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