Will a polaris music prize win and juno nominations help the francophone band break through in english Canada?
Karkwa are a veteran rock band in Quebec, but in Toronto they’re still playing the role of up-and-comers.
Since winning the 2010 Polaris Music Prize for Les Chemins De Verre (Audiogram), the Montreal indie rockers have enjoyed such a wave of exposure that it’s easy to forget they’ve been at it for 13 years. Hitting the road with Plants & Animals for their first proper tour of Ontario, they’re striking while the iron’s hot...
[ by Richard Trapunski Now Magazine, March 3-10, 2011]
“It’s exciting but also kind of funny,” says lead singer Louis-Jean Cormier over the phone from Montreal. “On this tour we’re opening for Plants & Animals, but in Quebec they usually open for us.”
That’s generally how the last six months have gone for Karkwa. With many English-speaking music fans just now discovering them, the band can’t rest on their laurels. In the next month alone they’ll play high-profile showcases at CMW, South By Southwest and the Genie Awards, where they’ll team up with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in a tribute to Barney’s Version. They’re also nominated for a pair of Junos, including one for alternative album of the year.
“We’ve had a lot more calls from English newspapers, magazines and radio, and to be honest it hasn’t been very easy,” confides Cormier. “When we came in [to Toronto] for the Polaris gala, many people told us, ‘Sorry I’m so bad in French.’ Now we are living the opposite. But we’re working hard to get better [at English].”
If nothing else, Karkwa’s late-career push will test how willing English Canada is to embrace a French band. While acts like Malajube and Coeur de Pirate have had modest crossover success, others like Fred Fortin are idolized in Quebec but virtually ignored in the rest of Canada.
The language barrier is an undeniable obstacle, but, as Karkwa have stressed since the Polaris, the language of music is universal.
“The lyrics are as important to us as the music,” Cormier says. “But when people are dancing and humming along, they don’t worry as much about understanding the words.”
This echoes Polaris’s mandate, which aims to strip away all outside influences to pick a winning album based “solely on artistic merit.” An exercise in decontextualization, the prize resembls the shuffle function of iTunes, which places all songs on an equal footing regardless of label, background and, yes, language.
Of course that hasn’t stopped many pundits from seeing Karkwa’s Polaris victory as a calculated political move, but the band prefers to view it as a victory for their music alone.
“I know that for many people we are now representing the francophone community of Montreal,” admits Cormier. “There are a lot of great artists singing in French here, and it’s good to make the rest of Canada a little curious about them.
“Maybe we’re opening some doors or breaking frontiers, but that’s not our first goal. We just want to play our music like we’ve done for the last 13 years, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”