This month Karine Polwart releases her latest studio album A Pocket of Wind Resistance (Friday, 17 November on Hudson Records). As we explained in our Artist of the Month feature, though, this is no ordinary studio album. A Pocket of Wind Resistance (read our review here) serves as an audio companion to Karine’s critically acclaimed theatre production Wind Resistance, a breath-taking and original exploration of home, history and human society. Karine has just finished ten performances of Wind Resistance at The Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, and Folk Radio UK were keen to ask her about the inspiration behind those live performances, the attendant studio release and what else these wonders might lead to. Karine started by explaining why A Pocket of Wind Resistance does far more than simply provide an audio version of Wind Resistance, it frames it for an entirely different audience and, as such, has its own distinct identity.
“The idea for the album emerged out of the theatre piece, in response to overwhelming interest from audiences and out of a desire to capture what would otherwise be ephemeral live performance. It’s been such a labour of love to explore the themes and places and stories within the original stage show, that I asked sound designer and co-composer Pippa Murphy if she’d work with me on an album adaptation”.
The studio-based adaptation of the work clearly started to follow its own path from the offset. Using field recordings, new adaptations of well-loved songs and new pieces written specifically for the studio album.
“Some tracks mirror almost exactly what’s in the show – for example, the opening track All on a Summer’s Evening and our goose-skein inspired meditation Labouring and Resting. But it became clear really quickly that some of the lengthier passages of exposition on stage wouldn’t work as a purely listening experience. Several scenes are so enmeshed in the physicality of the stage set, and the visual design and movement that we had to let them go altogether. The essence of other scenes has morphed into new musical form on the album. That’s true of The Moor Speaks, one of my favourite pieces to write afresh with Pippa. Other scenes have become shorter and more musical or rhythmic in their language and firm, such as Place to Rest and Mend and White Old Woman of The Night. They’re recognisably linked to the show but not copies of it. Pippa and myself also made a call to drop some of the songs from the live show – older songs of mine such as Rivers Run and Beo Beo, and to find space instead for a couple of newly written songs”.
Collaboration has always been a key element of Karine’s work, and sound designer Pippa Murphy’s contribution to both the stage production and studio album has been immeasurable. The two had worked together before, and given their geographical proximity, their combined talents seemed a natural match.
“Pippa and I have loads of friends in common, and we live only ten minutes apart. But I didn’t work with her until Celtic Connections 2016, when she scored string parts for a big Joni Mitchell inspired show I was co-directing, called Pilgrimer. She was superb, and we got on great. So when it came time to find a sound designer for the theatre piece, I thought of her. When we met to discuss the show, she took out her phone and showed me a photo of her wee kids leaping into Fala Flow, the wee Lochan on our local moor, which is the geographical heart of the piece. It’s important that we both really know and understand that place, and that we both make music with a perspective as mothers”.
This isn’t the first time Karine has been drawn to projects that go far beyond the usual role of the singer-songwriter. The connections between music, story, history and science have been at the heart of her work for some time.
“Anyone who’s been to one of my gigs over the past five years will know that I’ve been exploring the connection between story and song quite explicitly, in performances of songs like King of Birds. On reflection, the idea has been brewing for a while. The Darwin Song Project way back in 2009 got me into the zone of connecting with science and theology. In 2013 I was involved in two immersive residencies that connected me to ecological themes and to the research expertise of scientists and academics. The first was a gorgeous five-day spell on the Isle of May bird and seal reserve in the Firth of Forth with storyteller Claire McNicol, alongside resident ornithologists and hydrologists. The isle used to host a medieval pilgriming abbey, and is the site of the first ever manned lighthouse in Scotland. So I began to draw connections between the notions of sanctuary and looking after as they apply to modern ecological monitoring, community safety and religious devotion. Shortly after this I took part in a climate change project on an old herring boat in Orkney, called Sea Change. And again this piqued my interest in how to convey complex ethical, scientific and emotional stuff in a way that’s accessible, in a way that lands. I was drawn to Jenny Hill‘s beautiful Songs of Separation project because of its explicit thematic and political intent. And one of my chief creative contributions was Echo Mocks The Corncrake. More birds, and more ecological provocation”.
Wind Resistance brings all these themes home, quite literally. Local history, natural history and even the family history of Karine’s neighbour, Molly Kristensen, are all beautifully woven together in the project. Inspired by such familiar events and surroundings, the connections to Karine’s own experiences must have seemed all the more apparent.
“I began with the collaborative and collective nature of the pink-footed geese flying in their skein formation, how they literally create pockets of wind resistance for one another. This took me to Fala Moor, where the geese roost each winter, and into the realm of moss and peat and birds. From that I connected the moor to a medieval hospital that used to sit on its edge. And that took me into the history of medicine and midwifery. The more personal stories of my own labouring and the birth of my neighbour fell into that space. It was like crafting a huge mind map of connections, or a jigsaw, and weaving the different threads of enquiry together. Indeed, the word skein also means thread. So the form of the whole thing matches the content”.
Although Wind Resistance looks back in time there’s an underlying feeling that it also captures a crucial moment in the present – a moment of balance where, if we’re not careful, the clock could go back. It’s a strong message that could have developed with the project, or could have been a starting point.
“There was a political intent from the get go, because the goose skein is such a powerful metaphor for togetherness and interconnection, the necessity of collective caretaking and communal sanctuary. As soon as I fell into the realm of medicine and healing, the link to our endangered NHS was obvious. I think we’re being peddled such a lie about human existence, that individual self-reliance is the ground for a fair and healthy society”.
Those familiar with Karine Polwart’s work will delight in the way some of her earlier music is referenced or revisited in A Pocket of Wind Resistance, it feels like old friends dropping by for a visit. In addition, some less direct references, songs like The Death of Queen Jane and Salters Road seem to grow quite naturally among the layers of the project.
“They emerged out of the themes, as they arose. That’s one of the brilliant things about knowing tons of songs, there’s a song for everything! So when I went fishing for songs about moors, well, there are shed loads of Scots songs about heather. It was a gift. Queen Jane was a natural song to reprise around the precarity of childbirth. And my store of lullabies came in handy too. And the same is true of the older songs of mine that have found their place. They take in fresh meaning for me here. I notice that especially with the embedding of Faultlines in the track called Small Consolation. And part of the reveal of the album, and the show is the story behind my song Salters Road“.
Wind Resistance, in both its original live setting and its more portable studio-based companion, has been an undoubted success, confirming Karine’s talents as a writer and performer, and her worth as a social commentator. Which leaves us with the burning question of whether developing work for the theatre has encouraged her to explore other art forms?
“Yes. I think this is just the beginning of a journey into theatre and something approaching poetic essay. I’m itching to craft thought-provoking story across multiple forms. Wind resistance has lead already to an illustrated kids book, which will be published next year, possible orchestral works in collaboration with Pippa, and tiptoes into sonically rich podcasting and radio. It’s very exciting. On top of that, I’m already into recording my next album of songs with my brother Steven and Inge Thomson. But I’m a single parent. And someone who needs quiet and time to conjure stuff. The trick for me will be maintaining a steady pace and focus. And remembering to breathe!”
A Pocket of Wind Resistance is released 17th November. Order it here: https://karinepolwart.lnk.to/windresistanceTW
To celebrate the album release, Karine is performing at CODA Music in Edinburgh on Saturday, November 18th at 5.30pm (doors 5 o’clock).
Hudson Records Podcast with karine Polwart and Pippa Murphy
In the first of a series of new podcasts by Hudson Records listen to karine and Pippa Murphy talking about “birds, bogs and beasties.”
Photo Credit: Sandy Butler