by NEIL MCFADYEN
20 AUGUST, 2012
Fans of Karine Polwart can at last enjoy a new studio album in the release of Traces (released 13th August). In 2008 This Earthly Spell followed three highly regarded albums and a string of awards reaching back five years; confirming Karine as one of the country’s most talented artists. A crystal clear voice, beautiful arrangements and song writing that stirs the soul, combined in a work that would clearly be difficult to follow. Since then Karine has flexed further her considerable talent in projects such as The Burns Unit, The Darwin Song Project and The Fruit Tree Foundation. She’s made her own distinctive contribution to albums by Kris Drever and Roddy Woomble, released an enthralling EP with Lau; her solo Build Your Own Cathedral EP and a fascinating DVD that threw a fresh light on some of her most popular songs, and hinted at what was yet to come.
So how does Karine Polwart go about returning to the studio following such an impressive and widely acclaimed body of work? To find out, Folk Radio UK asked her about Traces – the stories behind the songs, the events and influences that have shaped her song-writing.
Karine Polwart’s song-writing is often driven by current events. The Trump Organisation’s controversial development on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire was, and remains, the subject of much protest; not only for the impact the development had on the delicate environment it threatens, and the people it displaced, but also because of the political machinations that cleared the way. Cover Your Eyes opens Traces with a gentle story that packs a substantial punch….
“You can tear these dunes asunder, turn this wonder into dust / With your cruel hands and crooked hearts laden with lust and expensive lies / But the haar will stumble in to cover your eyes / The haar will stumble in.”
FRUK: The thought of the north-east’s unpredictable weather as an avenging sword is an entertaining notion, Did The Trump Organisation failed to predict the strength of feeling regarding the golf course development?
KP: I think the payback of the weather on the Aberdeenshire coast is more than just an entertaining notion. It’s a geomorphological inevitability! I mean the whole development is built on a dynamic dune system. Is Donald Trump going to hold back the tide and the North Wind? The whole thing reeks of hubris, bullying and the worst kind of political toadying to flash cash. It makes me very angry and ashamed. I wrote the song after watching Anthony Baxter’s remarkable documentary “You’ve Been Trumped“. But the song is not a rant. I wanted to write something small and personal but with bite. Here’s to the haar!
People who speak out are heroes to Karine Polwart, and the protesters who encamped outside St Paul’s Cathedral in protest against social and economic inequality inspired the remarkable King Of Birds. A tale that celebrates the strength of the people through the centuries against the backdrop of Christopher Wren’s glorious work. Like an idea awakening, the song begins softly and expands to include, by degrees; strings, percussion, chorus and finally brass in an anthemic conclusion.
FRUK: The Occupy protests and those against the Menie Estate development were both widely covered in the media. Do you think there are similarities in the way popular media was used to portray the protesters in this issue and Menie Estate development? Are these attempts to manipulate public opinion more widespread than we think?
KP: Jings, these are tough questions! Of course, there are all kinds of strings behind our media representation of these kinds of events. In Aberdeenshire, there was an official local press policy of not printing or reporting anything critical of the Trump development. How is it possible to make a considered judgement if you don’t have the facts and there’s no forum for debate? Much worse than that was the lack of investigative journalism at national level. There was a lot of fawning television coverage. It took, in the gently formidable Anthony Baxter, one independent journalist and film-maker to pursue the hidden or misrepresented aspects of the Trump development story, at terrific personal expense, and some risk (he was wrongfully arrested in the making of the film “You’ve Been Trumped“). Thank goodness these people exist. And thank goodness for the Occupiers too. We need them. Many truths are hard sought and hard won.
FRUK: The 1960’s is seen by many as the era of the protest song. Do you think that how the songs are conceived, delivered and interpreted has changed since then? Was there ever a distinction between protest song and political song?
KP: Oh I think there are fabulous historic examples of powerful political song that are not at all sloganeering. Billy Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” would be amongst the most visceral and haunting ever written. The songs of the 1960s were perfect for the times in which they were written. But these are different times with different media. We are so over-exposed to hard-sell in our daily lives – for brands, lifestyles, ideologies – that I think many of us have developed a deep mistrust of direct preaching. And maybe that’s why a lot of writers dealing with “issues” take less obvious tacks. I feel my songs this time around have more of a sense of films about them, lyrically and musically, than straight ahead narrative songs. And films (and TV) are probably our most influential media now. So maybe that’s a sign of the times?
This cinematic quality the album enjoys isn’t entirely accidental. The delicately layered production Iain Cook lavished on the album belies his work as a composer for television drama and compliments Karine’s songs and arrangements beautifully. In the carefully paced Sticks And Stones, for instance, the sound of Karine’s trusty Shruti box opens the song and introduces the vocal. Gently, Inge Thompson’s accordion joins leading to intricate layers of vocal, guitar and brass. Keyboard and percussion add further depth towards the close of a song that has the same stirring, anthemic quality as King Of Birds. And the same uplifting lyrical splendour…
“Inchlines on doorframes and thumbprints on window pains, ghosts of hereafter / kitchen walls pock-marked with shadows of blu-tak and riddled with laughter”
FRUK:You’ve cited Dick Gaughan and Chris Wood as two of your strongest musical influences. Both are well practised at injecting politics and questions into their work, but do you think that, in general, there are different approaches to political song writing north and south of the Tweed?
KP: Hmm, I’m not sure I do think that. I think there are simply many different ways to make your point or ask your question and you should use whatever suits your own personality and interests best. Dick Gaughan is a personal hero but he’s much more forcibly direct in his politics than I am, in the same fashion as, for example Billy Bragg. Chris Wood makes superlative use of his exceptional wit to raise an eyebrow, as well as moulding beautiful narratives and secular hymns. My own thing is altogether more sleekit and indirect. That’s the academic philosopher in me (I have a Masters in Philosophical Inquiry). Never shy away from making your listener do a lot of thinking! That’s never been more true than on my new album “Traces“, where the lyrics are deliberately poetic and oblique. It’s a bit of a song writing experiment!
Maybe next time I’ll do some straight ahead tidy narrative?
FRUK: At Celtic Connections in January, you hosted an evening in celebration of protest song, The World Turned Upside Down, with some formidable performers from around the world; most notably Kamilya Jubran from Palestine. Given your talent for collaboration, are there any plans to expand that aspect of your work and introduce some world-wide influences?
KP:I think I’d need to be a much more technically accomplished musician to work well as an instigator of or collaborator on a trans-national project. To work well in those kind of environments I think you need to be fluent in the language of music itself, over and above your own spoken tongue. But actually so much of what I do as a musician is lyric based and it demands understanding on that level. I’m not an impressive diva singer. And I’m not a gifted instrumentalist. So it’s not obviously a zone of creative comfort or exploration to me. One exception: if the amazing Swedish band Vasen ever wanted to make an album of Scottish ballads I’d be delighted!
Of course, Traces isn’t exclusively concerned with protest songs. Tears For Lot’s Wife takes its inspiration from an altogether different source, Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. The song charts an internal conflict endured by the wife of Old Testament prophet, Lot, as she tries not to look back on the wreckage of Sodom and Gomorrah. As Karine voices the need to look back, Inge Thomson’s ethereal vocals urge caution. The highly dramatic song builds a sense of tension and urgency throughout. There are unanswered questions in the song, and in the biblical story itself, about whether Lot’s wife was defiant or simply weak. In the lyrically beautiful Don’t Worry, however, the message is far clearer and enjoys a bright, crisp delivery. Which brings us to an old topic – Karine’s song writing isn’t always as clear cut…
FRUK: Sorry, is one of your most popular and enigmatic songs. Did you expect it to generate as much speculation as it did?
KP: Certainly, people often ask at gigs what inspired this particular song from my previous album “This Earthly Spell“. It’s often the best received song in a show on an average night. But I’ve chosen never to say what provoked it. The truth is “Sorry” has attached itself to so many stories since I wrote it that I much prefer to see it that way: as something evolving rather than fixed in its meaning. I’m so non-enigmatic in other respects – I love to tell stories at my shows – and there’s a lot of the primary schoolteacher in me – that I allow myself this one moment of just singing and, for goodness sake, not explaining anything!
We’re All Leaving is a touching song that questions how Charles Darwin’s ground-breaking theories affected his reaction to tragic family circumstances. It was co-written with Dave Gunning, from Nova Scotia, as part of the Darwin Song Project.
FRUK: You’ve gained recognition by a much wider audience, geographically speaking, than many Scottish performers manage. Have the collaborative opportunities this has brought about, through projects such as The Darwin Song Project, altered your approach to music and song writing?
KP: I can’t overstate the positive impact of being involved in collaborative projects like The Darwin Song Project or the Burnsong residency which spawned the group The Burns Unit. In actuality, I found every one of those experiences quite difficult and unsettling at the time. I felt like a bit of a rubbish writer in those environments surrounded by so much talent. But I can see now, looking back on the past five years of my musical life, how incredibly liberating, inspiring and confidence-boosting that process has been for me as a writer. I take myself seriously as a writer and musician now. I’ve made conscious steps to get better at my craft, learning new skills, trying new ways of doing things. And most of all simply getting to know other musicians and writers who might be from just across the fence in some other “scene”, but who have much the same ethos as me when it comes to making songs. I’ve been very lucky.
Inspiration can also come from sources closer to home. Tinsel Snow, Karine has said, started life as a cry against industrialisation; but in a way it charts, and celebrates, the industrial and rural contrasts of her Central Scotland upbringing…
FRUK: There are more tangible contrasts in a Central Scotland upbringing; have those contrasts had a strong influence on your approach to song writing?
KP:I think perhaps they’ve had more influence than I previously credited. I grew up in a cottage on a hill, out the back door running about farms and bogs towards the rambling Carron Valley. I picked tatties in the holidays. And we shut our windows when Ian Stevenson sprayed hen pen on his neighbouring fields. But I went to school in the anonymous central Scotland town of Denny. And out the front door was the industrial heart of Scotland: the Castlecary Arches, the Springburn Flats and above all else the petrochemical towers at Grangemouth. I have a wee bit of my heart in both aspects I guess and I’ve learned to recognise (or simply remember) what’s magical about unassuming places. So maybe there’s something significant in being the kind of writer that never quite wants to give everything away, that poses questions, rather than sees things in black and white.
The happy, soothing poetry of Salter’s Road celebrates a more recent local influence; that of an elderly neighbour whose life inspired Karine to write about an ancient road that runs past her home in the Borders. Home, family and friends clearly play a significant part in Karine’s life, we wondered if any distinction exists between the creative and the domestic…
FRUK:The Burns Unit, Commonplace and The Darwin Song Project are just a few of the activities you’ve taken on in addition to your solo work. Bearing in mind the demands, and joys, of family life – how do you find time to contribute so much?
KP: The blessing of all of those projects is that they take up remarkably little time and energy! All of them have flourished in relatively brief periods of intensity, and not as demanding ongoing projects. I love to perform in other guises and carry multiple repertoires in my head. I thrive on the energy of other musicians. But I relish also the feeling of focusing my energies on one core thing. I’m a bit of a geek and I work better that way! I’ve learned also to view my family as a source of inspiration, stories and emotion, rather than a distraction from creative work. I think, in terms of the subjects I’m writing about, I’m a more humane writer for being a mother.
“And the mother does just what she must and the father comes undone”
…perhaps the most memorable line in the heartbreaking Strange News; one of two songs on Traces where Karine seems to dig deeper than ever into her own emotions. This aching observation on family bereavement and the distressingly poignant, dramatic empathy of Half A Mile, the album’s closing song, embody another contrast in Karine’s work…
FRUK: Deeply personal songs, such as Rivers Run, can be so full of joy it’s easy to understand why you would want to share them. Are the emotions in songs like Strange News and Half A Mile more difficult to share?
KP: I have a new found appreciation for writing about people and stories connected with my own life, like in “Strange News“. But there’s a nervousness too about dealing with issues that are close to the bone for my extended family. I don’t want to disrespect or exploit anyone, so it’s important that the songs are from my perspective. “Half A Mile” though is in a league of its own in terms of emotional difficulty. Writing about the murder of a child who would have grown to be a woman of exactly my age, a girl from my neck of the woods and one with surviving family, that’s not something I’ve done lightly. I know some might consider it a step too far, bad taste. I’ve had those thoughts myself, make no doubt about it. In a way I don’t want to defend the song, so much as say simply that it comes from a place of wanting to honour and remember someone’s life, in this case an 11 year old girl from Cornhill-on-Tweed called Susan Maxwell, to make her a little more real to those of us who did not know and love her personally. I remember the story of her abduction in 1982 and now, as a mother of two wee kids of my own, I shudder at being in the shoes of her own parents. I’m unlikely ever to sing this song live. It was draining to record it. But what’s clear is that the joys and anxieties of parenthood, family and home are at the very core of what I’m writing these days. That’s the core of my life right now.
And the writing itself is the core of Traces. On the surface you’ll find a gentle, appealing collection of songs delivered by a singularly delightful voice. Underneath, there’s a dazzling array of highly emotive poetry, questions that challenge, causes that inspire. Karine Polwart’s song writing has always been unique and her poetic ability is peerless in the world of music. Add to this her heart-stopping voice, inspired arrangements, the essential support of brother Steven Polwart (guitars & vocals) and Inge Thomson (accordion, percussion and vocals); and Traces emerges as a piece of work that does far more than please the ear and re-affirms Karine Polwart’s prominence in the world of British music.
Interview/Review by Neil McFadyen