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Polartropica on the Challenges of Releasing a Debut Album During a Pandemic

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Jun 18, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

For Ihui Cherise Wu, one of the leaders of Los Angeles’ emerging queer pop scene, Friday, March 13th, 2020, should have been a triumph. Her musical project, Polartropica, was scheduled to release its debut album, Dreams Come True. The following night she was set to headline LOVE IS GAY, the most recent installment of the touring, all-ages LGBTQ+ festival/fundraiser, at The Bootleg Theater. It was supposed to be the culmination of three years of hustling; of writing, recording, and releasing singles; of playing dozens of hometown-shows and touring the U.S.; of filming elaborate videos and constant, colorful social media promotion. Then, Los Angeles shut down.

“Everything escalated pretty quickly,” says Wu. “Shows were starting to get cancelled but Tame Impala had just played two shows the two nights leading up, so we were going back and forth. We were like, should we postpone? Should we cancel?”

When it became obvious this installment of the festival was not happening, Wu felt “a wave of relief. I was sad but I was also glad that everyone was on the same page to be safe until the right time.”

The acts scrambled to put together a live stream. Twenty-four hours later, with some minor technical difficulties, they managed to pull it off. Looking back now and realizing that it was going to be last time for a while that Wu would see a large group of musicians gathered together, “it kinda felt like a last hurrah.” It was a reassuring event at an uncertain time but an undoubtedly unfortunate way to welcome Dreams Come True into the world.

Following 2016’s Astrodreams EP, Wu had started writing the new material that would become her debut album with the initial goal of just putting out singles for a while. With the help of producer C.M. Rodriguez, she began demoing the new songs in bedrooms and garages around Silverlake during her free time from selling real estate, working at neighborhood restaurants, and teaching music to children.

“Crystal Ramen,” the first of these tracks, was released in August of 2017. It’s a good example of Polartropica’s sound: dreamy, glittery, synth-y, and accompanied by emotionally complex, often surprisingly dark lyrics.

“It’s kind of a heavy album,” says Wu, laughing.

As the rest of Dreams Come True began to take shape, subjects like animal rights, school shootings, and the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal provided intruding inspiration for songs that directly address more personal topics such as witnessing a friend’s emotionally devastating breakup or being forced to deal with a problematic boss.

In the middle of these recordings, Rodriguez relocated to Tulsa, OK, shifting their collaboration onto the Internet, with Wu making occasional flights east to complete the work in person. The finished product features guest appearances by her live band’s guitarist Alexander Noice, composer Bobby Halvorson, and singer/songwriter/guzheng player Jett Kwong, whom Wu met when they shared a bill at an event celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

“It’s been quite a process,” says Wu. “Now that I’m looking back, it took quite a while. But I wasn’t in a rush because we were playing a lot of shows, and it felt like everything was organic. So we were pretty busy the whole time.”

With the help of her live band and a close-knit group of friends like Lucy & La Mer, WASI, and mini bear, Wu has made Polartropica a distinguished fixture in the diverse LA hipster underground, performing in retro-futuristic costumes with increasingly elaborate staging and choreography at venues such as The Satellite, The Echo, and the wildly popular street festival Chinatown Summer Nights. Along the way she’s been collaborating on a series of ambitious music videos with directors such as White Sitar, Tess O’Connor, and Stephanie Kim, who made “Another Life,” the first of an anticipated trilogy with reoccurring characters and an interconnected storyline. But, that’ll have to wait until it’s safe for her crew to get together again.

In the interim, Dreams Come True is finally out, and Wu hopes that people will find some solace in it. “I feel like music really helped me get through hard times,” she says. “So I kind of did that with this record. It’s for everybody. For myself, for my friends, and everyone else too.”





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June 23rd 2020

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