“He’s a penny pincher.” Ask a Toronto taxi driver how their crack-smoking, stupor-drunk mayor Rob Ford ever gained so much support and he’ll give you a simple answer. He’s known as the man who cuts waste. You can’t escape austerity anywhere, yet Canada’s music scene is thriving. I came here to find out why.
The next morning, before the award of the annual Polaris Music Prize, I have breakfast downtown with founder Steve Jordan. In Award Show years, the Polaris is only a baby – Jordan started the award in 2006, inspired by way the Mercury Prize shortlist introduced him to a host of obscure and interesting new British music each year. “A lightbulb went off,” he says. “I was thousands of miles away, but I was discovering records through them.”
He wanted to do the same for Canadian music, so he rounded up 190 Canadian journalists to vote for their favourite home-grown albums of the year. Unlike the slightly murky, label-led Mercury submission process, the journalists were given free reign to nominate whichever records they wanted to. Then each year a new ‘Grand Jury’ of 11 is drawn up, with each record on the 10-strong shortlist having its champion. Like the Mercurys the winner is decided on the night of the award, so when we meet Jordan has no idea who will win. “The only thing I know for sure,” he says, “is that whoever wins, half our audience will be shocked and the other half will tell us we’ve been too predictable.”
Off the record, the rumour is that they’re preparing a contingency plan in case the judges pick Drake. Drake is by far the most mainstream pick on this year’s shortlist, even given the inclusion of Arcade Fire. Still, as Jordan points out, there’s equally valid contrarian arguments why a room full of journalists would or wouldn’t hand the award to the most commercially successful album on the list.
The Polaris isn’t really about the Drakes and Arcade Fires of this world though. While the judges are simply asked for their favourite Canadian albums of the year, it’s clear Jordan gets a kick out of shining a spotlight on the lesser known bands on the shortlist. That’s why, as Jordan predicted, it both is and isn’t a surprise when the judges plump for Tanya Tagaq, the Inuk throat singer, to go home with the award. It’s certainly not a surprise to anyone who saw her performance on the night, least of all ‘This Is The End’ star Jay Baruchel, who hosted the awards. “Dude, she fucking lopped heads off,” he told me afterwards. “It was like Agent Orange across the room.”
Her performance defies words. Watch it yourself from around the 3:20:00 mark in this clip:
Tagaq was brilliantly outspoken in her awards speech, proudly displaying her seal skin cuff when, after thanking her producers, she said: “On a quick side note, people should wear and eat seal as much as possible. An indigenous culture is thriving and surviving on a renewable resource: wearing and eating seal. It’s delicious, and there’s lots of them, and fuck PETA.”
She has the same impish sense of humour in person, and seems genuinely surprised that people ‘get’ her fiercely individualistic work. “Generally I don’t expect people to get it,” she tells me, “because I really don’t get most people! I don’t get people: how they live, how they breath, how they treat each other and how they treat themselves. It’s all so individual. I’m pretty happy that enough people like it to be interested.”
She laughs off any suggestion that she’s here as a tokenistic representation of Inuit culture, pointing out that she represents that world only “in the same way that I’m representing women just because I have a vagina. I’m representing myself on an individual creative basis, but I like the idea of breath and kind of representing humanity, and life in general, as opposed to pigeon-holing myself. I wouldn’t want the traditionalists to be upset or think I’m saying that I’m what it is to be Inuit, because I am a freak show. I like weird things, and that’s okay. I’m bored very easily by music. So many people can live in one box and find new ways to make the same box. It’s still a box.”
The whole of the Polaris shortlist acts testament to the fact that there are plenty of Canadian artists capable of tearing their boxes up. Just witness Mac DeMarco gleefully eschewing his usual punk live show for a grand piano accompaniment and a lounge singer version of his traditional set closer ‘Still Together’. “I’ve always wanted to play that song at a gala event like this,” he says, “so I brought my homies along to play on it. And my mom.”
Fellow shortlisted artist Basia Bulat suggests that it’s no coincidence that Canada is producing musicians as diverse as Jessy Lanza’s rave romances, Shad’s conscientious rap and Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s proudly queer art rock. “I feel really lucky to be from Canada, there’s a lot of support across the arts here.” she says. “I hear from friends that it’s extremely difficult in England to do music. I don’t know whether that’s directly to do with the economic crisis, or just because there are always things that are outside our control. When you make music you’re just trying to find your place in the world.”
Jordan, who remains the Polaris Executive Director, points out that both the prize itself, and Canadian music generally, benefits greatly from government support: “I think supporting the arts is a real source of pride here. Being right next door to the country that is responsible for the most cultural exports in the world, we need to keep our end up. We consistently punch above our weight, and I think any government that wanted to cut arts funding would have a hard time.”
Photos by Dustin Rabin.