Polaris Here We Come

Where better to learn about Canadian music, than Canada?

Photo Credit: Dustin Rabin

Let’s talk about Canada, shall we? The home of maple syrup, Mounties and the coldest winters. Due South, Robin from How I Met Your Mother and some strange food concoction called Poutine. Celine Dion, Bryan Adams and… well, Nickelback. But hang on a second, Canada’s cool. Forget the USA, the UK and bloody Scandinavia because Canada is where it’s at.

Just think about it. Who was your favourite blogstar superhero of 2012? That’d be Grimes, based in Montreal. Your favourite noisy duo? Undoubtedly Japandroids, hailing from Vancouver. Need a songstress? Call upon Feist from Nova Scotia, or even Kathleen Edwards of Ottawa. A rapper? They just so happen to have Drake. And that’s just mentioning those who reigned supreme in the last twelve months. The list of musicians who bear the Canadian accent whilst simultaneously blowing our minds is endless.

So what better way to prove our point than to get on a plane, travel for eight hours across the Atlantic and land ourselves in the heartland, all in the name of music? Well, dear DIY readers, that’s exactly what we bloody well went and did. And, as it turns out we’re not the only ones reckoning that Toronto is the place to be, as we follow DIY’s October cover stars The Killers through customs [Stalker! - Ed] before settling in for our multi-musical, all-kinds-of-cultural visit just in time for a certain awards ceremony.

No doubt you’re a little more familiar with the Mercury since it’s that little bit closer to home, but let us be the first to tell you that there really is something rather special about Canada’s own Polaris Music Prize. Established in 2006, it works in a similar manner to its peers. Inspired by the Mercury itself, founder Steve Jordan felt the need to celebrate the excitement of the growing Canadian music scene and all irrespective of genre, sales, or record label. In fact, the prize aims to award those simply upon their artistic worth and merit; an element reflected throughout the previous seven winners.

In fact, the shortlists seem gimmick-free, the winners stand as deserving and, above all, the nominees are always interesting, engaging and, quite simply, the best musicians Canada has to offer. Take for example a selection of the nominees from that first year: the 2006 prize boasted the likes of Broken Social Scene, Metric and winner, Final Fantasy. 2007 saw Arcade Fire and Feist both fall at Patrick Watson’s feet, before Caribou beat off the likes of Kathleen Edwards and Holy Fuck the following year.

The mighty Fucked Up took 2009’s prize, then both Tegan And Sara and Dan Mangan were both pipped at 2010’s post. Then, last year’s gala saw the prize money upped by $10,000 (to $30,000), as the wonderful Arcade Fire fended off stiff competition from the likes of The Weeknd, Timber Timbre, Destroyer and Austra to finally reign supreme with ‘The Suburbs’. Already, you begin to get an idea of just how high calibre this award is.

But what was it that drove the Polaris into existence? “A combination of things,” is the answer we’re met with when we pose the question to its founder. “I’ve followed the Mercury Prize for years, and I’d know about half the shortlist, and the other half? I wouldn’t really know them, but I would go seek them out. Then, the lightbulb went off for me and I thought, if they’re doing that for UK music fans over there, we could do the same overseas.

“The other thing that was happening around the time I had this idea, was how some obviously non-commercial Canadian artists were being accepted overseas. From Godspeed You! Black Emperor to right when Arcade Fire were starting to blow up, Stars, Metric, Broken Social Scene. There was this big explosion of bands who didn’t really care about the Canadian music industry so much that they decided to go elsewhere. People think that the Polaris is about exposing these artists to the rest of the world, but they’re already exposed to them. We’re just trying to bring it back to Canada.”

This year though? This was a special one. The ceremony kicks off in Toronto’s Masonic Hall towards the end of a beautiful autumn day, with the six mismatched characters of Fucked Up taking to the stage, led by the strangely enigmatic frontman Damian Abraham, aka Pink Eyes. Opening proceedings in the most brash of manners, their short but sweet two song set fills the room with the sense of relentless energy that they harness so well, and - in the most typical of fashions - Damian is shirtless just moments into their second track. Performing cuts from their nominated conceptual effort ‘David Comes To Life’, they instantly solidify themselves as one of the most exciting acts in the competition.

“It feels weird this time,” laughs Abraham when we round up all six members of the 2009 Polaris champions, for a pre-show chat about what it feels like to return to the running. “Because we won last time, and history has so far shown that the second time you’re nominated… you don’t really have a chance. I didn’t think we had a chance last time, but now it’s even more like we don’t have a chance!”
“It doesn’t feel too weird to me,” adds drummer Jonah Falco, “it just feels different to be back this time. We had done possibly the most exciting thing that could happen to us in this place, so it’s hard to know how to feel now. What do you do when you’re back?!”

Transforming the atmosphere entirely is our next nominee, Rollie Pemberton, also known as Cadence Weapon. Nominated for the third time (his debut made the shortlist back in 2006, whilst his sophomore album was long-listed in 2008), this year sees the return of the Edmonton poet laureate (seriously, how legit is that?) with his boundary-pushing full-length ‘Hope In Dirt City’.

“Polaris is exciting. It’s a validation of the work that you put in,” starts Pemberton as we quiz him on how he feels about the Prize. “Before Polaris existed… I was in the first Polaris that ever happened, so I feel like it’s my life and my career intrinsically linked with this thing. But before that, there wasn’t really anything in Canada for any outsider music to be celebrated in any mainstream capacity. I feel like it came up at the same time as a lot of bands changed the way people thought about Canadian music. It’s a response to that. If you think about Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade; that kind of generation of bands that made it so that Canadian music is cool. It wasn’t when I was growing up.”

On the complete other side of the spectrum from Rollie and his blend of rap and live-recordings-turned-samples is our next performer; the heart-achingly simple Cold Specks. A woman who truly lets her music speak for itself, her two songs demonstrate perfectly how soulfully mournful music can be, whilst stunning the gala venue to silence.

But her’s is not the only extraordinarily impressive performance. The cuts taken from Kathleen Edwards’ latest album ‘Voyageur’ have people in the crowd leaping up from their seats to applaud – and these are industry folk, kids – with gratification. The atmosphere of the room shifts with every new nominee that takes to the stage, and Edwards’ delicate yet strong performance most definitely allows for some of the most emotive moments of the evening.

“I made this record and went through a really, really painful period of time,” begins Edwards, when we find ourselves sitting alone with her during rehearsals. “I’ve only just come out of it, but the one thing that was a lightning bolt of joy is to feel like you’re part of something when it feels like you live in your head a lot. When you’re depressed, you feel isolated and you isolate yourself, and the Polaris is an extension of that sentiment. I’ve been making music in this country for over ten years and I know a lot of the people that are nominated, and there are a lot of people on the long list that I know, and I feel like we’re a part of something. When your record gets recognised in an arts community, it really solidifies that feeling that you do good work. It’s not because you got nominated, or because you’re going to win. It’s because you have all these people who have your back. It’s not about the prize: it’s about the dialogue of music. That’s the beauty of it.”

Edwards’ poignancy resonates even more so in her speech on the evening of the Gala. As she ends her final track and is greeted by host Grant Lawrence, he asks if she has any final words. She reminisces of the 2008 Prize, for which she was shortlisted with her album ‘Asking For Flowers’. She spoke of how, when they announced the winner, it was “the person that I least expected to hear” and, understandably, was a little bit pissed. Then, months later, she was drinking beers with a friend in a bar where they played one of the most beautiful songs she had ever heard. Asking the DJ what exactly the track was, he answered with, “Caribou” and there it was; poignant proof that this is an award that truly leaves a mark.

“I am grateful to the Polaris for creating a conversation about music,” she concludes. “Music is like this big commitment that we make in our life because it comes from our heart. And we sacrifice things good and bad to do what we do. And I’m very humbled. And thank you Steve Jordan for creating a vehicle for those of us who don’t want to march in the shit parade.”

Whilst tonight is entirely about celebrating Canadian music, there’s an undeniably bittersweet element for one of the nominees. Having been shortlisted for their third album ‘Sound Kapital’, Handsome Furs spend this evening celebrating their career, having called it a day back in May. In a rather emotionally-driven speech, one half of the duo Alexei Perry took the opportunity to thank those that had supported their career, addressing a room of their peers in this rather rare instance: “I’m here to say thank you on behalf of Handsome Furs, for Dan and I, for letting us risk ourselves in pursuit of our ideals. It is worth it, and I’m honoured to be in a room full of other people who also take those risks. Because for me, time and time again, and especially currently, it is art and music and literature that has saved my life. So I’m honoured that you loved us and our work. Thank you for everything from the bottom of my heart.”

Moving from one artist reaching the end of their career to another who is very much at the start of hers, we are greeted with our current crush, a Miss Claire Boucher. Understated yet unfathomably enticing, Grimes is far and above one of the most exciting musicians of the moment, and her place as a Polaris nominee (and a favourite, amongst some whisperers on our table) proves that her appeal is universal.

Perching behind her decks, her seaweed green hair in plaits, Boucher’s tiny Marilyn Manson shirt-clad figure moves perfectly in time with other-worldly pop offerings, and by the time that the familiar intro to ‘Oblivion’ kicks in, the room explodes in anticipation. The atmosphere buzzes and, despite her actions being fairly simplistic, her presence is so mesmerising that it’s difficult to even be distracted by her mostly-naked male stage partner, who’s busy pole-dancing to her right.

“Canada has got some weird stuff going on…” begins Boucher, when we speak to her the day prior to the ceremony. “There’s definitely a scene that I’m a part of with all of my friends. I mean, Yamantaka – I started playing with them about four years ago in Montreal. There’s definitely something in Montreal; you know, Doldrums, Flo Child, Blue Hawaii. It’s really fun having everyone play shows together. I’m very proud of my scene and the community and the music coming out of it.”

During the evening, there are some notable absences, but the two shortlisters unable to attend the Gala more than make up for it with their nominations themselves. Having spent the last God-knows-how-long on tour, Japandroids are somewhere between Toronto and Germany when their sophomore album ‘Celebration Rock’ is announced, whilst Drake, well, no one’s so sure about where Drake is, but ‘Take Care’ is more than enough to allow forgiveness.

For our penultimate appearance at the Masonic Hall, we are greeted with one of the more flamboyant acts (Yes, we say that after the aforementioned pole dancer, Gary) in the form of Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. Having been shortlisted for their debut self-titled effort, the sprawling group make it evident that their inclusion in the Prize running is about so much more than just the music.

“I’ve had people come up to us of minorities and Caucasian backgrounds,” explains one half of the Asian-Canadian duo, Alaska B, “who say, ‘That was amazing because I saw something that is about now.’ This is about an intersection of a moment when we go, ‘What do we want modernity to look like?’ For us to put this work out, what’s so amazing is that we get to define our own version of what we think the music of our identity is. This is about life. Art is worth nothing if it’s not without reality.”

However, Polaris know just how to end the show right, and so they do, thanks to Feist. Undoubtedly, ‘Metals’ was one of the most glorious efforts of 2011, so to end the evening with two of its tracks seems rather apt. ‘Caught A Long Wind’ and ‘The Bad In Each Other’ both shimmer, as they stand backed with special guest Andrew Whiteman’s new project AroarA and Snowblink, and thus, it’s entirely justifiable to hear Feist’s name called by the two members of Arcade Fire, when they come to announce this year’s winner.

Even then though, after she’s dived under her table and declared her inability to make speeches, she further works to emphasise the importance of all of the music of this evening, and over, Polaris.

“I’ve been having such an unbelievably good time sitting here, watching this cavalcade of really good music,” she tells the room, in her acceptance speech. “I’ve been really grateful tonight. I learned so much about amazing stuff going on. And every single band that was up here - not to mention every band on the short list, not to mention so many bands that didn’t make the short list - belong here tonight.”

Truthfully? We’re not sure we could’ve said it better ourselves. Thanks, Leslie.

The winner of the Polaris Music Prize 2012 was Feist’s album ‘Metals’, out now via Polydor.

Taken from the November 2012 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.