Polica: Wandering star Channy Leaneagh finds her path

Singer okay with vulnerability on Give You the Ghost

Polica: Wandering star Channy Leaneagh finds her path
Tony Nelson

Poliça's chanteuse frontwoman, Channy Leaneagh, has just emerged at the Depot in downtown Minneapolis. She and and one of her band's two drummers, Drew Christopherson, make their way to a table in the back, stopping briefly to chat with friends along the way. Leaneagh's short, tight-cropped hair is damp from the snow falling outside, and she seems tired—even indecisive—as she deliberates over what to order. At last, she decides on a Jack and Coke.

Only a few minutes prior, Leaneagh's waifish frame prowled the stage in the adjoining First Avenue Mainrooom. The performance capped the second night of the Current's annual birthday extravaganza, and a sold-out crowd was abuzz all night. Dressed in a black tank top and combat boots, she moved jerkily at first, but before long, she danced and shimmied about, channeling the bleary-eyed beats and death-march drums through her body. Even with all eyes fixed on her—words like "beautiful" and "gorgeous" rippled through the hushed crowd—Leaneagh seemed detached, entranced in her own world. It was as though the audience were peeking in on a private moment.

But such voyeurism does little to diminish Leaneagh's appeal. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Plus, just six months ago, this band hadn't played a single show.

A Poliça lineup featuring the usual suspects
Tony Nelson
A Poliça lineup featuring the usual suspects

"I feel so embarrassed when I get off stage," she admits, wrapping herself up tight inside a bright blue winter coat. "I'm not embarrassed about what I'm doing, but I'm embarrassed about people seeing me so vulnerable." She pauses, looking down at the table, before a grin slowly appears on her face. "Maybe I just have a really big ego. My dad always says people who are performers need to be approved by a crowd."

Long before Leaneagh devoted herself to music, she was well-accustomed to performing. A student at the Ramsey Fine Arts school in her youth, she danced ballet, played violin, and acted in school and community theater—all things that were crucial in her development. Today, she insists that a concert, for her, is like acting. "It's not that I'm trying to be a different person. It's just that I want to put on a good performance, and being my shy self would not be a good performance," she explains. "But the more I do, the more those two meld together."

Ironically, it would appear that Leaneagh—known to us, until recently, as Channy Casselle—isn't the only one to feel that way, for her work with Poliça has made it all the more tempting to entwine her music with her personal life. Barely a year ago, she and husband Alexei Moon Casselle were the core of folk-roots group Roma di Luna. Their last album together, 2010's Then the Morning Came, was a seemingly contented celebration of new parenthood. Now, in the wake of her marriage and her band breaking up, Leaneagh's music is haunted by the anguish of waking up to an empty bed for the first time in years.

"Making the record, a lot of the things I was saying I was maybe nervous about. But now I'm comfortable with the art I put out into the world," she says. It's not hard to imagine that lines like "In the hours before your death/I won't weep," or "I can't walk 'cause I'm too lonely... He won't love me like that," could carry some baggage with them, nor, conversely, that they might also be therapeutic. "Really," she shrugs, "I'm just a tiny person in the world."

"But you're a bold person," Christopherson interjects from across the table, flashing a proud, reassuring smile. Leaneagh laughs bashfully.

"And I just know, I write a little bit more dramatic than life really is," she continues, dipping a fry into a bowl of tomato soup, both of which were sent over by the band's manager from a neighboring table. "I'm pretty calm, and when I write, I try to make sense of things. I hope people get something out of it, but I definitely don't want people to listen and figure out what I'm going through."

One of Poliça's most distinctive aspects is Leaneagh's heavy use of Autotune on her vocals. It may also be the most divisive part of their music, considering that her soulful, smoky voice was one of the primary appeals of Roma di Luna. For her part, Leaneagh doesn't see an issue. "It's not a band where I want it to be about me and about my voice," she insists. "I want to be part of the team and blend in.... Autotune kind of helps bury my voice, bring it into the community of the band."

The results of the Autotune are admittedly a mixed bag—too much gives you a headache, but the disembodied effect it has on the vocals stirs the project's moodiness. It ultimately speaks to Leaneagh's eagerness to experiment and, by extension, reinvent herself. For Ryan Olson, who produced Poliça's new album, Give You the Ghost, those very attributes are what appeal to him most about working with Leaneagh.

"Her work ethic is incredible," says Olson, beaming over the phone. "She'll try different shit; she's not afraid to take direction and just go for things. [And] usually she has awesome ideas. A usual session, she'll just scat and freestyle and stuff, then work on stuff by herself and come back with it fleshed out. It's fantastic."

Olson and Leaneagh didn't know each other before he asked her to join Gayngs, a fact that the singer finds amusing in retrospect. "I actually tried to get out of being in Gayngs because I was so really shy. I did not want to go over to this person's house that I didn't know," she recalls, shaking her head. "Then I saw Ryan's face when I walked upstairs, and I was like, 'Oh, I totally know who this is!'" After touring together, the pair quickly developed a mutual respect, and once Leaneagh recorded some demos—"rough versions of me singing melodies with very shitty R&B beats," in her words—she knew exactly who she wanted to give them to.

Poliça's debut album was written in a two-day burst. Olson says he originally looked at the band—filled out with drummers Christopherson and Ben Ivascu, plus bassist Chris Bierdan, all hand-picked by Olson—as a side project drawing on his old, unused beats. "I was just going to have them play unknown shows, not have people know about it, and give them time to play around and start a band," he recalls with a gravelly chuckle. "Whatever. It's awesome; I have no qualms with what's happening."

On Valentine's Day, the group marked Ghost's official release with their second gig headlining First Avenue in three weeks. Leaneagh says the band already has 14 more "experimental" songs recorded for a follow-up. Before it was announced that the album would be released on Totally Gross National Product, there were rumors of entreaties by national labels. "We're not really sure where that came from," says Christopherson, who co-owns Totally Gross with Olson. "We were always curious about who was interested, but it was never really more than a curiosity.... We had our own agenda, so it was not a hard decision."

The local buzz around Poliça has been as strong as that for anyone in recent memory, and while there have been hints of broader interest—a tour opening for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, a handful of shows at 2011's CMJ—it's fair to say the journey is just now beginning. But on at least one point Leaneagh is emphatic: She's singing on her own terms.

"I always wanted to sing R&B music, since forever," she says, leaning back in her chair and slinging her arm over the back. She admits, for instance, to making "crazy R&B mixtapes in high school," loaded with Aaliyah, K-Ci & JoJo, and R. Kelly. "Some people would say this isn't R&B, but it's, like, me trying to do it."

Leaneagh reaches forward and stirs her drink with the straw, then looks back up, the dim bar lighting making her light-blue eyes appear gray. "I never would have done this without Ryan. I'm completely indebted to him for this band," she continues. "It just worked out; it was just the perfect time. There have been a lot of perfect timings in this band."

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