This interview originally ran in The Herald in November 2017…
Karine Polwart is sat at my kitchen table, cradling a cup of tea, while the wind burls the leaves in the garden beside us. Her granny used to live round the corner, and the writer, performer and singer-songwriter is shooting the breeze about family and forebears. She’s also reflecting on birds, bogs and childbirth; resistance, community, politics and witchy realms – and the prescient careers advice she was bequeathed at Denny High.
“Remember doing those Jiig-Cal things at school, where they spat out what you should do with your life?” she asks of a computer quiz that claimed to predict kids’ vocational prospects. “Well, I got a million different kinds of teacher, which isn’t any surprise, really. And then, in amongst all that, it also came up with archaeologist, investigative journalist, and archivist. And do you know what, actually? Fair play,” she laughs, giving technology credit where credit’s due.
Polwart’s latest work, the outstanding theatre meditation Wind Resistance, salutes technology, too, and the role it’s played in saving lives. A sell-out hit when it premiered at 2016’s Edinburgh International Festival (followed by hugely successful runs at Celtic Connections in January and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre just last week), Wind Resistance combines storytelling, folksong and physical theatre to weave and unravel yarns about motherhood, nature, healthcare, migration and the ways in which we can look out for each other. An accompanying album, A Pocket of Wind Resistance, was released yesterday.
Wind Resistance furthers Polwart’s exploration of history, ecology, social politics and family, and adds to an outstanding body of work that includes several award-winning LPs, the Songs of Separation project, a musical union with King Creosote and Emma Pollock (The Burns Unit), a duet with flamenco-punk heartbreaker RM Hubbert (Yew Tree), and the epic Pilgrimer – a Scots-tongue re-imagining of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, in cahoots with writer James Robertson and her brother, Steven, for Celtic Connections.
She mused on human migration for Martin Green’s Flit, delivered a jaw-dropping address on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, I Burn But I Am Not Consumed (“You build a tower, you build a wall, you live in fear that they will fall”), and Wind Resistance sees her wax lyrical on the NHS and bird lore and the remedial properties of sphagnum moss. A million different kinds of teacher.
Technology has its limits, though. The Jiig-cal neglected to flag up the magical sense of calm that Polwart commands in person, and in performance. It failed to foretell of her status as one of our most vital cultural voices: wise and warm and reassuring; provocative, stealthy, poetic and beautiful.
Still, it was bang-on about the archaeology. “I’ve always been interested in history,” Polwart says. “It’s never seemed very far away. I remember being a total bubonic plague buff at school. Seriously. In primary four, my special project was on the black death.” She’s wide-eyed and full of mirth at the memory. “So none of this is new, really. It all seems pretty consistent.”
Polwart’s vantage point for Wind Resistance is Fala Flow, a protected peatbog south-east of Edinburgh, near her Pathhead home. Its intertwining, time-travelling tales of mediaeval medicine, maternal mortality and goose skeins are deeply rooted in the area, but they strike a chord throughout the land. “One of the nice things about doing this has been getting feedback from people after the shows, and it’s amazing the connections they make for themselves,” she notes. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s just like in our woods’, or, ‘Let me tell you this about my childbirth…’ And there’s room for all that. Just because you’re telling a really particular story, it doesn’t mean you’re cutting other people’s stories out.”
Fala Flow and its surrounds are brought to remarkable life in Polwart’s hands, but perhaps everywhere has such stories to tell, if you’re minded to listen. “Exactly,” she says. “Wherever it is that I live, I don’t just want to know what’s going on – I want to know what’s gone on in the past, and why. It’s funny sitting talking to you here [in Bridge of Allan], right around the corner from where my granny lived, because I always spent a lot of time here with her,” she says. “In my 20s, I’d come and visit, and I’d stay over, and we would talk and talk. I wanted her view on global politics and technology and what was going on in the world.
“And part of Wind Resistance is borne of a kind of surrogate granny figure from where I live now, in this character Molly Kristensen, who was my neighbour,” she continues. Molly’s parents, Will and Roberta, are at the heart of Wind Resistance. “Molly was of my granny’s generation, and they had a very similar upbringing, and a lot of getting to know the place when I moved there was hanging out, talking to older people, and being outside, and noticing things, and wanting to make connections between them.”
Kristensen, who died in 2009, first appeared in a song called Salter’s Road, on Polwart’s glorious album, Traces (produced by Iain Cook of Chvrches). A variation, Molly Sime’s Welcome to Salter’s Road, is one of many stunning adaptations to feature on A Pocket of Wind Resistance, whose spoken-word narratives deftly carry the album’s chorales and warmly-drawn characters.
The record, says Polwart, was a happy accident. “It just kind of evolved from the show,” she says. “But then the whole thing’s had that element of happenstance. It started out as this scrappy rant about geese flying and looking after each other that I did in London, at this festival called Breathe, and then again at the Traverse bar in Edinburgh.” Royal Lyceum Artistic Director David Greig saw the latter performance and signed up Polwart. “He literally said, ‘Right, you’re on. We’ll make it a show.’” Six months later, it was an Edinburgh International Festival sell-out, with Greig as dramaturg.
Polwart has clearly loved spreading her wings. “I’ve really enjoyed creating something that’s got a big structure with so many incredible people behind the scenes – that’s so indulgent,” she says. “And having the freedom to be able to talk and sing and move has been amazing. I’d never really moved before. My normal performance style as a folk singer is pretty static, I’ve got my guitar or I’ll have the security of clinging to a mic stand, but I’ve realised I love to move, physically. The movement director on Wind Resistance, Janice Parker, was like – ‘You need to take up more space! Take up your space!’” She throws her head back, arms akimbo. “That’s been a joy. And it’s been pretty transformative, I think.”
She moves, alright. After a performance of Wind Resistance at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, which prompted a tear-stained standing ovation, I tried to decipher my crumpled notes, but could only make out two words: she flies. And there are other glimmers of magic in Wind Resistance – tinctures, spells and alchemy, and powerful things we cannot see. “Totally, it’s that thing about creating slightly witchy magical spaces,” Polwart nods. “The whole show starts on a sort of spangly vibe – you know, ‘What’s going on here, with all the chime-y sounds and everything?’ And then I blow into my hand and a sound appears… There’s a wee conjure-y thing going on.”
Musically, too, Wind Resistance is magical, as is evidenced on the album’s soundscapes, honed by composer Pippa Murphy. They variously summon peatbogs, sunsets and and hospital wards. “Pippa works like a painter, with a palette, and that’s been really brilliant,” Polwart says. “I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to structuring things, but Pippa would say, ‘Let’s just throw a few things in there, scatter them around, and we can structure afterwards’. So there’s lots of layers going on. You can catch something one time you listen, and something else when you listen again. That’s like a little bit of magic to me.”
Polwart and Murphy first worked together on James Robertson’s Pilgrimer, and they’ve new work in the pipeline for Spring. “It’s so rare, at this point in life, to make a new collaborative partnership like that – and to make a new pal whose circumstances are similar to mine. Hallelujah!” Polwart beams.
That kinship is crucial, she adds. “There’s a lot of stuff getting made in the world by people who don’t have any responsibilities for anyone else. They can stay up till four in the morning, they can jet off for four weeks at a time, and it’s a young person’s life – or it’s a guy’s life,” she says. “Culturally, even now, in my scene, the hard touring acts are predominantly guys. And we’re in a zone now where, to make a sustainable living as a musician, you have to be touring, or thinking really creatively about how you’re going to make it work, because your CDs aren’t going to cut it any more.
“Pippa’s got two kids the same age as mine, so does Inge [Thomson], so does my brother,” she continues. (She plays with the latter two in her trio). “So all the main collaborators in my life have very similar sets of constraints, but also very similar attitudes. It’s like, ‘Okay, this is the way this has to happen, and it has to happen slowly’. It’s five years since I made an album. But I’m a single mother. It takes time.”
It bears noting that Polwart has barely drawn breath since the release of Traces in 2012. From I Burn But I Am Not Consumed via Pilgrimer to Wind Resistance, she’s consistently sung the praises of resilience, humanity, healing, flight, air, love, music, hope. Invisible forces strong enough to carry the past and carry us forward, to bring us together, to knock down walls.