Music interview: Karine Polwart on creating her Scottish Songbook event for the Edinburgh International Festival

Karine Polwart tells Fiona Shepherd why putting together her Scottish Songbook was a joy '“ though she still worries about what she's left out

Karine Polwart PIC: Paul Heartfield
Karine Polwart PIC: Paul Heartfield

There’s a lot of songs about rain.” Without wanting to give away too much about the contents of her Scottish Songbook show as part of the International Festival’s Light on the Shore season, Karine Polwart has hit upon one of the enduring themes, not just of her concert, but of Scottish pop music in general.

Why Does It Always Rain On Me, Only Happy When It Rains, Here Comes The Rain Again, Tinseltown in The Rain… each in their way speaks to certain Caledonian characteristics – melancholy, masochism, resignation, romanticism and a refusal to be ground down – as well as the not-so-subtle role that climate plays in our national psyche. Think how many band rehearsal hours would otherwise be lost to basking in the sunshine.

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The distinct (or otherwise) nature of Scottish pop music is a subject addressed by the National Museum of Scotland’s summer exhibition, Rip It Up: The Story Of Scottish Pop, as well as accompanying BBC and Radio Scotland documentaries. And this year it is to be celebrated (again) by the International Festival.

The Festival has, of late, made a feature of showcasing homegrown contemporary music talent with concerts by current luminaries such as King Creosote, Young Fathers, Mogwai, Emma Pollock and Polwart herself, but this year’s Light on the Shore programme, a festival-within-the-Festival at Leith Theatre, is an explicit celebration of the diversity of Scottish popular music.

Mogwai and King Creosote return as part of a vibrant season which places new talent such as C Duncan, Honeyblood and Sacred Paws on bills with respected trailblazers such as The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Fire Engines and The Pastels. But it is Polwart’s Scottish Songbook concert which takes in the broadest sweep of our native pop landscape.

Along with a six-piece band, including her brother Steven, Admiral Fallow frontman Louis Abbott and singer and multi-instrumentalist Inge Thomson, Polwart will perform a set of Scottish pop classics, cult cuts and personal favourites which spans the decades and genres without getting tangled up in a desire to be comprehensive.

“I’ve loved it but it’s been a nightmare trying to whittle down the shortlist of songs – there are just so many possibilities,” she says. “Truthfully, it’s more about singing songs where you’ve got a heart connection for one reason or another. There’s periods of my life when pop music disappears because I’ve been in a library looking at folk songs. So there’s a whole period in the Nineties which is a bit of a blackout... With the age that I am, there’s a heavy bias towards Eighties stuff but actually there’s just a disproportionate amount of stuff came out of that decade, it was a rich time.”

Polwart’s first exposure to Scottish pop music came via her mum’s Donovan and Gerry Rafferty records, though as a child she had no sense of them as Scottish artists. The first musician Polwart recalls being excited to discover was Scottish was Annie Lennox, and from there she quickly graduated to Ultravox and their Glaswegian frontman Midge Ure. “I absolutely worshipped Midge Ure and used to draw charcoal pictures of him. He was so stylish with that wee ’tache.”

Lennox and Ure projected cosmopolitan rather than identifiably Caledonian images but by the time Polwart hit her early teens, the desire for ownership of and belonging to a musical culture was sated by two contrasting bands who were nigh on local heroes to a budding music obsessive growing up in Denny.

“Big Country might have been the tipping point for a sense of Scottishness,” says Polwart. “There were a couple of cool lads at school who wore plaid shirts and there was a sort of pride in the fact that they were talking about something familiar and that felt very close to the bone. And the Cocteau Twins would be geographically the closest band to me and there was a reflected coolness that came off that. It was quite exciting if somebody had been at a party with somebody who was Liz Fraser’s pal – that kind of stuff where you feel you are one removed from grace.”

It’s just a pity for Polwart that Liz Frazer’s idiosyncratic vocalisations make the Cocteau Twins’ ethereal swirl uncoverable. “What on earth would you do? In a way it’s impossible to tell the whole narrative because some songs are so wedded to the sound of the records, the production or the vocal style of the person that’s singing it. You’ve got your instrumental Mogwai stuff – that’s brilliant, but there’s nothing in that for me as a singer. And I wouldn’t even go there with Liz Fraser!”

Polwart grew up singing in a village band without thinking of herself as a “real” musician. While a student at Dundee University, she immersed herself in the live music scene – as a punter. “I lived right next to the student union and that was the point where loads of the bands coming through were Scottish – Texas, the Kevin McDermott Orchestra, The Big Dish. But at that time it wasn’t even a remote possibility that this was something I would do. I was really shy apart from anything else and they operated on a different level. They all seemed extremely cool and good-looking and confident, which was not me.”

After cutting her teeth in Scots folk favourites Malinky and The Battlefield Band, Polwart eventually launched her solo career 15 years ago to instant acclaim. She is the current holder of the Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year title and reached new audiences with her hugely acclaimed stage show, Wind Resistance, first performed at the International Festival in 2016 and revived due to the proverbial demand on numerous occasions since then.

She is also a key player among a generation of Scottish musicians, including the likes of Eddi Reader, King Creosote and Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble, who have built bridges between traditional music and pop. “Nobody bats an eyelid about singing in your accent now, it’s not even worthy of a comment,” she says. “So that frees people up to communicate in a totally different way.”

Polwart may be saturated in our folk traditions but she has emerged as a bold and brilliant interpreter, going where others might fear to tread in the catalogues of songwriting giants Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, and breaking new ground for herself with some of her Scottish Songbook selections, which span 1970s bubblegum pop and cheesy disco “for a bit of craic” to gruff, lugubrious storytelling from the first album to win the Scottish Album of the Year Award.

“I’ve loved discovering ‘I could totally sing this’, just trying to listen to something with a head for how you might insert yourself into it,” she says. “There will be a combination of stuff that will be quite faithfully rendered, because that’s the best vehicle for it, and then there will be songs that I’ve picked apart and do a number on – I can hear a lot of these brilliant synth riffs sounding mighty on vibes and marimba.

“I really want to represent songs that I think are lyrically meaningfully beautiful but also things that are just in your bones. I want to convey a sense that these songs matter.”

Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook, Leith Theatre, 16 August, 0131-473 2000/