When Quebec five-piece Karkwa walked off with the Polaris Music Prize last year, it stunned not only the Canadian music industry, but also the band itself. “We were the real dark horse last year,” says singer Louis-Jean Cormier down the line from his Vancouver hotel room.“We were the only French band so when we won it was so unexpected. It was very unbelievable for us and it’s still that way.”
The mission of the annual Polaris Music Prize is to honour the best Canadian album of the year, regardless of genre or sales. By this definition, it shouldn’t have come as a shock that Karkwa’s Les Chemins de verre won the $20,000 prize, becoming the first Francophone band to do so.
Les Chemins de verre (The Glass Pathways or The Glass Roads) is an ambitious record. Part progressive folk, part ambient indie pop, part lofty, Coldplay-esque stadium rock, the album is filled with sweeping melodies, gentle harmonies and complex arrangements.
Recorded in a short 21 days at France’s famed Studio La Frette – where legendary French singers such as Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Fontaine have recorded, as well as Canadian artists Feist and Patrick Watson – Les Chemins de verre has proven to be Karkwa’s key to English-speaking audiences.
The band is currently on its first tour of western Canada and plays The Gateway at SAIT on Saturday night.“The big surprise for us on this tour is that a lot of the venues have mostly been sold out,” says Cormier, still sounding a little groggy after presenting Arcade Fire with the 2011 Polaris award in Toronto the night before.
“It’s a surprise because we still sing in French. We haven’t changed. The most beautiful thing is to realize that there are music lovers everywhere and there are curious people. They heard about us and they’re excited to hear what’s going to happen on stage and what Karkwa’s show looks like.”
In March, the group received another accolade. This time it was a Juno Award for Francophone album of the year. It may seem odd that Karkwa is only now taking advantage of their raised national profile, but Cormier explains family and other touring commitments came first.
The members of Karkwa are all fathers with young children. Drummer Stephane Bergeron welcomed his first child in November so the band took a break, which led into the holiday season and then a European tour early this year. “We lost six months right off the bat,” he says.
Karkwa tested the Anglo water with a short Ontario tour with fellow Montrealers Plants and Animals before fully committing to a Canadian tour. Though he says the current tour is going well, Cormier admits it feels as if the band is starting over.“When we’re playing in Montreal, we’re always playing in front of a big crowd,” he explains.
“We’ve been doing that for a long time now. Everybody knows our songs. "When we tour in the west it’s more that we have to reach the audience one by one, so it seems like how we started 14 years ago. It’s more comfortable because we have technicians and we have experience so it’s not really the same thing, but it can be exhausting.”
BY LISA WILTON ,CALGARY SUN, THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 2011