Singer-songwriter's 'Metals' named past year's best album during performance-packed Toronto gala
By Seán Francis Condon
At the end of a lengthy night of exhilarating and diverse musical performances by the most critically acclaimed artists in Canada, it was Feist -- the world-acclaimed veteran who had been so close to the podium before -- who walked away with the $30,000 Polaris Prize for winning over the grand jury Monday. The prize honors the country's best full-length album of the past year.
"This is my worst fear!" 36-year-old Nova Scotia native Leslie Feist told the crowd of 500 at downtown Toronto's Masonic Temple after being named winner for her fourth album, "Metals." (Feist, who had made the short list back in 2007 for "The Reminder" and tangentially as part of the shifting Toronto collective Broken Social Scene in 2006 and 2010, initially responded to the announcement by crawling under her table at the sound of her name.) "Oh, my God. Oh, the thoughts racing through my head right now. You'd think from a lifetime of terrible speeches I would remember, at one point, to write something down. But I never do, because it seems presumptuous to prepare.
"I've had a phenomenal night. I've just been having such an unbelievably good time just sitting right here just watching this cavalcade of incredible music. And I've been living in a tiny bubble on tour where I don't really know or see anything except the city in front of me. I've been really grateful tonight. I learned so much about the amazing stuff going on. Every single band that was up here -- not to mention every band on the short list; not to mention so many bands that didn't make the short list but belong here tonight and belong standing with a novelty check, that apparently doesn't even cash ... ."
Tim Kingsbury and Jeremy Gara -- members of last year's winners, Montréal-based Arcade Fire, who took the prize for 2010's "The Suburbs" -- announced the winner and presented the check as the culmination of a three-hour rotation of live performances and testimonials that was broadcast live by SiriusXM Radio and CBC Radio 3, and streamed live online by MuchMusic. Seven of the 10 artists who made the final cut from national critics' polling performed onstage, with Feist being the last performer up to join with Snowblink and Aurora for thundering renditions of "Caught a Long Wind" and "The Bad in Each Other".
Bing: More on Feist
Eschewing sales for artistic merit, the Polaris Prize has been given since 2006 for the full-length album considered the strongest among Canadian artists, regardless of the genre. This year's short list of 10 included established artists (Feist, Brampton hip-hop artist Drake, and Toronto punk six-piece F---ed Up, who won the prize in 2009 for their album "The Chemistry of Common Life"), those who had reached the short list before (Ottawa multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Kathleen Edwards, Edmonton hip-hop artist Cadence Weapon) and emerging talent that defies radio genre classifications (Vancouver-to-Montréal one-woman electronic band Grimes, soulful Etobicoke native Cold Specks -- who now bases herself in London -- and hard-grinding metal-meets-Japan outfit Yamantaka//Sonic Titan from Montréal).
"I was really moved by Cold Specks," Feist said after the ceremony, in a brief conference with reporters upstairs in one of the 95-year-old building's grand meeting rooms. "I thought that was coming from as true a place as where I am, but along the polar ends of some meter that has yet to be invented. Each of them are doing something super-unique and coming from a place that I haven't heard in the form that was shown to me tonight. The vastness of the things that we saw tonight -- how Cadence Weapon popped out for me -- everything couldn't be any more disparate as it was tonight, and everything was so at home with itself. It was really inspiring."
The Polaris Prize, bumped up to $30,000 last year after starting in 2006 as a $20,000 award, models itself after the Mercury Prize in the U.K. and Ireland, and is short-listed from top-five rankings submitted by more than 200 music journalists, broadcasters, DJs and industry personalities from throughout the country. From there, a long list of the 40 top picks is assembled for a new vote that brings the short list to 10. As the gala evening proceeds, a grand jury of 11 members selects the grand prize winner.
This new Who's Who of Canadian Music was saluted by a sort of Who's That? of Canadian music journalism, with each finalist being introduced by authors of album praise reading out their favorable opinions in often halting and stilted fashion. MuchMusic VJ Tyrone T-RexXx Edwards even recited his appreciation of Drake from prepared text on his phone.
There had been a lot of talk in the crowd, composed mainly of reporters, musicians, and music-industry movers and shakers, that Vancouver duo Japandroids might take the Polaris for their third full-length, "Celebration Rock." The band, on tour in Germany, suggested Skype-ing in their acceptance should they come out on top, but they ended up being among three finalists who did not perform at the gala. Alexei Perry, one half of short-list nominee Handsome Furs -- cited for their third album, "Sound Kapital," but having broken up as a band and as a married couple of Perry and Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner in May -- delivered a heartfelt, raw and pained thank-you to Polaris jury and fans, saying that "it takes f---ing guts to be an artist every day. For me, time and time again, and especially currently, it is art and music and literature that has saved my life." The most prominent no-show was most assuredly Drake, the multimillion-selling artist who was not scheduled to perform, but whose attendance in support of his second album "Take Care," was an on-again, off-again prospect right up until an hour into the show.
If anyone had a great excuse for not showing up, it may have been Cold Specks, on the short list for her debut album, "I Predict a Graceful Expulsion." The 23-year-old's subdued movement through pre-gala interviews could be easily explained by her itinerary.
"I was in Hamburg last night," the artist otherwise known as Al Spx said, slowly laughing. "I'm here now, and I'm off to Switzerland tomorrow. Am I pulling it off?"
At the grand old venue, the large stage and TV-friendly camera cranes and décor -- main MC Grant Lawrence of CBC Radio 3 at one point referred to the glowing cones hanging from the Masonic Temple ceiling as "the industrial croissant theme of the evening" -- favored artists such as Feist, Kathleen Edwards, F---ed Up, all of whom had the size of numbers and sound to fill the large stage. Grimes (24-year-old Claire Boucher), nominated for her third album, "Visions," offset her performances of "Symphonia IX (my wait is u)" and "Genesis" with a lithe male pole dancer named Gary she had met just minutes before taking the stage.
Cadence Weapon tried to make up for the room around himself and his DJ/mixer by encouraging the crowd to clap along with his performance of the single "Conditioning" (off nominee "Hope in Dirt City"), while Yamantaka//Sonic Titan -- the five members dressed primarily in black, contrasted with white kabuki-inspired face paint -- seemed to have some of their considerable power diluted by the setting.
Drummer and bandmate Alaska B pointed out how much has changed in the year since Yamantaka//Sound Titan issued their nominated self-titled album, which was originally planned for a pressing of just 500 copies.
"And a lot of the stuff that we've become known for in the live shows was when we did almost like quarterly shows," she said. "We would do these huge operas in Montréal where we would pack weird underground venues, and we'd spend a month and a half writing new songs, new material, and building these gigantic paper sets. We'd write performance art. We'd build costumes. Now, with the success of the record, we're on tour so much that we play a show almost every night. A lot of our earlier work was a lot more violent -- a lot more crazy, wild. Like, jumping into the crowds in costumes."
Bing: More on Kathleen Edwards
Veterans such as Edwards put the prospect of the Polaris and the whole gala ballyhoo in more modest terms. The vocalist, songwriter, violinist and guitarist was nominated Monday night for her fourth album, "Voyageur." She had previously made it to the finals in 2008 for her third album, "Asking for Flowers."
"Been there, done that -- whatever," Edwards, who gave a rich performance of just one song, "A Soft Place to Land," joked before the ceremony. "I also feel a lot more chill-out because I've been around the block a couple of times. I know I'm not going to win, and there's actually something really wonderfully peaceful about that. So, you just enjoy the night. You're not, like, 'Holy s---! What am I supposed to say if that did happen?'
"I'm a smart girl," she elaborated. "I know how these things go. It's just so much easier to enjoy the night in that head place, in that headspace."
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