Karine Polwart, one of the nominees for this year’s SAY Award, explains why there are more important things than winning
It was sports day at Tynewater Primary School in Pathhead last Friday and I did that classic parent pep talk, the one that goes: “Don’t worry about not winning the egg-and-spoon race, son. It’s not about the winning.” Except in a race, well, it kind of is, isn’t it?
I own up to a ferocious competitive streak. If schools still did The Mums’ Race, I’d be that mortification of a mother hunkered down in the starting block position on the edge of the football pitch, waiting for the headteacher’s whistle.
Awards for artistic endeavour, on the other hand, make me itchy. I tell myself that I haven’t chosen this life as a songwriter in order to compete directly with other musicians to see who’s best. That doesn’t mean I lack purpose or creative ambition to better what I do, or determination to reach more ears. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel occasional barstool consternation about some guff that’s being critically fêted.
But when your primary entry route into life as a professional musician is a late 1990s “Women and Folksong” evening class in Edinburgh, in a Victorian school room full of decompressing social workers and teachers, a class which winds its way afterwards to a communal singing session at The Oxford Bar, then brassnecked musical competition sits particularly uneasily.
I’m one of ten artists lucky to be shortlisted for the 2013 SAY Award (Scottish Album of the Year), the winner of which is announced next Thursday. Despite my genuine misgivings, I feel fortunate and chuffed to have had a whack of curiosity and attention drawn to my own stuff from people who otherwise wouldn’t give me a second of their stereo time.
Of course, I don’t believe that my most recent album Traces is actually better than Inverness-based fiddler Duncan Chisholm’s Affric, an album of immense grace and beauty, which didn’t make it past the SAY longlist of 20. Indeed several of my favourite Scottish albums of last year didn’t even make it into that 20 (Jo Mango’s meditative Murmurations, for example). This is no criticism of the judges or the process by which decisions have been made, which has been delightfully above board. Nor do I offer it as evidence of the pointlessness of judgement. I have my own barometers. Don’t we all? And isn’t music, of all the art forms we care about, the one about which most of us feel perfectly, passionately qualified to make our own assessments of merit?
But sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know. And so, instead, I’ve chosen to look on what the SAY Award has put out there as evidence of the depth and range of musical creativity and productivity in this wee country right now and as a focused opportunity to check it out for myself, and to talk loudly to others about what I think, what I like. I’ve bought six new albums as a result, two from artists I’d never even heard of.
What I hear is music that is variously melodic and poignant (weep at the delicacy of Oh Oscar, the closing track of Admiral Fallow’s Tree Bursts in Snow), and rhythmic and wry (smile at Dave “Solareye” Hook’s Better Together vs Indy flyting between Britannia and Caledonia on Stanley Odd’s Marriage Counseling).
It’s music that’s gloriously uncluttered and careworn (Paul Buchanan’s Mid Air lays bare his mighty vocals over little more than piano) and attentively complex and multilayered (Meursault’s Something For the Weakened is an understated revelation to me here).
It flags the singular vision of well-known and loved musicians doing something quite unexpected (as Human Don’t Be Angry, Malcolm Middleton swaps indie pathos and spleen for ear worm 1980s synth hooks), as well as the chemistry-set-fizz of newcomers (the Mercury nominated Django Django).
The shortlist reeks of both the band unit as a creative force (add the mighty Kilsyth rockers Twilight Sad and Lau to Django Django) and of deliciously meandering inter-artist collaboration (RM Hubbert’s collision with last year’s SAY Awards winner Aidan Moffat on Car Song might be the most achingly lovely track on any of the albums on the list, for my money).
Finally I’m happy to celebrate the fact that most of the music in evidence on the ten albums that made the shortlist defies the suffocating strictures of The Sub-Three-Minute Radio-Edit Single. I don’t care if it makes me an irrelevant snob to be unconcerned that the two most commercially successful musical exports of last year (Calvin Harris and the intelligent and astute Emeli Sandé) made it only as far as the 20-strong longlist. To those who wonder why Sande’s million-plus selling Our Version of Events (which spent 66 consecutive weeks in the Top 10 of the UK Album Charts – the longest such spell for any debut album since charts began) isn’t deemed “good” enough to make the Scottish Top Ten Albums of the Year, I say this.
Breathe. Just go and listen to Lau’s magnificent album Race the Loser, on which there’s not a track even within pitching distance of three minutes, and on which the band demonstrate their full musical and sonic capabilities on seven-minute plus narrative instrumental and vocal soundscapes such as Far From Portland (best use of accordion coupler mechanism ever) and Torsa. Forth FM is never going to get behind it.
This strikes at the heart of one of the many mercies of being an own-label, Scottish folkie or independent of any kind. The idea that you might write a daytime-hit-single is ridiculous. Nobody wants to hear a song about a petrochemical plant and 1980s UFO visitations to Bonnybridge, a song that skips between 5/8, jig time and 4/4, and which features treble-layered piano accordion and Sheffield steel plant samples (yes, this is one of mine), whilst listening to Steve Wright in the Afternoon. Do they?
This realisation, when it finally comes, is a relief. And it means that the album, not the single, is my primary art form, and the primary art form for most recording musicians operating beyond the mass end of the market in Scotland today. That’s basically 99 per cent of us. We don’t lack aspiration or savvy. We don’t scorn commercial success. We hanker after creative, affordable ways to spread the word about what we do and about the music we wish other people loved too. Thanks to the SAY Awards for upping the ante (and, by the way, there is something childishly gratifying about seeing your album alongside loads of your own favourites on a massive billboard on Edinburgh’s Easter Road). Choose curiosity rather than complacency, celebration rather than derision. Good luck to everyone.
• The winner of the 2013 SAY Award will be announced at Glasgow Barrowland on 20 June. www.sayaward.com.