Album review: Karine Polwart – Tabling a political motion – is this music?

Karine Polwart
Karine Polwart

Sometimes, the life of a musician on tour is seen as a exotic one. But although she’s excited to be playing live again, Karine Polwart dispels the myth of private jets and champagne-filled jacuzzis.

“We’ve got an Arnold Clark transit – less glamorous than a bus,” she laughs. Home, and her two children couldn’t be farther away as their ‘tourbus’ heads from Portsmouth to Wales – far from her central Scottish home.

“I guess any musician making a living is largely dependent on touring in England, because that’s where the people are,” she explains. But, as a multiple winner at the BBC Folk Awards, it’s clear that she is unlikely to be a stranger to audiences outside her native Scotland.

And family is close at hand, with brother Steven plus Inge Thompson joining her band for the first time in four years.

In this gap Radio 2’s Folk Singer of the Year rather spread her wings, working with pop musicians, as well as releasing album ‘A Pocket Of Wind Resistance’ with its award-winning theatre companion piece.

“All those things fed into this album – there’s a couple of spoken word pieces that I’d not have had the brassneck to try if I’d not had the piece of theatre.”

“I’m enjoying this period in my life where I get to try a bunch of things out, so it’s good fun… I’m never bored, put it that way!”

And it’s not folk music in the traditional sense, she agrees. “There are textures at the back of the songs, definitely inspired by working with Pippa (Murphy), who’s more of a sound designer.”

“I’ve maybe bust my elbows out of the folk singer jacket,” she admits. “Folk’s a massive influence and I love folk, it’s where my career began, but I see myself as a songwriter, my influences are folk, but there’s also pop, spoken word, storytelling, all into the pot.”

She’s even launching a picture book for kids she reveals, so her oeuvre is “a little confused”.

“If you do your byline for what you are now, the list gets quite long. But it suits me and I’m enjoying this period in my life where I get to try a bunch of things out and see where they affect each other, so it’s good fun… I’m never bored, put it that way!”

And that applies to new album ‘Laws of Motion’ – a collection of “kind of odd songs, a bit like little mini movies.”

Among the subjects covered are the true stories of a Japanese gardener working in Dollar, the Isle of May, and her forester grandfather, who fought in Italy.

She cites Dundonian musical legend Michael Marra as one of her greatest influences. “I like the fact that you can tell a story through the lens of very small places and very particular people.”

And of course, she resumes her relationship with another ‘influence’ – Donald Trump.

Previous album ‘Traces’ opened with ‘Cover Your Eyes’, a nod to the golf development in Balmedie. This time… “Who would have guessed?” she says of the businessman-cum-TV celebrity’s fast-track to becoming the most powerful man on the planet. “It makes (the golf) look like small fry.”

“The thing that got me with the golf developments was how he’s made a great deal out of his Scots ancestry – it obviously matters to him on some level, but to me it’s almost like a source of bewilderment and shame,” she says, her voice a mix of bemusement and exasperation.

“And these days the politics of our world are so bonkers,” she adds. “I don’t have much time for satire, the jokes get a bit thin at this point, so it’s trying to find a way to say things but while not trying to rob the man of his humanity…” she breaks off… “because whether you like him or not – and I obviously don’t, I think he’s dangerous – but there’s a human being that has a family and a history, so that’s curious to me to make sense of somebody like that.”

Coincidentally, our chat happens just before Trump threatened to pull out of the 30-year-old key Cold War nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, so we can only hope that when we hear ‘Cassiopea’ from the new album we’re reminded only of Polwart’s childhood outside Banknock in Stirlingshire. That song on the new record flashes back to the 1970s and ’80s.

“I was aware that the first place that would get bombed in Scotland would be Grangemouth,” she says, recalling that scary time when Reagan and Gorbachev were at loggerheads, “and I quite seriously used to make survival plans for our family in the jam cupboard at the end of our hall.”

(Polwart explains that this was where home-made jam from the rhubarb in the garden was stored, rather than an entire room of their house being given over to preserves from M&S).

“My kids are the same age I was then and what I realise now was that my mother must have been terrified,” she continues. “You never let on how scared you are at what’s going on in the world, and I feel almost as scared as I did then, but I can’t let my children know that – I have to keep a lid on it as it’s not a way to get through your life, being scared all the time.”

Politics is never far from Polwart’s mind, but the Midlothian village she now calls home is more of a melting pot, despite its reputation for housing quite a few creative types from the folk and jazz world.

“There’s a community of musicians and they’re my pals, but it’s like most places – I wager you’d find almost every political opinion going, and I find that oddly reassuring,” she confides.

“To me the one thing you can do is just be decent to the people you live alongside even though they don’t share the same views as you – that doesn’t mean I can’t connect with them.”

Polwart asks that I point out that she is based in Pathhead, where the new album was written, recorded and rehearsed.

“Then I’m credible in the eyes of the parents in the playground!”

Source: Album review: Karine Polwart – Tabling a political motion – is this music?

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