Karkwa First Francophones to Win Polaris

Shortlist had many previous nominees and winners

Karkwa’s win came as a surprise within the music scene. Photo Josh O’kane

TORONTO (CUP)—After the longest jury deliberation in the indie music prize’s history, Montreal’s Karkwa took home the Polaris star.

The announcement came as a surprise, most of all for the victorious francophone band.

An 11-person jury decided who would receive the $20,000 prize and the title of best Canadian album of the year during the first few hours of the event, which was broadcast live. The night featured, for the second year in a row, performances from all 10 acts that made the shortlist.

“There’s something vaguely ridiculous about comparing totally different artists and totally different albums,” Caribou’s Dan Snaith said before the gala had begun. The 2008 winner and 2010 nominee said he was just glad that “a prize like this allows you to focus attention on lots of different kinds of music.”

But like any “increasingly prestigious” award—so dubbed by the New Yorker—Polaris is not without its politics and tokenism. So far, it has gone to the avant-garde Owen Pallett, the folksy Patrick Watson, Caribou’s synth-pop, hardcore Fucked Up and now what Karkwa’s lead singer Louis-Jean Cormier calls French “Montreal indie rock.”

The decision to give the award to the all-francophone band may not be totally unexpected. The grand jury had three francophones on hand: François Marchand, André Peloquin and Philippe Rezzonico.

What most of the English music scene has been asking since the shortlist came out is, “car, quoi?” Who is this random band that triumphed over two prior winners and industry heavyweights like Broken Social Scene?

For Karkwa, as their album title—Les chemins de verre (The Glass Paths)—would suggest, it was a lonely path to get to Polaris as the only francophone musicians nominated, not counting Radio Radio’s Franco-Acadian Chiac.

After the announcement, Cormier, nearly in tears, took the stage with his bandmates. Earlier in the evening he said “I think that the language barrier is still there” and felt certain the only thing his band would win that night was exposure to an anglophone audience.

The band has been together for a dozen years, touring mostly francophone countries. They are excited about the opportunity to play for their fellow countrymen—but not until they have the opportunity to use part of their $20,000 to hire a real tour manager and a new van.

Before their win, Cormier said his celebration music would be Owen Pallett’s Heartland if Karkwa were to triumph. Maybe collaboration is in their future?

“We try [to] do so some great poésie, but I don’t know if we succeed at that,” Cormier chuckled. “I guess it works.”
Indeed it did.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 08, published October 5, 2010.