Art School Girlfriend on emerging from the darkness to make new album Soft Landing

On August 4, Polly Mackey, perhaps better known as Art School Girlfriend, releases her second album Soft Landing. Headliner caught up with her to find out how she used the turmoil that shaped her debut as a catalyst to create something new and capture “the lighter side of life”.

There’s a transportive quality to the music of Polly Mackey, aka Art School Girlfriend, that feels immersive in the truest sense of the word. Her thickly textured, melancholic soundscapes are hypnotic, and often intoxicating, gently lulling you into their orbit, while her icy, spoken-sung vocal lines feel as though they exist inside your head rather than the speaker.

You can listen to this interview in full here or read on below. 

Is It Light Where You Are, her 2021 debut, was a profoundly moving case in point. An album born out of personal turmoil, its subtle yet innate sadness drips from each and every bar to the point of submergence. Soft Landing, however, is a very different animal.

While its predecessor created an effect akin to being underwater, Soft Landing comes with a sense of elevation. The beats are faster, the dynamics more pronounced, the colour pallet bolder. It’s unsurprising, therefore, to discover that Mackey found herself in a very different place to the one she occupied during the making of her debut.

“Everyone always talks about the difficult second record, but this was the easy second record for me,” Mackey tells Headliner as we join her via Zoom from her East London home. That coolness in her singing voice is immediately detectable in conversation, yet there is warmth in her demeanour - a calm contentedness that is in keeping with her current headspace.

“I had such fun making it. The first album was quite a protracted process. I started writing it, then went through a huge breakup, moved, spent ages fine tuning it and producing it, and just as we were about to finish it Covid happened. So, it didn’t come out for ages, and by the time I was touring it I was in another relationship, I’d moved on and my life had changed so much… it was like a very horrible, slow birth.

“With this one I had a real reaction to that, so I gave myself from April to September last summer, booked in studio time and mixing in advance, and was like, I have this summer to make the record and I’m going to put it out. So, it really fed into a lot of the ways in which I wrote and a lot of the production aspects. It became about catching first and second take performances, rather than me spending ages fine tuning and spending a day picking a snare sound. It was about gut instinct and capturing a sense of immediacy. And I still feel really connected to it.”

The protracted process Mackey speaks of resulted in a degree of self-indulgence that she was determined to shed with Soft Landing.

The first album was quite a protracted process. It was a horrible slow birth. Art School Girlfriend

“Making the debut was the first time I had written about something that I was palpably going through and I needed as a sense of release, whereas previously I’d written music to try to figure out how I was feeling,” she elaborates. “Also, because I was staying on a friend’s sofa in London, I was using the studio literally as a place to go all day, so I’d spend 12 hours a day there trying to make music and let it all out. It was very indulgent, crying into my laptop vibes… but by the time you’re playing it at a festival two years later at four in the afternoon on a sunny day, I was a world away from it. It was the first time we’d experienced festivals since Covid so there was a lot of joy, and I was playing these sad, slow, expansive songs. As much as I adore that album, it was a bit of a catalyst for me to make something about the lighter side of life and joy and immediacy.”

The moment that in many ways set the tone for what was to come with Soft Landing was the writing of lead single A Place To Lie. Though still shot through with Mackey’s mesmeric, melancholy vocal, its twitchy, trancey beat is very much the sound of an artist treading new ground.

“You always have one track that is like the lightbulb moment, or as my girlfriend says, gives the album edges,” she says of A Place To Lie. “Then all of a sudden it’s like, this is it, and it captures the whole energy and vibe of the album. And from that point everything happens really quickly. After that I wrote the next five tracks for the album in the next two weeks.”

To help remain disciplined in the studio and refrain from any temptation of indulgence, Mackey created a set of guidelines by which she and co-producer Riley MacIntyre had to adhere.

“I wrote a manifesto of what I wanted the album to sound like and I sent it to Riley,” she says. “I was looking backwards and looking forwards; looking back to why I started making music in the first place. I got my first drum kit when I was eight, my first guitar when I was nine, and I was in my room with my friend playing Nirvana and System of a Down and Offspring and all this music with loads of pace and energy. Then in my later teenage years it was PJ Harvey, Pixies, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Warpaint. And when I started Art School Girlfriend after being in bands, it was quite different to become a bedroom producer known for chill music, which was not how I got into music.

I wanted to get out of the bedroom producer mindset. Art School Girlfriend

“I’ve also been DJing in recent years, so I was like, I want to get back to that feeling, especially after Covid, not being able to feel the walls shake in a room with that kind of energy. So immediately the BPMs went up and I was concentrating a lot on the drums and the rhythms. I also wanted to get out of the bedroom producer mindset, I didn’t want to be looking at screens and flicking through plugins, I wanted to be making music in the room as I did as a kid or as a band in a rehearsal room. We made a point of not really using many digital effects and doing more in the room, so putting my vocals through guitar pedals instead of plugins. It’s kind of reacting against the thing we all like to do in production, which is to make everything sound really good. You can do that so easily with technology, you can make things sound really wide and massive and infinite, which is what I did on the first album. But this time I wanted it to sound small and gritty and boxy and let the actual parts do the work instead of the effects.”

So what was it that prompted that initial move away from the more guitar-driven tastes of her youth to the more electronic, atmospheric music that has defined Mackey under the guise of Art School Girlfriend?

“The main thing was my old band splitting up,” she recalls. “We had tried to incorporate some electronic elements into it but it tended to hinder us playing live, which is what we were. We were a live band, and so we were never that great on record, we never managed to capture how good we were live. So the studio wasn’t a happy place for me in that band. I hated it. I’d always come away feeling disappointed with something. That was an impetus in terms of getting better at production and the engineering side so I could be self-sufficient. And there was also the sense that I’d been using this palette of colours for so long and now I could do whatever I want because it’s just for me. I had been moving into more atmospheric… [she trails off] I guess a lot of the music I’d always listened to had a sense of melancholy and atmosphere. Anna Calvi was a huge influence on me, and she makes such cinematic music with her guitar. So there is a real through line.”

There’s a moment during our conversation when Mackey describes Soft Landing as feeling like her real debut. Having emerged from the darkness that shrouded Is It Light Where You Are, it seems she has not only rediscovered light and joy in her personal life but has also entered a new creative phase. One that looks set to lay the foundations for future Art School Girlfriend projects and beyond. In January she took on a new studio space set up to facilitate

the working methods employed on her new album, while she is also preparing for a new remix album, a series of unspecified collaborations, production duties for other artists, and more DJ sets.

If Soft Landing does represent a new beginning for Mackey, she could scarcely have got off to a better start.