Karine Polwart on the power of folk music

Karine Polwart on folk music

Singer Karine Polwart talks about songwriting, collaboration and why folk music helps her face the world.

Scottish folk singer Karine Polwart is best known for crafting songs brimming with political and emotional resonance. Whether it’s Trump, feminism or genocide, there’s no issue she won’t tackle in her music.

But for her latest project the six-time winner at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards has turned her attention to re-imaging the work of others.

Her new album Scottish Songbook (out next month) is a collection of covers of contemporary Caledonian songs.

Spanning 60 years of Scottish pop, it includes a rousing version of Ivor Cutler’s Women of the World, along with interpretations of tracks by Strawberry Switchblade, John Martyn, Chvrches and Waterboys.

The album came about after Polwart performed her favourite Scottish pop songs at last year’s Edinburgh International Festival. The process of re-working these much-treasured tunes turned out to be a labour of love worthy of an album.

Polwart, still on a high after a successful trip Stateside where she performed (at the invitation of Johnny Cash’s daughter Rosanne) at Carnegie Hall, spoke to iSingmag’s Bronwyn Bidwell.

How did you decide on the tracks you wanted to include on the album?

Every song included on the album is in essence a folk song. Many of them were written in the Thatcher era. They’re stories about people feeling like they’ve been robbed of purpose and that their lives are uncertain – themes that are relevant now.

Even Chance by Big Country and Whole of the Moon by the Waterboys are folk songs. They were originally big, bombastic anthems but if you strip them back to their core, there is a story there.

Working with my brother and my band, we deconstructed each song and then put it back together. We took everything back to the bare bones and went from there.

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You often write about politics and social issues. Do you think music has the power to change minds?

I’m not trying to change minds. I’m trying to get people to feel something. It’s not a linear process. It’s not about lecturing people; the songs are not polemics. I believe music can connect people and that’s the most important thing. We live in such scary times. When I think about global warming, Trump or the rise of fascism, I feel despair. I feel paralysed. The only response I have is to make purposeful work. It’s sort of a refusal to lie down.

How does the songwriting process work for you?

In terms of writing lyrics, I do that on my own. Labouring over words is a solitary process. But the music part is all about collaboration. I work particularly closely with my brother Steven and musician/composer Inge Thomson. In terms of the three of us, Steven is great with harmony and structure, Inge with sonic quality, and I’m into lyrics.

I think the key with collaborations is to work with people who have skills that complement what you do. My brother is classically trained, while I’m not. He’s brilliant, but he’s not motivated to make his own music. He likes being part of a team. It works well because I’m not oppressing his vision.

When did you decide to pursue music as a career?

It didn’t really happen until I was in my late 20s. As a child I loved playing and writing music and I won prizes for music at school. But back then no one thought music was a serious option. You could either do maths or music but to do both was a laughable idea.

I went to university [Polwart read politics and philosophy at Dundee University] and later worked in child protection and with women who had experienced domestic abuse. For fun in the evenings I used to sing at folk sessions in Edinburgh. Singing kept me sane.

The pivotal point came when I was signed off from my job with stress. I was also being offered gigs, so I bailed out of the day job and took music more seriously.

You’re brilliant at talking to your audience and introducing each song. How much thought do you put into that?

For a long time at gigs I’ve been setting up songs with stories. Gradually that’s become more structured and more carefully constructed and underscored.

With folk music the in-between bits are just as important as the songs themselves. If you didn’t talk between songs, I think people would think you were an arrogant arse. But it’s important to find a balance between structure and spontaneity. You want every performance to feel special.

You’re a singer, songwriter and author and have also written for the stage. How do you decide what direction your career will take?

I make a lot of decisions based on hunch. For me it’s all about making connections and making work that matters to me. I have no interest in doing the same thing over and over again. There are times when I’m doing something that pushes my boundaries and I’m terrified. But you have to give things a shot. Also, I’ve gotten very good at saying “no” to things. I get offered more work than I can take on.

What was it like performing at Carnegie Hall?

It was a random, unexpected delight. Rosanne Cash had seen some of my work on the internet including I Burn But I Am Not Consumed [Polwart’s excoriation of Trump] and invited me to perform as part of a festival called Migrations: The Making of America. We also got to do a performance for the NPR Music Tiny Desk series. The whole experience was amazing, but I doubt I’ll ever go to America again. How could I justify it with global warming?

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Who are your creative inspirations?

I’m a big fan of the musician and multi-media artist Laurie Anderson, spoken word performer Kate Tempest and Hadestown writer Anaïs Mitchell.

What are your tips for succeeding in the music industry?

Be nimble. Nimbleness is everything. Make stuff that matters – don’t do something just because you think it will please someone else. And find a good team of people who you trust to collaborate with.

Pre-order Scottish Songbook HERE. Polwart will perform at the Cambridge Folk Festival on 2 August, followed by a series of gigs across the country including a performance at the Barbican on 27 November. For more details, CLICK HERE.

MAIN IMAGE BY SANDY BUTLER