Words by David C. Obenour
Weaving ambient atmospheres with looped melodies and hushed vocals, Zoe Polanski creates something familiar from a less than familiar location. Based out of Tel Aviv, the young artist has had the opportunity to perform alongside with such international acts as Tame Impala, Swans and Lætitia Sadier of Stereolab.
These artists are all relevant contemporaries, however it is Polanski’s work in film composition that informs the songs for her album, Violent Flower. Through the study of moods and the thoughtful deconstruction of music, along with the help of producer Aviad Zinemanas, she begins at an inspired inception point for well-crafted, minimal dream pop.
Off Shelf: How have you been holding up? Have you been based in Israel throughout the pandemic?
Zoe Polanski: Yes, I’ve been in Tel Aviv this entire crazy time. We are experiencing a second wave of COVID-19 at the moment. The first one was actually a little bit nice for me, I kept on going to my studio everyday, only everything was super quiet. Now it feels more chaotic. The government handling of the situation is horrible and there are a lot of protests going on. Sadly, Tel Aviv is slowly shutting down again and I guess a lot of places I love will close down permanently. With the release, I’m just starting to realize the obvious fact, that it will take a very long time before we have live shows again. Thankfully, I am still working in film scoring, so I get by. Or maybe just a bit optimistic…
OS: Has anything about how the world has, and continues to, change affected how you view your music? Both what you have created with Violent Flowers and what you will create moving forward?
ZP: In the beginning of the pandemic, when the shutdown started, I felt at first a desperation that music is completely irrelevant for people now. Shortly after that I felt a kind of freedom – suddenly there were no more expectations, less weight on the creative process, and that was nice and unique for me. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long and pretty soon I got back to my old self.
Besides that, my music has always been connected to a flow which is quite different from the flow of everyday reality. Personally, the process of composing, writing or producing was always the process of creating and exploring new sonic territories more than anything else. There are of course some parallel lines to my life but for the most it feels more like a parallel universe for me, with its own time and logic.
OS: You had a very musical upbringing, learning cello, saxophone, piano and guitar. What made you want to keep exploring different instruments?
ZP: I always loved music and wanted to play, but like most young kids, I hated practicing and didn’t have much discipline. Once an instrument became too hard I moved on to the next. As a teenager I chose to start playing guitar and had much more motivation since it quickly became more than just playing an instrument, it became a source of confidence and identity for me, which pushed me to playing more seriously, everyday and most of the day.
OS: Can you talk about the instrumentation you used for Violent Flowers? How much was sampled and what was performed live?
ZP: The way I usually create a song is with a guitar loop. I love recording different textures and using the instrument in different ways. Sometimes like a guitar, and sometimes like a violin or a bell. When I have a texture – a short loop – that I am happy with, I go out and explore it with my bass and vocals. Various harmonies or melodies reveal different sides of the loop. My favorite part is making the loop react in extremely different ways to my bass and vocals. Both musically and conceptually. On top of that, Aviad [Zinemanas, producer] adds a lot of synths and processing, sometimes we even lose the original loop for some weird spacy vibes.
OS: When did you start singing? Your voice works perfectly for the music you create, but did you find it any harder to put yourself out as a singer as opposed to a musician?
ZP: Definitely. Even though I started singing basically when I started making music, I always had difficulty with it. It never felt natural like playing and composing. To this day I’m not sure what made me wanna do it. But still, I continue to do it, and have a love hate relationship with it. Today it’s easier though.
OS: The press release mentions your work being rooted in a number of traditions, including the ambient music of Tel Aviv. Could you talk a little about the ambient music coming from Tel Aviv – maybe highlighting a few artists or releases you find particularly inspiring?
ZP: I can’t honestly say there is a proper ambient “scene” here in Tel Aviv. The more clubby sort electronic scenes are great by the way, at least they were until COVID-19…
But there are a few electronic music artists who create such music – Yehezkal Raz and Tomer Baruch are great but most other cuts are from wonderful electronic musicians such as Hotel Europa and Acute who also flirt at times with ambient.
OS: With all of it’s ambient qualities, Violent Flowers also has some incredible pop sensibilities to it – especially on a song like “Pharaoh’s Island”. Are you conscious of balancing melody and mood?
ZP: Actually, I don’t really think about it when I create my music. But I do love simple and precise melodies, and I love spacious moody ambient, so I guess it makes sense and they come together organically.
OS: You’re also a film composer, who do you feel that work informs the music you make? Do you also find the way you create music affecting how you look at film making?
ZP: I love the work and approach of Hildur Guðnadóttir. Her scores are so smart and beautiful. I once saw an interview with her about the Chernobyl soundtrack that she created, and she said that it was really important for her to do justice to the victims and not Hollywood-ly “animate” their story. That’s why she recorded field recordings from the nuclear power plant and used them as sources for the score. I am currently working on a score for a documentary film about the October 2000 riots in Israel, when protests by the Arab citizens of Israel quickly escalated to violent riots that ended with Israeli police killing 13 Arab demonstrators. The footage is hard to watch and I’m trying to approach it in the same manner as Guðnadóttir described. Give room to the complexity and avoid artificially enhancing the drama that’s already there.
OS: You worked with producer Aviad Zinemanas for Violent Flowers, how did that partnership develop and how do you think his involvement shaped the album?
ZP: I met Aviad through a local hip hop producer that sampled one of my older tracks. I was a guest in once of his shows, and Aviad played with him. We immediately felt chemistry, we loved the same music and just had fun talking. I later discovered that Aviad is also a sound artist and saw an exhibition of him in the Tel Aviv Museum. It blew my mind. We decided to start working together on some songs I had already written, and Aviad just opened a new dimension in them.
His knowledge and creativity regarding sound, complimented my obsession with textures and harmonies. Aviad also composed 2 tracks in the album – Humboldt Current and also Bubbles.
OS: What were some of the biggest changes the two of you made from your original early demos?
ZP: The biggest change is in the sound geography. Aviad helped me take something that was virtually flat and push it over to 4D. And then some.