“You can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”

23 09 2010

or: How I Learned to Stop Crying and Love the Polaris (thanks to Mackie for that one)

Well, Polaris 2010 is in the books. I’m back home in Victoria at my desk here at Monday HQ and Montreal’s Karkwa took home the $20,000 prize for their album Les Chemins de Verre. And while I can’t comment on specifics of the events that occurred while the 11 of us deliberated and debated as to who would win Polaris, I can share a little bit about the process, my experience and the tears that were shed in the jury room—because they were mine.

First off, a bit about the selection process, because in the wake of the announcement of the winner it seems there’s a lot of assumptions and misconceptions about how the system works. At the beginning of the night, when the 11 jurors head into the deliberation room in the Masonic Temple (which one of my colleagues commented had a very Strangelovian feel to it, hence the post title), there are 10 albums up for the prize. Shortly after we begin, we vote and the bottom five albums are removed from contention. We discuss the remaining five, then vote again to get to three. Then we say what there is left to say about the last three albums, cast a final ballot and then join the party. The winner isn’t revealed until the end of the gala. So by the time we get down to the final three records, it’s not surprising things can get intense. A lot of people’s favourite records are out of the running and you’re left to debate the pros and cons of the excellent albums left in front of you.

Novelty cheque photo op!

Sitting there in that jury room, getting down to the wire of how to rank those last three records, was really overwhelming for me personally. I was torn as to which way to cast my vote. We’d been debating these records for two days. Everyone came to the table with passionate, heartfelt arguments. I’m by nature a pretty sensitive person, so yeah, I shed a couple tears (honestly, it wasn’t a total breakdown or freak out or anything). It wasn’t because people in the jury room were being disrespectful, or I was upset about the albums that didn’t make the cut or anything like that. As cheesy as it sounds, I, like the rest of the jurors in the room, just felt really strongly about making the best decision I could.

Why admit to something so embarrassing? I guess I just wanted to convey what an amazing, challenging experience this was for me—it was definitely a career highlight. Maybe part of the motivation was to dispel the misconception that the jury goes in there and has a big groupthink session about picking the record that will make the biggest statement or cause the most controversy or win someone who bet on the various odds that were floated in the leadup to the gala a whole lot of money or something like that. I can honestly say everything said in that room about the albums in question was about the music and their artistic merit.

So yeah, I’m an over-feeling, sappy wuss. Deal with it.

How do I feel about the final decisions? I’m stoked Karkwa won. As an English-speaker from Western Canada, I will fully admit I had barely heard of the band before their appearance on the long list, and upon delving into it as part of my jury duties, it really grew on me. It’s a beautiful, haunting record that can make your soul ache. I hope this win means other people connect to this record the way I did—and that they’ll maybe tour out our way sometime soon.

So thanks, Polaris. Thanks Steve Jordan and Liisa Ladouceur for inviting me to come out and have this experience. That was the most time I’ve ever spent in Toronto (embarrassing, I know!) and I had such a wonderful time. Thanks to my fellow jury members (Jenny, Leah, Rob, Marc, Francois, Andre, Del, Jonathan, Jian and Phillipe) for the great conversations, whether they were about the 10 records up for debate or just about our industry in general. It was an experience I won’t soon forget.

Now, back to reality—with a bit more of a spring in my step and inspiration in my day-to-day.


On Sun and Sequestering

20 09 2010

So, made it to Toronto safe and sound after a couple plane changes and rain delays yesterday, ready to dive into my duties as one of 11 Canadian music journalists and critics tapped to decide who will take home Polaris’ $20,000 prize tonight. The weather is gorgeous–and I did get a chance to take in some sun when my fellow juror, Jonathan Dekel, showed a few of us around the city this afternoon. But now,with mere hours to go before we get shipped over to the Masonic Temple to deliberate the top 10 Canadian albums of the year, I’m chilling out in my hotel room at the Drake (which is awesome, by the way) and doing some last-minute listening after lastnight’s engaging dinner discussion.

While the official deliberations and votes don’t go down until the gala starts at 8pm tonight, it’s Polaris tradition for the 11 jurors to meet for dinner and have a casual preliminary discussion of the top 10. The Besnard Lakes – The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night, Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record, Caribou – Swim, Karkwa – Les Chemins De Verre, Dan Mangan – Nice, Nice, Very Nice, Owen Pallett – Heartland, Radio Radio – Belmundo Regal, The Sadies – Darker Circles, Shad – TSOL and Tegan And Sara – Sainthood.) Since most of us are there championing one of these 10 albums, Polaris founder Steve Jordan and Jury Mistress Extraordinaire Liisa Ladouceur go around the table and ask each of us to present the case for our record of choice. What ensued lastnight was an engaging, intense but extremely interesting four-hour discussion around the top 10.

I’ll admit, I was pretty nervous coming into that room. As a generalist (my work at Monday involves writing about everything from theatre to visual art to music and even the occasional news story), I was feeling a bit out of my league surrounded by folks who immerse themselves in music–not to mention some of the people in the room have been writing about and studying music since I was in nappies. But while I can’t comment on the specifics of the discussion, I can say the atmosphere was great. No one got an easy ride on their pick by any stretch of the imagination, but there was a lot of thought and consideration in everyone’s responses, whether they be critical or supportive. Two things were really apparent during lastnight’s talk: 1) that everyone around the table had done their homework and really, really listened to the records and 2) everyone really cared about the Polaris Prize and making the best, most informed decision humanly possible. Sure, most of us came in there with a favourite, but we also came into that room with an open mind, ready to listen to each others’ opinions and give some records another listen.

I can honestly say that, out of the 10 albums, there are only one or two on the list that I would be disappointed if they won. I’m awaiting tonight’s jury deliberations with nervous excitement…although I just realised I forgot my dress shoes at home.

And hey, if you want to listen live to the Polaris Gala at the winner announcement, it’ll be broadcast live on CBC Radio 3 (Sirius Satellite Radio Channel 86 or radio3.cbc.ca) or at Muchmusic.com starting at 8pm EST (or 5pm PST).  I’ll also be live on CBC Victoria’s On the Island tomorrow at 6:45 PST talking about my jury gig.

Decisions, Decisions

14 09 2010

Over the past month, my “to listen to” record pile has been growing rapidly. It’s not just because of the September influx of new records and touring bands; it’s because I’ve been spending all my time listening to the same 10 records over and over. Instead of new offerings from the Meligrove Band and Luke Doucet, it’s the Acadian choruses of Radio Radio’s Belmundo Regal repeating in my head, despite the fact my Anglo ass can only understand every fifth word. Same goes for the catchy hooks on Tegan and Sara’s Sainthood. It’s not that I’ve become some sort of Sadies sadist, either; it’s just that their album Darker Circles, along with nine others (including the two aforementioned records) are on the Short List for the 2010 Polaris Music Prize—and I, along with 10 of my colleagues from across Canada, have been tapped to figure out which of these albums will win $20,000 for being the best Canadian album of the year.

I've been spending a lot of time with these 10 records lately...

For those unfamiliar with it, the Polaris Prize was founded by Steve Jordan in 2006—and although only in its fifth year, it’s become an important part of the Canadian musical landscape. According to their press, it’s “not-for-profit organization that annually honours, celebrates and rewards creativity and diversity in Canadian recorded music by recognizing and marketing the albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history, as judged by a panel of selected music critics.” Since last year, I’ve been on that panel, along with nearly 200 other writers, broadcasters and bloggers. There’s a mailing list for all of us to suggest albums and discuss the pros and cons of the Canadian musical offerings of the year, and then we each submit our top five records (released between June 1, 2009 and May 31, 2010 for this year’s prize).  The folks at Polaris HQ tally up our votes and from that comes a long list of 40 albums. Then we vote again, but this time can only choose our top five from said 40 albums.  There’s more furious counting and—voila!—the short list of 10 albums emerges. This year’s is The Besnard Lakes – The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night, Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record, Caribou – Swim, Karkwa – Les Chemins De Verre, Dan Mangan – Nice, Nice, Very Nice, Owen Pallett – Heartland, Radio Radio – Belmundo Regal, The Sadies – Darker Circles, Shad – TSOL and Tegan And Sara – Sainthood.

This is the part where the grand jury comes in. Instead of just getting everyone to vote again, Polaris organizers select an 11-person grand jury from the larger pool, who meet in Toronto to deliberate/argue/roshambo over which of the top 10 deserves the $20,000 prize money on September 20. Care is taken to ensure the jury isn’t stacked—i.e., three people who voted for one of the top 10 albums as their first choice aren’t all on there—and no one can serve on the jury more than once.

I have to say, I’m pretty chuffed to have been asked to be a part of this year’s grand jury. I know it’s mostly because of my unabashed love for Caribou’s Swim (which I have shouted from the rooftops) and Polaris organizers wanting to ensure the jury is balanced (I imagine each of the 10 records will have a champion on the jury), but it’s still pretty exciting. It also feels like a huge responsibility, almost like I all of a sudden have a huge exam I have to write—and therefore, I have been cramming like crazy.

Writing at the office, it’s the Polaris Short List on my headphones. When I go for a walk, it’s the playlist that’s on my mp3 player. In the car, I’ve got the albums on repeat. I just went on a 7,000 km road trip to the Yukon and back. Guess what we listened to most of the way, much to my husband’s chagrin? (His taste leans more towards the KMFDM or Skinny Puppy discography, but he admittedly got pretty hooked on Shad’s TSOL, the T&S album and the Radio Radio disc.)

A week today, I’ll be in Toronto helping to decide who takes home this year’s award. I’m going to do a bit of blogging about my experience and thought process here, so stay tuned.


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