Karine Polwart: Mama don't preach (1)
June 16, 2008
Back in the days when the Bay City Rollers were top of the charts, Ally McCoist played for Sunderland and I rose each morning to see not only the hills of the Var from my home but hair in the mirror, Karine Polwart agreed to be interviewed by Salut! Live.
At least, that is how it felt as time proceeded to fly by. A set of questions had duly been passed Karine's way (the first part of the above lie is that my life - these days - in Abu Dhabi makes interview by e-mail pretty much unavoidable), leading to periodic assurances that replies were imminent.
But the weeks rolled past. Just when we were beginning to resign ourselves to having to withdraw the promise under the Coming Soon heading, Karine - pictured courtesy of Roger Liptrot at folkimages.com - came good. And I mean good.
We learn from her answers that she believes in the powers of songwriting as a torch to highlight what is wrong with the world, but that she has no wish to set herself up as a tub-thumping preacher. And we hear her thoughts on motherhood, stagecraft, traditional versus contemporary, who is good on today's folk scene and life during and beyond Malinky.
Salut! Live thinks Karine has more than compensated for the delay caused by a hectic juxtaposition of domestic and professional demands.
Yet there is more to come. Return to this site in a day or so and you will find volume two of Karine Polwart: Mama don't preach: her quickfire responses to questions on schooldays, her greatest musical influence, good gigs/bad gigs, the demonisation of social workers and the roots of her name.
In keeping with this site's tradition, the interview is reproduced more or less verbatim..............
Salut! Live: Karine, how would you summarise the present stage of your career?
Well it’s been 8 years since I left my day job and since then I’ve made 8 albums, 4 of them solo. I’m astonished I’m still doing this for a living to be honest, as many folks don’t get half the opportunities that have come my way during that time. I’m fortunate to start from a position now where my albums get an airing and, as a consequence, folks have a chance of coming across my music if they don’t already know about it. That’s the hardest thing of all to attain as a musician: a simple hearing. After that, whether or not your music is any good or anyone likes it is all your own responsibility!Please explain the thinking behind the appearance of two albums (Fairest Floo'er and This Earthly Spell in such quick succession.
When I discovered I was pregnant late in 2006 I confess my delight was followed by a bit of panic about how on earth I would pay my bills if I took time off from live work. Folk music doesn’t have the best maternity benefits built in! So I hatched a plan to record a new album of my own songs, which is This Earthly Spell. Meantime, because I had cut way back on live work, I started recording some trad songs in my spare room at home, stark and intimate stuff, and that one album morphed into two. It all seemed eminently feasible for someone who’d never had a child before! In reality, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to other pregnant folk singers! Still I’m glad of the result. And the two albums have certainly influenced each other.
This Earthly Spell* is playing as I type. I am enjoying it but also found that it took longer to "get into" than either Fautlines or Scribbled in Chalk (the latter used to ease my circuits of the Tuileries when I forced myself to do an hour's fast walking and light jogging each morning while living in Paris!). Just me? Or are you aware that it perhaps requires more effort on the part of the listener?
I guess I am aware of that. It’s a more brooding listen, probably because I was literally brooding! Certainly it’s darker and starker than previous albums overall. Not quite as accessible I know. But it’s just a snapshot in time. And that’s why I’m more and more keen now not just to make albums on a cyclical basis but to record and release free demos via my site so that folks can get access to new songs on an ongoing basis. It’s keeping me on my toes too, having to produce new stuff regularly rather than in short sharp bursts. And I’ve has such a fine time recently collaborating with other musicians and writers, folks like King Creosote and Canadian writer Michael Johnston, as well as my friends Corrina Hewat and Annie Grace, that I have some plans in the pipeline for collaborative EPs over the next year or so. It’s an exciting time.I cannot wait to hear Fairest Floo'er. Did it mean a lot to you to get back to traditional music, and was it especially important to you to produce an album of Scottish songs?
I started my career as a traditional singer and have a genuine love for many of the old Scots songs, especially the story ballads. With Malinky and Battlefield Band that was my musical focus and it’s only now, as a solo artist, that I feel okay about bringing those songs back into my own repertoire. For a few years, when I was juggling band and solo work, I kept trad material out of my solo set to keep the two aspects musically distinct. In reality, I’d rather be singing both trad and original stuff and whatever else I fancy for that matter!Traditional music lovers adored your work with Malinky. Was it anything of a wrench to leave and were you aware of any disappointment on the part of some of your fans that you chose this course?
It’s always hard to end something that you love, especially as I formed Malinky originally and loved the music we made. But the band was very much part-time towards the end of my involvement. Three of the five members had day jobs and the fourth was about to become a father for the first time. So it was impossible to develop the band in the way I wanted and needed as a full-time musician. Oddly, I played my last gig with the band the week after I won all those folk awards in 2005 so it must have looked from the outside as if I jettisoned the band. Some folk certainly seemed to think so. But I’d given my notice six months before. It was just a strange but lucky coincidence. The bottom line is you have to make decisions for yourself not to please other people. I’m really proud of the music I made with the band but it’s worked out best for all of us that I moved on. Malinky are now a successful full time touring band and heading for their fourth studio album.
Congratulations on becoming a mother. Tell me as much - or as little - about this development in your life, and indeed about your son, as you wish. And how did the idea for Rivers Run, the song about him on the new album, come to you?
Well, I guess for anyone it’s a massive life change and fairly hones your priorities! As a musician, of course, it’s a massive source of inspiration and ideas too. And anyway the traditional folk music repertoire is filled with lullabies and songs of motherhood and family, so there’s a lot to draw on. Practically, I’ve made a decision to concentrate my touring into much shorter bursts so as not to be away from my son for long periods. I tried going on tour with Arlo and his dad but it didn’t work so well for me, either as a mother or as a musician, and I ended up feeling like I was pretty useless at both. When he’s a wee bit older though, I’m looking forward to having him hang out with all the other folky kids at summer folk festivals. It’s a really creative and social environment in which to raise your children. And I’m lucky to spend far more time with my son than most mums who have office jobs.
Honours graduate, social worker, philosophy teacher. You have a wealth of academic and professional experience beyond music. To what extent have these areas of your life influenced your writing/approach to music?
It’s all been a huge influence, of course. Primarily, I’m the kind of writer that writes about the world, rather than the inside of my own head. I do have a fascination with the underbelly of life, or more specifically with how people cope with their circumstances, and I have quite strong socio-political view. But they’re tempered with an aversion to preaching. I think stories and metaphors and questions are better ways to raise issues than literal tub-thumping, so I guess that’s the philosopher in me. I like to think people are mostly smart enough to draw their own conclusions.
Do you envisage a return to any of your previous activities in the future, whether professionally or on a voluntary basis?
To be honest, not right now. With a young son, I find it hard enough just to keep everything ticking! But there is a bit of me can imagine myself in some kind of more active campaigning or political type role in the future. For now, though, I have a charmed life and am making the best of it.What are the issues that particularly concern you now? Can music change anything?
Nuclear weapons (a waste of money and imagination as well as intrinsically horrific things), environmental degradation (on my son’s behalf – what kind of world is he going to live in?), the lack of political commitment to sustainable energy policies and technology (touring as a musician is not a tenable profession in the long term if things don’t change), the dearth of social rented housing in rural Scotland.Please paint a word picture of your part of the Scottish Borders and how it differs from other places where you have lived. What did you make of Canada?
I live on a sheep and grain farm in the north of Berwickshire right on the edge of the Lammermuir Hills. From my kitchen window, I hear rooks and swallows and occasionally spot a barn owl out for a kill. Right down the Lauderdale valley, it’s lush and green agricultural land. But out back and up the hill to the old Pictish fort, the landscape begins to get stark and wild and lonesome. I grew up in a cottage in semi rural Stirlingshire, so I feel at home here in The Borders. At this time of my life, I’ve had my fill of cities, though I suspect Edinburgh is as fine and vibrant a city as there is. Living there opened up a whole world of music to me. My husband and in-laws are from Cape Breton in Nova Scotia on the east coast of Canada. In many respects, it’s very like Scotland and there are very strong cultural and historic ties. But Canada is vast and that definitely affects people’s sense of place and scale, and their whole outlook on life. I studied in urban Ontario for a year and spent a summer on the beautiful prairies of Saskatchewan. That experience, in my late teens, made me realise how much the landscape and light and intimacy of Scotland has seeped into my bones and my thinking.What are your impressions of the present music scene, with the emphasis on folk and its offshoots? Are there particular artists, established or new, that hold special appeal?
The music scene in Scotland is fascinating. I love most of all the fact that musicians are hopping genre barriers and building collaborations and friendships across the folk, jazz, indie and classical divides. My own situation alone gives a snapshot of that openness. Recently, I’ve collaborated with likes of King Creosote, one of my favourite songwriters and singers, Future Pilot AKA, Emma Pollock and dubstep artist MC Soom T on a writers project called Burnsong. I’ve written and recorded with Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble, who has now teamed up with Kris Drever and my ex bandmate John McCusker. Mr McFalls Chamber supplied strings on my album “Scribbled in Chalk” and I’ve performed with the Scottish Opera, Scottish Symphony and Scottish Chamber orchestras, as well as with jazz musicians Dave Milligan and Phil Bancroft. That kind of fluid communication makes for some great music from the likes of Chris Stout and Fraser Fifield. As for songwriting, Chris Wood is a head above everyone else on the British folk scene right now.Marie Little told me in a recent interview that many younger performers have too little stagecraft to go with their undoubted musical expertise. Does this comment strike a chord?
I think stagecraft is an art, and it comes with increased confidence, which sometimes comes with age (but not always!). I’m actually struck by the fact that many young Scottish folk and roots musicians have genuine on stage charisma. I’m thinking of folks like multi-instrumentalists Anna Massie and Jarlath Henderson, and the excellent quartet Breabach. Those musicians are natural raconteurs as well top players, which is so important on the British folk scene. Sometimes it frustrates me a wee bit that so many of us feel the need to develop a witty and self-deprecating stage manner. It is a bit of a convention and a habit. There are some performers I wish were just a little more diva-esque on stage, a little more sultry and impressive in the way that singers like Eliza Carthy and her mother Norma Waterson are. But I guess all you can do is be as true to yourself as you can on stage. And for me that means being chatty and communicative. I might deal with some serious stuff in my songs but I don’t take myself seriously. And that’s how I am off stage too.* See also: This Earthly Spell reviewed
You can buy both This Earthly Spell and Fairest Floo'er at very good prices via the record shelf in the righthand sidebar of this site.