If there’s merit in spotting an opportunity and seizing the moment, then there’s often far greater long-term gain to be had from taking your time and understanding that a moment might not be your moment quite yet.
When Arctic Lake released debut single ‘Limits’, they could easily have made some very ill-advised decisions in the spirit of panic and naivety.
A glacial, spacious piece of ambient pop that happened to nestle alongside a slew of adjacent bands (The xx, London Grammar) riding high at the time, however, the track began to catch the industry’s attention. The pair recall sitting in their university library, working on their dissertations and learning that it was going to be played on Radio One that day. Soon, label interest came inevitably calling.
But Arctic Lake decided to bide their time. They waited for the hubbub around ‘Limits’ to naturally quieten and, instead, set about focusing on what really mattered: that they had hit upon a sound that they connected with and that evidently connected with other people too.
Coming to the project from largely different backgrounds - Emma a rebellious kid from Lincolnshire, who’d grown up being fed everything from Depeche Mode to Ella Fitzgerald to Queen by her music obsessive father; Paul a “middle class and sheltered” metal fan from the suburbs of London who was “terrified of everything, including Emma” - the pair perhaps needed this early co-sign from outside forces to underline that what they’d stumbled upon had a splash of magic. But from the beginning, they recall their seemingly-opposing characters fitting together in a special way. “Paul always made me feel really safe. When I first started I was so scared to show my ideas, whereas with Paul I always felt that everything was valid and that’s so important to help you grow,” says Emma.
Over the following years, Arctic Lake shed a couple of members and added some new releases to their canon: each cementing another small milestone that proved they were on the right track. 2016 single ‘Heal Me’ was selected by Elton John and shouted out on his Rocket Hour show; later that year, the band played Reading and Leeds festival for the first time. Across their first three EPs - 2017’s ‘Closer’, 2019’s ‘What You May Find’ and the following year’s ‘See Inside’ - they began to trust themselves more, with outside co-production credits increasingly putting less emphasis on the ‘co’ and seeing Paul step to the fore.
Sonically, meanwhile, Arctic Lake’s niche of emotive, intimate, expansive yet earwormy alternative pop increasingly cemented itself. Today, they cite the holy trinity of The 1975, fka Twigs and London Grammar as the triangle that sits around their own sound, but the true alchemy of the duo lies in the time they’ve spent learning about themselves and each other - testing how far they can push their music in different directions (more dancey on last year’s ‘lonely’; more pure pop on forthcoming track ‘Are You Okay?’), whilst still retaining the level of depth and meaning they always want at their core. A series of highly successful collaborations with American producer and DJ Lane 8 (2020’s ‘Road’ sits at more than 43 million Spotify plays) as well as a one-off track with Swedish pianist Peter Sandberg (the same year’s ‘Unhold Me’) may have helped Arctic Lake along the way, but heading into a new EP and a forthcoming album, it’s all about the duo taking the helm.
“Loneliness and want and rejection and desire: we just wanna talk about the stuff that happens to people, that matters and that they can connect to,” says Emma. “One of the things that motivates us the most is the messages we get from people, all the way from ‘This has helped me grieve’ to ‘My baby falls asleep to your music’. That’s honestly the biggest motivation for us to carry on doing this. So the thread through this next EP - like everything we do - is to talk about varying states of human emotion, and maybe it’s heartbreak, maybe it’s loss, maybe it’s complete ecstasy.”
This next EP, then, is ‘How Do You Make It Look So Easy’. Their second for Universal Music offshoot Astralwerks, it finds the duo harnessing the experimentation of last year’s ‘side by side we lie awake’ and finessing it into a version that feels truly Arctic Lake. As Paul says: “Now it’s us saying, ‘We can do what we want but it all has to exist in the same world’. There’s some pretty upbeat stuff but the lyrics are consistent. We took away all the rules but now we’re putting a few of them back in.”
Written between London and LA, it’s a body of work in the truest sense: one that pays attention to the details and flow, that sees the beauty in presenting something that’s more than just “a few singles and some filler”. Opening with the dappled grief of ‘Fireflies’ - written as Emma watched her grandmother pass away - and ending with the string-laden love letter of ‘Hold Me’, the two tracks bookend an EP that encompasses Caroline Polachek-esque sad pop (‘Silver Pendant’), devotional, subtle euphoria in ‘My Weakness’ and even a PinkPantheress-recalling two-step beat in ‘Fool’. Instrumental interludes link tracks together, emphasising the importance of the EP as a form, while the final strings of ‘Hold Me’ fade out into the opening bars of ‘Fireflies’, “so you can listen to the whole thing on loop”.
They’ve already started work on an album; for years, they’ve known it will be called ‘Human Thought’, for all the big, empathetic ideas that it encompasses. But only now, after a slow and steady path, biding their time and learning their art and themselves, are Arctic Lake ready to do such a huge concept justice. “‘Limits’ was the starting point of our education - of learning to produce and make sounds and do more than just make a demo and take it to a producer,” says Paul. “We needed to get used to the process and learn how to make a body of work - all of the things that most people do before they start releasing music, but we did after!”
“There have been moments where we’ve been touring Europe, eating cans of soup, so it’s been tough,” laughs Emma. ‘But I'm so glad it’s happened this way because we wouldn’t be writing the album we’re writing now if this had all happened five, six years ago. We wouldn’t know ourselves and what we want to talk about as much, so I’m so happy.”