There is an understated boldness about Polly Mackey. A quiet confidence. From my short conversation with the electronic pop singer and producer, I was struck by the way she casually wove in anecdotes about her big move to London at such a young age, the work she did on The Maccabees album and capturing the interest of Grammy award-winning producer Paul Epworth.
Beyond that, she spoke frankly about challenging heteronormative standards in music and going against the grain. Polly is simply impressive, but she doesn’t make a fuss about it, nor does she need to. Her myriad of accomplishments speak for themselves. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Polly is in the midst of a bold and transformative phase in her life. After the split of her band and a move from the hustle and bustle of London, the artist has settled on two things in the past few years – her new home, Margate, and her new project, Art School Girlfriend.
It should be noted, though, that the road to this new era has certainly not been short nor direct. Polly has been paving her way and creating music for years now. “It’s something I’ve always done. I feel a bit strange if I don’t do music for a while,” she tells me as we speak over the phone on a cloudy Monday afternoon. Growing up in a small town in North Wales, Polly has taken matters into her own hands since the tender age of 15.
“There wasn’t that much to do, so anyone who was into music came together and played with each other and did that kind of thing. I moved to London when I was 18 or 19 and I lived down there for a few years.
“I didn’t go to university, so in a way London was that experience for me. That’s where some of my closest friends are from and I’m still back there all the time. Musically, as well, I’ve met so many musicians there and toured with friends and got involved with other people’s projects, which is really enlightening in terms of influence. When I decided to leave it was quite a big decision because it was so formative for me, but I still feel part of it because I’m back so much.”
The choice to go, however, was the right one.
“When I moved to London, it hadn’t quite tipped to the point where it was really difficult to live in terms of money. You could still work in a bar a few days a week and be a musician and live not too far from your friends and not in the outskirts. Whereas by the time I left, all my friends had moved slightly further away from each other because of rent and I was just kind of stressing out about money. I had more music equipment and nowhere to put it.
“Margate offered more space and time and now I have a studio here. So many musicians have moved here, as well. And because lots of musicians have moved here from London it doesn’t feel like I’ve completely moved away.”
The English seaside town has a thriving creative scene, with artists flocking to escape the steep prices and chaos of the bigger cities.
“I was saying to one of my friends,” Polly tells me. “It feels like how it used to when you were a kid and you’d just be able to walk round to the house and call on them.” She laughs. The time spent in London however, was invaluable in terms of the lessons taught and experience provided, and her shoegaze band Deaf Club was an integral part of her growth as a musician.
“Those [the other members] were my three best friends from when I was a teenager. It was like they were my brothers and so it was a really good way to cut your teeth because we just toured all the time to empty venues. We joke that we had our best and worst experiences in that band.
“By the time that finished, I kind of knew exactly how I wanted the next one to go in terms of being able to take the reins on the production and working on music before anyone’s heard it. I made sure I was perfectly happy with myself whereas when you’re in a band it’s more about compromise and it just takes way more time to do stuff because there’s three other opinions about it.”
Even though Art School Girlfriend has been in existence for three years now, the first single from the artist, ‘Bending Back’, arrived in September of last year. Polly spent time between projects gathering inspiration.
“When my last band split up, I ended up doing backing vocals on The Maccabees album because I was friends with Orlando [Weeks]. So I went from my old band straight into their studio and watching how they all work together and how Orlando treats coming up with melodies and vocal styles.
“It was actually quite influential, even though the music doesn’t really sound the same. It’s just about looking at your voice from an outside perspective and not being so precious about it.”
After soaking that experience in, Polly was ready to tend to her own blossoming endeavours.
“I’d spent a year working on my tracks and being very protective over them. I was really worried about people hearing them when they weren’t finished and I think, to be honest, I probably spent too much time on them and went through them with a finetooth comb.
“Then I got to the point where I had four or five tracks that I had produced and finished and I was like, ‘Should I put them up online or should I share them with someone?’”
While all this was happening, fate intervened and Polly met someone at a party that worked for Paul Epworth, producer to Rihanna, Adele, Friendly Fires, The Stone Roses, Paul McCartney, Lorde, Bruno Mars, the list goes on, and on, but she was initially hesitant to make contact.
“I didn’t want to be that kind of person that’s like, ‘Hey! You should listen to my music!’ but my girlfriend at the time was like, ‘Oh, Polly does music. You should play some!’. I ended up emailing it to him and didn’t hear back for a while and thought, ‘Oh, he probably didn’t like it’.
“Then one day I got an email saying, ‘Hey, you should come in for a chat’. I went in and met Paul and met the label. I didn’t sign with them for a while but was just using their studios around once a month to take what I had done at home and finish it off there. Then after a year the first EP [‘Measures’] was ready and it just felt like the natural thing to release it. It’s a really rare process, I think, to get the time and space to make sure something’s ready before it’s released.”
From there, our chat moved on to the pros and cons of a label release compared to taking the independent route.
“I think it is different, especially in this day and age, because I used to release stuff independently and it would get on loads of blogs and it felt like you could put something out in the world and if people liked it then it would get a natural pick up. Now I feel like it’s in some ways harder than ever just because of the amount of people who are releasing music and the way digital media has gone more into clickbait. Everything has to be new and everything has to be fresh and it feels like there’s less time for good stuff to come to the surface.
“For me, having a label is a bit like having a comfort there and hopefully there’s going to be a longer game and more people will listen. They’re willing to back you, maybe even at the start when not a lot of people are listening.”
Since ‘Measures’ came out last Autumn Polly’s work schedule has been hectic but fruitful. We’re getting an EP in September, she’s off on tour in October and an album is anticipated for 2019. In March, she released a single titled ‘Moon’. It’s a dark and dreamy four minutes of electronic pop that would have slipped seamlessly into the Drive soundtrack. The lust-filled love song is inspired by night time and just before we hang up she tells me a little more about it.
“One thing I used to find when I was growing up listening to music is you never hear women singing about female pronouns, whether or not they were gay. So I really wanted to do that and say, ‘Yeah, I am singing about women and I’m not going to hide that’.”
Art School Girlfriend plays The Sound House on August 6.