“I was Farrah Fawcett
You were Steve McQueen
And we rode your silver Grifter half the way from Aberdeen”
So sings Karine Polwart at the beginning of her fifth studio album Traces. It’s an unlikely opening for a “protest” song about the evils of the Trump Corporation’s politically controversial executive golf development in rural North East Scotland. But then Polwart is a writer who’s long favoured a subtle knife. “Och, sometimes I wish I could be just a wee bit more Billy Bragg”, she laughs.
Written in response to Anthony Baxter’s multiple award-winning documentary film You’ve Been Trumped, and now incorporated into the feature film’s end credits, ‘Cover Your Eyes’ is, says Polwart, “essentially about what we value and what we don’t. With guys like Trump, it’s about power, money and spin bulldozing through generations of intimate connection to a place, collective memories. That stuff doesn’t count in the world of number crunching. But it’s ultimately all there is.”
With its spare use of atmospheric percussion and swelling vocals, it heralds a new cinematic sensibility both in Polwart’s writing and arranging and in the intricately layered production of Iain Cook (one half of Glasgow band The Unwinding Hours, and an experienced composer for television). Indeed it sets the tone for an album of songs united by a fascination with the intimate and fragile vestiges of people’s lives and stories.
Traces draws inspiration from the history and symbolism of St Paul’s Cathedral via The Occupy Movement (in the sweeping ‘King of Birds’), ponders the ways in which Charles Darwin’s family life might have impacted on him as a thinker (in the poignant ‘We’re All Leaving’) and recalls the childhood mystique of the BP petrochemical plant at Grangemouth on the River Forth (in the uplifting ‘Tinsel Show’).
A visceral connection to “the crimson towers of the city you were born in” underpins the hypnotic and percussive insistence of ‘Tears for Lots Wife’; whilst the elegiac harmonium and accordion duet of ‘Sticks N Stones’ conjures the leaving of a family home via “inch marks on door frames” and the imprint of “hopes in the plasterboard”.
Supported by her two regular touring collaborators, brother Steven Polwart (guitars & vocals) and Fair Islander Inge Thomson (accordion, percussion and vocals), Polwart’s own direct musical contribution to Traces has expanded beyond her usual acoustic guitars to include Indian harmonium, floor percussion, and even modest use of field recordings.
Throughout the album this core trio is sympathetically augmented by producer Cook on piano, keys and percussion, and by judicious use of guest musicians on tuned percussion (marimba, vibraphone), wind (including Admiral Fallow’s Sarah Hayes on flute) and horns.
These additional musical textures support songs such as ‘Salter’s Road’, a gentle eulogy for Polwart’s elderly neighbour, Molly Kristensen, and add drama and intensity to the unsettling ‘Strange News’, which captures the hour immediately after Polwart heard of the sudden death of her younger cousin, Ewan.
A humane response to the darker side of life has rarely ever been far from Polwart’s pen. But ‘Half a Mile’, the unflinching closing track of Traces, is, by her own reckoning, the most difficult song she’s committed to record yet. Written in memory of Northumbrian schoolgirl Susan Maxwell, who was abducted and murdered 30 years ago, Polwart explains her reasons for writing it:
“I remember Susan’s story very clearly from my childhood because she was the same age as me and we grew up in very similar places. I used to walk the back road home alone from netball practice all the time, whilst she was snatched on her first ever walk home on her own after playing tennis in Coldstream in The Borders. I know the road she walked. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Susan has been back in the news in recent years, along with all the other lassies whose lives were stolen by the same man. I just wanted to write something that made her close up and real, not just a faded old photo in a newspaper.”
And it’s the flipping of perspective between child and parent that makes the short journey and subsequent quest of ‘Half A Mile’ such a devastating close to Traces.
“To me it’s an album of love songs,” says Polwart, “Not romantic songs but songs to honour all those many other kinds of love and longing and loss that shape all of our lives”.
Indeed Traces might just leave its own quietly indelible emotional mark.
About Karine Polwart
Karine 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”.
Karine tours most often as a trio with her brother Steven Polwart (acoustic and electric guitars, ukulele & vocals) and singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Inge Thomson (accordion, percussion, loops & vocals).