MONTREAL - Louis-Jean Cormier was still trying to take it all in yesterday afternoon. He and his Karkwa bandmates had just returned home to Montreal after winning the Polaris Music Prize for best Canadian album, for their fourth release Les chemins de verge, Monday night in Toronto.
It marks the first time in Polaris' five-year history that a non-Anglophone band has won the award. Only one other Quebecois act has come close; Malajube made the Polaris short list in both 2006 and 2009. So landing on top was a long shot.
"We couldn't have expected that at all," Cormier said. "Everyone's saying we were the dark horse. We were really apart from (everyone else), because of the language. We couldn't think, 'What if we win?' Even a few seconds before, I was saying, 'I hope it's not us. I'll be nervous to talk in English in front of all these amazing artists. In the end, we did it."
The accomplishment could open things up for Karkwa in the rest of the country, garnering the indie-rock band a whole new demographic of English-speaking music fans.
"Before this, we were totally unknown (elsewhere in Canada)," Cormier said. "There's a divide between the francophone Quebecois scene and the rest of the country. Both sides have to learn from the other. There's work to be done. What's nice about Polaris is it erases barriers."
The members of Karkwa were a little worse for wear today, functioning on three hours sleep after a long night of interviews, followed by some necessary celebration and an early start.
They were in the studio with Jian Ghomeshi this morning for his CBC Radio 1 show Q. Ghomeshi had the inside scoop, as one of the members of this year's Polaris Grand Jury.
"He was very happy," Cormier said. "We were really out of it, not really awake. He was laughing; he was in the same boat. We talked to lots of jury members. Apparently it was very difficult, very intense in the (jury room)."
Karkwa beat out some tough competition, including fellow Montrealers Radio Radio and Besnard Lakes, Toronto's Broken Social Scene, previous Polaris winners Owen Pallett and Caribou, sister-duo Tegan and Sara, rapper Shad, veteran rockers the Sadies and Vancouver's Dan Mangan.
"There was a real feeling of fraternity," Cormier said. "It made for an unusual gala … There was one winner in the end, but everyone deserves to win. There was no jealousy."
Les chemins de verge is Karkwa's most musically adventurous album, allowing the group to outgrow Radiohead comparisons of old as it expanded its sound to include more earthy textures, from lush vocal harmonies to piano hymns, folk influences and more.
"We realized, while recording, that maybe we had a more international album on our hands," Cormier said, "and that we had created something more timeless. Maybe that's what brought us to Polaris."
By T'Cha Dunlevy, Postmedia News September 21, 2010