Karine Polwart draws from folk music’s long tradition while keeping pace with the ceaselessly changing times. Her talent for crafting unique, enduring melodies, her gift for saying just enough without overstating her case, the range and dynamism of her arrangements, all come together in songs of powerful contemporary relevance. She also has the purest and most approachable of singing voices, drawing the listener towards her in the same way one might lean towards a late night tale by the fireside.
Her songs deal with humanity in all its many guises: there is tenderness, triumph and sorrow, raised flags of rebellion and independence, flashes of anger at power abused and misused. Perhaps most frequently she deals in spare, unsentimental empathy, often with those who have been dealt the least playable hands in the game of life.
The results have rarely failed to strike a chord. Her debut album Faultlines won three awards at the 2005 BBC Folk Awards, including Best Album. Its follow up, Scribbled in Chalk (2006), contained “Daisy”, a gentle word to the wise to one of life’s givers and truth-tellers who can’t quite comprehend that “there are people in this world who don’t think like you do”. The song won Polwart another BBC Folk Award for Best Original Song in 2007.
But her achievements can’t simply be measured in terms of industry acclaim. Having studied politics and philosophy at university and later worked in the area of women’s and children’s rights, Polwart has always wanted her music to perform some useful social function. In that, too, she has succeeded time and time again.
“For me” says Polwart, “music is one of the most powerful ways of making sense of the world. It’s for celebrating, grieving, sharing, wondering. Nothing inspires me more than the realisation that any one of my songs means something to someone else”.
Sound clip: www.karinepolwart.com/music
Despite being robbed at this year’s BBC Folk Awards – her three nominations should by rights have won three prizes, not none – Karine Polwart is keeping her cool. A tour criss-crossing England from Ilfracombe to Ormskirk brought her to far-too-small a venue in Winchester, a treat for those who managed to get a ticket. Both of her band – Rachel Newton on harps and occasional fiddle, and Inge Thomson on accordion and all manner of percussion – had a solo slot. Newton sang a set of Gaelic songs, first a pibroch, her voice trilling at the edge like bagpipes, then a couple of pieces of rattling “mouth music”. Thomson produced an arresting sea-song, setting out the tasks “before we set sail” over an accordion swell, propelled by a minute post-punk electronic tap.
Polwart herself fell in the middle. A self-confessed “birdlore geek”, she had three avian songs: a jaunty ode to the robin; an encore with a heron serving as the harbinger of summer; and “King of Birds”, which started with St Paul’s Cathedral rising from the devastation of the Fire of London and ended with it, amid the “towers of smoke and mirrors”, providing a backdrop for the Occupy movement.
An older song, “Baleeri Baloo”, told of a Scottish missionary, Jane Haining, who died in Auschwitz with her orphaned Hungarian Jewish charges. The song was stark, with Thomson scraping the edge of a cymbal with a violin bow to produce two eerie metallic shrieks.
Polwart’s best songs come at their matter sideways. A song ostensibly about the Grangemouth oil refinery, “Tinsel Show”, celebrated the complex at night, alive with lights and gas flares, and posited that the UFOs sighted in the area are drawn by the beauty of its “Minarets of industry/spinnerets of alchemy”. Donald Trump’s appropriation of duneland in north-east Scotland to build a golf course prompted an angry denunciation (applauded by an audience presumably empty of property developers). But the song that grew out of it, “Cover Your Eyes”, started obliquely with children playing on the shore – “I was Farrah Fawcett, you were Steve McQueen” – before calling down wild weather on the Trump Corporation. The music was sparse: harp notes and thumb piano spiky as marram grass amid the neap and spring of Polwart’s harmonium.
Polwart’s recent album, Traces , is a “poking away at the things we leave behind”. Its highlight, and the concert’s, was a version of Anna Akhmatova’s poem about Stalin’s Great Terror, “Tears For Lot’s Wife”. Here, it started with cold harp notes, before a rising strum of guitar and a frenetic, edgy triangle tattoo. In the middle eight, as Lot’s Wife turns to a pillar of salt, the music hovered, suspended. “Who’s gonna mourn/one woman in a storm”, sang Polwart over the coda, Sodom and Moscow and all history ever bleeding into one.