September 24, 2015
Monday evening marked the 10th anniversary of what has over the course of the past decade become one of the most prestigious honours in Canadian music, the Polaris Music Prize. Hosted by famed children’s performer Fred Penner, this year’s gala took place at The Carlu in Toronto and brought together a sizeable crowd from all corners of the industry.
With 10 truly solid Canadian albums on the chopping block this year, an 11-person grand jury deliberated in the next room in between impassioned introductions from former long and short-listed artists and spectacular performances by some of this year’s nominees. But ultimately top honours went to Canadian Cree icon Buffy Sainte-Marie for her album Power in the Blood, and it was a well deserved win indeed.
The 74-year-old singer-songwriter, activist, educator, and visual artist beat out fellow nominees Alvvays, BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah, Braids, Caribou, Jennifer Castle, Drake, the New Pornographers, Tobias Jesso Jr., and Viet Cong — who were thoughtfully introduced by Dan Boeckner as “four guys from Calgary” in an attempt to side step the recent media controversy surrounding the band’s name.
This year’s award was increased from a $30,000 to $50,000 cash prize and a chance to perform with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The nine remaining short-listed artists each took home a $3,000 cash prize courtesy of Slaight Music. As is the case every year, the prize was awarded on “artistic merit” alone with no regard for sales or affiliation.
Sainte-Marie, who has been making music for well over 50 years now, has often been described as a “warrior for peace” though she doesn’t see herself that way. “I’m not a warrior at all,” she notes. “What I represent is new thinking about alternative conflict resolution. That’s quite different from the war racket and quite possibly a real step to a safe future.”
During the early 1960s Sainte-Marie became an important proponent of the protest movement. Her anti-war anthem “Universal Soldier,” which was written in the basement of The Purple Onion coffee house in Toronto, shined a light on the individual’s responsibilities for war and warned of the destructive consequences of old feudal modes of thinking. The song eventually became an international hit when budding Scottish folk singer Donovan later covered it in 1965. In recent years the song has even been rerecorded by acts like Chumbawamma and Jake Bugg. Other songs like the classic “Cod’ine,” which is a harrowing account of drug addiction, set Sainte-Marie apart early on. Then there was her time spent on Sesame Street during the mid-1970s, which helped to bring her music and message to a whole new and blossoming young audience.
But even now, decades later, and with 20 albums under her belt, one needn’t struggle to see why Sainte-Marie remains relevant and it is because she continues to live and create in the pursuit of truth. In a time when our social networks are actively altering our social behaviours and our perceptions of the world we live in are constantly being shaped by mainstream propagators of disinformation, the need for connectivity with the planet and with one another has never been greater. That’s what makes Sainte-Marie’s Power in the Blood such a poignant win. Not only does it speak directly to the challenges we are currently facing as a people but also it is a call to action, meant to inspire each and ever one of us to wake up and realize that it is our responsibility to take care of the earth and to take care of each other.
Fittingly and ahead of her win last night, Sainte-Marie opened the gala with a radiant performance of the album’s title track, “Power in the Blood.” Before launching into “Carry It On,” she paused to recite the song’s powerful lyrics to the audience.
Buffy Sainte-Marie | Power In The Blood | Polaris 2015
Sainte-Marie later accepted her Polaris Prize from the stage saying, “Thank you all so very much. And to the Polaris Prize in general. Just the idea that it’s all genres; it has nothing to do with record sales so there’s no payola. I’ve got an Academy Award and a Golden Globe and a couple Junos and a Gemini Award—this is the only one I’ve ever heard that gives the artist money. It’s really important.” She went on to note that the biggest difference between Power in the Blood and other albums she’s made over the years is that “this one got heard.” For that she offered thanks to her record label True North, management Paquin Entertainment and producers Chris Burkett, Michael Phillip Wojewoda and Jon Levine. Being that Sainte-Marie is the second Indigenous artist to win the Polaris Prize in two years following Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq in 2014, she urged music lovers to open their ears to Native artists by saying, “Aboriginal music has been good for a very long time, but nobody has been listening to it.”
The Polaris Music Prize recognizes the best Canadian album of the year and is selected by a jury of music journalists, broadcasters, and bloggers from across the country. The eligibility period for the 2015 Polaris Music Prize was June 1, 2014 to May 31, 2015. Past winners include: Tanya Tagaq (2014), Godspeed You! Black Emperor (2013), Feist (2012), Arcade Fire (2011), Karkwa (2010), Fucked Up (2009), Caribou (2008), Patrick Watson (2007), and Final Fantasy / Owen Pallett (2006).
Also important to note this year is the addition of the Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize, which honours Canadian albums of the past from four distinct time periods: the ’60s and ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, and the ’00s (2000-05). Voting is open to the public until October 5. The winner will be announced on October 9.
Cast your votes HERE.