Alternative Rock group Karkwa pose with their Felix for best group, and refreshments, at the ADISQ gala, the Quebec music industry awards ceremony in Montreal, on Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008. (Graham Hughes / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
TORONTO — Radio Radio's Jacques Doucet was happy when he discovered the band had been short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize.
He was even happier when he found out what the award actually was.
"We knew it was cool but we didn't know the extent of it until everybody kept saying congratulations," Doucet said in a recent telephone interview. "Then we read up on it, and it's cool. I don't really listen to a lot of music, so I didn't really follow it. But no, it's pretty cool -- now that we know what it is."
Some might argue that it's a bad omen that some Canadian bands still aren't completely aware of the $20,000 prize, now in its fifth year.
(In fact, when Toronto dancehall production duo South Rakkas Crew received an email congratulating them on making the Polaris long list this year, they thought it was junk mail.)
On the other hand? It could be a sign that the Polaris -- awarded to the best Canadian album of the year, regardless of genre or sales -- is branching out.
This year's class of 10 short-listed artists is the first to include two acts who don't perform primarily in English.
Radio Radio, who formed in Nova Scotia, rap primarily in Acadian French, while Montreal's Karkwa layer French vocals over their expansive, Radiohead-inspired rock soundscapes.
The jury that selected the list of 40 longlisted records and 10 shortlisted albums is composed of nearly 200 music journalists, the majority of whom speak English as a first language.
The Polaris has nominated French-speaking bands before -- Montreal indie-rockers Malajube were on the short list in 2006 and 2009 while Patrick Watson won the award in 2007 -- but each of those bands had arguably bigger followings outside of Quebec than this year's French nominees.
Karkwa, for instance, is well-known in Quebec and has racked up nine Felix Awards, but they've only played a handful of shows in English Canada over their 12-year history.
"We were really surprised (to be nominated)," said frontman Louis-Jean Cormier during an interview from the rooftop patio of a Toronto restaurant. "It's an honour."
Said Doucet: "I think that's a good sign. ... I mean, I'm not expecting it to be 10 bands that are Francophone in the top 10 but it's still nice to represent French Canada."
And yet, both bands are clear that they don't want to be recognized for anything other than their music when a grand jury of 11 journalists selects the winning album at a gala on Monday night.
"Depending on what the vote's going to be, if they're going to go: 'OK, I don't really understand most of it?' Or are they going to say: 'Well, it's kind of like bilingual and it represents Canada?"' Doucet said.
"That shouldn't factor into the whole thing. If it's a good album and it deserves to win, French or English, it doesn't really matter."
That's exactly in line with the mandate from Polaris founder and executive director Steve Jordan, who bristles at the notion that anything outside of an album's quality should be taken into consideration for the Polaris.
"Our nightmare is to see a really great record get passed over for reasons that have nothing to do with the music," Jordan said in a recent interview.
"That's our biggest nightmare."
This year's group of 10 features two former winners -- Caribou and Owen Pallett -- and three other previous nominees, including Toronto rock collective Broken Social Scene, Montreal psych-rockers the Besnard Lakes and rapper Shad of London, Ont.
Newcomers include Vancouver singer-songwriter Dan Mangan, Toronto alt-country outfit the Sadies and Calgary-raised pop duo Tegan and Sara.
Despite Jordan's best efforts, the notion that the Polaris is reserved for emerging or "indie" artists has persisted. When Leonard Cohen made the long list in 2009, for instance, it raised a few eyebrows among those who thought that such an established artist didn't really belong with the other Polaris nominees.
"You know, even getting the jury itself to embrace the notion that it's not about emerging artists or it's not about independent artists, that it's just about the best record, that's also a challenge," said Jordan, who noted that the upcoming Daniel Lanois-produced Neil Young album could attract attention from the jury and possibly help vanquish certain misconceptions about the award.
"But it's something I think that happens slowly and over time. And with some acceptance of things that might be ... a little more popular."
It's a discussion that engages the nominated artists too.
"The first time I was nominated I thought I definitely was not going to win just because ... I didn't feel like a member of a larger Canadian music community -- I felt like I was some kind of weirdo doing my own thing," said Dan Snaith, a.k.a. Caribou, on the line from London.
"This time around, I feel like I'm not going to win because I've already won. The good thing about the Polaris Prize is that ... it's a good way of exposing people around the world to Canadian music that they might not have heard otherwise. So it makes me feel like I don't want to like hog the space that could be available to someone else.
"But on the other hand, it's also supposed to be a prize for a good album or whatever and from my personal perspective, my album 'Swim' is my favourite one that I've made so I'm glad it's being recognized by being put on the shortlist."
Musicians in general often grapple with the idea of selecting the "best" album under supposedly objective, merit-based terms. On the other hand, such awards and nominations typically carry a tangible benefit -- both Radio Radio and Karkwa, for instance, have noticed an increase in interest since their Polaris nominations.
"I kind of buy the argument from people who think that awards are kind of arbitrary and meaningless, but at the same time, what we're trying to do goes beyond just picking a winner and picking a short list and picking a long list," Jordan said.
"It's trying to bring back the conversation about the art of the album, which is kind of not happening anymore."
"At the end of the day, (artists) just want to know that someone's listened to their albums because they've put a lot of work and a lot of heart and a lot of soul into it and they want to make it the best possible."
But for the record, first-time nominees Karkwa scarcely seem conflicted about the distinction.
Though they say they have no expectations about winning, they're thrilled to be in the fold.
"The great thing about the Polaris is the universality of music, there's no barriers," said Cormier, filtering his French through his manager, before switching back to English.
"They do it for the best reasons."
Article from The Canadian Press
Date: Thursday Sep. 16, 2010