Gala Wrap up: Tanya Tagaq wins the Polaris Prize

Photographs by Sarah Rix.

The Polaris Prize Gala was held at the swanky Carlu in downtown Toronto, where musicians, industry insiders, members of the media and fans all gathered together to celebrate the best in Canadian music. It was a fairly casual affair that was dressed up to be fancy. Some guests were dressed in full suits and ball gowns, others in jeans and a hoodie. Basia Bulat and Tanya Tagaq gushed over their mutual appreciation while Mac Demarco made the members of the media laugh and feel less bored. Owen Pallet even took a phone call when the photography alley was shooting him. 

After telling us several times to shut the fuck up, the show started with host Jay Baruchel coming out and riffing on Canadian arts, and our perception to outsiders. He was funny and charming and fairly foul-mouthed, cracking the type of jokes you would expect from the star of This Is The End and Goon. Each of the ten nominated albums had a presenter speak about the album with the speaker chosen by the artists themselves. 

Most of the presenters this year were journalists starting with Sarah Liss former editor at The Grid who spoke about the range of contrasting emotions for Owen Pallet’s record. When he hit the stage afterwards he showcased why he is one of the most prolific artists working today. Mac Demarco had a man named ‘Chaz’ come on stage and give a weird rambling, but very short speech all whilst wearing a penguin costume. Most artists played two songs from their nominated albums, but Demarco who doesn’t do anything normal, decided to play Still Together from his last album 2. Demarco played the song like he was a cross between Glen Gould and an ageing Dean Martin all while rocking camo overalls. 

Several of the bands were not in attendance (or missing key members) like Timber Timbre, Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, Arcade Fire and Drake. Owen Pallet gave a speech about Arcade Fire and provided the funniest and most honest speech of the night. Pallet spoke about how honoured he was to play on Reflektor and how the album was perfectly flawed. He also called the record the second best of all the short listed albums, which got a good laugh. 

Seeing the performers was a real treat as they were all killer with no filler. Basia Bulat was a melodic genius projecting love, fear, anger, despair and hope all at once. Jessy Lanza (who was awesomely introduced by her own mother) picked the place up a bit with her ethereal dance music, mixing and mashing her vocals over layered looping beats. Shad brought his soulful, conscious rap to the stage showing off his serious mic skills. For his song Remember to Remember he brought out Lights to sing the hook. Shad even managed to get the relaxed audience to clap along to the beat.

One constant on the night was the punch line of Drake. Normally Drake is a punch line because he divides the hip-hop community greatly about where his talent lies but on this night it was all about how he was too big for his britches to even attend. When journalist Anupa Mistry told the crowd that Drake couldn’t make it because he was playing a show with Lil’ Wayne the crowd groaned with displeasure. All the artists allowed a song from their album to be included in a 7” record to promote the show except for Drake, which didn’t help his cause for celebration on the night. 

The last performance came from Tanya Tagaq the aboriginal throat singer, backed by a large choir. If anyone was unsure what throat singing might consist of, you were treated to an eye opening experience. She played only one song from her album Animism, Uja, and it was like the entire history of Native Canadian culture summed up in ten minutes. Her voice sounds like it could bring on the wrath of a 1000 gods or the love of a 1000 suns with the ability to switch back and forth in an instant. She howled like an animal and squeaked like a young child showing off the beauty and range of her instrument. As her breath taking performance finished, Tagaq received the only standing ovation on the night. It was a great coming out party for her. 

Baruchel came back on stage and quickly recapped the nominees and announced that Tanya Tagaq’s album had won the grand prize of $30,000. The singer came on stage with her violinist and a young family member and gave an impassioned thank you speech. She made sure to let everyone know that albums are really made by the production team including engineers and mixers, often overlooked positions. Her speech got a bit political when she held up her arms showing seal fur armbands around each wrist and asking the crowd to eat and wear seal, as it is a sustainable resource and a way of life for native people. She ended her political rant by shouting out “Fuck PETA”. She asked the crowd that if they liked what they saw on stage to please come out to her shows as she has been performing for over ten years now. She ended her speech by meekly laughing and saying she should get off stage as she is only comfortable grunting. 

The wide range of guests were clearly happy, if not a bit surprised by Tagaq’s win. I spoke with mayoral candidate Olivia Chow who gushed over Tagaq’s performance and work with great admiration. It seemed like everyone I talked to throughout the night had a different idea of who was going to win. Even though Drake was a no-show he seemed like a front-runner, and previous winners Owen Pallet and Arcade Fire were both popular picks as well. This isn’t the first time that a surprise candidate ended up winning. In 2010, French indie rock band Karkwa beat out Tegan and Sara and Broken Social Scene and in 2007 Patrick Watson beat out the likes of Arcade Fire and Feist. It gives the award legitimacy that it just won’t go to the biggest name on the ballot, which in turn is actually better for Canadian music as now plenty of people will learn about Tanya Tagaq. The other great thing about Tagaq’s win is she became the first aboriginal and first person of colour to win the top prize.  

If you go over Live in Limbo’s predication article, you can see Randall Vasquez, Director of Photography, was the only juror with enough foresight to list Animism in first place. Overall the show was a great success and plenty of fun as guests rubbed elbows with the likes of Win Butler, Jian Ghomeshi, George Stroumboulopoulos, and all the other nominees present. 

About author

Music Editor at Live in Limbo and Host of Contra Zoom podcast. Dakota is a graduate of Humber College's Acting for Film and Television. He now specializes in knowing all random trivia. He writes about music, sports and film. Dakota's life goal is visit all baseball stadiums, he's at 7.