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Karine Polwart

‘The stories that accompany my songs have become as important as the songs themselves’

 

Karine Polwart’s companion piece to her theatrical work, Wind Resistance, was one of the great musical surprises and joys of the end 2017, so before the Christmas break Shire Folk caught up with her to ask how it had all come about.

 

SF: I listened to the album with headphones on, in one sitting, and it’s an immersive experience. Was that the intention as opposed to the theatrical version?

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Karine Polwart

KP: It was. The idea to make an album came after the theatre show, so the theatre show pre-dates it. When we got to thinking about making an album we realised that some of what’s in the theatre wouldn’t work on record, so we conceived of it as a journey. The theatre piece is like that – you are immersed literally in a space and on a journey for an hour and a half. When we came to make the album we decided we would take that same kind of approach. Like you say, it’s not a thing that’s demanded very often of you as a listener – it’s like a concept album! Even to the point that we thought very carefully about how each track transitioned to the next. So it’s really intended to be a sit down listen, and some of the tracks don’t stand up on their own – they’re steps on a journey. Some do, but some are very much transitional steps between one place and another. It was a big ask to get people to sit for the duration of the album, but that’s how it’s intended to be received. It does work best on headphones. It’s not an album, I think, that’s going to be such a great listening experience in your car!

SF: Funnily enough, that’s how I started listening to it and decided that didn’t do the album justice and that instead I’d take time out to listen to it in its entirety, without any distractions.

KP: I can understand that if somebody only gave it a try in their car I can imagine it would lose its impact. That idea a lot of the time, when we’re making recordings, we’re thinking about people listening to it in the car or in passing, as a thing to have on while you’re doing something else. That’s cool and I listen to loads of music that way, but not everything has to work in that way. It is a quiet, sitty-down, get yourself a glass of wine or a whisky … and fall into this world. There is a lot of detail in the soundscape, which definitely does sound best when you’re listening on headphones or you’ve got some nice speakers. It will be a bit lost on a wee tiny car stereo.

SF: How did working with website Pippa Murphy come about?

KP: She lives really close by to me and for a long time I was aware of her, but didn’t really know her. We had a mutual friend in common. She lives two villages over from me. I live in the south end of Midlothian and she lives in the south end of East Lothian, and the place that’s the kind of centre of the whole of album, Fala Moor, is right at the intersection of three counties and we both live equidistant from that moor. So when it came to making the theatre project and I was asked if I had anyone in mind for sound design, I said there was this woman who lived in Humbie who might be good for it. We met and it turns out she goes up to the moor loads. She showed me a picture of her kids jumping into the loch – it was a lovely coincidence of stuff. She’s also a classical orchestrator and her background is very much contemporary classical, electronic and sound design – that’s her world. She worked as an orchestrator on a project that me and my brother Stephen did at Celtic Connections last year. So I’d met her in that capacity, but not in her capacity as a sound designer. What’s been brilliant about it is that it’s like I’ve got a new pal and a new collaborator who lives ten minutes from my house, and that’s a rare thing. And who’s also very similar in age and we have similar lives. Our days have the same arc and it’s really lovely to work with someone who works at the same pace, has a lot of the same musical backgrounds … we have lots of similar reference points.

SF: Do you see yourself working with Pippa again?

KP: I already am. Later on today I’ll be working with her on a project that she’s writing for the Hogmanay events in Edinburgh. There’s orchestral projects in the pipelines, possibly with the two of us as well, so it’s definitely become a lasting collaborative relationship.

SF: One of the things that struck me about the album is that it’s got universal themes, but it also appears personal to you and it’s about a specific place. In a world that appears out of control is the album about looking inwards to things that perhaps you can influence or control?

KP: There’s a bit of me that thinks it’s not about turning inwards. The word parochial has such negative connotations, the idea that you would care about your local area, but to me, I think that many of us are best equipped to deal with a finite area and a finite number of people. I think everything you need to know about the world you can read into your own local landscape. I mean that in a very expansive way, in that if you want to look at the impact of climate change, they all have an impact on local places and they’re best understood and best felt if we’re able to connect them to things that we know and understand and are familiar to us. I find global news and politics completely overwhelming and I’ve gone over the past few years from someone actively involved in politics – around the Scottish referendum and Green politics – to not being able to bear some of the stuff. I’ve had to think about that because is that copping out or is it that I can’t deal with the scale of that, but I can make sense of the place round about me? Actually all of the same issues are around me here, on my doorstep and on everybody’s doorstep. That’s why I thought the Fala Moor landscape was so important to me. Writing the theatre piece brought up issues around climate change, environmental protection, around healthcare and whose lives matter … there are so many parallels. It’s not a copping out or a turning inward, it’s about making sense of what I can actually get hold of in my life. This place I’m in is rich with stories and every single place is like that. That’s the thing that folk music has been really good in recognising, that there are stories everywhere. A lot of the mundane stories are the same everywhere, but the particular details matter.

SF: Folk music is perhaps uniquely placed to respond quickly to situations such as the Grenfell Tower fire or the Manchester Arena bombing.

KP: The Grenfell Tower is obviously of national importance, but it’s going to have extra visceral impact if you live in London and you see it. All of us can connect with that; the particularity is what makes it meaningful. The fact that we can imagine all of those individual people, do you know what I mean? It’s something about the universality comes out of particularity, I think. The particular story allows us to make sense of the biggest issues. You have the whole of the Capitalist West under scrutiny – it’s a small story that’s huge! That’s where all the power is, but definitely on a personal level I’m really committed to trying to write about where I am, literally where I’m situated in space, things that are happening here. Not to the exclusion of others, but because actually everything that is happening, is happening here on some level.

SF: How did you feel about being nominated as a best actor, rather than as a musician?

KP: It was quite surreal. The truth is I don’t feel I’m an actor and I don’t feel I was acting. It was very flattering, but also a bit bemusing because I don’t consider myself an actor. Performers of any kind, when they step up to the stage … I have a bigger version of myself when I’m on a stage doing a gig, than I might have if you met me in the local café, but I’m not an actor taking on a role. So yes it was nice to be nominated, but it was a bit odd. I’ve got no aspirations to be an actor though, but I absolutely loved the expansiveness of stepping into the world of theatre. You can hear on the album, the whole spoken word, that seems very natural to me and it feels like an extension of what I’ve been building up over the last couple of years at folk gigs. The stories that accompany my songs have become as important as the songs themselves and they’ve become almost set pieces where the song can’t be divorced from the story that sets it up. There’s craft in that. It’s not just throwaway banter. These things go together as work, so Pocket of Wind Resistance feels like a souped-up version of all that, and Pippa’s ability to bring in the whole soundscape, and muck around with how voice gets used has been so exciting. I think it will have changed the way I go about writing in the future.

SF: Are there plans to tour the production?

KP: I know it’s coming down to Milton Keynes and to Cardiff, a date in London is on the cards, and there are still some dates in Scotland, but the whole thing has been unexpectedly successful. I’ve just finished a run in the main house in the Lyceum in Edinburgh, which is a massive step up from the 150 to 250 seaters I’ve been doing before. That was more like 650 people, and it was almost to capacity on that run, which is incredible, so that opens up options to take it elsewhere, into main theatre house spaces. So there are plans to do that as it’s been unbelievably well received. It seems we’re just hitting the spot – the stuff around healthcare, the environment – they’re massive issues of our time. For me, the fragility of the NHS and the fragility of the planet come from the same place and the same set of attitudes, and I think that’s why it’s striking a chord. We do live in precarious times!

A Pocket of Wind Resistance by Karine Polwart is out now on Hudson Records

Jonathan Roscoe

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