Karine Polwart is an award winning Scottish singer-songwriter who has carved out a succesful music career as a singer in folk groups (Malinky, Battlefield Band), collaborator on various side projects (The Burns Unit, Darwin Song Project, Fruit Tree Foundation), and most notably as a solo artist in her own right. She was kind enough to take some time out recently as she gears up for a summer tour and new album launch for a quick chat…
Hi Karine. Thanks for taking the time to chat. How is 2012 treating you so far?
I’m having a very creative year, thanks. I’ve made a new album “Traces” and written my first ever short film soundtrack (for Claire Lamond’s moving animation “All That Glisters”). I’ve been touring throughout the UK. And I’m learning to play Indian harmonium and honing my skills in home demo recording and editing. There’s plenty to do!
Can you tell us a bit more about the album, who has been involved in the making of it, and what fans can expect from the songs?
It’s 4 years since I released my last album “This Earthly Spell” so I was desperate to make another one. I’ve worked closely with my core musical collaborators, my brother Steven Polwart on guitars and vocals, and Inge Thomson on accordion, percussion and vocals, and with a Glasgow producer called Iain Cook (The Unwinding Hours, Churches) who writes a great deal for film and TV and brought such creativity to the whole project.
Together, we’ve augmented trio arrangements with layers of musical ideas built up using software tools over the period of a few months. It’s been immensely liberating to experiment with sounds and parts. And we’ve tinkered and honed and transformed those into scores for guest musicians on percussion and tuned percussion (marimba and vibes), celeste and piano, flute and clarinet.
The whole album is much more densely textured, dynamic and cinematic in feel than any of my previous albums. And that’s exactly what I’d hoped for in bringing Iain Cook into the mix. The songs themselves have a core intent that I wasn’t even really conscious of until I brought them together to arrange and record. Most of them deal with memory and the way we imprint our lives and stories, physically and emotionally, upon the places that matter to us. That’s why I’ve called the album “Traces”.
You have a string of summer festival dates as well as a more comprehensive UK tour lined up for later this year. Are there any dates in particular you are looking forward to?
I guess I’m most excited about my album launch at Cambridge Folk Festival. Cambridge is the first ever English festival I played way back in 1999 with the band Malinky, and it’s always a brilliant experience to play to such a big crowd.
I’ve put together a very special 7 piece line up for the weekend to represent the more layered arrangements of the album itself. At the heart of it is my usual touring line up of Steven on guitars and vocals and Inge on accordion, percussion and vocals. But we’re adding piano and keys (Graeme Smillie - Olympic Swimmers), percussion (Jim Goodwin - KAN) and some beautiful layers of clarinet (Leila Dunn) and flute (Sarah Hayes - Admiral Fallow).
But there are other great festivals in store too: Shrewsbury Folk Festival is a cracker, and Big Tent in Fife is an amazing alternative eco festival with great music, film, crafts, loads of kids events, local food, and environmental workshops. It’s right up my street. Despite being an atheist, so too is the Christian-rooted festival Greenbelt Festival, which describes itself a festival of “artists, thinkers and activists”. I’ve been once before and it was truly inspiring.
Your music is often steeped in the storytelling traditions of the folk genre. To what extent do you find your song ideas and lyrics come to you spontaneously? Or is some of your material sought out more consciously and researched before the songwriting process begins?
Alas, there’s very little spontaneity in it for me! The songs simply do not fall from the sky. I like to research and delve into an idea. And I read and think widely in my everyday life. That said, often the particular song ideas come very quickly when they do come. But to me it’s all about careful and continuous groundwork upon which rain falls and sun shines (though here in this sodden Scottish summer it’s hard to remember that it does!).
What is the one song you have written which you are most proud of and why?
That’s a tricky one. The song I feel is my “best” song as a writer is on the current album and is called “We’re All Leaving”. It’s inspired by Charles Darwin on the death of his 10 year daughter Annie. I wrote it at a distance with Nova Scotia writer Dave Gunning after collaborating in a songwriting residency in Cape Breton. It’s a song with a very sad pretext but it succeeds (I hope) in celebrating wonder and beauty despite it all. And that’s a hard balance to strike and one that often fails!
But the song that probably warms my heart the most, even though I wouldn’t stake my songwriting reputation on it, is “I’m Gonna Do It All”. I wrote it as a throwaway sing-along. But it’s grown wings and found itself being sung in rural Ugandan villages, Tokyo High Schools, and end of term primary school graduation services. I’m proud of it because, like a real child, it now has its own life, independent of me.
And finally could you recommend one book, one film, and one music album you’ve enjoyed recently?
I’ve just read “Sightlines”, a gorgeous book of essays by Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie. Good for those who love the smell of the sea, a big idea disguised as a sideways remark, and a quiet and contemplative read.
At the movies, I’d recommend that folks seek out the feature film documentary “You’ve Been Trumped”, which is an enraging, moving, witty and inspiring expose of Donald Trump’s disgraceful Trump International Golf Links development on the Aberdeenshire coast. But I’m trying to make time to see “Prometheus”. Ridley Scott’s “Bladerunner” is my favourite film of all time.
In the tour van we’ve been enjoying Admiral Fallow’s “Tree Bursts In Snow”. And in the family hatchback, it’s all about “Tumblebee”, Laura Veirs’ album of folk songs for children, which my two pre-school kids adore.