Karine Pol­wart

Karine Pol­wart talks to Barry Did­cock about pol­i­tics, mu­sic and bring­ing up chil­dren in the age of Trump

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Contents -

Fac­ing up to life with mu­sic

IT’S hard to sit down for a se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion with any­one these days and not men­tion Don­ald Trump. With Karine Pol­wart for com­pany such an omis­sion would be verg­ing on the in­de­cent, and when we meet on a breezy morn­ing in the cafe of Ed­in­burgh’s Sum­mer­hall arts com­plex I’ve no in­ten­tion of caus­ing of­fence. So Trump is high on the list of ques­tions. It would be too strong to say he’s like mu­si­cal cat­nip for the 47-year-old singer-song­writer. She’s not ob­sessed. But he has been, and con­tin­ues to be, a strong if un­likely pres­ence in her work. It’s as if the pair are in some strange state of quan­tum en­tan­gle­ment, him in the White House, her in the Mid­loth­ian vil­lage of Path­head where she lives with her two young chil­dren.

Trump first came into her or­bit and was first skew­ered by her in song when he was just a golf-lov­ing, sand dunede­mol­ish­ing mil­lion­aire. Cover Your Eyes was in­spired by You’ve Been Trumped, Antony Bax­ter’s award-win­ning 2011 doc­u­men­tary about Trump’s con­tro­ver­sial golf com­plex in Aberdeen­shire and was writ­ten to be per­formed at a spe­cial screen­ing of the film in Ed­in­burgh.

Then on Jan­uary 19, 2017, Pol­wart found her­self open­ing Glas­gow’s Celtic Con­nec­tions fes­ti­val in the com­pany of the Scot­tish Cham­ber Orches­tra. Once again, the stars seem to have aligned be­cause the next day Trump was due to be in­au­gu­rated as the 45th Pres­i­dent of the United States. What else could she do but play Cover Your Eyes, its oblique ac­cu­sa­tion of ve­nal­ity and hubris given new weight by the po­lit­i­cal events un­fold­ing across the At­lantic?

Now, as the sec­ond an­niver­sary of Trump’s elec­tion win rolls round she en­ters the lists for a third tilt at him in a song ti­tled I Burn But I Am Not Con­sumed, taken from new al­bum Laws Of Mo­tion. The song ti­tle, as you prob­a­bly don’t know, is the clan motto of the MacLeods, whose num­ber in­cluded Don­ald Trump’s late mother, Lewis-born Mary Anne MacLeod. A mix­ture of mu­sic and spo­ken word it sends an­other sly broad­side Trump-wards. Not that he’s likely to no­tice.

“I didn’t set out to choose him [as a sub­ject],” Pol­wart says, be­tween sips of tea. “I guess it’s be­cause of the an­ces­tral link to Scot­land and be­cause

he has had such a pres­ence in Scot­land and been such a po­lit­i­cal spark … I’m not writ­ing about him in his ca­pac­ity as a Wash­ing­ton play-maker. It’s all about what he is here, how he in­ter­acts with where I live. I think that’s part of why I can’t take my eyes off him. It seems like he’s one of the most glob­ally in­flu­en­tial peo­ple on the planet and yet he’s been muck­ing around in my back yard.”

In fact, Pol­wart men­tions Trump be­fore I have a chance to, in the con­text of an­other song from Laws Of Mo­tion. Ti­tled Cas­siopeia, it’s writ­ten from the point of view of her nine-year-old self and deals with the spec­tre of nu­clear war. In it she imag­ines the four-minute warn­ing sound­ing over Grange­mouth and how she plans to seek shel­ter in the fam­ily jam cup­board. Her own chil­dren are now around the same age, so I ask her what in their 21st cen­tury lives car­ries the same level of threat and causes the same sort of nag­ging worry as nu­clear war did to her (and me) in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I think it’s still nu­clear ar­maged­don, to some ex­tent,” she replies. “It’s not quite as om­nipresent as it was but it’s com­ing back, so I think they’re aware of that. I think also Trump as a fig­ure­head for … some­thing. He’s one of the few po­lit­i­cal char­ac­ters that they’re aware of in their ev­ery­day chat in the play­ground.”

As well as Trump and his nukes, she lists the refugee cri­sis, emerg­ing fas­cism, cli­mate change and the en­vi­ron­ment

– in par­tic­u­lar the over-use of plas­tics – as sub­jects her chil­dren are aware of and con­cerned about. But though her kitchen ta­ble is a place for “re­ally frank dis­cus­sions” about those and other top­ics, she’s aware that her duty as a par­ent is to com­fort and cod­dle as well as to ed­u­cate. And cer­tainly not to ter­rify.

“I think we’re headed for much worse times than we’re in, but I’m not go­ing to tell my chil­dren that. It feels im­por­tant that there’s not blink­ers over their eyes. But on a day-to-day, get­ting-through-your-life ba­sis you can’t do that. That’s not a way to raise your kids, to be fear­ful.”

Ul­ti­mately, she says, her role is to be “mil­i­tant about kind­ness and about aware­ness of other peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences. Those are my only tools against what’s hap­pen­ing”.

As it is round her kitchen ta­ble, so it is in her songs. Pol­wart is a se­ri­ous mu­si­cian who tack­les se­ri­ous sub­jects through the prism of other peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences. She’s a self-con­fessed pes­simist but one who hasn’t lost that all-im­por­tant ca­pac­ity for joy and she has an ap­par­ently bound­less en­thu­si­asm for sto­ries.

In her live shows she loves to tell them – case in point, her ac­claimed 2016 Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val (EIF) show Wind Re­sis­tance, per­formed at the Lyceum The­atre – and off-stage she loves to hear them or un­cover them, es­pe­cially if they con­cern the lives of Scot­tish women or “some back­wa­ter place that speaks to some big­ger is­sue”. It’s what she refers to as “hid­den his­tory sort of stuff”.

“That’s one of my fur­rows. I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in songs that have a very spe­cific lo­cal con­nec­tion. In this re­spect I’ve been in­spired by peo­ple like Michael Marra, who al­ways spoke in a very place-based voice but wrote about ev­ery­thing through the lens of Dundee. To me that’s beau­ti­ful. Those songs are uni­ver­sally res­o­nant, partly be­cause of the par­tic­u­lar­ity of the de­tails.”

There’s a fine ex­am­ple of this on Laws Of Mo­tion in a song called Mat­suo’s Wel­come To Muck­hart, picked up from a work­ing visit Pol­wart made to Muck­hart Pri­mary School in Clack­man­nan­shire in the com­pany of fel­low mu­si­cian (and Path­head neigh­bour) Martin Green, of folk su­per­group Lau. There she learned about Shin­z­aburo Mat­suo, a skilled gar­dener who left Ja­pan af­ter los­ing his fam­ily in the dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake of 1923 to live and work at Cow­den Cas­tle, which was owned then by Scot­tish ad­ven­turer and travel writer Is­abella Christie. “That’s a bonkers story. There’s a grave in the kirk­yard at Muck­hart that just says Mat­suo. It’s in­cred­i­ble that they had this ex­pert Ja­panese gar­dener just fer­ried across the world to tend this gar­den.”

Else­where on the new al­bum Pol­wart re­veals her wider con­cerns. The Suit­case is con­cocted out of sto­ries col­lected by Green and deals with the life-sav­ing Kin­der­trans­port which brought some 10,000 mainly Jewish chil­dren to refuge in the UK in the 10 months be­tween Kristall­nacht and the out­break of the sec­ond world war in Septem­ber 1939. On a sim­i­lar theme, the ti­tle track tack­les the global refugee cri­sis and points an ac­cus­ing fin­ger at those who would “build walls” to “defy” the move­ment of peo­ple flee­ing war or poverty or eco­log­i­cal disas­ter. So yes, there’s an­other digit aimed at Don­ald J Trump.

Al­though both her si­b­lings are mu­si­cians – brother Steven is a mem­ber of her trio, along with Martin Green’s wife Inge Thom­son – Pol­wart didn’t spend her child­hood im­mersed in folk mu­sic or sur­rounded by in­stru­ments. In fact, her first foray into singing came through mem­ber­ship of lo­cal choirs and as part of The Ban­knock Kids, a pop band or­gan­ised by a mu­sic teacher and a taxi driver in the Stir­ling­shire vil­lage in which she grew up.

‘ I think we’re headed for much worse times than we’re in, but I’m not go­ing to tell my chil­dren that. It feels im­por­tant that there’s not blink­ers over their eyes. But on a day-to-day, get­ting-through-yourlife ba­sis you can’t do that. That’s not a way to raise your kids, to be fear­ful ’

The band played in care homes, com­mu­nity halls and hos­pi­tals and for a four-year pe­riod in her early teens it was a large part of her life. But when she left school and en­rolled at the Univer­sity of Dundee to read phi­los­o­phy it was pol­i­tics that oc­cu­pied her. Mu­sic “got squished out of me,” she says, “for about 10 years”. It was re­placed by a strong sense of po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment which, on grad­u­a­tion, took her to work for Scot­tish Women’s Aid. She started out as a play scheme worker in Dundee. It proved to be an eye-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I re­mem­ber very clearly vis­it­ing a fam­ily in one of the out­ly­ing schemes and there was a mother and six or seven kids sleep­ing in one room on mat­tresses. This was in the early 1990s. I just couldn’t be­lieve it. I couldn’t fathom it. It was so far re­moved from my own ex­pe­ri­ence and it was prop­erly shock­ing. And en­rag­ing. I thought ‘How is this even pos­si­ble?’”.

Later she moved to Glas­gow to work with chil­dren in refuges. And, as ever, she heard sto­ries: of vi­o­lence an

d fear but also of courage and in­de­fati­ga­bil­ity.

“That was re­ally in­spir­ing,” she says. “A lot of those women had a lot of knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence and a way of be­ing in the world that was quite mag­netic. There was weight be­hind them. They were just re­silient and very, very hardy char­ac­ters. And I guess that was sort of my en­try into fem­i­nist anal­y­sis of the world and the con­text of pa­tri­archy and all the rest of it. That was, and con­tin­ues to be, a big in­flu­ence.”

It wasn’t un­til the early Noughties that Pol­wart re­turned to mu­sic, as a singer with folk act The Bat­tle­field Band and in 2003 she re­leased her first solo al­bum, Fault­lines, named Best Al­bum at the BBC Ra­dio 2 Folk Awards. Two more al­bums of orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions fol­lowed – Scrib­bled In Chalk in 2006 and This Earthly Spell in 2008 – as well as an al­bum of tra­di­tional folk songs, 2007’s Fairest Floo’er.

Then, in 2012, came Traces, ar­guably her break­through al­bum and the one fea­tur­ing Cover Your Eyes as well as King Of Birds, an­other live favourite and a song writ­ten about the Oc­cupy Lon­don protests. Traces was short­listed for the Scots Trad Mu­sic Awards but, cru­cially, it also made the short­list for the 2013 Scot­tish Al­bum of the Year Awards, where it lined up against records by left­field rock acts Django Django and Twi­light Sad, Paul Buchanan of Blue Nile fame and Scot­tish rap­pers Stan­ley Odd. A Pocket Of Wind Re­sis­tance, the al­bum ver­sion of her EIF stage show, was sim­i­larly hon­oured at this year’s awards, which was won by Ed­in­burgh’s Young Fa­thers.

AS mu­sic came back to the fore, pol­i­tics re­mained a force in her life and it found ex­pres­sion in more than just her lyrics. She is a long-stand­ing mem­ber of the Green Party – at one time she headed up the Mid­loth­ian branch – and was ac­tive and highly vis­i­ble in the 2014 Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum, cam­paign­ing on the Yes side. In that cause, she was ul­ti­mately dis­ap­pointed of course. In fact, she ad­mits, “it took the stuff­ing out of me”. But it left a very def­i­nite artis­tic legacy thanks to the way it brought cre­atives from all dis­ci­plines to­gether.

“You were lit­er­ally in the same room as peo­ple who did all kinds of dif­fer­ent things, who you might never have met, and you ended up hav­ing in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions,” she says. “There were events hap­pen­ing all over the place which brought to­gether po­ets, mu­si­cians, an­i­ma­tors. All that stuff has meant that by hap­pen­stance a lot of peo­ple have met each other who might not have done.”

Pol­wart can point ex­plic­itly to projects she has un­der­taken since 2014 which wouldn’t have hap­pened had those con­nec­tions not been made in the runup to the ref­er­en­dum. Two she names are Pil­grimer, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the novelist James Robert­son and a Scots re-work­ing of (and homage to) Joni Mitchell’s 1976 al­bum He­jira, and Wind Re­sis­tance it­self, com­mis­sioned by the play­wright David Greig.

And it’s from do­ing Wind Re­sis­tance, a per­sonal med­i­ta­tion on the flora, fauna, his­tory and nat­u­ral ge­og­ra­phy of her Mid­loth­ian home, that Pol­wart has now found her­self be­ing courted by new au­di­ences – ev­ery­one from or­nithol­o­gists to indie kids – and venues. Next month she plays Lon­don’s pres­ti­gious Cado­gan Hall.

“Wind Re­sis­tance was a tip­ping point,” she says. “So many came who had no idea who I was. They came be­cause they trusted the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val or the Lyceum or they were in­trigued by the con­cept. So I feel like this whole world of pos­si­bil­i­ties opened up and it means that as a re­sult the kind of things I’m be­ing asked to do mov­ing for­ward are wholly dif­fer­ent from be­fore.”

Among those “things” are a song cy­cle for the Scot­tish Cham­ber Orches­tra, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with com­poser Pippa Mur­phy, and a chil­dren’s book, A Wee Bird Was Watch­ing, il­lus­trated by Ed­in­burgh-based artist Kate Leiper and pub­lished next week.

But if some things change in scale and fo­cus, oth­ers stay ex­actly the same.

“My mo­ti­va­tion for ever get­ting in­volved in mu­sic or mak­ing any­thing is about so­cial con­tact,” says Pol­wart. “That was the rea­son I joined a choir, joined a class, wanted to go to a ses­sion and sing a song. It wasn’t about per­form­ing – it was about be­ing in a room, with peo­ple.”

And where there are peo­ple there are sto­ries – to hear, to share and to tell. Es­pe­cially to tell.

Laws Of Mo­tion is re­leased on Oc­to­ber 19 (Hud­son Records)

Don­ald Trump has in­spired quite a few of Karine Pol­wart’s songs, al­though not in a good way. ‘He’s one of the most glob­ally in­flu­en­tial peo­ple on the planet yet he’s been muck­ing around in my back yard.’

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