Karine Polwart on her Scottish Songbook: 'Life's too short to sing a song you don't care about'

Karine Polwart on her Scottish Songbook: 'Life's too short to sing a song you don't care about'

credit: Sandy Butler

Singer-songwriter and composer returns with a new album of Scottish pop classics of the past fifty years

When Karine Polwart was asked to play a show at last year's Edinburgh International Festival in celebration of contemporary Scottish pop to tie in with the National Museum of Scotland's Rip It Up exhibition, there were no conditions attached; just a performance of her own back catalogue would be fine. 'But what I said was, I'd like to do a run-through of some Scottish pop classics of the past fifty years,' she says. The idea was a success, and her freshly-christened Scottish Songbook played at Celtic Connections earlier this year.

The next phase is turning these songs into her new album, which has just been announced for release in August. 'It's a folk singer's take on Scottish pop classics,' says the Midlothian-based Polwart. 'So everything from classic '70s writers like Gerry Rafferty and John Martyn, through the '80s, and artists like Big Country and Deacon Blue, right up to Chvrches and Biffy Clyro. I think what's common to all these songs is that they had a meaning that's so much bigger than themselves … with my folk singer's socio-political eye on them, as a group of songs they say quite a lot about Scotland, what it's like to live here, and what it was like to grow up here.'

As an example, Polwart's cover of Ivor Cutler's sublime 'Women of the World' has just been released to tie in with International Women's Day ('she describes it as 'a wry wee song, with a poignancy to its message at this particular point in time'), while Deacon Blue's 'Dignity' and Chvrches' 'The Mother We Share' arrived earlier this year. The intention is to release a new song on the first of each month until the album's release, with accompanying art from Forres-based artist Jen Frankwell, and a series of memoirs and essays by Polwart explaining each song's relevance to her. To accompany 'Women of the World' she's written about Scots activist and songwriter Mary Brooksbank, who fought for access to health and social care in the early 20th century.

Acting on what she calls 'just a hunch that it would be good', Polwart booked the studio time to record this album directly after the show in Edinburgh, unwilling to let the effort taken to rehearse and rearrange the songs go to waste. 'I love covering songs,' she says. 'I mean, I started my career as a folk singer and that's what folk singers do – although usually the songs are hundreds of years old, rather than decades. But it's the same approach, if you're going to play someone else's song you have to find a way of making it your own, and ones which sounded big and bombastic have been given a different meaning by the way we've gone at them here.

'I was amazed at how easy some of them were to cover,' she continues. 'I mean, I was actually less daunted by artists like Chvrches … one of my favourite songs on there is Biffy Clyro's 'Machines', which is admittedly one of their more acoustic ones. It didn't feel like there was a disjoint between that and anything else I've ever sung, and I think that's because I picked all of this music for its personal resonance, not for trite reasons. Life's too short to sing a song you don't care about, eh? I was wary of the songs which have been around for longer, though, because they've built up so many resonances and people who know them don't want them mucked about with. I mean, how do you improve on 'Dignity'? You have to have a wee bit of brass neck to give it a try.'

Karine Polwart's Scottish Songbook will be released on Fri 5 Aug.

Karine Polwart

Contemporary folk songs from the award-winning singer-songwriter who was crowned BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year in 2018