The Polaris Prize was handed out last night at a gala in Toronto and the winner was .... Karkwa!
The real prizewinners are the music listeners of the world, as the path to some of the best Canadian music around is illuminated by the spotlight that is The Polaris Music Prize. If you haven't already, you can go HERE and listen to a song from every album nominated from the year that was. Then after you do that you can head on down to an actual music store like Zulu Records and buy one... or two... or maybe even more. It could make your autumn. It could change your life!
Or, you could just keep reading about Polaris and what it's all about (courtesy of Steve Jordan) and what it feels like to be a winner (from Mr. Abraham himself, who I had the pleasure of talking to a few days ago while he was in-between buying new records and making sure his adorable 16 month-old son didn't tear his house apart).
And then leave a comment to enter.
Polaris mastermind Steve Jordan; members of 2010 winners Karkwa at the shortlist announcement in July.
Was this your brainchild?
It was. The inspiration came from a few different places but mostly because so many records were coming out that weren't obviously commercial but they were amazing and world-class. We were also inspired by the Giller Prize and how that seemed to boost profile and sales for the nominees and the winner as well. As a music lover for years I have followed the Mercury Prize in the UK and have purchased records that were completely unknown over here just because they'd been nominated... the thought was that maybe this concept could be something that worked in Canada.
I love that The Polaris is such a broad, unabashed celebration. Are Canadians reluctant to celebrate themselves?
I don't know – when our hockey team wins we're pretty happy to celebrate ourselves! That's for a sociologist to answer, not me. I think because we're so close to the States we tend to measure things on those terms, so it tends to be about sales more than the actual work itself. I think we also got a sense of the untapped enthusiasm for some of the great records that were being made here and certainly, I think our growth over the past few years has been a result of tapping into that feeling.
What sort of impact does Polaris have on the artists?
On the artists' side, we do see some traditional things like increased record sales and more people coming out to their shows when they tour. Also, a lot of this stuff is anecdotal - artists who have been nominated or won saying that when they go on tour in Europe that's all anyone wanted to talk about. There's the hard number of how this helps an artist who is nominated or, more to the point, wins – but there is a reference to Polaris now that permeates into the media for any of our nominees. I think that gives them a little bit of a leg up, both here and overseas.
About three or four days after our gala last year Elliott Brood had booked a tour across Canada, a first for them of a different sized venue, and they were selling out shows – I got an email saying, “Thanks for involving us! We know that people are coming to our shows because of seeing us on the gala.” The same with Patrick Watson; his promoters were telling us how shows were selling out that were doing just OK before he won Polaris. Same with Owen Pallett; when he won he said, “I'm getting all sorts of press I didn't get before ... like Swiss Vogue!” Every year there's another story about how it's helped them achieve a higher level of notoriety.
In terms of exporting our artists – is Polaris a brand for Canadian music?
Exactly. And that's good – that's what we were setting out to do. It's kind of like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Do you vote?
I do not, no. In fact I am known among our jury as Mr Swiss for my neutrality. We do select the jury members and they get approved by our board of directors.
What was the last band or show that you saw?
Last night I saw Shad play a party at TIFF. Shad is amazing live!
What is the best Polaris swag?
Well, our friends at Apple are giving our artists a device of which I can't reveal at the moment ... those are pretty frickin' cool. Sirius radio players (Sirius is a Polaris sponsor) are also pretty awesome and they can listen to a lot of CBC Radio 3 on there. We have hardcover programs with download cards for tracks, which are a work of art themselves.
The poster art – we were trying to come up with some sort of trophy for our nominees. I was at Flatstock at SxSW a few years ago and the light bulb went off – what if we got poster artists to create individualized poster art, and that's what we'll present to the artists for their nominations? I would actually put that above Swag – it's a piece of art with creativity attached to it.
Everything we do around Polaris is about these records are fabulous pieces of art – we're just trying to build a frame that does it justice. Everything that we do, we try and do with artistic integrity as much as we possibly can.
I am currently obsessed with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' song "Home". What's playing on your iPod?
Oh yeah! That is one of my gems of the year, definitely.
I'm not going to mention anything on the Polaris list because I don't want it to seem like I am playing favourites, but I would like people to go to our website and call up the player and you'll definitely find something for your playlist.
You are very good, Sir. A veritable Swiss army knife of diplomatically correct answers.
I've had some practice.
F**ked Up's Christmas single has earned in the region of $20,000 for three charities across Canada. "Everyone that was on the record was 100% willing and I can't say enough good stuff about them," said Damian.
F**ked Up's lead singer Damian Abraham just got back from a tour and spoke to me from a record store in Toronto. The self-described "music nerd" has been spending his downtown catching up on his life, which includes buying new records “oh... and family.” I told him it was good that he had his priorities straight. “Family is forever, vinyl goes out of print.”
Despite what one might assume about a guy who sings in a decidedly death metal mode and fronts a band with a name like “F**ked Up,” Damian assures me that his taste in music is eclectic. “I'm a music nerd, not a snob. People that make the music that I really like – tend to be the nerds. The people that agonize over records, over their favourite songs and make lists.” The former University of Toronto Women's Studies student(!) also has a serious social conscience - F**ked Up used a good chunk of their Polaris winnings to record a charity single which benefited three community organizations that work with aboriginal women (Justice for the Missing and Murdered in Montreal, D.T.E.S. Power of Women in Vancouver, and Sisters in Spirit in Ottawa).
Was Polaris on your radar?
Absolutely. From the first year we knew about it – when Owen, Final Fantasy, won. It certainly wasn't the biggest record nominated as far as sales go but what it was was an unbelievable record that was put out by an independent label that didn't have tons of distribution ... it definitely felt immediately that this award was recognizing something different than other awards. Right away we fashioned ourselves future nominees and we put out our first record, didn't get nominated and kinda thought, “well, I guess we're not going to get it.” When The Chemistry of Common Life got nominated it took us by surprise – a huge surprise - because we didn't get nominated the first time. Then winning was a bigger surprise.
The Polaris, for us, helped get us recognized in Canada. For some it works the other way and helps increase their profile internationally. We had no profile in Canada. This was our profile.
What makes the prize important?
It is an award that, every year, goes to an interesting winner. It may not be the artist I agree with, but every record that has won I respect, even if I didn't agree.
I think that's the problem that the Canadian Music Industry falls into from time to time, which is rewarding success over additions. Some people have really been arguing about over whether Justin Bieber should be on the list and it's like, “that's not a good record.” He's successful, he's hugely popular, but that's not a good record. There are records in that genre that are better that that record. In Canada we can become too enamoured with success sometimes and forget. Some of the most important bands that have come from Canada have sold no records but have inspired genres all over the world but they don't really get respect in Canada. We toured in China and saw kids walking around in Blasphemy shirts, yet nobody really knows them in Canada. Like DOA from Vancouver – that's the band that coined hardcore yet they don't seem to get a lot of love in Canada. Teenage Head is another example... It's so bizarre.
Canada is almost defined as “the other.” It's a very legitimate identity, but it's defined as what it is in relation to America, England or to France. We're defined by what we're not. Because we are defining ourselves in relation to bigger countries, we tend to measure success by how well known something is in other countries ... which I think misses the point. When a band in America puts out a record they're not really worried about how it's playing in Canada.
We tend to almost be overly protective of Canadian music. There are bands that will only tour Canada, back and forth and over and over again. It tends to foster a Canadian music industry elite. One good thing about the Polaris is, because of the way it is set up, shatter that. There's a very good possibility that an outsider record could win. There's a lot of bands that aren't necessarily part of the Canadian music industry that can get recognized this way, bands that don't necessarily play “the game” of the industry. That's why I think Polaris is such an important award, because it exists outside of these forces. It still depends on critics, but hopefully they're savvy music nerds.
I love that it goes from a long list to a short list. That's so inclusive!
That's a fairly recent development. Originally it was just a short list. I think the long list is actually the more interesting of the two. You get a lot that aren't really contenders but it casts a little bit of a spotlight on some of these unknown records. Hopefully Polaris causes people to look beyond what they listen to, a broader spectrum. It's a young award, but every year the list is a little bit better at embracing Canadian music.
It [the winning album] should ideally be a record that you like... in a vacuum. It's impossible to say that the Shad record is a better album than the Tegan and Sarah record, they're just so sonically different. But you have to look at them and go, “which of them is more reflective of a given year or a certain spirit?” It's a really bizarre way of doing things but also a really fair way.
F**ked Up's charity Christmas single - a cover of Band Aid's iconic "Do They Know it's Christmas" - included artists like Tegan and Sara, Andrew WK, David Cross, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, Yo La Tengo, Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew, and others. The band had planned to do a charity single benefiting the cause of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada prior to winning Polaris. "It is truly a Canadian tragedy that transcends provincial borders and the plight of aboriginal women in Canada is uniquely Canadian in its horror." Abraham contends that after winning the project "took on a different shape."
At the press conference following F**ked Up's win, Abraham used the platform to announce the band's intention. Said Steve Jordan, "It was a pretty proud moment when I stood there at the press conference where everyone gets to interview the winner . Of course the first question they got asked is, “What are you going to do with the money?” They had already anticipated what they would do if they won and when they said that ... I couldn't have been prouder of what we do and the community sense that it encourages in our artists."
I think what F**ked Up managed to do in that moment, and with the subsequent release of the single, was wonderful.
We were really fortunate to be in the position that we were. Very few people get inspired to help these amazing organizations that basically work hand to mouth. They do all the hard work – we just came in and did all the fancy stuff. We were lucky because we were given a forum to talk about it that was nationwide. When I walked out into the press conference there were literally cameras from all across Canada asking me what I was going to do with the money. Very rarely are you given that sort of a platform, especially as a band with a swear word in its name.
I don't want it to be like, “Oh you win, you automatically have to donate some of the money.” Being in a band is an expensive proposition sometimes. We were just in a really fortunate place where we didn't need all that money. I hope there's not an obligation now for other artists to do this. We were just really lucky.
To enter Vancouver is Awesome's amazing giveaway, leave a comment about any of the music you've heard on the list. Winner will be picked at random and contacted via email. Contest ends on Friday, October 15 at 5:00 pm.
Special thanks to The Polaris Music Prize, Zulu Records, and Distribution Select.