Karkwa became the first French-language band to win the $20,000 Polaris Music Prize on Monday. The Montrealers were clearly dumbstruck as they took the stage at Toronto's Masonic Temple to claim the prize, which was given for their fourth album Les chemins de verre.
“That's weird, that's very strange,” said frontman Louis-Jean Cormier as the band took the stage to claim their oversized cheque. “I don't know what to say.” It still hadn't sunk in when they wandered backstage later.“It's a dream,” muttered Francois Lafontaine, before repeating the phrase again: “It's a dream.”
Indeed, the Montrealers seemed like heavy underdogs against a stacked Polaris class. There were two previous winners nominated in Caribou (Dan Snaith of Dundas, Ont.) and Toronto's Owen Pallett, while three other nominees were up for the award for a second time: Toronto rock collective Broken Social Scene, Montreal psych-rockers the Besnard Lakes and rapper Shad of London, Ont.
Maritime electro-rap outfit Radio Radio, Vancouver singer-songwriter Dan Mangan, long-running Toronto alt-country outfit the Sadies and Calgary-reared pop duo Tegan and Sara were also up for the award, which is given based on merit, without regard for genre or sales. The 10-artist short list was selected by polling nearly 200 music journalists spread across Canada, while the winner was chosen by an 11-member grand jury.
For Karkwa, the band is celebrated in its native Quebec but has rarely toured English Canada. Still, their Radiohead-inspired rock soundscapes – with an intricate pop bent that calls to mind Sigur Ros or even Coldplay – apparently transcended language barriers to win the award.
“Music is a universal language,” Cormier said succinctly backstage.
All 10 acts performed during the gala, which carried a chummy atmosphere in which no artist wanted to admit to feeling competitive about the grand prize.
Members of Karkwa joined Radio Radio onstage for their performance, Pallett added violin to a largely acoustic Tegan and Sara and Mangan persuaded much of the crowd to sing along to his Robots, which he delivered from atop one of the gala's circular tables.
Shad also delivered a revised take on his tune Ya I Get It, flipping the beat at one point before rapping a new a capella verse at the end of the song. The Sadies' Dallas Good wore a red suit once owned by Tommy Hunter, but didn't seem to feel particularly lucky. “We're happy to be here,” he said after the band's performance. “This is probably our only moment to say thanks, so thanks.”
Of course, the members of Karkwa didn't anticipate having another opportunity to say thanks, either.The band mused about what they might do with the money – they suggested perhaps buying a new van, or hiring a touring manager (drummer Stephane Bergeron is acting in that capacity at the moment). But aside from the money, the Polaris seemed to have another effect on the band. The award seems to have galvanized the band to push beyond borders of language.
“We are here holding a cheque in Toronto and we are beginning to think about why don't we play in our country (and) the States,” Cormier said. “Maybe we are at the beginning of something for us.”
By Nick PatchToronto— The Canadian Press, for Globe and Mail, Published Tuesday, Sep. 21, 2010