Karine Polwart talks Traces: ‘They’re not songs in the abstract’

It’s been quite a while – four years now – since the release of Karine Polwart’s last solo album, This Earthly Spell. But she’s not spent the time sitting on her hands. In addition to a rigorous touring schedule, plus recording with “favourite band” Lau, she’s “been involved in The Burns Unit with lots of different writers, and the Darwin Song Project, and the Fruit Tree Foundation. There’s been a lot of getting my head around writing with other people.”

“It’s been brilliant actually, it’s made me open my eyes to different ways of writing, and I think the songs that are on Traces are a little bit more complex than the ones on previous albums.”

Karine Polwart is good at “complex”. The folk scene needs thoughtful, insightful songwriters as much as it needs faithful traditionalists, and for now she is working in the latter mode. For Traces, the core KP trio – Karine plays alongside Inge Thomson and her brother Steven Polwart – has been augmented by piano, percussion, flute and horns, blended by producer Iain Cook (of The Unwinding Hours) into a bigger, dreamier, and more “cinematic” sound.

The result is a less ‘folky’-sounding affair. “I’ve been a little bit braver about bringing in people from outside my sphere,” says Karine. “I feel like I’ve got good connections with people from the indie and Scottish pop scenes, and it feels like the pool of people I can draw upon is much broader.”

Lyrically, however, the content is very much Karine’s: complex (that word again), often difficult issues, explored with a compassionate, intelligent and personal touch. Opening track Cover Your Eyes takes aim at Donald Trump and his corporation’s golf development in Aberdeenshire, arrogantly built against the wishes of local people. The track was inspired by Anthony Baxter’s film You’ve Been Trumped, and now features on its closing credits.

“About a year ago the film had its first screening in Edinburgh as part of the Take One Action festival,” she says. “I went to see it and I was just blown away. There was a box for audience feedback, so I left a little rant about how much I was impressed, and left my email address. The festival director got in touch and asked if I’d like to be involved in the next screening, and I said I would but only if I had the chance to write something about the film.”

Given the outrage You’ve Been Trumped provokes in the viewer, Cover Your Eyes is almost perversely gentle. It begins by evoking happy childhood memories, before waving off Trump’s incursions with a calm but menacing reminder of the nature of Scotland’s weather. “The haar will stumble in / to cover your eyes”, sing Karine and Inge, solemnly. Be assured, Mr Trump – this is a promise, not a threat.

“The course has been built on an area that’s defined by its fragility and its vulnerability,” she says. “The sea has not stopped encroaching, and the north wind is not going to stop blowing, so I suspect what’ll happen is that it’ll be a constant battle to keep that golf course functional. There’s an element of glee every time there’s a bad weather report from that part of the country!”

It’s a beautiful, thoughtful start to a subtle, nuanced record. “My writing’s deliberately a little bit more oblique and poetic on this album,” says Karine. “I’m not trying to explain everything, so it’s more about trying to capture a mood or a picture or a sense of a feeling.”

King of Birds, for example, takes the mythology of the wren and uses it to pay tribute to the Occupy Movement, who made headlines with their protests at St Paul’s Cathedral at the end of last year. Equally, Sticks ‘n’ Stones waves goodbye to a family home by focusing on the details, from “inch lines on door frames” to “hopes in the plasterboard”.

Loss and its aftermath are key themes on Traces. None more so than those that deal directly with death. Written as part of the Darwin Song Project in 2009, We’re All Leaving movingly explores the effect the death of ten-year-old Annie Darwin on her father. “It’s inspired by Charles Darwin and his loss, but from my point of view as a parent, it also represents my worst fear – losing my own children,” she says. “I’ve been playing it for a couple of years now at gigs and I get the most extraordinary feedback: people pouring their hearts out about their own personal circumstances. It’s my worst fear, but it’s some people’s reality, and you have to be a bit mindful of that. They’re not songs in the abstract.”

Even closer to home is Strange News, about the day Karine’s cousin Ewan suddenly died, and the accompanying sense of disbelief and shock. But, despite the unsettling line “There’s a blood red mark upon my door”, there is still a positive note: “I feel good about singing that song,” says Karine. “I wrote it with my brother, and I feel that every time I sing it I remember Ewan.”

What does unsettle Karine, however, is Half a Mile, Traces’ final track, of which she has already decided: “I’m never going to sing it in public”. It concerns the death of Susan Maxwell, the 11-year-old girl murdered in 1982 in the border town of Cornhill upon Tweed. “It’s the only time where I’ve ever doubted whether I should have written a song,” she says. “I’ve never had that feeling before, and I’ve written about some pretty heavy-duty subject matter – genocide and all manner of stuff. There was something about writing about a named individual who’s from not that far away… I really was quite vexed about whether that was an appropriate thing to do.”

For all her fears – Karine wrote to Susan Maxwell’s parents to check they were happy for her to release the song – Half a Mile is a success. It’s tough listening – a series of unhappy, unanswerable questions – but it’s a tribute to the clarity and sensitivity of the writing that the Maxwell family approved. “I got a little note back from Susan’s mum saying that the most important thing for them was that their daughter was remembered,” says Karine. “And the song had been written in that spirit.”

Traces may be redolent of loss, but the album is not a gloomy one. Tinsel Show, for example, seeks out the romance in the “reeking industry” of a BP Petrochemical plant. There’s Don’t Worry, which, she says “speaks for itself”, and Salter’s Road, which warmly celebrates the life of Karine’s late neighbour Molly Kristensen. Traces is principally an appreciation of what is precious, and its profound, unlikely optimism is soul-stirring stuff.

So what’s next? Karine “always has a few side projects on the go”. A writing and creative project inspired by an island in the Firth of Forth is mooted, Robert Burns’ songs are constantly on her mind, and there’s even a suggestion of an album of ballads (though “that’s a big piece of work”, she acknowledges).

Perhaps the best way to follow her progress is online. Karine and Inge “are proper Twitter addicts on tour”, though @IAMKP is worth following for her ‘passionate’ Question Time disseminations alone. “I’ve ruined any possibilities of being in any way enigmatic,” she laughs. “There’s absolutely no mystique about what my opinions are!”

For this year, the focus is on touring the record (mainly as a trio, though there will be some shows played as part of a five, even a seven-piece). Though for this rather restless artist, the learning process continues. “I’m focused on making the live performances as good as they can be, so a lot of energy is going into rehearsing and arranging. I’m getting a bit more tech-heavy about gigs and gadgets to make a bigger noise. That’s something that’s quite unexpected for me. I’m learning a bunch of new skills and I’m quite excited about that.”

Traces is out now. See karinepolwart.com for tour dates. Folk Witness thanks to James Parrish, Simon Rogers and Elinor Zuke.

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