THE Occupy Movement, a BP petrochemical plant, Charles Darwin’s theories on faith and Donald Trump’s Aberdeenshire golf course – these are not typical subjects for folk songs. But Karine Polwart is no typical folk singer. The 41-year-old has recently released her fifth studio album, Traces, and its delicate blend of quiet political angst and considered storytelling is grabbing the attention of critics far beyond her usual circles.
Speaking from her home in the Scottish borders, Polwart sounds stunned and delighted at the glowing reviews which are appearing almost daily in the national press. “It’s quite amazing,” she says. “I have always been very pleased in the past to even having people listening, but I have never had any feedback that is this positive and thoughtful. The reviews seem to have understood exactly what my intention was. I was a bit nervous with this record because the songs are not very immediate, the stories are not particularly direct, they are much more complex and much more subtle in their subject matter and themes.”
Traces begins with Cover Your Eyes, an epic song inspired by the award-winning 2011 documentary You’ve Been Trumped, following Donald Trump’s plan to exploit an area of protected Scottish land to build a luxury golf course. The song encapsulates everything that makes Polwart’s work so powerful. The best protests are often the most understated, and Polwart’s calm, measured delivery and oblique lyrics have more of an effect than any number of placards and megaphones ever could.
The record’s centrepiece track, King of Birds, uses the same technique to explore the iconic role of St Paul’s Cathedral in the anti-capitalism Occupy camp, and her recent performances at the Cambridge Folk Festival showed that she can apply the same principle to playing live too – but she says it took years for her to learn.
“That was based on experience of having played the festival before,” she says. “I think previously, when I have not had as much confidence, I have wanted to try to make a big noise on the big stage, but my songs are not big songs, they are more understated. This time I felt much more relaxed than ever before.”
Polwart describes Traces as “a bit of a gamble”, but sounds hugely proud of a record which reveals more and more layers with every listen. She says: “It’s a little bit oblique and it might put off some people that have liked my previous stuff, but you have to write what you want to write, and this sounds exactly how I wanted it to sound. Thematically there’s a thread of memory, I think that’s the big thing, and a sense of place, what places mean to people. I wanted to create that sense of space and place from the start.
“I think as a writer I am absolutely driven by what the song is about. There are some writers that work in different ways, building songs up from melody. But I can’t write a song if I don’t know what it is that I want to write about. I always start with a core idea.”
With such a knack for conveying complex thoughts through poetic songs, one wonders what other issues Polwart might like to explore in the future. “The world is full of things to write about, I am never short of things that I feel I want to say,” she says.
“The biggest thing for me is that this album has opened up my own life and people around me as a possible thing to write about. That’s something I have shied away from before because I don’t want to be pegged as that kind of introspective singer-songwriter that moans about their own life, I wanted to be more folk-like and more about stories.
“But I think because I have written about things that are more directly personal to me there are at least half a dozen stories or people that have played a role in my life, and I think there’s a song for every one of them that is bigger than me.”
This piece first appeared at For Folk’s Sake.