Karine Polwart is one of those people who, it seems, is an infinite seeker after the truth and who has the God-given talent to wrap that truth up in a package of words and music.
That’s why I enjoyed our Sunday morning chat – via Skype – about what made her a singer and about Traces, her wonderful new album of songs about people and places.
Like many other singers, Karine’s urge to sing goes back to family gatherings and the dying-out cultural practice of the sing-song, although she takes a moment or two to respond to the question about why she became a professional singer.
“I just love to sing songs,” she says. “It’s something I’ve done since I was wee, singing along to songs. Just this morning actually, I was remembering about visiting my grandparents and singing along to their record collection and that’s a big part of what I remember about my childhood,” she says.
But it’s also about communication. If Karine lost her singing voice, she’d still be talking to people in some way, listening to their stories.
She studied philosophy and worked as a philosophy teacher for a while and for Scottish Women’s Aid she’s always worked with people in their diverse situations. If she didn’t do that through singing, she’d do it through writing or through some other means.
“I love singing but it’s also a medium,” she says.
Some of the songs on Traces are described as “protest songs” so is Karine a 9-5 songwriter or does she wait for the Muse or wait for the news?
“Well, I’ve tried to be more of a 9-5 person in the past few years because I have a young family and all kinds of (nice) distractions get in the way,” she explains.
“Writing is a hard job to justify because a lot of what you do seems like nothing, just sitting and thinking. It’s like nothing but if you don’t give yourself of enough time to sit and think and literally just write, even if it’s not that great, then I don’t know if you can become a writer. So I’m less inclined to think of myself as being caught by the Muse. I need to work at it and the Muse will come along, but it’s not without graft and craft and the rest of it.”
And what about the real world. Is Karine a news junkie?
“I like to keep in touch with what’s happening in the world, but the news – there’s so much of it, it can be overwhelming at times,” she laughs.
“I’m all for the slow news, I’m interested in how things are unfolding, but I don’t feel compelled to know what’s going on every day. I’m interested in how things are panning out over time and the big issues of the day,” she says.
In terms of protest songs, Karine admits to being a big fan of the classic protest songwriters but that’s not the way she approaches her songs.
“I have a philosopher’s eye on things,” she says, “a little more slow, a little bit more questioning. I’m not very good at immediate responses to things. I have two have a wee ponder about how things are so I don’t write too many protest songs but I am trying to think about the way things are and question the way things are.”
So there are no shrieking voices, jangly guitars or Valkyrian orchestral flourishes on Traces.
“No, I love some of that stuff but at the minute, it’s not my life, it’s not where my heart’s at. It’s not that I don’t get angry about things, but that’s not the chief thing I want to give out in my music ,” she explains.
That is especially true about the first song on the album, Cover Your Eyes, which tells the tale of Donald Trump’s golf course built in one of Scotland’s most environmentally vulnerable areas at Balmedie, home of a unique stretch of sand dunes.
This natural habitat is in danger due to the golf courses being built by American billionaire Trump. Karine wrote the song after seeing Anthony Baxter’s seething documentary, You’ve Been Trumped which tells how the Trump Organisation scandalously ran slipshod over the local inhabitants with the support of a weasly Alex Salmond.
Polwart’s song however, is a model of restraint but with the effect of a paper cut.
“I was thoroughly embarrassed by our government, the way they just folded over,” says an incredulous Polwart.
“I saw the film almost a year and a half ago and I just couldn’t believe it. I felt I know quite a lot about the story – it was massive here in Scotland – and I felt I was well informed about the environmental impact which is something I am interested in but to see the film was to be genuinely shocked by the political machinations and the sheer gall of Trump himself. The manner of his person I found symbolic of a certain way of life, and a set of principles and values about how you go about living your life. He is such a brilliant bad guy, so easy to vilify.
“I knew I wanted to write a song about the film and there are a 100 songs you could write about it, very deeply angry vitriolic songs but what got to me was the dignity of the local people and I waned to write something that befitted them so the song was quieter because they were quiet people living in a quiet place and so I wanted to write a quiet song about the place and how the people lived their lives.”
And that is what Karine has done.
Another character who makes an appearance on Traces is Charles Darwin, Eh?
Well, Karine was asked to take part in the Darwin Song Project to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the scientist’s birth.
The Shrewsbury Folk Festival got eight songwriters together to come up with songs about the man who gave us our understanding of evolution.
What surprised Polwart about Darwin after she has read the biographies was his unorthodox relationship with his family.
“Darwin I found was a very humane man,” she explains. “I thought he would be very steely, austere and distant but I was
struck by how unorthodox his family life was and don’t forget these were Victorian times and given his status and his workload, you;d think he wouldn’t have nay time for his children but they were a huge part of his life.
“He seemed like a fun kind of a Dad. For instance, he wrote a diary for the first year of every one of his childrens’ lives, every movement, every flicker. You could say he was only looking through a scientist’s eye, but this to me was an amazing act of love, to sit with your child and to think they were relevant to our work. To me, that speaks volumes about him as a person and about the ideas he conjured up.”
Another song on Traces, Strange News, is about a tragic death of a young man, Karine’s cousin, Ewan Polwart who died four year ago of Streptococcal Septicemia, aged just 34.
Surely it must have been difficult to write about so deep a tragedy from within her own family, I asked Karine but she says the lyrics were written just after she heard of Ewan’s death.
“He died on Christmas Day four years ago and we didn’t find out until two days later and I remember when it happened getting the call when all the family were here over Christmas and all of us being gobsmacked because it had come completely out of the blue, ” she recalls.
“I wrote the lyric immediately so it wasn’t hard to write in that sense and I didn’t do anything with it, it was just a trying-to-make-sense-of-it thing, and I stashed it away until two and half years later, my brother Steven came up with some ideas for tunes and when I heard one riff, I said ‘I think that’s Ewan’s song’.
“So it wasn’t difficult to write but it was had to know if it was okay to sing it so that was the difficult bit, hoping it would be okay with his wife and his family.
We recorded the song and sent it to his wife and my aunt and uncle and they said they were glad that Ewan is remembered every time it is sung. So that was good enough for me.”
Now that the album is finished, Karine Polwart’s enquiring mind is moving on to other things.
She has two projects on the go, a commission for Alzheimers Scotland doing some performances and specially tailored stuff for groups of Alzheimers patients in Glasgow – which brought her back to her granny and grandad record collection – and her other project is to do with bird migration.
“I’m working with the Isle of May National Nature Reserve in the Firth of Forth so I have lots of songs about birds now,” she laughs.
“I’m concerned with environmental stuff but his is more of a song and storytelling project looking at the impact of our lives on the lives of birds.”
Looks like the philosophy teacher has discovered that variety is the spice of life.