Aside from her Scottish Songbook record, which comes out imminently next month, and the Spellsongs collaborative project, Scottish folk-musician and storyteller, Karine Polwart holds a place at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year. The acclaimed artist is not simply performing alongside Ali Smith and Nayrouz Qarmout, as part of Val McDermid’s Home/Less event on migration, but she will be seen scattered at a few including Richard King’s Unbound event on the topic of music and the environment. Supremely busy, she took a moment to speak with The Fountain about her involvement with the Book Festival and how she perceives its serenity in the midst of Edinburgh’s Fringe madness.
TF: You are performing some music and ideas this year at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on the topic of migration, what can we expect from this?
Well, it’s Val McDermid’s event, she’s curating that event, and she asked specifically for a couple of songs from my back catalogue. I’ve got quite a lot of songs that speak on the theme of migration but she specified two in particular of the three I think I’ll sing. One is a song called Suitcase, which I wrote with Martin Green from the band Lau and it’s on my most recent album, Laws of Motion, and it’s about the kinder transport, the rescue effort that brought about 10,000 young people out of central Nazi-occupied Europe in the year before WW2 and most of them were Jewish. So it was inspired by them and it’s written from the point of view of an old man who came to the UK as a boy on the kinder transport, and because of that experience never loses the feeling that he might have to up and run at any moment. So I guess it’s a song about memory, and a song about vigilance and how, if you’ve been vigilant once, often that feeling never leaves you.
It was written for an Edinburgh Festival commission a few years ago called Flit, which was Martin’s commission and that whole project routed in the idea of migration and it was based on interviews with people that were known to him. And I wrote four songs with him for that project. Migration is probably one of the great issues of our time now, but it has been an issue at every point in human history. There is something in that just remembering that we’ve got benchmarks for previous migrations and what might we learn from those.
The other song that Val asked for specifically is an older song of mine called Maybe There’s A Road, which I recorded back in 2006. It’s about pan-European sex trafficking so it’s written from the point of view of a young woman, effectively stranded in a service station in an unspecified part of Europe. I guess that was inspired by a couple of things. I remember reading and being really shocked by a report. It was in The Sunday Mail or something like that, and it was years and years ago, it was about the police uncovering a sex-trafficking operation in Bonnybridge in Stirlingshire, which is the neighbouring village to where I grew up and I could barely get my head around the idea that there was a suburban house in Bonnybridge, where there had been an illegal sex-trafficking operation. But I guess that’s the size of it. There is a piece of research that says that almost every day if you’re in a Scottish city or town you walk past somebody, who has been illegally trafficked and that is just such a shocking notion. It’s there but you can’t see it. So those are the two that Val’s asked for specifically and I think I might be asked to do one more, but I will come with a few options up my sleeve and be ready to respond to what happens on the day.
TF: And that is what is so great about your music, it’s not just about the aesthetic, there is always a narrative there. How did you get involved with the book festival, you’re obviously a storyteller as well as a folk musician?
I’ve done a few events over the last couple of years at the book festival, it’s a relatively new thing but I’ve worked with James Robertson, the novelist and poet, previously at the festival and I’ve been involved in a few panel discussion events, and I chaired a couple of events last year so I guess it’s just been over the past couple of years that I’ve been involved but I think the book festival has been making a conscious effort to pull in people from the wider arts scene. Obviously there is a big energy in the city at the time, there is a lot of other stuff happening, there’s a lot of music and theatre and all manner of other stuff and I know that bringing in music has been a big intent of the book festival over the past few years, like the Unbound events that happen in the Spiegeltent at night. I think I am doing another event as well as the Val McDermid one, I’m involved in one of the Unbound events with Richard King, the sound designer and writer.
For me, the book festival site is just a wee oasis of calm in a sea of madness, there is something just quite quiet and a little bit slower about popping into that site. It can get a bit mental in the middle of the Fringe in the city, you know that feeling like a sea of bodies, fighting through people and a lot of people moving really quickly through space, which is brilliant and everything for the buzz of the city but can get quite exhausting if you live and work there, and that’s your experience everyday. Actually, if it all gets a bit much I love to go sit in the book festival because it does feel a lot calmer. I’m delighted to be invited by the book festival, I think it’s doing a brilliant job. Also connecting the Scottish literature scene with the International scene, and obviously this event that Val is curating, that is pivotal to that, it’s the sense that yeah, it’s the Edinburgh International Book Festival that takes place in Edinburgh, in Scotland but it’s got this global reach. It’s a real cornerstone of the festival, putting Scottish-based artists with International artists. It’s all to the benefit of everybody to be looking at international issues but in a Scottish context, that is totally necessary.
TF: What inspired you to say yes to your involvement?
I’m a huge fan of Val actually, and Val last year wrote a piece, Message From The Skies, a New Year based event, which was a guided walk event around Edinburgh, where she wrote a story of the history of women writers in Scotland and it was sighted in different parts of Edinburgh in the Hogmanay before last. My friend, Pippa Murphy, sound designer and composer, was one of half a dozen sound designers, who made pieces that were situated. I made a piece with Pippa for the Greyfriars Kirk, for the closing of Val’s piece and we got to meet her in the making of that. So that was kinda cool, to get to make this piece of music. We essentially wrote a Scandi-Noir meets Scottish Crime-Fiction theme tune for the end of that piece in Greyfriars Kirk. So I am a fan of Val’s as well as the issues she is dealing with.
TF: And do you have any personal highlights in the EIBF programme that you are keen to see personally, yourself?
Well the really sad thing about the Book Festival is that arrives in peak festival season for folk musicians so the reality is that I am actually spending a lot of my time elsewhere, during the entirety of the book festival. I am also doing a Children’s event with my friend and colleague, Kate Leiper, as part of the book festival programme, about a picture book we made called A Wee Bird Was Watching, which is actually about migration. The theme of that book is about a young girl and her mum who are travelling, and homeless for an unspecified reason and it’s a fable about migration and about protection. It ties into the theme of Val’s event. And that’s part of the Book Festival programme for schools. So I am looking forward to that, as I know I can attend that. But there’s an awful lot else that I can’t as it is such a busy time. I am also involved in an event with Max Porter and Richard King, and that’s all about the history of music and it’s connection with the environment. But this is right up my street as the two themes that I’ve dealt with have basically been migration and land/environment so I am looking forward to being involved in that.
TF: And what else can we look forward to aside from the Book Festival from you Karine, I hear there might be a new record out?
Yes, there’s a new record out in August and we are playing places like The Usher Hall and His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen, and also The Barbican in London. These are venues that are much, much bigger than the venues I would normally play. I feel terrified but it’s also quite exciting. So that’s the Scottish Songbook Project, which is coming out in August. And recently, part of a collaborative project called Spellsongs was released, which is based on a book by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris (The Lost Words). That’s an eight-musician collaborative response to their work, which involves folks like Kris Drever and Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, so it’s quite a crew of musicians. One of the big things that is attached to that is playing in the Albert Hall in London at the Proms, so that’s one of the reasons that I’m not in Edinburgh very often. So it’s a busy summer, there’s lots to do.
Karine Polwart is performing at Home For Migrants and Refugees?, The New York Times Main Theatre, 10:00 on Monday 12th August