So, who will it be?
With just a day before the 2018 rendition of the Polaris Music Prize is in the books, we’d thought it would be prudent to take a quick gander at its success rate in terms of spurring its winners to new career heights.
Since it was conceived and introduced by former Warner Music Canada and True North Records A&R man Steve Jordan in 2006, Polaris has named a dozen winners. As for its track record? 100% success: every winning recording act has gone on – if it hadn’t had established one previously – to attract a world audience and continue to develop Canada as a country of musical influencers and tastemakers.
The Polaris premise is simple: Canadian music critics name the best Canadian album of the year, based not on commercial success but merit only, and reward that creator, thanks to the largesse of Slaight Music, with $50,000 to do with what they please (nine runners-up receive $3000 a piece.)
This year’s contenders include: Alvvays, Antisocialites; Daniel Caesar, Freudian; Hubert Lenoir, Darlène; Jean-Michel Blais, Dans ma main; Jeremy Dutcher, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa; Partner, In Search of Lost Time; Pierre Kwenders, MAKANDA at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time; Snotty Nose Rez Kids, The Average Savage; U.S. Girls, In A Poem Unlimited and Weaves, Wide Open.
And while one hopes that the winning party will be elated by receiving 50,000 smackers, the end-result hasn’t always gone smoothly.
For example, in the inaugural 2006 event, violinist Owen Pallett, operating under the pseudonym Final Fantasy and winning for He Poos Clouds, declared that he had a problem with the show’s debut corporate sponsors (Rogers Wireless and Rogers Yahoo Hi-Speed Internet). He announced he’d use his $20,000 (the prize money at the time) winnings to vanquish his boyfriend’s student loans and donate the rest to arts collective Blocks Recording Club.
In 2013, Montréal’s Godspeed You Black Emperor not only snubbed the event, but said they’d use their $50K received for Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! to establish a music instrument bank for Québec prison inmates.
Despite these hiccups, the bigger question is, has winning a Polaris Music Prize catalyzed these artists’ careers?
The answer seems to be a somewhat overwhelming ‘yes.’ One needs to look back no further than 2017 winner Lido Pimienta, whose La Papessa became the first non-English, non-French album to win the prize.
In an interview published last week in the Globe and Mail, Pimienta - currently working on the follow-up album Miss Colombia, acknowledged that the Polaris victory was a game-changer.
“Winning the Polaris Music Prize for my last album didn’t have any effect on the music of the new album. I was already working on it in 2016.,” Pimienta told the Globe’s Brad Wheeler (full disclosure – both he and I were part of the 11-member 2017 Polaris Grand Jury that whittled down the Top 10 finalists to eventual winner Pimienta.) “What the Polaris attention did was give us more shows. It gave us an opportunity to perform more and to get out of the country and play different places. It also gave me an opportunity to take a break from making Miss Colombia and to get more funding for it.”
The “funding” that Pimienta is referring to is a deal with Los Angeles-based Anti Records, announced on May 3, which will be releasing La Papessa in the next few weeks.
But that’s not all Polaris helped her accomplish.
“I used the Polaris prize money to invest in my business, which is the music, “Pimienta continues. “I was able to bring more people on tour and to invest in merchandise and records. Winning the prize allowed me to make this new album as if I was any other artist, with no kids and no responsibilities. I could be wrong, but with most of my contemporaries, the only preoccupations they have are to get bigger. To me, my preoccupations involve making sure my family in Colombia is eating, making sure my family has water, making sure my family there has health care.
“So, winning the prize and the money allowed me to think just about the music. I shared some with my family and with the rest I made a business, Lido Pimienta Inc.”
Despite his misgivings, even Owen Pallett, who received an Academy Award nomination for his score work on the 2014 film Her with William Butler, recognized the benefits of a Polaris victory association.
“I was happy to participate, and I believe that being a part of it did bring more people to my music and bring more people to my fellow nominees,” said Pallett, who continues to release albums and tour the world both solo and as a hired gun for fellow Polaris winners Arcade Fire.
“But ultimately, I think that it's kind of a bit of an ‘affectatious’ sort of thing to have a competition for albums.”
You can’t please them all.
Here’s a snapshot of the status of previous winners over the past five years and what they’re up to today:
Kaytranada – 2016– If he’s taken a breather since winning the Polaris in 2016 for 99.9%, Haitian-born, Montréal-based Louis Kevin Celestin hasn’t told anyone. Kaytranada has been busy both in the studio and on the road. In April, he released a remix album with Robert Glasper on Blue Note called The ArtScience Remixes.
Studios projects ranging from productions to edits to mixes include Craig David, Nao, Shay Lia, Freddie Gibbs, Ocean Montana, Solange, Bad Bad Not Good, Kendrick Lamar, Mary J. Blige, Gorillaz remix, Wiki, Taleb Kwali, The Internet, Sade and A Tribe Called Quest. On the performance front, he’s graced the Coachella, Lollapalooza and Afropunk stages and captured a Juno for Best Electronic Album for 99.9%, as well as being named to several year-end best-of lists. Still in demand by anyone who is anyone, new Kaytranada music will drop late this year/early 2019.
Buffy Sainte-Marie – 2015: After grabbing the Polaris gold for Power in The Blood, the folk Canadian icon – or perhaps world music would be a better description – released Medicine Songs in 2017 and is still touring. Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography by Andrea Warner – and featuring a foreword by Joni Mitchell - is out next week (Sep. 25) on Greystone Books.
Tanya Tagaq – 2014: After coming close to snagging another Polaris Prize with 2016’s Retribution (she won for Animism), the celebrated Inuk throat singer – and Order of Canada member - has turned attention to the literary world, publishing her debut novel Split Toothon September 25 through Penguin Random House.
Godspeed You Black Emperor – 2013: Since their Polaris victory, the experimental Montréal music collective has released two albums: Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress (2015) and Luciferian Towers (2017) and toured earlier this year with a few Toronto appearances at the Phoenix this past August.
Feist – 2012: Leslie Feist (Metals) just celebrated the 15thanniversary of her album Let It Die with a mini-European tour that concluded Sep 09 in Lisbon. One can assume that between her last album. 2017’s Pleasure, and occasional appearances with Broken Social Scene whenever she’s in the neighbourhood, that she’s starting work on new music.
As for other Polaris winner updates: Montréal’s Arcade Fire (The Suburbs - 2011) wraps their Everything Now tour in Las Vegas on Sep. 23; after being on hiatus, Karkwa (Les Chemins de Verre – 2010) reunited for a concert this summer Toronto punk rockers Fucked Up (The Chemistry of Common Life – 2009) is releasing Dose Your Dreams, its first album in four years, on Arts & Crafts; Caribou (Andorra – 2008). The group is performing shows in Hong Kong and Singapore in November; and Patrick Watson (Close To Paradise – 2007) released the single “Melody Noir” and is touring Europe this autumn before returning to Canada for dates in early January.