Karine Polwart’s edgy and evocative writing and vocal poise have been steadily winning her respect and affection in the UK and internationally over the past six years as a member of traditional groups Malinky and Battlefield Band.
But now the Scottish Borders based singer-songwriter has established herself at the forefront of the UK folk-roots scene after scooping three prizes at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in February 2005. She’s also a wonderfully genuine person. Here’s how the triple-award winner now she sees the world.
This is the one with Karine Polwart…
C: What a fantastic year it’s been for you. What were the three awards you won at the BBC2 Folk Awards this year?
K: Best Album, Best Original Song for The Sun’s Comin’ Over the Hill and Best Newcomer - Horizon Award -which was quite funny cause I’ve been around for years! But I know what it means, I’m quite new as a solo artist and it’s totally amazing – it’s made a huge difference, I can’t tell you how much difference it’s made really.
C: Why, because of winning it, or…
K: Even just getting nominated for it made a massive difference but winning it, and getting played on the radio and all that stuff, people right behind everything, made such a big difference.
I mean the number of emails I got the week running up to the folk awards and the two or three weeks after, I mean it was overwhelming, kind of hundreds and hundreds of emails. I really had bother trying to keep on top of it.
C: That’s absolutely brilliant!
K: I mean really practical things – I sold more records in a month than I did in a year, which is quite unbelievable, by miles actually, not just a wee bit but by miles, so…and people come to gigs now…you know what I mean?
C: It’s marketing at the end of the day isn’t it?
K: Yeah it is, I mean you think all these things don’t matter and then you realise that actually a chance like that comes along and it can totally turn your whole life. It’s been good.
C: Yes, 'cause you’ve been on the scene of a number of years, haven’t you?
K: Yeah, this is my sixth year kinda full time, kicking around with Malinky and Battlefield Band, which is slightly different cause it’s slightly more traditional orientated that the stuff I’m now doing but I made a living and had a nice time and all the rest of it but it feels like some infant.
C: Totally new?
K: They’re all my songs, it’s my brother and my husband that are all in the band and it’s nice, it’s kinda like a team. You don’t have to explain much, you know how people think and a lot of that you can’t take for granted, all that kinda stuff - you’re sitting in a car for six or seven hours.
C: You want to make sure you get on. Don’t you!
K: Exactly, totally! But also just in terms of the way that we play together it’s much, much…it’s very relaxed and it means that I don’t compromise at all with anything in the set, I can sing whatever I feel like. If I want to sing an unaccompanied ballad I can get up and sing an unaccompanied ballad…
C: You’re not going to offend anyone?
K: Yeah, and there’s no inconsistency in it, it’s just like, these are my songs, take it or leave it kind of thing, so it’s quite scary.
C: Does that make you feel more exposed though?
K: Well, it means that if people don’t like it there’s no buffer between…it’s like, if they don’t like it then that’s cool but if they don’t like what I’m doing then that’s the end of it, it’s my responsibility…I decided everything in the set, but it’s kinda liberating as well, you can only be yourself.
C: So how did you make the move from being a member of a band to going solo?
K: They kinda overlapped a lot. The album came out last year, it was re-released at the beginning of this year but it came out at the beginning of 2004 and I was still playing with Malinky, so for a year…almost a year, I was playing simultaneously solo and with Malinky.
But towards the end of last summer, shortly actually after Cambridge [Folk Festival] last year, we’d done the showcase, and it began to get really difficult to combine the two things cause I was working full time as a musician whereas most of the people in Malinky had full time jobs and it’s just practical things but also creatively I was just more into doing my own thing and I wanted to make it a clean break.
So, I quit Malinky 6 months before I actually left and the weird thing was that my last gig with Malinky coincided almost exactly with the Folk Awards so it looks like I won the Folk Awards and then...[laughs]…at the end I went: “bugger you I’m quitting” but it’d been 6 months in the plot and it was just kinda weird how it panned out.
But it’s great the way it’s worked out ‘cause Malinky have a new line-up and a new album coming out so no-one’s lost by it, you know what I mean?
C: It’s funny how things go sometimes, serendipity?
K: Yeah, very weird, very weird, so I feel kinda lucky that way, I haven’t pissed anybody off, or offended anybody, it’s all worked out really nicely. Yeah, very weird, very weird, so I feel kinda lucky that way, I haven’t pissed anybody off, or offended anybody, it’s all worked out really nicely.
C: You’re all still friends?
K: Exactly and it does matter cause on this scene, y’know, everybody knows each other and people are friends and you meet people at events like this [Cambridge Folk Festival] that you don’t see for weeks or months at a time. There’s really no room for fallin’ out or not getting on, or big egos, it just doesn’t work.
C: You don’t know when you’re going to meet people again…
K: Exactly, so it’s kinda nice that it’s all totally cool.
C: So how does the inspiration for your solo stuff differ from writing for a band?
K: Not hugely differently in terms of the songs I write, ‘cause I wrote songs for the Malinky repertoire. The main difference would be that the songs I wrote for Malinky were written for the sound of that band so I had a traditional sound in mind, it was written in Scots rather than English and…er…I suppose I haven’t done much of that recently, not deliberately but because of the way it’s fallen and I think what I quite like to do now is incorporate a few more ‘traddy’ sounding…or songs written in Scots, but contemporary songs, into my set just to make it a seamless thing rather than ‘here’s a different thing that I do’, do y’know what I mean…
K: …because in terms of the themes of the songs, I think they’re essentially the same kind of themes, y’know, they’re a wee bit troublesome and a wee bit, tiny bit, obsessed with violence and dark themes and stuff like that. I don’t know why that is but it’s always been a thread in all the work that I’ve done and not just the music.
I suppose I’m just interested in the way that people get on with each other…or don’t get on with each other…
C: More to the point, probably!
K: Yeah, and the songs are not about me as a general rule. I’m not one of those kinda introspective singer-songwriters in the main cause I’ve really nothing to write about in terms of my own life except as far as I see the world, y’know, so it’s my take on things but it’s not my own personal pain, do y’know what I mean?
K: Well luckily, absolutely! But it also gives me a kinda objectiveness, which allows me to say things that might be quite difficult to say if you’re actually right in the thick of something.
C: 'Cause you’ve actually just got married, haven’t you?
K: Yeah, so I’m actually having quite a nice time of it at the moment!
C: And you’re also surrounded by some beautiful country in The Borders, which must be an inspiration. Do you originate from there?
K: No, I come from the centre – Stirlingshire – but I suppose it’s quite like where I come from cause it’s kinda rural area, lots of space and I like that. I lived in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Dundee and I had a lovely time…Edinburgh…I mean Edinburgh’s a fantastic city but I feel like where I’m supposed to be now.
C: Surrounded by countryside?
K: Yeah, especially if what you’re doing is talking to people, you’re busy…y’know there’s a lot of busy-ness and stuff and actually I don’t want that in my house, I don’t want to come and walk down the street and be surrounded by busy-ness all the time. I mean, some people thrive on it, but it’s not really for me.
C: I’m with you on that! So, does that inspire you?
K: Well I suppose it does in a kinda default way, cause I don’t write much about the environment and all that kinda stuff but just being in a nice place gives you the time to think. Like, I write a lot when I go out walking so that’s kinda nice and also just practically, we can make a lot of noise and we don’t bother anybody. When you’re in the middle of a city, you can’t really have band rehearsals and all that kinda stuff.
C: You can, but I don’t suppose you make many friends?
K: So actually there are lots of other, y’know, spin-off benefits but in the main I suppose I more inspired by what I hear and just listening to people.
C: So what’s it been like playing main stage at Cambridge Folk Festival?
K: Totally great actually! We were all totally nervous today, we were all a wee bit wired before we went on. This is the 4th time I’ve played at Cambridge Festival. I remember the first time I played with Malinky and it was, like, really too soon to have played here, like totally overwhelmed, just knida…we hadn’t even played any folk clubs!
C: Wow, that’s brilliant fortune. A lot of people try for years and never get the break?
K: Oh, totally! My luck, my personal luck has been immense, not just this year but every year, what I’ve been doing so I think today we all decided that we were going to totally go for it so it was like ‘right, no messing about, just get up there...’ And it was kinda nice and I did genuinely enjoy it.
C: So what’s next after here?
K: Well, we’ve got some more festivals, Scottish and English festivals throughout August, and September and October is more kinda writing and a bit more low-key and that kinda thing and then in November we’ve got a three week tour, lot of English dates should be coming around at that point.
And with any luck, we’ve got lots of new songs so we’re kinda hoping that there might be some chance of some kind of recording by the end of the year, but we’re not gonna hang ourselves with the notion of it, so it’s basically just ‘see you it goes’. We’re lucky enough to have in our house now some recording gear so we can demo stuff and try stuff out.
C: Are you looking at recording under your own label, then?
K: No, I don’t [have my own label], up to now I’ve gone through a small label in Glasgow called Neon Records and I’m not too sure what will happen for the future. But certainly, it’s a bit more of an organic process the way the new stuff is coming together.
The first album, Faultlines, was more hiring people to do a job whereas now there’s a band, we know how we get on, we try something, we play it live…it’s a much more kind of natural way of doing things. I much prefer it.
C: Did you always want to be a musician?
K: Well…when I was wee, it was like, I used to sing and make daft songs up and my granny has got recordings, old tape recordings of me. I was totally into Country & Western and used to make up songs about dying and all this kinda, slit your wrists stuff and I was, like, eight years old!
C: Oh no!
K: So, I’ve always loved it but I got to the point when I thought there was a possibility of it being an option. ‘Cause when you’re wee, you think that everybody who’s a musician is famous, you think you can’t be a musician unless you’re on telly or something and actually it took me until I was in my 20’s to realise that there are thousands of people making a really nice living as a musician, that no-one’s ever been heard of, but that doesn’t matter, they’re having a nice time.
So, it’s quite a liberating thing to realise that and say to kids: “I’ve got a CD and this is my job!” And it’s like, you can see the penny drop and if more kids knew that then they would be less pressured to be famous and have more permission just to do their own thing.
C: It’s often about the fame now isn’t it rather than the music?
K: I feel honestly sorry for these 18 and 19 year olds that are on the telly, y’know, it’s kinda unfair cause they just not got the life experience to cope with all that stuff and they don’t know a crook from a non-crook y’know...do y’know what I mean?
C: Yes, the music industry can be treacherous waters!
K: If they would just take their time, actually, I think there’re plenty of ways to carve a wee niche for yourself.
C: And it doesn’t have to be done in your 20’s either?
K: No, not at all! Exactly, I mean, I’m 34 nearly 35 and there are plenty of people of my generation and older that have…loads coming from the States and Canada, like, fantastic singer-songwriters that are well into their 40’s and 50’s and really just hitting their peak.
C: There’s no reason why age should really be a barrier, particularly in folk music.
K: Exactly and I think actually, the folk scene is one of the most accommodating for...erm...it’s not that there’s no concern for image cause that’s not true at all but you can get away with a bit more and you don’t have to be 18 and looking glamorous.
C: That was brilliant Karine, I’m not going to take up any more of your time so I’ll just thank you and leave you to your bottle of beer.
K: More like a tea and biscuit now, I was passed the beer stage by six!
As featured in CATtales Book