Teddy Jamieson 15th August
Polwart is happy to turn the pages of the Scottish songbook
BAD news Ultra Sonic fans. Tunes from your favourite Tartan techno band will probably not be turning up in Karine Polwart’s celebration of Scottish pop at the Leith Theatre tomorrow night.
“I’m not covering the nineties rave scene as a general rule,” the singer-songwriter admits as she sits in the passenger seat of a car driving north up the M6. “It’s not an attempt to be encyclopaedic.”
What it is, though, is a chance for Polwart and a six-piece band which includes her brother Steven, multi-instrumentalist Inge Thomson and Admiral Fallow frontman Louis Abbott, to go on a romp through the Scottish songbook in an event that ties in with the National Museum’s current Rip It Up pop exhibition and the Light on the Shore strand of the Edinburgh International Festival at Leith Theatre.
Polwart and her band have spent months brainstorming to work out a playlist for the gig, weighing up favourites,iconic songs and those that would work when played by a six-piece folk band.
“It’s the difference between having songs that you love and having songs that you can imagine inserting yourself into, “Polwart admits.
Inevitably there will be favouritism involved. “To be honest, we’re all kids of the 1980s, so it was prettily heavily eighties-weighted. And, to be frank, it still is.”
It’s a show that you could say begins at home, literally. “That’s definitely the core of the show. It’s more about memory, so it’s not just the records that we grew up with, but the records that our parents had in their record collections. The likes of Gerry Rafferty and Stealer’s Wheel. They’re not my records, they’re my mum’s records.”
“A lot of them, it’s a folky quality that makes me like them,” she admits, not unexpected given that she is first and foremost a folk singer.
Still, she’s raided her own record collection too, the ones she listened to as a kid in Banknock in Stirlingshire.
“I loved Big Country when I was growing up and a lot of their songs are about the times and the place – industrial central Scotland and the Thatcher era. Those songs have a folky character to them. They’ve got narrative, they’ve got politics, they’ve got hardship. So, it feels easy as a folk singer to get inside of that.”
Part of it, too, is just what she likes. “I realise I am drawn to the uplifting melancholy kind of thing. I’m a total sucker for the hooky sad song.”
Of course, not everything Polwart loves lends itself to the project. “We’d have loved to have represented KT Tunstall because I think she’s great, but I’m just going to do a really s*** karaoke cover of KT Tunstall what’s the point?
“And one of my favourite bands was the Cocteau Twins. But how would you do Iceblink Luck on a tenor guitar?”
Not that the synth hooks are out of bounds. Bronski Beat’s Small Town Boy and Party Fears Two by the Associates are both in the set, their “killer synthy hooks” remodelled by Polwart’s band.
The obvious question in all of this is whether or not she sees anything that links the disparate strands of homegrown pop. Is there anything intrinsically Scottish about all of it?
She’s not sure there is. “I think the stuff that speaks to me a lot of it has got a narrative heart. I’m seeing it through that lens and I don’t think that’s a characteristic that is exclusive to Scottish music.
But she can see herself in the music she likes. “The Cocteau Twins and Big Country are connected to place because they were local bands and part of it is that being bound up with your own sense of identity about where you are. For other people that will be Belle and Sebastian in Glasgow or the Proclaimers singing in a Scottish accent.”
Polwart has previous in performing other people’s music, as anyone who had the privilege of seeing last year’s tribute to Kate Bush in Glasgow will know. When I ask her what the pleasure of singing other people’s songs she is a little stumped that the answer isn’t already obvious.
“That’s what they’re for. I started out as a trad singer singing other people’s songs. That’s what folk music is. It’s other people’s songs and it’s your ability to connect with them. That’s kind of the joy of it. The song just speaks. And, for me, that’s a weight off. We all know these songs are great so the only thing that can go wrong is I mess it up.
"So, if the song goes badly it’s my fault because the song is tried and tested and a beautiful thing.”