Everyone who is drawn to melancholy electronic with female vocals can finally stop their prolonged search – the answer has arrived in the form of two kids from the 1990s, a time in Poland full of changes too fast and chaotic to end well. Coals is a band overloaded with references to new music, with a style as original in Poland as on the international stage.
Electronic music duo.
After one of their festival performances, The Quietus described their music as ‘dreamy ethereal pop, drawing both from electronic music and elements of folk’. A surprising description, but one that can be clearly discerned in their music. Coals usually begin their songs with a sketch on guitar or piano, but their particular blend of genres is truly amazing. Their referential homages include a diverse blend of artists, from pop star Miley Cyrus, uncompromising electronic artist Dean Blunt to inventive rappers like Kaz Bałagane and Rogal DDL.
A list of their favourite artists could go on for quite a while, but nowhere in Coals’ musical references is there such a vein of sadness as the one that weaves through their tracks. This sadness, or perhaps melancholy – according to the lyrics – comes from the sensation of otherness, of feeling ‘off’. An unobtrusive sadness, I’d like to add, tinged with resignation. This is the crux of their music.
Vocalist, lyricist and occasional composer Kacha Kowalczyk was born in 1994 in Gliwice. She’s been singing since 15 years old, after encouragement from a music teacher. She’s a painter and photographer with a bachelor in photography, after which she began studies at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts with a focus on intermedia art.
Composer, keyboardist, guitarist and producer Łukasz Rozmysłowski was born in 1995 in Mysłowice, though he grew up in Lędziny. He first learned to play piano and later, fascinated by folk music and YouTube song covers, he turned to guitar, ukulele and harmonica. Before starting Coals he played solo (under the name Coast Range). He completed a bachelor’s in game design and virtual reality, specialising in video game soundtracks.
During their 2017 concerts, they recruited the help of guitarist and bassist Bobkowski. He comes from Poznań and is a co-writer on two tracks from the Coals’ album Tamagotchi. He and Rozmysłowski met at their university in Cieszyń.
Kacha and Łukasz met through the Internet. The band first formed in 2014, when Kowalczyk contacted Rozmysłowski, wanting to cover one of his songs. After releasing the track, they were first compared to The Dumplings, who had released their debut album in spring 2014. The bands have a few similarities: They come from Silesia, use synthesisers and a two-person lineup, though that’s about it. Coals moved toward a modern, occasionally avant-garde sound and rhythm, while The Dumplings moved in a more mainstream direction. Coals have maintained a distance from the pop world, preferring to work alone, online. In a 2019 interview with Gazeta Magnetofonowa, Kowalczyk said:
An Ultimate Guide to Summer Music Festivals in Poland
I’m embarrassed to record vocals in front of someone even after five years of working with Łukasz. I can’t image ever going into a professional studio, I think I would die of a heart attack.
Online, you can find their 2014 EP Homework. Folksy and delicate, it still has its charm but the next few albums are where the band truly found its footing. After the first four-song EP, Coals had plans to release one more, yet that ultimately turned into an album – they were polishing up the tracks as late as summer 2016. Kacha spoke about their upcoming album:
We don’t know when we’ll finish the album, but we’ll definitely move in a different direction (strong inspirations: Spooky Black, Dean Blunt, Yung Lean), lots of ambient and piano. The album will show, hopefully not a one-sided, portrait of childhood. A little bit from the times when you would listen to Ich Troje, watch ‘Rower Błażeja’ [editor’s note: Błażej’s Bike, a Polish programme devoted to music interviews and discussions of controversial topics] and eat Lay’s crisps.
Coals’ debut album finally came out in 2017 with a strongly positive response from critics. Titled Tamagotchi, it referenced the popular 1990s toy – a small electronic animal you had to take care of. Tamagotchi created a sense of longing for the past and future, a kind of nostalgia. Singing in English, Kacha Kowalczyk evoked the melancholy of Lana Del Rey – perhaps a slight exaggeration, but a similar sense of darkness.
They recorded their single VHS Nightmare with producer Hatti Vatti, but perhaps the most important track was Rave 03, recorded with Bobkowski: When Kowalczyk sings ‘take me to the place / where techno resonates’, there is a yearning for what ‘we’ve missed’, and the things that are better than our everyday. In another sense: for a sense of losing yourself, submerging into another. When she sings, we have two separate visions – that everything comes to her easily, without effort, and simultaneously that she’s sacrificing herself for her art. Kowalczyk’s method of singing implies a sense of resignation and powerful emotions.
Winter 2019 saw the release of a four-track EP, Klan, which the creators themselves refer to as ‘hip-hop-esque’. Every track features a different guest: YouTube singer Dianka known for her own hip-hop collaborations; Robert Piernikowski, rapper and producer known for his duet Syny; barely 16-year old, megastar Schafter, who weaves together English and Polish in his rapping and singing; and finally hip-hop producer Kubi Producent, whose track was crowned by Bella Ćwir’s poetic phrases, a queer rapper and performer referred to by Vice as the ‘icon of internet freaks’.
To date this is their most cohesive and engaging release, a kind of ‘shortcut to Coals’ output’, while at the same time showcasing a diversity of music. It’s melodious and simultaneously rhythmic, thanks to its hip-hop and rap influences. The most catchy phrase was provided by Schafter: ‘rock me to sleep, rock me to sleep’, which Kowalczyk repeated on Blue’s chorus. And at the end of the song we hear: ‘Toto’s “Arica” on the radio’, a line that explains everything – the past, their parent’s generation, an old track, cringey and embarrassing but simultaneously gentle and anodyne – on the other hand, the line means nothing. Can you disappear into a song? ‘I’ll count to 100, escape to sleep’, repeat Kowalczyk and Piernikowski on Entele Pentele.
In December 2019, Coals released a new song and accompanying video for Sleepwalker, confirming that a new album is in the works. Built on a feisty, strong rhythm, the track felt like another step towards contemporary hip-hop – except for the vocals, this time featuring both artists.
The premiere of their album Docusoap through record label PIAS is slated for 6 March 2020; a month earlier, their single Pearls was released. Among the 13 diverse tracks is Oberek, co-created with British producer Felicita, a pillar of the PC Music label. Felicita has Polish roots and is fascinated with Polish folklore, especially when it’s ‘distorted’ by professionals for mass appeal (he teamed up with the Śląsk Song and Dance Ensemble to create a multimedia performance). We could go out on a limb and say that Coals’ attraction to the pop sounds of the 1980s stems from similar reasons to Felicita’s attraction to the Ensemble: A certain exaggeration, or inauthenticity. Let’s also not forget the duo’s Silesian background.
Coals’ 2020 sound has undergone an update, becoming sharper – it’s even more synthetic (processed vocals) and alongside the duo’s folk references, there’s trap, electronic melancholy, even references to classical music. The structure is similar: On Docusoap, there are classically structured songs with choruses alongside more experimental, non-linear formulas. Coals has not lost its interest with darkness, oscitancy and a certain inauthenticity (as showcased by the album’s title).
8 Music Videos You Didn't Realise Featured Poland
polish electronic music
Coals has managed to create a cohesive aesthetic not only in their music, but in their visual output as well, combining young adulthood, nostalgia for the 1990s and – though we’re entering dangerous territory here – a Polish local pride. The aesthetics of their covers and videos falls in line with their music. On Klan and Sleepwalker, for example, the visuals included virtual cities, blue light, swimming pools and tiles, reflections, avatars, drowsiness. This cohesion is thanks to Kowalczyk, who has the final say on all visuals.
This extends to the band photographs, the white outfits they wear on stage and even the stage design and packaging. When I reached out to Kacha about this, she replied:
We usually take the photographs ourselves. If we ask someone else to take our photos, we usually come up with the idea ourselves. Only once we ended up posing according to the photographer’s vision. The majority of our music videos are made by outsiders, but we recently had our directorial debut – ‘VHS Nightmare’. It’s possible that in the future we’ll record a video ourselves.
Side projects, collaborations
Kacha Kowalczyk is part of another duo, Muka, with producer paszka. Together, they improvise fantastical, unbridled electronic music (cassette Pampuch, 2018). She also provided vocals for one of Poland’s most popular rappers, Taco Heminway (track Żyrandol from the album Marmur, 2016) as well as the acoustic Daniel Spaleniak (the titular track Back Home, 2016; two songs on Life Is Somewhere Else, 2018). She also performed in Bakblivv’s song A Form of Formation (split-cassette NAW03 with Katarina Gryvul, 2019).
Fall 2019 saw the release of Piernikowski’s The Best of Moje Getto, and Kowalczyk provided the vocals to his single Dobre Duchy.
Łukasz Rozmysłowski collaborated with Bobkovski under the name Lucassi. ‘I plan to continue Lucassi as a solo romantic pop project’, he said at the beginning of 2020. ‘I’m also planning some deconstructed wonky glitch hop material’, he said. ‘And with Bobkovski we played around under the jokey rap name Bouk’ci’.
As a duo, Coals can be found on Kubi Producent’s album 18+, on the track Good Bye.
A distinguishing part of Coals’ rise to fame was their back-to-back performances at Poland’s most popular festival, Open’er (2018-2019). They first began performing live in October 2014. As early as spring 2015 they were performing at festivals such as Alter Fest in Mysłowice and Spring Break in Poznań. The performances were successful, since they soon played for the first time at Open’er in Gdynia, OFF! in Katowice and Soundrive in Gdańsk.
Their international debut was at Fantoche Festival in the Swedish town of Baden. The list of performances include the Latvian Positivus, Spanish Primavera, Slovakian Pohoda, Netherlandish Eurosonic, Israeli Tune In Tel Aviv, German Reeperbahn, Slovenian Ment, Icelandic Airwaves… They’ve also logged six performances at the American radio station KEXP – the Seattle DJs compared their sound to The xx and bands from the golden age of indie record label 4AD. In September 2015, their track Weightless was KEXP’s song of the day.
Coals belongs to booking agency Niemczech Melt! Booking – which includes other acts such as The xx, Flume, Robyn, Brockhampton and Death Grips.
Originally written in Polish by Jacek Świąder, Feb 2020, translated by Alicja Zapalska, March 2020.
Ponglish Pop: The Phenomenon Of Polish Songs In English