Turning mic on our music critic
How does Ben Rayner balance his job at the Star with role as Polaris juror?
This story is part of the Star’s trust initiative, where, every week, we take readers behind the scenes of our journalism. This week, we focus on how Ben Rayner balances his roles as both music critic for the Star and a juror for the Polaris Music Prize.
This Monday, the winner of the 2017 Polaris Music Prize will be announced at a gala at the Carlu in Toronto. The $50,000 prize will go to an artist for Canadian Album of the Year, as voted by a group of about 200 music journalists, bloggers, broadcasters and programmers. Among them is the Star’s pop music critic, Ben Rayner, who has been a Polaris jury member since the inception of the prize in 2006. This year, he’s also on the jury for the Polaris Heritage Prize, which celebrates Canadian albums from 1960 through 2005.
For this week’s trust feature, we turn the microphone on Rayner, who has been interviewing musicians and reviewing concerts for more than 20 years, to find out how he balances his criticism with the responsibilities of being on the jury for one of Canada’s most prestigious arts awards.
Given that you have been around for quite awhile and you know a lot of people in the music industry, how difficult is it for you to judge artists for a major prize?
It’s hard in this country, because it’s such a small country, to not get to know people. From my perspective, I’m kind of in a good position because I’m a critic — I’m permitted to play favourites. The whole jury process for Polaris is confidential, too. So I don’t feel like I’m slighting anybody, although I will say that on my long list and short list ballot, I had Weaves, Tanya Tagaq and Lisa LeBlanc as some of the records I voted for. Do I maybe feel guilty about singling out Weaves or Tanya over some other artist? Maybe, but I do think I have some leeway from a journalistic standpoint because I’m a critic. I’m kind of an open book. Honesty is basically all you’ve got in my line of work.
What steps do you take to try to keep your judging for Polaris as unbiased as possible?
Polaris jury members have an online discussion group that goes on year-round where people put forth suggestions for listening. I think most of us are pretty diligent about listening to as much stuff as possible. When we were voting for the long list, which ends up being 40 records, it’s pretty easy to jot down the records that you like. For the second round of voting, resulting in a short list of 10 records, I’ll try to listen and make sure I’m not missing out on something awesome that deserves to be on the list. That’s just due diligence.
When it comes to your daily criticism, how do you balance your professional obligations with personal relationships you might have with musicians?
It is hard. I do a piece on Broken Social Scene when each album comes around and yet band members Kevin (Drew), Brendan (Canning) and Justin (Peroff ) are all friends of mine. It’s a delicate dance. I wouldn’t let myself review a show by a friend. I’ll still do interviews, although they’re awkward . . . it’s strange to interview someone with whom you’re friendly. It is kind of an unavoidable consequence of doing this job in this country for as long as I have.
Does the fact that you are old friends with Polaris Music Prize founder Steve Jordan affect how you cover stories related to the award?
While I write about the fact that the gala is happening, I try not to write about it from a critical standpoint because I would feel some bias as it’s my friend’s event. Generally, I don’t usually do commentary on it. I’ll cover the announcement of the short list or the long list because that’s just factual and it doesn’t require any input from me. What I’ve done a couple of times is I get all of the nominees, or as many as possible who are on the short list, to say who ideally they would like to win instead of them. That frees me from the burden of having to evaluate how it went.
What is your process for picking your top five albums of the year for Polaris?
I know some people probably agonize a little more over their choices for the pick, but I just go with my five favourites. Then when it gets down to the short list, maybe I’ll be a little more analytical and I’ll listen to stuff I might not know and sometimes you’ll value something that’s a little challenging and brave but not particularly pleasant to listen to. Sometimes I will catch myself voting for something I don’t particularly want to listen to. But usually I stop myself and just go nope, these are my five. Email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ben Rayner, the Star’s pop music critic, says it’s hard to balance professional obligations and personal relationships with musicians.