and Yeah Yeah Yeahs and artists like that, and I realized that I had lost a lot of kind of energy within my music.
I have been known for making chill music, I think that comes from being a bedroom producer and making music at night, that tends to be what comes out. But I was definitely thinking, ‘Okay, well, what would it feel like to make music with energy in the performance in mind?’ So that definitely just made me want to make music a bit more in the room instead of being in the computer. So that was a big part of it for sure.
I’ve interviewed a few artists recently that have been trying to take away some of the screens during their writing and recording process.
Yeah, exactly, and obviously I’d been in bands for years and that was all about like making music in rehearsal rooms and the recording process just seemed like this kind of appendix. Like we were all about playing live, we’d be playing a song for a year, two years before then we think about recording it. We never really enjoyed recording it like we thought about it live, we never really found a recording situation that really captured what we were doing. So to go full circle and be a person that it’s the recording first and then playing live, I wanted to access the previous feeling a little bit more. So it was definitely about like trying to capture performances rather than like programming things.
You mentioned with your 2020 debut album ‘Is It Light Where You Are’, you spent a lot of time in the studio, working on it and perfecting it.
Too long and I think it meant that because COVID happened, by the time it was released, I felt quite disconnected to it. But now with this one, I had like a manifesto written that it was and I had a certain amount of time to record it.
I knew we were going to start at the end of April and then I booked the mixing in for the end of that summer, I was like, we’ve got this amount of time, no matter what. There’s an album at the end of this and it definitely gave her a sense of urgency and limitations that that are actually really, really good because it makes you make decisions quicker and not constantly like I don’t know, muse on certain elements or spend a day picking a drum sound, it just makes you kind of just go for it and it made me trust my gut instinct a lot more. So if it’s like, right, well, if I like this instantly, I’m not going to then think about it. I’m just gonna go with it. And I think it definitely benefited the music in general for sure.
Your debut album came out in COVID, did you feel it got a bit lost in the shuffle because of that?
My first release was in 2017, but I’d been making music that hadn’t been released since 2016. Then obviously, I did a few EPs, but I was touring so much that my debut album then got delayed, and then classically, it was finished just before COVID and I had to wait until afterwards. So I felt like I released it, but it didn’t really get the kind of full album potential treatment.
It was a really emotionally captivating and widescreen record, really deep.
It was. It was the first time I’d made music in a way to kind of getting my feelings out. Previously, I’d always used it as like an introspective way to figure out what I was feeling and it would be very stream of consciousness lyrics.
It was recorded just after a breakup when I kind of was sleeping on my friend’s sofa and I would just go to the studio, it’s like a place of refuge, like 24 hours a day and just make music, and it was the first time that actually, it happened so fast because obviously, I had a lot to get it all out. I’m usually someone who would kind of push down those negative feelings and I thought, right, well, actually, this is really useful. I feel like total shit. So, I can use this shit feeling instead of it just becoming this like useless feeling, I can make something of it and turn it into like, a sound or an object or a lyric or you know. And so it felt like quite cathartic to be able to think this can be, like productive for me tapping into this, and really pulling the pathos out of out of the songs and kind of pushing them to 100%.
Those were the most personal lyrics I’ve ever written, because a lot of my other stuff is a lot more kind of, like poetic and abstract, definitely, but also just like, imagery and visual, whereas the lyrics on this one are different to anything I’ve done, because there were kind of a lot of them. I’d kept the diary that whole year that I could pull loads of stuff from the diary, and a lot of it was like, I’m kind of directly talking to someone not like pondering on philosophy, philosophical concepts of why are we here? Or, you know, it was very much like, tiny little moments and instances soundtracking my own emotional life.
So how do you choose the sounds to pair with the songs?
So a lot of the sonics, I produce at the same time as I write, so picking the sounds that will happen at the same time, so because it felt like a big dramatic moment in my life, which I’d kind of never really had in my music before and it was quite a change. I wanted it to feel expansive.
Every frequency spectrum had been explored on that album and it’s kind of each song was given its own really unique production and obviously, there’s a through line because you know, I’m writing all the songs but it really was like, what does this song need in terms of its sonics.
I read you wrote ‘The Weeks’ in lockdown at your girlfriend’s parent’s house in Devon.,
When I hear that song, I can see being in the countryside. We basically moved, we were going to go for the week that we all thought lockdown was going to be and we were there for almost three months, and it was obviously a very strange time for everyone. But that song to me really sums that up, and I could try and capture that in the lyrics. Again, it’s that thing, we were weirdly having, like quite a nice time.
But obviously there was this complete undercurrent of like anxiety and like dread and it felt like we were like in a bit of a bell jar and it felt like we were completely away from reality because we were literally in the middle of nowhere. And again, like seeing what was happening through everyone else through screens, but then it was like the change in the season. It was really nice weather and we were like sat outside and I felt really fortunate for that. So it was just like the lyrics for that are just about those two feelings happening at the same time. Now when I look back at that time, it obviously, everyone feels quite like weird about it and it was a bit of a blur. And yeah, that song to me is definitely I can kind of see where I’m like by the river in the countryside, just like slightly anxious about Civil War kicking off.
Yeah, it’s subtle and ambient at the beginning but then it does swell up.
Yeah, when we were in the studio doing it, I wanted it to feel like this this cycle. So that’s just the lyrics are just three lines, three lines, three lines, it’s definitely not like verse chorus. So that kind of, again, mirrors the whole thing about lockdown, just continuing and continuing and continuing. And then the outro I was just like, well, we need something here. Like it built up and I was like, it needs to have this thing and no matter what we were doing on synth or whatever, even like just the guitars, it just felt like it wasn’t hitting enough. I was thinking I just this needs like a bit of like a not like a rock outro but kind of like it needs to do something. Yeah, as far as like, well, if we’re gonna put a guitar on it and some drums on it, we’re gonna push it 100%, so we just got three layers of guitars with feedback and just made it this kind of like slightly rocky outro. Which is it? Yeah, it’s definitely the first time I’ve done that in a while.
What’s ‘Close to the Clouds’ about?
That ones is about the coming of age thing about where you’re looking back on some of the maybe the bad experiences you’ve had in your 20s or some of like, the tricky breakups or stuff that you did that you regret and actually thinking ‘No, I don’t regret it because it’s got me to where I am now.’ Its just about that kind of like slight wisdom you develop. Then that’s where the lyrics and the name Soft Landing came from, because it’s all about that lyric ‘I didn’t know the hardest plan was gonna give me the softest land’ in terms of like, actually, some of the struggles actually makes you more appreciative about where you actually ended up landing.
There’s this idea that your debut album has to be your best album but, actually, it’s usually not…
We’re sold this idea of what it is supposed to be, full of this kind of like vitality and youth and like, care, like abandon, but I’m actually just like, no, I was just worried about everything
There’s a always this idea in the music industry that you’ve got to be young to be cool..
I think there’s this romanticised thing about musical genius and the purest form of that is when people are in their teens, and when they’re 20, the idea that they are the best versions of themselves then? But in every other creative industry, it’s the opposite. It’s the idea that you get better at the thing that’s your professional art, like, whether you’re a writer or a painter, or director, but I do think that’s very much the mainstream side of stuff and actually the indie world a little bit too, but when I’m thinking about making music, I worry less about less and less about that, to be honest.
Often some of the best albums are written by people who have experienced stuff. The idea your debut album is always your best album it’s a bit of a myth, really.
I’m definitely better at what I do now than I was 10 years ago without a doubt. I think sometimes you have to work towards it we’re not all like prodigies.
Exactly. I think sometimes, especially when it comes to women in music, there is this idea that they have to be young to be relevant. But then you look at Bjork or PJ Harvey, the people who’ve lasted, who have done great work over a period of time. Do we even think about their age? I don’t.
Yeah, especially- that’s what the dance world have got quite right. Like, the people who were revered, or, you know, the likes of like, Four Tet and Caribou. You know they’re getting on a bit, but they are viewed as if they’ve really earned their stripes as producers. So I think the dance world is a little bit more in that mind frame that you earn your skills as you get older.
I really like how immersive the songs are and how they take you on a journey, like ‘Heaven Hanging Low.’
That was a surprise for me that because for the first month of going into the studio, I wanted to leave a little bit of room to write within the studio. That first month, It was like just trying things out kind of trying to figure out what the limitations of the album sonics were. Then after about a month, I wrote and produced ‘ A Place to Lie’ took that into the studio and finished it and all of a sudden that kind of like, flipped a switch. And I was okay- this is like encapsulating what I think the album’s about.
Then in the two weeks after that, I wrote ‘Real Life’, ‘Heaven, Hanging Low’, ‘Close to the Clouds’. and ‘Out There’, within the two weeks after that, pretty much like got them fully formed. Then we went to the studio and just bashed them out and really quickly made them and I think that was because, I think it’s easier to make stuff when you’ve got a blueprint of how it’s supposed to sound. So because it was done in that flurry, I was like, I didn’t think about it that much, and then it was I always knew it was like a great song.
But then when it came out, I had like loads of people messaged me saying it was like, the favourite thing I’d ever done. And I was a bit like, Oh, cool. That’s a surprise. Like, I love that song and it’s a really fun one to play live as well. It’s definitely one of the quickest songs I’ve ever written. my drummer has a real-time playing that one.
So what inspired the song?
I wanted to write a kind of like a love song, but about just the everyday kind of humdrum feelings. I wanted to do something with quite religious imagery, and I wanted this one to be quite poetic and to be a metaphor. So I used a lot of religious imagery, like ‘pulling planets out of the sky and taking a bite‘ like Eve pulling the apple off the tree. It’s about people in a lot of religious songs sing about how they’re accessing this higher celestial feeling. So it was about that, but the idea that you can get that in your own kind of humble domesticated space with your loved one. So it’s just kind of using that metaphor as a way to do that.
You get like, there’s those big things and those big kind of words that we use to describe stuff still definitely tie in to that and I realised I’d never actually written a straight up love song. All of my songs have either been about something a little bit negative. Or if it was it as about desire, it was a bit more about longing and yearning. So I wanted to just write something that was about a small or quite simple feelings. But you know, using these words to make it bigger and describe it in that way.
In 2020, you scored the soundtrack for your friend and visual collaborator Tom Dream’s film Shy Radicals.
So that was actually a nice thing to have during COVID. I’d previously done like some little bits for some kind of like adverts or little documentary things that were very much just making music to a brief and getting feedback and changing it.
Then what was really great that during lockdown, I was finding it really difficult to try and write anything new because I was really trying to tie up the loose ends on my record, but luckily during lockdown, I got like this short film come through which my friend was directing, actually he bought the book from the bookshop I used to run in Margate and then ended up wanting to make a film from it and I cameo in it as well and was doing the soundtrack. So it’s very much like in the fam.
That was great because it’s like this short film and it’s like a semi documentary. It’s a semi concept film, semi documentary. So a lot of the stuff is very conceptual, we ended up building scenes that were fictional for that. Creating music for that was a great thing to have during lockdown and to have as a project.
So we tried to do a thing where, because my partner’s a musician as well, that we found separate rooms on the opposite side of the house and tried to really stick to the five day a week nine to five, like, go to the things and do some work just to kind of try and remain sane and not become an alcoholic.
I also did my friends podcast during that time as well, which again, had a lot of the similar themes of being very philosophical. So my music definitely fed into those two projects quite well. But I haven’t done much since then. It’s definitely something I would like to do. It uses a completely different side of my brain. I feel like way less pressure when I’m doing that stuff because I’m not having to think about the form of a song. I can just, if I see something on screen, I can kind of just respond to it and leave it alone after that. It’s a really interesting way of working.
There are so many challenges facing musicians right now, how to make it viable to be an artist. How do you manage?
The glass ceiling of the music industry is getting thicker and thicker once you are on the other side of it then happy days but I find really interesting, because the music industry in general is quite left wing, but we don’t take a look at it ourselves and think, Well, hang on, we’ve also got an elite who are lapping everything up who aren’t really doing much to help those at the bottom of the ladder?
I don’t really know what’s going to happen over the next 10 years with it because we’re losing the venues and also I am signed to a major record label and I don’t make money from music I have a day job, luckily.
So the tricky thing is that you get people falling off so people who are artists that you think are sustainable, and then just start stop making records. And you’re like, why? Like, you know, if I need to tour and I need to kind of do the full promotion on this, I have to take time off work, so then I’m paying to be an artist. Even if, loads of people are buying your records its hard to even to get that money to trickle down because even if you’re on a major label, or even some of the bigger indies, they’re taking 80% of your revenues.
Yes and then you have Brexit and big venues taking a cut of merch every way you look at it, it’s hard to be a independent artist right now…
I was supporting the Big Moon at the Kentish town forum at the 02 group, the 02 Academy group last year. They take 25% plus VAT of their merchandise sales, so they had to sell their merch, at their 2000 capacity sold-out gig at a pub around the corner, to make any money on it, but then it’s tricky. It’s mirroring the economy, because now the music industry bounced completely back from, you know, the digital crisis, and is now making more money than before that, but it’s not trickled down. It’s been sucked up by the big corporations that dominate the whole industry.
There’s so much new music out there, I read that thousands of songs are put on streaming platforms every week..
It’s tricky because part of me is like, I love the amount of music being made and being put out and so much more diverse than when I was growing up and I love that like the complete the choice democracy of music now.
But then the other part of me is like, but to get your kind of head above the water in terms of people knowing that you exist and that you’ve even released a song or an album, and I’ve got so many people kind of following me on Spotify and Instagram. Yet it’s actually getting harder and harder to even reach the people that are following you not just because that’s right- it’s the amount of noise and things that are going on.
You’re trying to fight the algorithm and having topay to even just like get to your own followers and all of that nonsense.
I think especially in alternative music, because I can probably speak for a lot of alternative music musicians, where it’s like, the reason why people get into music is for some kind of introspection, not like extroverted, you know, putting yourself out there. So, I’ve never been able to do the talking to camera thing, because I don’t feel that that’s me. So it’s, it’s tricky, but I think there is a happy medium because I obviously like seeing artists and getting to peek behind the curtain in terms of what they are doing in the studio, I enjoy it as a consumer. So again, I try not to get too cynical and critical about it.
Being an artist must be exhausting at times you have to promote yourself online as well as constantly producing content…There’s a lack of mystery and not everyone is a extrovert.
I used to be in bands when I was younger and in the male band, Deaf Club, we started releasing stuff in like 2011 and social media wasn’t really a thing. Our main way to get people to listen to us and find us was just constant gigging in small venues, that was the vibe. But back then if I’d have had to turn the camera on myself, I didn’t know who the hell I was at that point, and I would have had to be presenting that as a finished package brand like “Here’s me, here’s what I’m doing”. So, I feel bad for a lot of young artists to, you know, in their late teens, early 20s. When there’s figuring stuff out, or having to put themselves out there in a way before they’ve even worked out what that is.
You grew up in Wrexham and were in bands that came out of the scene, how do you feel now seeing Focus Wales has grown?
I honestly think if I didn’t grow up in Wrexham, I don’t know, I think I’d be doing music but not maybe I wouldn’t have chosen it to do it as a career so young, because the time that I decided I wanted to start playing gigs, when I was a teenager and in 2008 the scene in Wrexham was just like incredible. It was so vibrant. There’s a venue local Central Station where all my peers played that I was studying with or like all that the people who were doing all the promoting there. It was so DIY and it was so supportive. The older people there would just give me loads of support slots too with these touring bands that would come through from London. It felt like it really was on the map of like this bubbling little creative community, now fast forward, what, 10 years later and you have what Andy Jones is with Focus Wales. There’s a huge big top tent on the college green where I used to study and I’ve supporting Echo and the Bunnymen in the car park where I used to do my driving lessons in.
It’s so interesting with Wrexham, when we played there last year, me and Jack the guitarist of my band. We’re both from there, that’s how we met when we were 15. We were gigging in different bands at Central Station and then became best mates and now he plays for me. So, when we went there in last year we went with obviously with the rest of the band and crew, which is like two Italians and someone from Sussex and I was bringing them to Wrexham, for this incredible festival and this incredible line up. They’re kind of like wandering through the town being like, ‘Wow, this is Wrexham’ and you’re like, yeah, it’s not Cardiff, let’s go and sit in St. Giles Church and listen to some trap music, you know? So, I’ve got to big up Wrexham because it was so formative for me.
01 – Bristol – Rough Trade
02 – London – ICA
03- Brighton – Komedia
04 – Cardiff – Clwb Ifor Bach
08 – Leeds – Oporto
09 – Manchester – Yes Pink Room