Channy Leaneagh of Poliça feels pressure to include themes of activism in her music. Not from other artists, trends, or swarms of headlines, but from the voices in her head constantly reminding her of the systemic injustices surrounding her.
"I can't not talk about it," she says ahead of three consecutive Twin Cities shows, beginning Wednesday at Turf Club then hitting 7th St. Entry Thursday and First Avenue Friday. "It permeates through not only me, but all my friends around me."
On Friday, March 4, the synth-heavy, part R&B, part pop-rock Minneapolis group will issue their third album, United Crushers, their most overtly socio-political release yet. Consider new single "Wedding," a conversation about the militarization of police.
The video for "Wedding," directed by longtime Poliça collaborator and Marijuana Deathsquads singer Isaac Gale, is a sort of a beginner's intro to police brutality told in "how-to" video style.
Instead of learning how crayons are made — as in the classic Sesame Street tutorial that inspired the video — kids, including Leaneagh's daughter Pelagia and son Schwa, are taught by puppets how to react when approached by a police officer — remain calm, don't run, etc. The kids are also shown how to make gas masks out of plastic two-liter soda bottles.
With the "Wedding" video, Leaneagh, Gale, and Poliça producer/co-songwriter Ryan Olson wanted to stress the idea that a cop is not supposed to be a soldier or a warrior, but an instrument of peace and protector of the people. Leaneagh hopes the video broaches that heavy topic in a way that's palatable and interesting for kids, and that it forces viewers to re-examine the ways in which news media portray black activism.
"The Oregon militia guys got written in the news as just being protesters," she says. "While black protesters get written up as thugs and violent."
The opening track off United Crushers, "Summer Please," has a similar tone to "Wedding." Leaneagh says it's based on the waves of gun violence that erupted in Minneapolis and Chicago last Fourth of July. "We wait all winter for the warmth and then we have to keep ourselves inside because it's not safe," she says.
Beyond the broader motifs of discrimination and violence, the new record operates as a diary of Leaneagh's life, specifically "Fish on the Griddle," a sparse, rhythmic exploration of anxiety, and "Lose You," a synth-bubbling breakup ballad.
At a recent show in New York City, someone from the crowd yelled to Leaneagh, "Tell me a story!" She told the fan that's what she'd been doing the entire show. "That's really my favorite part about songwriting is writing these short little stories," she says.
Several songs on United Crushers, including the vulnerable-sounding single "Lately," are straightforward love songs. "Melting Block" deals with fame, vanity, and selling yourself to achieve those things, and the first single, "Lime Habit," is a story of Leaneagh's tendency to sequester herself.
"The first line, 'Never in the corner, luck of life,' is talking to myself and thinking about how I isolate myself," she says of "Lime Habit." "And how that can keep me from interacting with life and opportunities, experiencing life how it's supposed to be. I'm just kind of hiding away."
Though Poliça albums follow a fairly consistent lyrical thread — Leaneagh points to loneliness, isolation, and love — the group aimed higher this time around in terms of production and sound quality. On each new Poliça record, Leaneagh likes to experiment with different effects and tools used to modulate her voice. For the latest album, her goal was a more natural sound, a shift away from past efforts that found her vocals buried in reverb and AutoTune.
Additionally, Poliça recorded United Crushers with an emphasis on capturing their live sound, a challenging feat considering their intricate layering of beats, effects, and electronic noise. The solution? The record was mixed on tape rather than digitally.
"It smooths over a lot of the digital quality," Leaneagh says. "There's a warmth to the way the instruments and vocals blend, and you lose a lot of that in digital recordings."
After the release of Poliça's 2013 sophomore album, Shulamith, Leaneagh expressed uncertainty regarding her music career, telling City Pages, "I'm constantly trying to figure out my relationship to music, and if I should stay or I should go." She's previously spoken out about her distaste for doing interviews (sorry for this one, Channy) and promoting her music. Due to a three-record contract with label Mom + Pop, United Crushers was inevitable, but it sounds as though Leaneagh's artistic future is unwritten.
"You never really know when you're in creative work how [your art] will be received, and you still want to be flexible and be able to move on to something else or look for other opportunities," she says. "You have to be able to dance around and be malleable about what your expectations are and what your next moves are."
This much is certain: With every Poliça record, the international hype surrounding the group gets louder. Does that perhaps suggest the band's ties to their home base are loosening? Not so much.
"Even though we moved to Mom + Pop, Poliça still feels very much like a Totally Gross National Product band," says Poliça drummer Drew Christopherson, who's also co-founder of the latter label, for which the group originally recorded. "We're part of the artist community that we represent."
Adds Leaneagh: "Even in Chicago, someone was filming us and said he was coming to Minneapolis and asked where he should go. I still got so excited listing all the places he should go. It's very much my home."
With: Sarah White, Fraea (March 2); Izell Pyramid, Dizzy Fae (March 3); Fog, Kill the Vultures (March 4).
When/Where: 7:30 p.m. March 2, Turf Club; 6:30 p.m. March 3, 7th St. Entry; 9 p.m. March 4, First Avenue.
Tickets: Sold out; more info here.