Polaris Prize LogoThe realm of possibilities is nearly infinite when the time comes for a musician to stand out and make a place for themselves. Of course, there are numerous charts –  Billboard, iTunes, and the like – where, week in and week out, certain artists brerak through to a mass audience. Just as there are numerous awards galas, such as the JUNOs, the ADISQ Awards, or the SOCANs. And then there’s the Polaris Music Prize, now goiing strong for 11 years.

The Polaris Prize isn’t awarded haphazardly. Each year, nearly 200 critics, journalists and industry members gather digitally all over Canada to discuss some of the best albums released during the previous year. Each of them submits a first ballot that includes their top five picks. Following the publication of the Long List of 40 albums in July, the members of the jury must pick five albums out of the 40, and thus the Short List of 10 is born.

Diversifying Possibilities

Whereas the 2016 long list only featured five francophone albums, this year’s has seven, plus a bilingual album, Adieux au Dancefloor, by Montréal’s Marie Davidson. She’d been included on the 2016 long list as part of her duo Essaie Pas, nominated for their album Demain est une autre nuit.

But the short list is often the one that is a bit of a shocker for Francophiles, since no French album has made it since 2011’s Tigre et diesel by Galaxie.

“When you look at Francophone albums, the real issue is the Short List,” says Steve Jordan, the founder and director of the Polaris Prize. “That’s where people have traditionally complained. We do, however, try to have as many critics and journalists from Montréal in the [large] jury so that, naturally, more Francophone albums are selected. But past that point, it’s really not up to us.”

From one year to the next, Jordan has witnessed the evolution of music critics’ tastes in music at the same pace as music itself has been evolving. “There seems to be much more openness for music that’s beyond white guys and guitars,” he says. “Shorter albums and EPs are also making a place for themselves, increasingly.”

The issue of the place of women in music has also been a hot topic for the last few years, and even more so, in the past few weeks in the wake of the creation of the FEM (Femmes en music—Women in Music) collective in Québec, a group whose mission is to denounce the male-female inequities in the music industry, especially the unde- representation of women in music festivals, in order to start a dialogue and find solutions. But where festival programs lack in terms of female headliners, the Polaris Prize fares better – although it is still not at par. Twenty-five mainly male groups are featured on the Long List, compared to 13 female artists and two mixed-gender groups, Le Couleur and Weaves. Those proportions were the same in 2016.

In composing the 11-person Grand Jury (which last year included SOCAN Editor in Chief Howard Druckman), it’s mandatory that six of its members are not from Toronto, and that six are women. This final jury is composed of eleven people who analyze the Short List to determine a winner.

“We ensure there’s a certain diversity in these people’s choices,” says Jordan. “Then, all the jury members are sent the albums on the Short List about six weeks prior to the gala, and we ask them to listen to them until they can’t take it anymore [laughs]. Then, we gather around a meal. It’s what I call the epic dinner. It goes one for five hours and we have a discussion about each of the nominated albums. Then, we invite people to go their own way and reflect on what’s been said. That’s when the magic happens: their vote is secret and the winner is selected. It’s a surprise for everyone until the very end.”

“I feel like the Polaris truly is there to recognize raw talent rather than an artist’s commercial success.” – Kaytranada manager William Robillard Cole

A Mish-Mash of Everything

An extended folk family that dominates this year’s Long List with, notably, Leif Vollebekk, Philippe B, Antoine Corriveau, Leonard Cohen (posthumously), Daniel Romano and Gord Downie (for Secret Path) who, as it turns out, is nominated twice, since his band The Tragically Hip is also on the list for their album Man Machine Poem. Rock also occupies its rightful place on the List with Québec’s Chocolat, Nova Scotia’s TUNS, and BC’s Japandroids. Hip-hop and R&B are represented by Drake’s More Life, Alaclair Ensemble’s Les frères cueilleurs as well as Clairmont The Second’s Quest for Milk and Honey, an album by a young Toronto producer who, at the age of 19, has been deemed the greatest hope for the future of hip-hop in Toronto.

And in many cases, the messages carried by the nominated artists are quite significant. Nunavut throat singer Tanya Tagaq, who won the 2014 Polaris Prize, is among them. Her album Retribution touches on many political topics and she is, de facto, the voice of woefully seldom-heard First Nations women. A Tribe Called Red’s We Are The Halluci Nation is the band’s most political statement to date, and amalgamates traditional Indigenous chants with electro beats, intending to breaking the cliché of sadness associated with ancestral music. As for young Lido Pimienta, a Colombia-born Ontarian, she bears feminist messages to powerful electro-pop tracks.

Winning? So What?

Similar to the British Mercury Prize, created in 1992, the Polaris is awarded to the country’s best album, according to critics and industry types. The fact that no importance is given to the commercial success of the winning album is what distinguishes it from the rest. And since the nominated albums are proposed by Canada’s music journalists, artists are never in a position to submit their own candidacy, which makes a nomination that much more meaningful.

Kaytranada Polaris 2016For Patrick Watson’s manager Olivier Sirois, the Polaris is a prize apart from others. Watson’s 2007 album Close To Paradise won the prize and he was fully able to gauge the impact of that award on the rest of his career. “It directs the attention of the whole industry on an artist that is still relatively marginal,” he says, “and it’s a prize that’s determined by critics and people from the industry. It’s an extremely valuable recognition.”

To him, the announcement of the Polaris Prize winner is always a big surprise, because it’s rarely the apparent front-runner that takes the crown. “Two-thousand-and-seven was a huge album release year, and the fact that Patrick won surprised a lot of people because he was anything but mainstream, back then,” syas Sirois. “I remember it was Feist’s big year [with her album The Reminder] and a few established music websites made snide remarks about Patrick, wondering who the guy was.”

William Robillard Cole, manager of last year’s Polaris winner Kaytranada, says the interest in his talent couldn’t have been more obvious after he was declared the winner. “We immediately noticed an increased interest in his work, especially at the international level and members of the press,” says Cole. “I feel like the Polaris is there to truly recognize raw talent rather than an artist’s commercial success.”

And the fact that the winner walks away with a cash prize of $50,000 CDN also contributes to the uniqueness of this prize. “Compared to the JUNOs or ADISQ Awards, the Polaris is unique because, well, there’s only one,” says Sirois. “It kinda creates a myth.” The prize created the perfect storm for Patrick Watson’s career. It took off in earnest, and the Polaris was one of the catalysts for that.

The positive effects of the prize for Kaytranada are still adding up. ‘He’s been offered a ton of great opportunities,’ his manager explains. ‘The Polaris definitely was the boost that took him to where he is today.’

2017 Polaris Prize Long List (Short List will be announced July 13, 2017)
A Tribe Called Red
We Are The Halluci Nation
Alaclair EnsembleLes Frères Cueilleurs
AnciientsVoice of the Void
ArkellsMorning Report
Philippe BLa grande nuit vidéo
Louise BurnsYoung Mopes
ChocolatRencontrer Looloo
Clairmont The SecondQuest For Milk and Honey
Leonard CohenYou Want It Darker
Antoine CorriveauCette chose qui cognait au creux de sa poitrine sans vouloir s’arrêter
Le CouleurP.O.P.
Marie DavidsonAdieux Au Dancefloor
Mac DemarcoThis Old Dog
Gord DownieSecret Path
DrakeMore Life
Figure WalkingThe Big Other
FiverAudible Songs From Rockwood
Hannah GeorgasFor Evelyn
JapandroidsNear To The Wild Heart Of Life
Carly Rae JepsenE.MO.TION Side B
B.A. JohnstonGremlins III
Lisa LeBlancWhy You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?
The New PornographersWhiteout Conditions
Klô PelgagL’Étoile thoracique
Peter PeterNoir Éden
Lido PimientaLa Papessa
Jessie ReyezKiddo
Daniel RomanoModern Pressure
The SadiesNorthern Passages
John K. SamsonWinter Wheat
Tanya TagaqRetribution
The Tragically HipMan Machine Poem
Leif VollebekkTwin Solitude
The WeekndStarboy
Charlotte Day WilsonCDW


2017 Polaris Prize Short List
A Tribe Called Red
We Are The Halluci Nation
Leonard CohenYou Want It Darker
Gord DownieSecret Path
Lisa LeBlancWhy You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?
Lido PimientaLa Papessa
Tanya TagaqRetribution
Leif VollebekkTwin Solitude

Selective mutism
Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder in which a person who’s normally capable of speech doesn’t speak in specific situations or to specific people. Selective mutism usually co-exists with shyness. or social anxiety. “I used to be selectively mute,” says Dowling. “I’d be thinking about it all the time. I was like… I don’t want attention on me, so I just won’t say anything. But then sometimes, even if I wanted to talk physically, I couldn’t.”

When sought-after string player and solo artist Kinley Dowling was a child, her parents took her to see a concert. Struck by what she’d seen onstage, Dowling remembers asking them whether being a musician was something she could do for a living. “Yes,” she recalls them answering, “but it will be a lot of work.”

Undeterred, Dowling set her sights on a life in music. Unlike many aspiring artists, however, she knew from the beginning that she wasn’t interested in seeking the spotlight – instead, she dreamed of playing in the background. “Even when I was young, I didn’t want to be the centre of attention,” says Dowling, who was so shy as a child she became selectively mute (see sidebar).

Honing her skills, first at the piano, and later on the violin and viola, the Charlottetown native soon landed at Dalhousie University in Halifax to study under esteemed violinist Phillipe Djokic. “It was hard, but he gave me skills,” she says. “Suddenly, I could play any style of music I wanted.”

The day she graduated in 2007, she got a call from a member of the St. John’s-based, Newfoundland indie rock band Hey Rosetta! asking her to join them as a string player and back-up vocalist. A decade later, she continues to record and tour with the band. She also quickly became a popular session artist and has since performed as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist on more than 50 albums by everyone from Buck 65 to Anne Murray (see sidebar).

A real studio pro
Dowling is one of the most sought-after string players when a group decides to make an album. A real studio pro, she’s played on more than 50 recordings over the span of her career, and her album credits include Matt Mays, Jenn Grant, Two Hours Traffic, Molly Rankin, In-Flight Safety, Buck 65, Classified, Rita McNeil, Dennis Ellsworth, and many more. She’s also seen multiple appearances with Anne Murray. “I really like playing all different kinds of music,” says Dowling.” So every time anyone asked me to play a show, I would say yes, let’s play… I’ve been lucky. I’ve had some sweet opportunities to play with awesome people.”

Steadfastly committed to supporting other artists, Dowling says the idea of writing or performing her own music wasn’t even on her radar until her cousin, musician Liam Corcoran (Two Hours Traffic) suggested it. “He said, ‘You should write songs, anyone can do it, and you have lots of things to say,’” Dowling recalls.

At the time, Dowling was living with singer-songwriter Jenn Grant and producer Daniel Ledwell in Halifax. “They were writing songs around the house all the time,” she says with a laugh, “so I was inspired to make art, too.”

Taking the lead from her roommates, she began secretly writing songs in her bedroom. Still uncomfortable in the spotlight, Dowling remembers asking Grant to close her eyes and look away the first time she performed one of them for her.

It was Corcoran and a musician friend, Mark Geddes, who first insisted that Dowling try recording the few songs she’d been quietly penning.  Refusing to give her the option of saying no, the pair informed her that they’d booked some recording time at Charlottetown’s Back Alley Music and that Dowling was to show up the next day. Stretching herself well outside of her comfort zone, she stepped up to the microphone and recorded a couple of demos – surprising herself by enjoying the experience. “It was fun,” she admits. “It actually worked out really well.”

Dowling then pushed aside her fears and began working on her own album, Letters Never Sent, which was released in October 2016 under the name KINLEY. Produced in P.E.I. by Colin Buchanan of Paper Lions, it finds Dowling on lead vocals, violin and guitar. Each of the album’s seven songs takes the shape of a letter or diary entry– from “Wild Horse,” penned for a lover, to “Golden Days,” inspired by Dowling’s favourite beach on the island.

“I love writing. It’s new for me, but I really like the creativity.”

But it’s “Microphone,” in which she describes the experience of being sexually assaulted on the night of her high school prom, and addresses the perpetrator, where Dowling is at her most vulnerable. “It’s the fastest song I’ve ever written,” she says of the song, which took her a cathartic 15 minutes to write after rolling it around in her mind for a number of years. “It felt like the most spiritual thing I had ever done.” The song, which has resonated with many, may soon be incorporated into the school curriculum in P.E.I. to help students discuss the issue of consent.

While Dowling, who was named SOCAN Songwriter of the Year at the Music PEI Awards (where she also won the prizes for New Artist and Female Solo Recording of the Year), is thrilled by the positive response to her first album, she says she still isn’t ready to perform her own songs for a live audience.

“It’s too weird for me to play my own songs, like ‘here’s my soul for everyone to see,’” she laughs. Instead, she’s focusing her attention on creating a series of music videos to accompany the album, (she’s created three to date, with filmmaker Jenna MacMillan), describing the process as “easier to control.”

She’s also exploring the co-writing process, most recently with longtime collaborator Dennis Ellsworth, with whom she recently released an album, Everyone Needs to Chill Out. The pair is now touring together.

“I love writing,” says Dowling. “It’s new for me, but I really like the creativity. You make something and it’s your own. And if it’s no good, you work on it some more and make it better.”

While she’s hardly ready to seize the spotlight, Dowling clearly seems to be inching her way towards it. Even as she admits her frustration with the fiscal reality of being a musician, she has no doubts about the path she’s chosen.

“I love making music, and it’s what I want to do, for sure,” she says warmly. “Life is good; life is really good.”

Talking shop with a new-generation jazz musician is always fascinating. What school does he belong to? What are his influences? How is he planning to add a new brick to a building that keeps changing while always remaining the same?

“Like all composers, we’re influenced by the music we listen to, whether we realize it or not,” says Hichem Khalfa. I keep hearing new ideas, and the music just comes out. There’s no big cerebral search. I start with a bass line, I add a melody, and then I bring in a few chords and start building around that.”

At 26, Hichem Khalfa is an unapologetic pioneer, as suggested by two original albums, his 2015 Histoires sans mots and Réminiscences, released in March of this year. “It’s partly improvised, in the jazz spirit, but there are written portions too. Many of my influences show through: groove, sometimes rock, it’s more modern, less classically constructed,” he says, after claiming that he was “contaminated” as a teenager by trumpet players like Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown.

“I keep my technique up essentially to avoid getting stuck when I’m composing.”

And what does he think of more contemporary trumpet players like Dave Douglas or Wallace Rooney, scheduled to perform as part of the 38th annual Festival international de jazz  de Montréal, where he and his quartet are also going to play on July 3, 2017? “I saw Dave Douglas in concert [he will be playing at the FIJM on July 6] a few years ago, and I was blown over! Wallace Roney [July 6 & 7] is unmitigated Miles Davis.”

Hichem Khalfa QuartetThe other members of his quartet – pianist and keyboardist Jérôme Beaulieu (Misc, Bellfower), bassist Jonathan Arsenau, and drummer Dave Croteau – are part and parcel of the excitement. “Being an artist,” Khalfa says, “means being able to carry ideas, and the trumpet is only one way to do it, not an end in itself. But you can’t escape it – the moment you start interacting with the other musicians [in the quartet], ideas start flying.

“Playing trumpet or any other kind of instrument is like playing a sport – you’ve to keep your level of performance up, day in and day out. No time to rest, really. I practice at home, and I’m lucky my neighbours are such cool people. But I know brass players who can pick it up without a problem after not playing for a whole week. Personally, I keep my own technique up essentially to avoid getting stuck when I’m composing. I’m not the kind of person who can write all year long. In my case, it’s a relatively short period.”

A past winner of the Festival de jazz de Rimouski competition and, last year, of the OFF Festival de jazz de Montréal’s François Marcaurelle Award, Khalfa is now preparing a series of European shows for the fall of 2017. Dividing his time between writing more rational jazz music and his playing in the Montreal funk and soul group The Brooks, he has his hands full. “The Brooks is fun to listen to, but there’s a lot of serious composing behind it,” he says. “What’s most important is to pay attention to the tone of the instrument in order to see how it’s all going to sound in the end. The Brooks is not just a collective, or singer Alan Prater’s group, it’s our group. When decisions have to be made, we make them together. The other guys, Dan Thouin [keyboards] among others, are very fussy about their sound and what instruments to use. This impacts how I prepare myself.”

We had to bring up the concert they performed as a tribute to the sadly missed Prince at the Métropolis back in 2016.  “It was standing room only,” Khalfa recalls. “We had only had two rehearsals, and the result was outstanding. We’ve been hearing about it for a long time.” Not to mention the fact that Prince himself had performed on two different nights in the very same hall in 2011, and that his presence could still be felt.

Hichem Khalfa Quartet:    July 3 at L’Astral
The Brooks:   July 5 at Dièse Onze; July 6 at Scène TD