INTERVIEW: Karine Polwart | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Two years on from his election victory, it’s a wonder musicians are still devising new ways of chastising the 45th President of the USA. Certainly, Karine Polwart isn’t one you’d expect to channel a stinging riposte, yet that’s exactly what the reigning BBC Radio 2 Folk Artist of the Year does on I Burn But I Am Not Consumed, a stand-out from her latest excellent solo album, Laws of Motion.

Taking its title from the motto of the MacLeod clan – from whom Trump’s mother, Mary Ann, is descended – the song explores both Trump’s life and relationship with Scotland from a particularly novel perspective: “I played last year’s Celtic Connections with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and it happened to be on the eve of his inauguration,” Karine recalls on the song’s genesis. “I knew that it was something I wanted to address, but the orchestra can’t be seen to hold political bias – and airing my own views would have been cheap anyway. I definitely wanted to write something pointed though, so I ended up exploring it through the medium of a three-billion-year-old metamorphic rock beneath the Isle of Lewis! 

“I think it demonstrates that there are forces at work far larger than ourselves,” she continues. “We’re pretty insignificant really, and no matter how much havoc we wreak the natural world will always be more powerful. I think Trump and his like could do with being reminded of that.”

We’re pretty insignificant really, and no matter how much havoc we wreak the natural world will always be more powerful. I think Trump and his like could do with being reminded of that

Rearranged in the studio, this marvellous spoken word cut fits within a larger thematic arc, with topics such as immigration and displacement forming the record’s lyrical core. Given how seamlessly they coalesce, it’s perhaps surprising to learn that these threads came about almost by accident. “I’m really into the idea of albums with connective themes, but a lot of these songs were taken from various projects I’ve been involved with in recent years – so these were topics that I was writing about anyway,” Karine reveals. “Laws of Motion and Suitcase, for example, were written with [Lau member] Martin Green for a project called Flit. They were intended for Becky Unthank and Adam Holmes, but as time went by I realised that they fitted well with the themes I was exploring, so I decided to incorporate them into my own work.”

With Polwart poised to tour England as part of a trio, our attention turns to chief collaborators Inge Thomson and her brother Steven Polwart – both of whom are credited on the album’s sleeve. “When I released A Pocket of Wind Resistance last year, I felt it was important to credit Pippa Murphy as she was so integral – and the same was true for Inge and Steven for this record. They’re equals – my name may get the big headline print, but Steven is responsible for a lot of the arrangements, while Inge brings loads of different textures with her accordion and electronics, and I love to sing with her. It’s great to have friends and family involved. Inge is actually married to Martin too, and you can see their back door from mine!

“A lot of these songs are more fully formed now than when we recorded them,” she says, looking ahead to this month’s return to the Sage Gateshead. “Some of the arrangements have proved a wee bit challenging, but we’re really looking forward to it – it’ll be nice to finish the tour so near to the border!”

Karine Polwart plays Sage Gateshead on Sunday 4th November.


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