We speak to singer-songwriter Karine Polwart about her new album A Pocket of Wind Resistance, the companion to her Edinburgh Festival show, Wind Resistance
Feature by Harry Harris | 31 Oct 2017
The image of the folk singer is often a very solitary one – travelling troubadours with guitars on their backs and notebooks scrawled with ideas and conversations. Popping up in one session, before heading onto the next, constantly on the move. For Karine Polwart, one of the UK’s most highly regarded folk artists and songwriters, the opposite is true. Collaboration has always been key, and nowhere is this more apparent than her new album A Pocket of Wind Resistance, a companion to her Edinburgh Festival show Wind Resistance, and something which took off almost by accident.
“I sort of made up the pitch on the phone,” she says, having been approached by a small festival in London who were programming a series of performances on the theme of air. “I had this notion to try something that was different, that wasn’t just songs, that had spoken word and a connecting theme – but I conjured the title Wind Resistance on the phone. The heart of it was there but it was quite messy.”
That performance was followed by a gig at the Traverse Bar in Edinburgh, attended by David Greig, artistic director of The Lyceum Theatre. Since then, aided and abetted by a crack team of musicians, dramaturgs, and performers, Wind Resistance has taken on a life of its own. It was specifically the musical collaboration with sound designer Pippa Murphy that helped give the show its wings: “I knew she lived in the next village over, we had friends in common, and I thought she might be up for this. That’s been a revelation, I think it’s properly transformed how I write music, and I’ve got a new pal.”
This transformation is readily apparent on the record. Take the song Salters Road (appearing on A Pocket of Wind Resistance as Molly Sime's Welcome to Salters Road), a story about Polwart’s old neighbour Molly Kristensen, which first appeared on her last solo album Traces. It was already a beautiful song ('The horseman’s only daughter takes the Friday boat to Bergen / And the waves swell like a barley field that’s ready to lay down' is a lyric many songwriters would be envious of), but its second life here casts it in a whole new light – the story is homed in on and expanded, tiny details picked out and given additional depth with spoken word and ambient sound. A song that was already deeply moving and powerful almost becomes a piece of theatre in and of itself. “Essentially the story of how Molly was born is one of the anchor points for the whole show. It’s amazing how that surfaced. It was really generous of her family to share her story, but it felt like it connected so many threads – it felt like it made the whole thing very human. It’s more like a eulogy.”
The threads across the record are quite varied. At the heart of it is the annual migration of two thousand pink-footed geese to Fala Flow (a peat-bog near Polwart’s home), and how they offer wind resistance to each other to aid each other’s flight, but from this the songs take in motherhood, environmentalism, history and Scottish culture. In particular, there is a recurring motif of hospitals, of care, of the precariousness of life, which acts as a biting political undercurrent to the whole record.
“That’s the whole backdrop, the whole political culture of how people are treated when they’re vulnerable, that they need to be punished, that’s absolutely despicable – I’ve picked the motif of pregnancy and birth deliberately because it is universal, even now we take for granted that we have access to care that allows most women to live! To remember two generations ago, when my grandparents were born, post-World War One, 20 to 25 percent of women might be expected to die – it’s so easy to forget that, we’re not so far away from precarity and it could come back, and I see a culture of willing it back. And there’s the sheer ecological precariousness, we’re living as if climate change isn’t real – it distresses me.”
This precarity is perhaps best illustrated on Small Consolation, one of the real highlights of the album – what begins as a pregnant woman going to attend a group of fledgling swallows, fallen from their nest, injured and dying, becomes a wonderfully detailed story of how that migration takes place, before finishing on a series of perfectly pitched declaratives. It’s Polwart’s songwriting brilliance in microcosm – poetically drawn specificity and detail, often unflinching, and then broader brush strokes, sucker-punches when you are at your most vulnerable. 'For every breath that leaves me now, another comes to fill me / And for every death that grieves me now, I swear the next will surely kill me.' Do not approach this song without a box of tissues in the vicinity.
One thing that’s always set Polwart apart as a folk singer is her willingness to push the genre forward. Even when interpreting older material, it's always contextualised in a way that makes it relevant to a contemporary audience: “I sing them and hear them now, I don’t hear them as historic period pieces," she says. "I hear them as potentially relevant. I’m not interested in singing them for any other reason.” The inclusion of The Death of Queen Jane (appearing here as Sphagnum Mass for a Dead Queen), another song which had a previous life for Polwart having featured on 2007's Fairest Floo’er, is a good example. Its story of a troubled and ultimately tragic labour mirrors the themes of the rest of the record, but even the initial concept of the piece – a more thematic, expansive work based off of folk song principles and ideas – speaks to her ambition and artistry.
“Amongst the folkies I know there’s a desire to bust out of the conventional gig and album format, definitely, not just in Scotland – to try things in a slightly different way.” One of the reasons she cites for this comes from the activity around the Scottish independence referendum, and how that brought together a lot of artists from disparate fields, and encouraged a kind of wider creative community. This was where she first came into contact with Greig, as well as becoming aware of the likes of Loki – there’s definitely a shared DNA between the spoken word elements of her songs and the storytelling of Scotland’s hip-hop scene, even if they feel sonically separated.
Karine Polwart has been on the scene for coming on two decades now, from solo work to collaborative projects like Songs of Separation, to this, to future plans for everything from podcasts to children’s books – and another solo album expected late next year. “I feel like I’m stepping into what I really want to do,” she says as our conversation winds up. Momentum is a funny thing – one chance phone conversation which leads to a spontaneous pitch, a scratch-gig, and then all of a sudden you’re picking up speed.
Collaboration has always been key, whether that be migrating geese aiding each other in their flight, or musicians pushing out beyond their scene to create new and important work. Wind Resistance, captured perfectly in this record, has a bit of life in it yet – a run at the Lyceum, Perth next year, and the likelihood of one in London, will all help push the show higher. For any new fans that she acquires as a result – and the chances are there will be many – they’ll find out quickly that this has always been the direction she’s been heading in, and she doesn’t show any sign of stopping.