Quebec’s French-singing Karkwa has nothing against anglophone music and audiences, but vocalist Louis-Jean Cormier draws the line at James Blunt.
As the English pop warbler’s earnest You’re Beautiful wafts annoyingly on the speakers at a Toronto coffee shop, Cormier, talking about an upcoming Canada Day concert at Trafalgar Square in London, jokingly recoils at the thought of even casually bumping into Blunt.
[ by BRAD WHEELER, From Tuesday's Globe and Mail, Published
“I don’t want to meet him,” he laughs. “It’s more like a visit to the dentist.”
There you have it. Karkwa, the elegant progressive folk-rock band from Montreal that captured last year’s Polaris Prize for the top album in Canada, is set to venture from Quebec in a meaningful way into English Canada, England and the United States. But, like a groundhog that sees its shadow, a particularly frightening spectre of someone like Blunt might just send the band scurrying back to its safer burrow.
Seriously, though, Karkwa is not intimidated, even though the English-Canadian reaction to the band’s Polaris win (for its fourth album, Les Chemins de verre) resembled the shock involved in the United States when Montreal indie band Arcade Fire won big at the Grammys. Who, or what, it was asked, is a Karkwa?
And now are we beginning to get answers. The band’s profile takes a jump this week, beginning with a performance at Thursday’s televised Genie Awards from Ottawa. In a salute to Richard J. Lewis’s film adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, Karkwa and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet have collaborated on a choreographed Dance Me to the Moon, a song in the film by Leonard Cohen.
The next day, Karkwa performs at the Canadian Music Week festival in Toronto. Then the five members are off to the music taste-makers convention that is South by Southwest in Austin, Tex. And there’s the matter of two Juno nominations, to be settled at the end of the month.
“There’s a lot of things happening,” acknowledges the long-haired keyboardist François Lafontaine, sipping an Americano at a Toronto’s Voulez-Vous Café. But there’s no sense that this is Karkwa’s make-or-break moment, Cormier, his songwriting partner, hastens to add. “We have to take the opportunity, for sure,” he says. “But we’ve been doing this far too long to have any pressure involved.”
Voulez-vous, of course, translates to “do you want?” Karkwa has been at it for 13 years. The opening track to Les Chemins de verre is the softly offered Moi-Léger (Lighter Me), a meditation on the endless cold of winter nights and the sleepless night and broken dreams of a rock and roll band on the road.
They enjoy popularity in Quebec, playing to crowds of 2,000 or so in Quebec City and Montreal. The five youngish musicians are all fathers; they see a fellow francophone band such as Malajube, which has slogged it out on the club circuit in Canada and the United States with little tangible result.
Currently, Karkwa is touring small clubs in Canada with Montreal’s popular Plants and Animals. Says Lafontaine: “We have to try it, but we’ll stick to short tours. We’ve won a lot of prizes over the last year, but we’ve had a lot of babies in the band too. We have to choose between our career and our family. That’s the hard part.”
Polaris, if we can generalize, rewards artfulness and exceptionality, from the orchestral indie pop of Final Fantasy’s He Poos Clouds, to Patrick Watson’s sublimely atmospheric Close to Paradise, to Caribou’s electronic daydream Andorra, to Karkwa’s graceful, cinematic fourth album.
One of the perks of the Polaris Prize (besides the $25,000 cheque) is a North American booking agent. It remains to be seen, though, if the Quebec quintet is unique enough – in the exotic vein of Iceland’s Sigur Ros – to break through language barriers.
“We play the music we’re supposed to play,” Lafontaine shrugs when asked if the band makes any concessions to English audiences. “The people can relate to the music, even if they don’t understand the lyrics,” he continues. “It doesn’t matter.”
Karkwa plays Peterborough, Ont., Tuesday; Kingston, Ont., Wednesday; and Ottawa, Thursday.