Karkwa’s unlikely Polaris win last year has re-launched the band’s career in English-speaking Canada and beyond
Last September, Montreal alt-rock outfit Karkwa made headlines for being the first French-speaking act to snag the Polaris Music Prize for its fourth album, 2010’s Les chemins de verre (The Glass Roads).
It’s not an overstatement to say that the win was a shocker among many Canadian music pundits — unlike Arcade Fire’s 2011 Polaris Music Prize win last week, which was a shock to absolutely no one. Despite having been around for over a decade, the band was regarded as the little-known underdog on a shortlist that included such heavyweights as Broken Social Scene, Tegan and Sara, Dan Mangan and previous Polaris winners Owen Pallett and Caribou.
Few expected Karkwa would actually win the $20,000 prize — including Karkwa.
"We were certain not to win," says singer/guitarist Louis-Jean Cormier, 31, with a laugh, over the phone from his home in Montreal. "It was a very exceptional evening for us. We were playing in front of a lot of talented artists. We were just happy to be there. At the moment we heard our band name (called), we were like, ‘Fuck, what is it?’ We’re not good with English and we had to speak in front of all these people." (For the record, Cormier’s English is great.)
"After you win something like that, you get a lot of new opportunities — especially for a French band," he continues. "We’re well-known in Quebec and we tour in a lot of Francophone centres but, to win a prize like that, it opens a lot of doors. It’s a way to reach every curious person or music lover in the country."
Besides, Karkwa’s win really isn’t so shocking when you consider its music. Les chemins de verre, which also earned the band a Juno award for francophone album of the year in March, is a visceral, cinematic record that packs a serious emotional wallop regardless of whether you speak French or not.
And thanks largely to the Polaris win, that album is getting into a few more pairs of ears. Karkwa’s heightened profile has translated into new touring opportunities in English-speaking centres; this current jaunt is Karkwa’s first Western Canadian tour as a headliner since Les chemins de verre’s release in March 2010. Indeed, since that fateful evening last year, Cormier and bandmates François Lafontaine (keyboards), Julier Sagot (percussion), Stéphane Bergeron (drums) and Martin Lamontaigne (bass) have been kept plenty busy.
"We’re excited (for this tour), but we’re tired," Cormier says with a chuckle. (To be fair, he also has a four-year-old daughter and a one-and-a-half-year-old son at home.)
"Our plan was to stop, release the album and do a little promo stuff, then move on," he says. "Then, four or five months later, we win the Polaris. All of a sudden we had all this English promo to do. But we stopped for vacation (in the summer) and had breaks with our families.
"Now we’re ready to rock."
By Jen Zoratti, Uptown Magazine, 29/09/2011