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From Banknock in Stirlingshire, Scotland, Karine Polwart was a late developer in musical terms; she was nearly 30 before she became a professional, nervously launching a career initially built on traditional Scots music, for which she showed such natural aptitude. She also began putting her faith in her own songs and later remodeled herself as a singer/songwriter. Many of the songs she subsequently wrote were drawn from her experiences as a social worker specializing in domestic and child abuse cases for the Scottish Aid women's movement. She'd previously earned a politics and philosophy degree at Dundee University, worked in a primary school and played in a variety of semi-pro bands before coming to more prominent attention in the groups Malinky and MacAlias. Malinky, in particular, gained a strong following after two well-received albums, Last Leaves (2000) -- which includes her first recorded original song, the trad-styled "The Dreadful End of Marianna for Sorcery" -- and "Three Ravens" (2002), on which her subtly emotive vocals were a key ingredient. The MacAlias duo with Gill Bowman also showcased her talents across a broader musical horizon, encompassing both her and Bowman's original songs alongside Robbie Burns and the Scottish tradition. Their album High Wired (2000), which includes one of Polwart's signature country-flavored songs, "John C Clarke," is much underrated. She also spent 18 months touring with the legendary Battlefield Band following the illness and subsequent death of Davy Steele and was featured on their 2001 album Happy Daze.
After six years as lead singer with Malinky she reluctantly quit in 2004 to concentrate on her career as a singer/songwriter following the release of her debut solo album Faultlines. She was full of misgivings, unsure whether her new contemporary approach would find favor with audiences used to hearing her sing traditional material. "It was mad to give in my notice to Malinky because I didn't know if the solo thing would work and I had nothing else to fall back on but I just felt I had to give it a go," she says. Initially the signs weren't good, but a plethora of nominations at the 2005 BBC Folk Awards gave her a massive boost. She ended up winning three awards, for best new act, best album and -- most importantly to her -- best song, for her moving depiction of a woman devastated by her partner's alcoholism, "The Sun's Comin' Over the Hill." From that point her career took off in spectacular fashion as she made dents in mainstream radio and she played bigger concerts, backed by a band who included Inge Thomson on accordion, Kevin McGuire on bass, brother Steve Polwart on guitars, and Canadian husband Mattie Foulds on drums. Her second album, Scribbled in Chalk (2006) followed a similar pattern of graphic story-songs encompassing tough topics such as sex trafficking and the holocaust yet were couched in strong melodies and immaculate song structures. She again took home the award for best song (for "Daisy") at the 2007 BBC Folk Awards, and spent most of the rest of that year on maternity leave after the birth of her son Arlo. However, that December she issued a sparsely-arranged album of predominantly traditional material entitled Fairest Flooer. The sole original composition on the release was the closing track, Cant Weld a Body which had initially been featured as part of the BBCs revival of the radio ballads series in 2006. Firethief -- a pensive song from the same radio show - also eventually appeared on Polwarts well-received fourth album, 2008s This Earthly Spell. Her second child, Rosa was born in mid-2010, a year which also saw her collaborate with the Edinburgh-formed contemporary folk trio Lau on the Evergreen EP. Following a break from the studio, she returned in 2012 with Traces, another confident set of original material which benefited from the innovative production techniques of The Unwinding Hours Iain Cook.
Karine Polwart (born 23 December 1970) is a Scottish singer-songwriter. She writes and performs music with a strong folk and roots feel, her songs dealing with a variety of issues from alcoholism to genocide. She has been most recognised for her solo career, winning three awards at the BBC Folk Awards in 2005, and was previously a member of Malinky and Battlefield Band.
Polwart is currently a member of The Burns Unit, and collaborated with The Fruit Tree Foundation on its debut album, First Edition.
Polwart grew up in the small Stirlingshire town of Banknock and had an interest in music from an early age. She has described her whole family as being interested in music and one of her brothers, Steven, is also a professional musician who plays guitar in the Karine Polwart band, whilst her sister Kerry is developing her own musical career with the group The Poems.
Despite an active musical career from a young age, including forming her own band KP and the Minichips at age 10, Polwart was discouraged from studying music at school and ended up studying politics and philosophy at the University of Dundee. After graduating with a First Class Degree in Philosophy Polwart moved to Glasgow to study for a Masters in Philosophical Inquiry.
Her first job after her studies was as a philosophy tutor in a primary school, a job she describes as giving her a 'massive buzz'. After this she spent six years working for the Scottish Women's Aid movement on issues such as domestic and child abuse and young people's rights and these experiences have influenced her songwriting.
Polwart initially gained prominence as lead singer of the group Malinky. With the release of their debut album Last Leaves in January 2000, Polwart left her job to concentrate on her musical career. After successful stints with Malinky, macAlias and Battlefield Band, and contributions to three volumes (Volumes 7, 8 and 9) of Linn Records' The Complete Songs of Robert Burns project, she decided to embark on a solo career. In 2003 she released her first solo album, Faultlines. Written and recorded with assistance from the Scottish Arts Council, Faultlines won the Best Album award at the 2005 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. This award, along with 2 others at the same ceremony, increased Polwart's profile not just in the folk community but also in the wider musical arena.
The songs on Faultlines cover a variety of topics, and although she has claimed at live performances that they are all quite depressing, many have an uplifting aspect. This is particularly notable in "The Sun's Comin' Over The Hill" (which won Best Original Song at the BBC Folk Awards 2005) which tells the story of woman who reacts to the death of her partner through a period of depression, drink and drugs, but has a more optimistic chorus, with the narrator foreseeing an end to this period. There are exceptions to this: "Waterlily" — the tale of a man whose lover is killed during the war in Yugoslavia, based on the book Cold Night Lullaby by Colin Mackay — offers no such comfort. "Only One Way", on the other hand, is an upbeat song with a strong political theme and some biting humour.
In April 2006, Polwart released her second solo album Scribbled in Chalk. This album was heralded with much critical acclaim receiving impressive reviews from amongst others, The Scotsman, The Sunday Times, The Independent on Sunday, Time Out and BBC Music online. A UK wide tour followed as well as appearances on BBC 2's Culture Show, Simon Mayo's Album show on Radio 2, Mike Harding's folk show on Radio 2, BBC Radio Scotland on the Janice Forsyth show and the Janice Long Late show on Radio 2. Polwart's music also reached a wider audience when her songs were used during the opening sequence of a Hollyoaks episode in July 2006 and for the final programme of The Hairy Bikers' Cookbook.
Like Faultlines, Scribbled in Chalk often looks at the darker side of life with tales of sex trafficking ("Maybe there's a Road"), the holocaust ("Baleerie Baloo", which is about the missionary Jane Haining) and the uncertainties of life ("Hole in the Heart"). But these stories of despair are balanced by others that describe the joy of a slower life ("Take Its Own Time"), of hope triumphing over cynicism ("Where the Smoke Blows") and the wonder of the universe ("Terminal Star").
According to her official website, she believes that songs should stand up by themselves. However, for the sake of those interested in the backstory behind the songs, the website provides information about each of them on the basis that even if a song does work by itself, sometimes the story behind it can make it more meaningful. She has also made guitar tablature available for several of her songs through her website, including notes on tuning and style.
As well as her solo work, Polwart spent much of 2006 collaborating with other artists on a variety of projects; Roddy Woomble, the lead singer of Idlewild, asked her to help co-write and provide backing vocals for his solo album, My Secret is My Silence, whilst Polwart provided several original songs for the BBC Radio 2 music/social documentary series The Radio Ballads. Two of these songs, "Can't Weld A Body" and "Firethief", would later appear on her albums Fairest Floo'er and This Earthly Spell respectively. Polwart also supported The Beautiful South on their tour and she guested with David Knopfler at The Globe Theatre for a charity benefit for Reprieve.
At the 2006, Hogmanay Live celebrations on BBC Scotland, Polwart played several of her songs and also dueted with Paolo Nutini. Toward the end of the year, she became one of the founder members of a genre-crossing musical collective called The Burns Unit, which has since performed at festivals. The other members are Sushil K Dade, Emma Pollock, Chris Difford, Kenny Anderson, singer Kim Edgar, pianist Michael Johnston and rap artist MC Soom T. The collective issued its debut album, Side Show, in August 2010.
In 2007, Polwart playing once again at Celtic Connections both with her band and collaborating with other artists including Dick Gaughan and Roddy Woomble. She took time off from live performance during 2007 as she was pregnant with her first child. During this time she recorded two albums: Fairest Floo'er comprising mostly traditional songs, and This Earthly Spell, containing only original compositions.
Polwart also sings with Corrina Hewat and Annie Grace in, what they describe as, a 'girly trio'.
In March 2009, Polwart took part in the Darwin Song Project, a multi-artist songwriting retreat organised by the Shrewsbury Folk Festival to create songs that had a 'resonance and relevance' to Darwin. A CD was released in August 2009.
Polwart's website announced in February 2010 that she intends to take a year's "maternity leave" (Polwart's daughter, Rosa, was born on 1 April 2010) but will perform with the Burns Unit in the summer. She also recorded an EP with Lau which was released through her website in July 2010.
Polwart released her fifth studio album, Traces, in August 2012, to a strongly positive critical response. It became her first official UK Top 75 entry, entering the albums chart at number 57. The album included a new recording of "We're All Leaving" (previously recorded as part of the Darwin Song Project) and nine new songs, including tracks inspired by the Occupy London protests ("King of Birds") and Donald Trump's controversial golf course development in Aberdeenshire ("Cover Your Eyes").
Polwart releases music through her own Hegri Music imprint, named from the Gaelic word for heron. Polwart describes the heron as her favourite animal and her song "Follow the Heron", which she has recorded both solo (on the Scribbled in Chalk album) and with Malinky (on thr 3 Ravens album), has been much covered by artists including The McCalmans, Robert Lawrence and Cathie Ryan. The CD booklet for Polwart's Scribbled in Chalk includes a heron hidden in one of Sarah Roberts' illustrations.