Karine Polwart on the BIG Project and independence

Singer songwriter Karine Polwart is involved with the BIG Project in Broomhouse. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Singer songwriter Karine Polwart is involved with the BIG Project in Broomhouse. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Karine Polwart’s musical life flourished thanks to the time freely given by volunteers when she was a child. Now the multi-award winning singer is doing the same with Broomhouse’s BIG Project. By Claire Black

Oh don’t get me started,” Karine Polwart says as she finally runs out of steam at the end of a long and interesting exposition on the independence debate. The Pathhead-based singer/songwriter has made no secret of her support for the Yes campaign so it wasn’t as though I had to tiptoe around asking her about her political stance, but still, she laughed wryly when I did.

It was the sound of someone who knows only too well that it’s hard to articulate a nuanced political argument and easy to provide a cheap headline. But Polwart, one of Scotland’s most respected folk singer/songwriters is a political artist. Her songs might wear their politics subtly, the lyrics poetic and oblique, but she’s tackled every subject from alcoholism to the Occupy movement, growing up in the shadow of Grangemouth, to Donald Trump’s golf resort at Menie. And the truth is, I’m genuinely interested in Polwart’s explanation as to why so many of Scotland’s artists are, like her, so energised by the idea of a yes vote on 18 September.

Of course, as I’d expect from a woman with a background in philosophy (she taught it in schools after graduating with a degree in Politics and Philosophy) and whose intellect shines through in her carefully crafted songs, she begins with a disclaimer that there’s “no homogeneity” in Scotland’s artistic community (“whatever that is”) and states clearly her suspicion that we maybe hear less from artists who’re not “so gung-ho” about a yes vote. For Polwart though, it’s all about opening up a space.

“I’m less interested in whether someone is a yes or a no voter than the questions they are asking and what they care about,” she says, explaining that for a writer and musician the idea of being excited by “ideas, imaginings, possibilities, transformations” simply makes sense. “I’ve laid my cards on the table that I’ll vote yes, but actually it’s far more important to me that people are willing to engage with each other, that’s what excites me. We’re constantly afraid that people are capable of much less than they are.”

Polwart is as persuasive as she is passionate. She once described herself as a social worker with a guitar and although it may well have been one of those throwaway lines that is regretted as soon as it’s uttered because it will forever more appear in interviews such as this, as catchy epithets go, you don’t get many more accurate. Of course, it doesn’t capture every facet of Polwart’s impressive career – a slew of awards, five studio albums, a reputation for poetic and political folk songs and a devoted fan following – it does pinpoint something of how she understands music and it neatly sums up the spirit of a gig that Polwart will perform in a Broomhouse school hall later this month.

For the past six years or so, Polwart has been involved with The BIG Project, an Edinburgh youth initiative that supports children between the ages of five and 16 living in Broomhouse. Her involvement began with a songwriting project in Broomhouse, Livingston and Ardnamurchan and since then, every year or so, she’s taken part in some kind of activity or performance for the project that supports children and young people in one of the most deprived wards of the city. There have been workshops in schools and shows in the Queen’s Hall and at Celtic Connections too. The gig later this month is part of a two year singing project funded by Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative, featuring four “Big Heroes,” inspirational Scottish artists – the first was King Creosote and now it’s Polwart’s turn – performing alongside The BIG Project Youth Choir.

Comparable to Sistema Scotland in its ethos of music being a way in which to inspire and encourage young people, building their confidence and skills, there are 220 kids involved in The BIG Project, which for an area such as Broomhouse is a massive number. “There are more than 100 kids regularly involved in the music project,” says Polwart sounding genuinely impressed. “Obviously they’re keen that the quality of the music is strong, but the real aim of the project extends beyond gigs, it’s about empathy, teamwork, resilience. Music is just a great medium for all that stuff. It’s a high impact way of getting lots of kids involved and harmony singing is a great way to operate as a unit. To be in a choir you’ve got to think collectively.”

For Polwart, this way of engaging with and enjoying music isn’t just about a community project, it is, for her, what music is about. It’s how she first started playing music, as a child of nine or 10 living in Fife playing in her first band, The Banknock Kids, a community band organised by volunteers (the drummer was the local taxi driver). Then much later, it was her route back into music when she’d arrived in Edinburgh and was working at Scottish Women’s Aid. She joined an adult community education project, the Scottish Music Group, in the west end of the city and attended an evening class, Women and Folksong. Her debut album, Faultlines, was released in 2004, when having served her time in The Battlefield Band and Malinky, she decided to go solo. It may have seemed like a gamble back then, but having been voted best Scots singer and having been nominated for songwriter of the year, and for album of the year more than once at the Scots Trad Music Awards, as well as picking up multiple nominations at the Radio 2 Folk Awards and being shortlisted for the Scottish Album of the Year Award last year for her fifth studio album, Traces, it now looks like an entirely risk-free bet.

What’s interesting about Polwart, though, is how as an artist she keeps on finding new ways to make music. Alongside gigs with her regular trio, including her brother Steven on guitar and Inge Thomson on accordian and percussion, there have been collaborations with Idlewild, Future Pilot AKA, members of Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad. She also created The Burns Unit with Emma Pollock and King Creosote. And then there have been the projects which have allowed Polwart to work outside of her own field – three times in the past year she has collaborated with scientists on projects in Orkney as part of Sea Change, a four-year programme of “research and making across Scotland’s western and northern isles” focusing on climate change, a short residency on the Isle of May with Scottish Natural Heritage and a placement at a centre for respiratory medicine in Sheffield. “It’s not about trying to make music instrumental,” she says, “it’s about engaging with life. The Sea Change scientists are dealing with climate change, to me the biggest issue of the day, so to have access to those people is such a gift. If music and art are not engaging with life they’re just hollow.”

Polwart knows that 10 years ago, as a musician, her career would have been all about tours and selling records, but now it’s much more about exploratory projects and multi-media collaborations. It’s obvious that this fits with her life as a politically engaged, socially aware mother of two (her children Arlo and Rosa are six and three) as well as the kind of artist she has set out to be. “There are so many different ways to be a musician,” is how she puts it. “I think it’s all to the good because those big industry models don’t work, at least not for 95 per cent of us.”

And in this you have at least part of the explanation of Polwart’s affection for and commitment to The BIG Project. It may, as she says, “sound old-fashioned but for me it feels almost like a duty. It has a lot to do with how I got access to music. If a whole bunch of people in my village hadn’t have given their time for nothing, I’m not sure I’d be where I am now. Equally, when I came back to music as an adult those community projects were all run by people who were on low wages or no wages. The music scene that I’m involved in at grassroots level is sustained by volunteer committees – nothing happens without people giving their time.”

Music for Polwart is political. Yes, it’s about individual artistic expression, but her kind of music is about “playing with people, singing with people, finding like minds and kindred spirits.”

And that’s why now is, as far as Polwart is concerned, a good time not only to be a musician in Scotland but also to be a music fan. “There’s so much stuff and so much fluidity across genre divides. Everything’s got its place. People’s ears are open and that’s a great thing.”

And in a sense that takes us back to where we began, to Polwart’s sense that there’s something special happening just now in Scotland – it’s about politics and opportunity, the chance to imagine something different.

“I refuse to be despondent about anything right now because whatever happens later this year, we’ve got to live in a society where we get on with each other and I like the idea that we’re talking about what it takes to get on with each other. What are our responsibilities to each other? What can creative, critical thinking add to this? I feel pathologically positive about it.” She laughs.

The BIG Project Big Heroes Concert with Karine Polwart is at 7pm on 24 March. Tickets cost £3 from The BIG Project, 33-39 Saughton Road, Edinburgh EH11 3RQ. For reservations tel: 0131-622 7784 or email bigproject@hotmail.co.uk