Perhaps it’s apt that on the day The Guide is due to speak to folk star Karine Polwart about an album called Laws of Motion, that a storm, Ali, has rendered talking by phone impossible.
‘We got a wee bit of a hammering, yeah,’ she laughs when we can finally connect the following day. ‘But it wasn’t too bad, it was quite appreciated the power going off for a few hours – I had no phone, no internet, so it was like okay, let’s just play the piano.’
The new album comes out next, hot on the heels of last year’s award-winning A Pocket of Wind Resistance with Pippa Murphy, which was based on their theatrical show, Wind Resistance.
Speaking from her home near Edinburgh, she explains: ‘I had never intended to make that album, it emerged out of the theatre piece. That album in a way is the surprising one, I always had my eyes on making Laws of Motion, and A Pocket of Wind Resistance is the one that snuck in there! We did it because we enjoyed making the music and sound so much for the theatre piece, and so many people asked if that could be turned in to some kind of audio format. That’s the rogue one in the pile!’
For Laws she is reunited with her long-term collaborators, her brother Steven Polwart, and Inge Thompson, who she last recorded with on 2012’s Traces.
‘This is perhaps a bit more of a songwriter-y album, but with a couple of tracks that probably wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t made A Pocket in the meantime – the spoken word element that that sneaks into a couple of tracks, which is a consequence of working with Pippa.’
The new album’s material covers a wide span, with some songs written for other projects, while others were only finished shortly before recording.
And as is her style, Karine’s songs are more outward looking than introspective.
‘I guess that when people think of singer-songwriters, they think about the “I” voice and talking about your own experiences. My songs have never been like that. And actually the most personal thing I’ve ever made is the A Pocket album, and even that wasn’t really about me, it was about me and my pals, my neighbours, my community.
‘I think the way I go about writing my songs, you can tell a lot about me from the totality of the songs, but they’re never really about me directly speaking, but they are about my point of view.’
One of the album’s standout tracks is Matsuo’s Welcome To Muckhart, written with Martin Green (from Lau), which tells the stranger-than-fiction tale of the famous Japanese garden which has endured at the Clackmannashire home of global traveller and writer Isabella Christie since 1907. The garden was tended by a Japanese man called Shinzaburo Matsuo, who sailed 5,000 miles to Christie’s remote Scottish home, having lost his own family in Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923.
The idea for the story came from local school children in Muckhart as the result of a project she was taking part in
‘When Martin and I were asked to write for a schools project in that area, we asked the children to send us stories, poems and drawings about what mattered to them. And all the kids from Muckhart told us about the zen garden. But the interesting thing was that they all sent us stories about the landed lady who owned it, Miss Ella who funded and put together the garden, and Matsuo was kind of a bit player. To me, when I heard about this Japanese guy, he’s the main character, I want to know more about him. What a life! To be transported in the 1920s from the east coast of Japan, to this tiny village – even people in Scotland don’t know where Muckhart is.
‘When we think nowadays about the issue of migration, people have moved for ever and ever. So there’s something about this Japanese guy living in this tiny village and you realising this is not a new thing, these stories exist everywhere - there’s precedent for this. A lot of what passes for indigenous stuff has been borrowed from somewhere else.
‘I’m fascinated by that, and how we can get caught up in the way they are now and think that they’re special.
‘If ever there’s a city that represents this, it’s Portsmouth – ports are always hubs are travel.’
And Karine remains an optimist about human nature.
‘I think sometimes, even people with quite blinkered, prejudiced views are often one step away from making some connection that makes something real.
A lot of prejudice is fuelled by fear and ignorance and all the rest of it. Sometimes there’s a key that just makes the whole thing less scary and more like, “Oh wait a minute, I can insert myself into someone else’s situation,” and have a bit more empathy about it. At least that’s my hope, I can’t go through life without thinking that that’s possible.
There is also a spoken word track called I Burn But I’m Not Consumed, which is the Trump family motto. It’s Karine’s reaction to the lazy cynicism of much anti-Trump sentiment.
‘I definitely got sick of the cynical cheap jibe thing. I’m past that – it’s just not funny anymore. In general I think that cynicism can just stuff itself. I’m not a fan of cynical comedy that pokes at anything, and Trump is way beyond parody. The motivation for this track was the fact that his mother was Scottish, and the absolute sense of horror and shame.
‘There’s a bit of Scottish culture that can really puff itself up about the great contribution it’s made to the world and and to engineering. There’s a kind of narrative about Scotland, this mighty, small country: “Look at these amazing things we’ve done and sent around the world”.
‘But there’s a bit of me going: “Look what we’ve sent around the world, look what got borne of that and transplanted to America”. That’s nothing to be proud of, so there was an element of feeling culpable and responsible.
‘He has a heart connection to Scotland, he’s been here a lot in the past 10 years. He became a bogeyman in Scotland long before he became one in many other places because of his business connections here – he’s been a figure of derision and political concern for a long time in Scotland!
‘I wanted to have a voice that had a longer eye on things, and what has a longer eye than a three-and-a-half-billion-year-old piece of rock? it’s a bit of a different timescale to four year electoral cycles, you know?
‘It has a sort of bardic tone. In the west of Scotland, there’s a big tradition of bardic poetry, it’s kind of elemental and it’s not about just what’s happening now, and it has a long view of history and a long view of what’s to come. That’s one of the only things that enables me to get up in the morning, the belief that there’s something bigger than the cycles of politics. If that’s what it’s all about, we’re screwed!’
Impressively, even though the new album isn’t out yet, Karine has plenty more on her plate.
‘I’ve already almost finished recording another album. I had a big project this summer for the Edinburgh International Festival, The Songbook, and that’s connected with this exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland. That’s been an absolute joy, it was like delving through my childhood and youth and looking for my favourite songs by Scottish artists and reinterpreting them – everything from Big Country to Frightened Rabbit. So that’s in the pipeline for next year. I’ve really enjoyed that, it’s been a beautiful process. One of my favourite things to do is to rip apart songs and reinterpret them, which is what folk singers kind of do anyway!
‘And Pippa Murphy, who I did A Pocket with, we’ve got a commission for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
And there all kinds of residencies opening up. I’m working with seven other musicians, including Kris Drever and Julie Fowlis, on a project called Spell Songs, inspired by a book called The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, which has been a publishing sensation. That’s coming up at the turn of the year.
‘I’m not short of projects, it’s exciting!
‘And next year we’re going to New York for the first time, so I get to do my Trump-bashing song in the Carnegie Hall, which is pretty cool.’
The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea
Thursday, October 18