Host Raina Douris from CBC Radio 2 introduced last year’s Polaris Music Prize winner Kaytranada to the stage to present the evening’s only award, the prestigious best Canadian album, and he talked about how much the award changed his life and how he hoped this year’s winner would experience the same. As the eleven-person grand jury was sequestered for the evening they voted on who should win. They didn’t get to see the performances, the testimonials from celebrities or the speeches, they just had to hash out the final details of who will be awarded the $50,000 prize.
As Kaytranada read Lido Pimienta’s name, she burst up with surprise and energy and made her way up the stairs to give her acceptance speech. The Canadian by way of Columbia singer started out by saying she didn’t have speech prepared, that she expected her “brothers from A Tribe Called Red” to win and she would be a winner by association since she appears on the record (along with another nominee Tanya Tagaq).
After taking a moment to collect her thoughts, Pimienta proceeded to give the most confident of the moment speeches I have ever heard. She spoke about how this award was for the Arayan specimen who told her to go back to back to her country after moving to Canada. In less sarcastic thank you’s, she proudly thanked the indigenous peoples of Canada who allow us all on their land and how they have protected it. She dedicated the award to all the single mothers out there and how they inspired her, to her brother who passed away a few years ago and the resiliency of her mother who faced the same discrimination she did. She drew attention to the fact that she won the best Canadian album of the year prize despite her record not being in English or French but entirely in Spanish.
The fact that a Columbian immigrant can make the most artistic record in a country of so many great artists proves the legitimacy of this award and showcases what a real Canadian looks like. Real Canadians fight to include everyone, overcome adversity and become stronger because it all. Real Canadians are from everywhere and they don’t look, act or talk in a certain way.
Twelve winners have now collected the prize of best Canadian album, regardless of genre or sales, and while the prize seemed to skew English, white, male, and straight at the beginning of its inception, the winners have now shown a distinct mix of artists. The last four years have had people of colour win every time. Three winners identify as queer, two winners have albums not in English and seven of the winners have women in key parts of the acts (either fronting or supporting), with genres ranging from electronic hip-hop to Inuit throat singing to post hardcore to folk making this the antithesis of something like the Juno’s.
Throughout the evening of the Polaris Music Prize, six of the ten nominees performed for the crowd at The Carlu in Toronto. Host Raina Douris would introduce a video clip where an advocate for each album would talk about why it was so great and deserving to win.
New Brunswick’s Lisa LeBlanc performed first and played Ti-gars, where she banged mercilessly on a triangle and sung in French and her band rocked out hard with her. Her second song was the quieter 5748 KM about dating a guy in British Columbia. She performed solo and on acoustic guitar as her ultra realist lyrics hit hard for anyone who has ever tried doing a long distance relationship. Seeing LeBlanc control the stage in both English and French was a beautiful merging of our two official languages.
BADBADNOTGOOD wasn’t able to attend the show (even though friend of the site and trumpet contributor to the album Tom Moffat was in attendance). Future Islands frontman Samuel T Herring spoke via video about the uniqueness of a band that creates their own “breaks” a hip hop term denoting the creation of beats using (usually) drums, and how it is something every band aspires to do.
Polaris founder Steve Jordan gave a long speech thanking everyone for making this event possible and to make sure that if you hadn’t listened to all ten albums you were missing out. Jordan made a comment about how he knows he always drones on the longest every year and made a conscious effort to shorten his speech this time around, even if it didn’t quite feel any different.
One of the more surprising testimonial appearances was by Perfume Genius, who while not Canadian has released one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year in No Shape. He promoted 2014 winner Tanya Tagaq who was back as a nominee for her follow up record Retribution. Tagaq who performed the most famous Polaris set ever three years ago (and a fact that was mentioned several times throughout the night, the single most watched one too) had her work cut out for her to top it.
Joined onstage was performance artist Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory who positioned herself in front of a mirror and smeared black pain on her face before carving out lines creating something similar to an Inuit mask. What proceeded is hard to describe for fear of not being able to do it justice or fully grasp the ideas behind the performance. Tagaq performed her cover of Nirvana’s Rape Me a song with a powerful message that still is controversial almost thirty years later. Tagaq’s performed her signature Inuit throat singing while Bathory performed like some kind of Id to Tagaq’s Ego in a mesmerizing fashion. Seriously, you should just watch the breath taking performance for yourself. As Tagaq was singing the lyrics to Rape Me in the later part of her performance about thirty women in the crowd stood up, all wearing red dresses as the video board flashed the website for The REDress Project to raise awareness to the systematic issue that over one thousand aboriginal woman are either missing or have been murdered in recent years. The red clad women, which included nominees Lido Pimienta and Weaves singer Jasmyn Burke, slowly raised their fists in the air in support creating a moment that hits you in the core as art collided with protest in a way that makes the Polaris Music Prize so special.
Even though they were in attendance A Tribe Called Red did not perform, which was disappointing. Instead a two song video clip of them performing on House of Strombo was aired. The protest dance music of the trio was on full display as the seated crowd was itching to dance along while George Stroumboulopoulos stood by the army of photographers watching proudly.
Leif Vollebekk’s spare folksiness was transformed to a raucous jazz number while he played Elegy from his nominated album Twin Solitude. He spent the whole song singing his heart out with his eyes closed shut and his fingers moved deftly over his Wurlitzer keyboard.
Kevin Drew, Broken Social Scene ringleader and producer of Gord Downie’s Secret Path album, gave a testimonial to the truth and authenticity that Downie poured into the making of an album of a young boy who died running away from a Residential School in the 60’s. A chapter from the animated film made by Jeff Lemire (who also made the graphic novel that accompanied the album) was shown that worked as a music video for the song The Stranger.
Feist showed why she was a previous winner with her performance of I Wish I Didn’t Miss You as she injected some serious star power into the night. Feist was only added to the list of performers the day prior to the ceremony and her solo appearance quieted the room in a hurry.
Australian singer Nick Cave advocated for the recently departed Leonard Cohen, whose loss is still felt reverberating in the scene. Cave talked about how Cohen so generously imparted his wisdom in his music and what his work has meant to him in his life, a sentiment that is very commonly held. Instead of showing a live performance clip like other non-performers, a brand new music video made it’s premiere. The sister prize of Polaris, Prism, which awards the best Canadian music video, was tasked with creating a video for Leaving the Table and shown at The Carlu for the first time.
Eventual winner Lido Pimienta took the stage and performed Quiero Que Te Vaya Bien dressed in a flowing silver dress. The singer’s beautiful performance brought the house down in a way not seen since Tanya Tagaq’s 2014 one. She danced, and energized the crowd while a banging drum beat and the always-spooky Theremin played along. A horn section roared to life and a group of female dancers clad in all white clothing came on stage and surrounded the songstress. While the jury is apparently sequestered, one wonders if the performance of the night weighed the scales in her favour, as seemingly the best live act each year seems to win.
After Mitski raved about Weaves, the band performed an as of now unreleased song called Scream. Tanya Tagaq who played her “instrument” along to the rocking group joined the band onstage. Both Tagaq and singer Jasmyn Burke screamed into each others faces and the lights were going off in an all out frenzy surely waking up anyone in the crowd or watching on the live stream who might have been dozing off. The mix of blues and punk was a deadly combination that might very well bring the band back to the gala when their forthcoming album comes out.
The always spur of the moment nature of the Polaris Prize generated it’s buzzy moment when Pimienta finished her acceptance speech by dropping a bunch of F –bombs directed at the sound crew for the evening who didn’t turn on the monitors for her performance it showed what an unfiltered night the show can be. Pimienta wasn’t the only one with technical issues as Weaves was ready to perform but had to wait a few minutes until guitarist Morgan Waters pedal board got power and several times host Raina Douris began her segments fully in the dark. Overall the night was a rousing success as it showcased the best Canada has to offer in the most unique of manners. While it is basically a fool’s errand to predict winners I would venture at this point Alvvays will probably be a top contender next year, a guess I’m ready to admit is wrong this time twelve months from now.
If you haven’t listened to the albums, especially the winner’s do yourself a service and check them all out. We have amazing artists here in Canada and they deserve all the exposure they can get.