Polaris Music Prize: An Oral History as told by its founders, jurors, and winners

by Sam Sutherland

July 17, 2012

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This year’s Polaris Music Prize, presented by Scion Canada, will be awarded on September 23rd at the historic Carlu in Toronto.

This story originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of AUX Magazine. Photos by Dustin Rabin, courtesy of Polaris Music Prize.

The Polaris Music Prize, an annual $20,000 (recently bumped up to $30,000) award for the best Canadian record of the year, was established in 2006. Chosen by a jury of journalists from across the country based on artistic merit and regardless of genre or sales, the Prize, now in its seventh year, has become a lightning rod of discussion about Canadian music. Engaging everyone from teens on Twitter to CBC Radio personalities, it has turned into an ongoing and unending source of minor controversy and vigorous debate about the discovery of new records and new artists. The core remains the same – at the September Gala, the Grand Jury, comprised of 11 journalists (who only serve once, ushering in new Grand Jurist blood every year) yell at each other and vote until they have a winner. This is the story of all that yelling and blood.

As told by:

Steve Jordan (Polaris Founder/Executive Director)
James Keast (Polaris Chief Returning Officer/Exclaim! Editor-in-chief)
Liisa Ladouceur (Former Polaris Chief Returning Officer/Journalist)
Grant Lawrence (Polaris gala host/CBC Radio 3 personality)
Helen Spitzer (Polaris Grand Juror/Journalist)
Owen Pallett (2006 Prize winner/Final Fantasy)
Damian Abraham (Fucked Up vocalist/MuchMusic host)
Del Cowie (Polaris Grand Juror/Exclaim! Assistant Editor)

Steve Jordan: I was between jobs. By that, I mean I had been fired by Warner Music Canada. I was following the [UK music award] Mercury Prize and the [Canadian fiction award] Giller Prize pretty closely. In both instances, I would know some nominees but not the rest, and that would make me curious.

James Keast: We talked about the prize the year that first Constantines record came out [2001]. I remember [Steve] saying, “We need this award, because this is an award the Constantines would win this year. They aren’t going to get any attention from the Junos, but this is the kind of record, the kind of art, and the kind of scene that is happening in this country. That record is the reason this prize should exist.” It was another five years until it was a reality.

SJ: At that time, there was a great deal of interest in Canadian artists overseas and the U.S. that wasn’t being reciprocated at home. Mainstream media wasn’t covering it and it wasn’t getting radio airplay. The only people who knew about it were music writers, so I put together the idea of having music writers determine the list.

Liisa Ladouceur: Steve came to me before most people had heard of Polaris. He asked me to join the board of directors, and it didn’t take me long to say yes. He had a great team of people already lined up, but he needed a representative of the journalists who would come to compose the jury.

Grant Lawrence: Steve announced Polaris in the early spring of 2006. I had just started the CBC Radio 3 podcast, the first music podcast on CBC. When I heard about the prize, it captured my interest. I did one of the first interviews with Steve, and all ten acts on the short list were in rotation on Radio 3. It was a real natural fit for us. What I noticed right away was that our audience got into it.

“We’re pretty sure it was the first time ‘Wavin’ Flag’ was performed in front of an audience.”

The first Polaris Music Prize Gala was held on September 18, 2006. The short list included Final Fantasy’s He Poos Clouds, Broken Social Scene’s Broken Social Scene, Cadence Weapon’s Breaking Kayfabe, The Deadly Snakes’ Porcella, Sarah Harmer’s I’m a Mountain, K’naan’s The Dusty Foot Philosopher, Malajube’s Trompe-l’oeil, Metric’s Live It Out, The New Pornographers’ Twin Cinema, and Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary.

SJ: I remember having a huge sense of pride and relief that we could fill the room. We purposely didn’t film it or put it on TV because we didn’t want all of our mistakes to have a permanent record. And we wanted it to live a little mysteriously in people’s minds.

GL: Jian Ghomeshi hosted the first year. I thought it was all hilarious, but some of the musicians took issue with it. [Broken Social Scene’s] Kevin Drew threw a bun at him.

SJ: K’naan’s manager came up to me beforehand and said that they wanted to do a new song, not a song from Dusty Foot Philosopher. This was five minutes before the show was about to start. I thought, you know, you’re here to make people aware of your record, but we want to be the most artist-friendly award in existence. So if that’s what the artist wants, sure. I’ve talked to both K’naan and his manager since then, and we’ve tried to nail down what the song actually was, but because we didn’t shoot it, we didn’t know. But we’re pretty sure it was the first time “Wavin’ Flag” was performed in front of an audience.

LL: We didn’t yet have a sponsor to bring in jurors from other parts of the country. That first year was a lot of what I would call “the big guns.” People who were prominent in Toronto. Aaron Brophy, James Keast, Carl Wilson…

JK: Grant Lawrence, John Sakamoto, Matt Galloway, Helen Spitzer, Jill Wilson.

LL: They were eleven guinea pigs, really. We had them in the back room of the Phoenix Concert Theatre and we didn’t really have a space so it was also where the catering was for the crew. It was just, ‘Here we are, I guess this is really happening.’ It was really difficult for people to say all they had to say in the time we had.

JK: We had very little time. Here is this remarkable group of people, some of us meeting for the first time. But we all knew each other’s work. We could have stayed in that room for six hours.

GL: I don’t think there’s been another Grand Jury like it since. It was very fiery. There was a ton of emotion in the room.

JK: Grant was upset because the New Pornographers got cut after the first vote. He spent the next hour being pissy that we couldn’t debate them anymore. A lot of tension came from Grant not being able to let that go.

GL: I remember a pint glass being thrown. The person that threw it denies that it was thrown. It was Helen Spitzer.

Helen Spitzer: Was Grant even on the jury that year? If so, his presence was utterly unremarkable.

“That was kind of crazy, seeing He Poos Clouds in the headlines of major publications.”

Final Fantasy’s He Poos Clouds was declared the winner.

SJ: I remember hearing He Poos Clouds [said] on Andy Barry’s CBC morning show the next day. That was great.

LL: That was kind of crazy, seeing that in the headlines of major publications.

The second gala was held on September 24, 2007. Notable nominees included the Arcade Fire, Feist, and dark horse winner Patrick Watson.

GL: Steve saw me host a CBC event in Toronto where I told a lot of jokes, but I’m always the butt of the jokes. I think Steve saw that as a win-win, and I’ve been hosting ever since.

SJ: When we went to announce the winner, we didn’t have an envelope. We had Owen [Pallet, Final Fantasy] there to announce it, and I just whispered in his ear. He got up on stage and sort of shrugged his shoulders and said “There’s no envelope, so I could say anyone.” I broke out into a sweat right then and there. Owen can be a mischievous person.

Owen Pallett: Yeah, I’d been looking forward all night to getting to open up an envelope onstage like the Oscars, licking my lips, smiling and saying, “The winner is…!” I’d been psyching myself up to look surprised and happy no matter what name came up. But it didn’t go like that. Steve just whispered Patrick Watson’s name to me then hustled me out onstage. I knew Patrick was a dark horse and his victory was going to make a lot of people very happy so I couldn’t suppress a shit-eating grin.

SJ: We closed the Quebec/rest-of-Canada divide. People said, “Who? Never heard of him.” Meanwhile he had sold the equivalent of Gold in Quebec, which, last time I checked, was still a part of Canada. But I think it gave us an unearned reputation of always picking the underdog.

In June of 2008, Polaris began a new tradition of announcing a Long List of 40 albums in advance of the Short List unveiling in July.

SJ: The second year, there were a bunch of rap records that came close to making the short list. The Fucked Up record [Hidden World] came close to making the short list. There were things that were being recognized internally, but not externally. We decided to give more love to more records and show we’re not just a thing for privileged indie rockers, and started doing the Long List.

That year’s gala, held on September 30, awarded Caribou’s Andorra with the big prize.

SJ: Patrick Watson couldn’t make it because they were recording, so the tradition of having the previous year’s winner present the award was in jeopardy. So we filmed ten different winner throws. I remember standing by the console and having the guy replay Caribou as the winner over and over and over again just to make sure we didn’t play the wrong one.

The September 21, 2009 gala, hosted at MTV’s Toronto studios, the Masonic Temple, featured several repeat nominees, including K’naan, Metric, Malajube, and Patrick Watson, plus Elliott Brood and eventual winner Fucked Up, who had made internet headlines by staging two destructive performances in the same building months earlier.

Damian Abraham: There was some concern about whether or not we would be allowed to perform. We were technically banned from MTV. There was an outstanding bill for damages incurred during the bathroom performance.

SJ: It was a tense situation. There was a lot of anxiety about it amongst the staff.

DA: Steve had to assure them that we wouldn’t do anything, and we had to sign personal liability waivers saying that if anything happened during out set, we were responsible. Which means if there was an act of God and the roof collapsed during our performance and 18 people died, we were responsible.

GL: Elliott Brood took to the stage and handed out the pots and pans they do to the gala floor. It was a really unifying moment. If there was any tension left in the room, that broke it. It felt like a party, as opposed to a build up to someone winning a prize.

DA: They wouldn’t give them to our table because they were worried we would use them as weapons.

“The deal we struck in the end was that we would be frisked by cops on our way to the stage. I told them to stop when they tried to frisk the baby. It was like, “No, you can’t search my baby.’”

SJ: They wanted to add all this extra security, which I told them would only make the situation worse. A food fight broke out, started by members of the Patrick Watson band. All of a sudden, I saw all these guys emerge, big beefy guys with earpieces, and I was like, “Oh, fuck.” I sent Grant out to calm everyone down.

DA: The deal we struck in the end was that we would be frisked by cops on our way to the stage, which they did. I told them to stop when they tried to frisk the baby. It was like, “No, you can’t search my baby. You have my word, I’m not going to smuggle anything in with my child.”

The fifth annual Polaris Music Prize gala, held on September 20, 2010, featured major indie rock talents like Broken Social Scene and Tegan and Sara alongside the venerable Sadies and trailblazing hip-hop in the form of Shad’s TSOL.

GL: Someone told me I made a really sexist joke about Tegan and Sara, but they didn’t hear it. The joke was, ‘Still to come on tonight’s Polaris Prize Award, we’re going to get on to the stage two of the hottest, sexiest siblings in Canadian music. I’ve wanted to have sex with them for years and years and years. Yes, I’m talking about Dallas and Travis from the Sadies.”

SJ: That was the year things almost came to blows.

LL: It was the most difficult jury we have ever had. There was crying. There was fighting. We stood in the hallway after the winner had been selected – it’s not a consensus vote, it’s by points – but it was very close, and everyone wondered if we should vote again. Steve came in to tell people to settle down. I found it hard to maintain control.

Del Cowie: Everyone has one record they’re stomping for. My record was Shad’s TSOL. The sense I got was that we weren’t talking about the record on its own merits. We were talking about hip-hop in general and whether or not it was good. I said that publicly, and I don’t think I can get more specific than that.

SJ: I had to be like Michael Jackson between the two gangs. That’s the level of severity people were applying to this thing. I’m happy people take the decision so seriously, but really, they’re just records. We’re not selecting the new pope.

DC: When you go into the process of doing this, you assume, “Everyone loves music, this is going to be great.” But I might have underestimated how intense the debate was going to get. We were talking about one of the best hip-hop records ever released in this country. You have to realize that… different critics have different levels of understanding about different things.

Karkwa were ultimately announced as the winner.

SJ: People said that a Quebec band singing in French will never win the prize. But Francophone bands don’t make the short list unless Anglos vote for it. This notion that Quebec music is only for Quebec people was exploded with that decision.

The 2011 Polaris Music Prize was awarded on September 19, pairing longtime host Grant Lawrence with former winner Damian Abraham. A diverse Short List included Colin Stetson’s experimental jazz alongside the PBR&B of the Weeknd and the legendary Ron Sexsmith, plus some insanely popular band from Montreal.

GL: There’s always jokes that get cut. Steve Jordan will cut jokes. One from last year was, “Hey, how about that Colin Stetson record, eh? Not since my mother’s Christmas meatloaf have so many people pretended to like something.”

DA: Hosting was nerve-wracking. When you’re a performer, it’s your show. When you’re the host, all you’re there to do is help move it along. Especially the year we performed, it was just like, “What the fuck do we have to lose?” I pulled my underwear into my ass crack to make a thong, and I remember thinking, “I’m doing this on national TV.”

GL: Ron Sexmith was nominated, and there are a lot of jokes to be made there. Here’s one, “Ron Sexsmith had a documentary air recently about his career. He had a tribute in his honour held at Massey Hall, and you can’t stroll down Queen Street without running into Ron. The Weeknd called Ron Sexsmith and is offering Ron lessons in anonymity in exchange for a melody.”

SJ: I remember being very concerned about the record that won all those other awards not winning our award. I prepared in my head for six months how to defend the award if Arcade Fire didn’t win. But I would have been happy with any of those records winning.

LL: It was “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” They were a shoe-in, which made them not a shoe-in, since Polaris is an “underdog prize.”

Mercifully, Arcade Fire won.

GL: There’s a lot of awards in this country. Some appeal to the industry. Some appeal to the fans. But rarely does a prize appeal to the musicians, the industry, the media, and the fans. Polaris does all that.

Tags: Music, Cancon, Featured, Interviews, News, arcade fire, CBC, Damian Abraham, Del Cowie, Exclaim Magazine, final fantasy, Fucked Up, grant lawrence, Helen Spitzer, James Keast, Karkwa, MuchMusic, owen pallett, Polaris Music Prize, Shad, short list, Steve Jordan

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