Known for her dream-pop sound, Polly Mackey – AKA Art School Girlfriend – has been making her way in the industry for many years now. Originally from Wales, the singer and multi-instrumentalist went from playing in bands to releasing her solo EP’s. After a year full of change, she finally released her anticipated debut album, Is It Light Where You Are. To mark the occasion, we spoke to her about break-ups, inspirations and collaboration.
RC: Hi! Can you describe your music in three words?
PM: Vibey, melancholic, electronic
RC: You’re from a small town in Wales and started making music early on, how did you first get into it?
PM: I started playing the drums at the age of eight, and that led to guitar, bass and some slightly dodgy piano playing. I think that has a lot to do with how I approach a lot of songwriting and production from the drum programming perspective. And then I started writing songs at the age of 14, and started getting into production at 16.
RC: You just released your debut album Is It Light Where You Are?, which centres on your break-up, when did you know this would be the inspiration of the album and how did you build on it?
PM: It was the first time I used music as an outlet for emotion. Previously it was more of a stream-of-consciousness approach to themes, and would normally find a lot about how I was actually feeling by reading my lyrics back. It’s some of the most instinctive and quickest writing I’ve done. It helped turn my brain-swirl and negative thought-loops into something solid and outside of myself.
RC: You’ve expressed that with the album, it is the first time you felt you truly ‘turned your feelings into music’, how do you feel your creative process has changed over time?
PM: It’s always changing. Whether that’s emotional influences, musical influences, technical or theoretical knowledge, or just the fact that I feel so much more grounded with each year that I’ve gotten older and care less about what people think.
RC: You have a very distinct ‘dream-pop’-sound with electronic influences, what have been your main musical and non-musical inspirations for the album?
PM: It’s hard to pin any particular influences; I rarely listen to something and try and emulate it. But I do listen to a lot of music and study it with passion. It’s kind of like filling your head with all different kinds of creative petrol, then when you sit down to write or produce, your tank is full. My main influences when I was young was a lot of aggressive guitar music, from Korn to PJ Harvey to Yeah Yeah Yeahs, so I always like to have some abrasiveness in there somewhere.
RC: The album’s accompanied by music videos from your long-term collaborator Tom Dream: how important is the visual aspect of your music and how do the ideas for the videos come about?
PM: We tend to go to the pub and chat about life and emotions and general ideas. By the end of it we’ve come up with some exciting idea. Only problem is it’s slightly difficult to remember them the next day with a gentle hangover. The video for Softer Side however was Tom’s vision. The lyrics are about searching for this ideal part of someone that you completely made up and projected onto them. Tom rang me and was like, “Ok, bear with me… so what’s the most searched for thing in the world? A yeti. But let’s make it devastating and funny and beautiful”. And it turned out exactly like that.
RC: Aside from your own music, you have also lent your vocals to Ghospoet’s album, and you run your own radio show on Foundation FM: how do these different projects influence your own music and process?
PM: Musical collaboration is something I really enjoy and have done quite a bit of over the years. It comes naturally from being in bands since a teen and enjoying the bouncing around of ideas. I also like the freedom of just giving something to someone else’s ideas and visions. The first time was back in 2015 when I did a bunch of vocals on The Maccabees last album. I went into the studio quite a bit over the year they were writing and recording and it taught me a lot about other people’s approach to music making. In partivular, Orlando’s approach to using the voice like an instrument and really focussing on the phonetics was refreshing to me – at that point I never scrutinised what instinctively came out on the page or of my mouth, and I always avoided using my head voice up until that point.
I find planning and recording my radio show a very cathartic and relaxing process. It really warms my ears up and fills that creative tank I mentioned. It also crystallises whatever I’m into at that moment. It started off super ambient, then got quite ravey over the summer, and my next show will be based all around the piano, from Nils Frahm to Italo House and everything in between.
RC: You’ve stated before that there weren’t many queer, female artists to look up to when you were younger: how important is it to you still, to incorporate elements of your own sexuality and identity into your music? Are there any changes within music you would still like to see?
PM: I always say I don’t make queer music, I’m a queer making music. I feel quite frustrated with the idea of labels and streaming services capitalising on queerness and it becoming a genre or a trend. As soon as an identity becomes a trend it infers an impermanency, a fad. They pick it up, saw the edges off and sell it. Only ten years ago those same gatekeepers were encouraging artists to hide their queerness. At the same time, oh to be a teenager now! Such amazing music is being made from so many different perspectives.
There can never be enough progress. I think the public-facing side of the music industry is so much more inspiring than when I was coming of age, where every band was male and white and it was all quite homogenised. But behind the scenes, only 2% of all producers are not cis-men. It’s insane because I personally know so many engineers, producers and self-producing artists who don’t identify that way, but there seems to be this archaic attitude in the technical side of the industry that I cannot stand. I get it myself; I feel such a shift in respect and this weird surprise once I start producing or talking about technical stuff in front of some men.
RC: You’re about to go on tour across the UK, is there any venue you would love to play in and why?
PM: Hmm, I don’t really have massive loves for certain venues. I’m just always thrilled to finally be playing to and meeting people who play my music around the house or whatever. I guess The Royal Albert Hall would be pretty special.
RC: Lastly, if you could perform with any musician, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
PM: Ah man, that’s such a difficult question. I always reference her in interviews, but PJ Harvey was such an influence on me wanting to become a musician, it would have to be her.
Is It Light Where You Are is out now.