Music

Polaris Music Prize founder reflects on early beginnings — and how far it’s come

When Cadence Weapon won the Polaris Music Prize Monday for his album “Parallel World,” in many ways it was a full circle moment.

Edmonton-born, Toronto-based rapper Rollie Pemberton, as Cadence Weapon was not only nominated at the very first Polaris Music Prize festivities in 2006 for his album “Breaking Kayfabe,” but also performed.

“I was wearing a brown shirt with an elk on it and jeans with holes in the knees,” he chuckled.

“I remember that it wasn’t televised or filmed, like the other ones have been, and I remember the table had a bottle of vodka and a bunch of candy and I partook in both.

“It definitely wasn’t as fancy as it is today.”

It was also a full circle moment for Polaris Music Prize founder Steve Jordan, now watching from the sidelines as the senior director of CBC Music after relinquishing his position a few years ago.

“It’s good to see, good to see,” Jordan said.

It was just before starting a gig as an A&R executive at True North Records that he first came up with the concept, based on both Britain’s Mercury Prize for music and the Giller Prize for books.

“The Mercury was the gateway to good British music, but I would see the Giller and how it impacted book sales,” he said. “There seemed to be a predisposition in Canada to the concept of an arts prize that could be adapted for music. Here, the majors (labels) were signing what they found, but there were a bunch of artists like Stars, Feist, Broken Social Scene — and on the more extreme side, Godspeed You! Black Emperor — who were forgoing the Canadian label system and, in extreme cases, forming their own labels.

“But you could see them gaining both critical and audience traction by taking their music to the people, especially outside of Canada. So, in a lot of ways, the idea was repatriating that potential back to Canada.”

Jordan says when Dundas native Caribou, a.k.a. Dan Snaith, won the Polaris in 2008, “some senior industry folks said, ‘Who is this guy?’” Six months later, Jordan visited Tower Records in Dublin where there was not only a section dedicated to Caribou, but Snaith was appearing at the Harvest Festival in front of an audience of 10,000.

Another Jordan foray to “the Reykjavik version of a Zellers” unearthed “an entire section of Godspeed records.”

“There was all this acceptance for music that would have been considered to be on the fringes, but was gaining traction,” he said.

So Jordan decided to do something about it.

There were times he wasn’t sure it was going to get off the ground.

“I worked on it for a bit, and then met some industry folks to try and get some backing for it, and there was a bit of an insistence that, ‘We’ll back you, but you really gotta start talking about what a broadcast would look like,’” he recalled.

“And I vehemently disagreed, because I didn’t know what this thing looks like yet. But I didn’t want to start a TV music awards show that is supposed to be about critically acclaimed music and then, when the ratings suck, have someone insist that we put stars on the show to get ratings … So that funding got withdrawn. So there were stops and starts like that.”

When he was hired by True North label owner Bernie Finkelstein, Jordan informed his new boss of his desire to continue to pursue his Polaris dream and was given his blessing as long as it didn’t interfere with his work.

But, after a few years, Jordan realized he needed to devote full-time attention to his project.

“There came a time where if I didn’t rededicate myself full-time to this, it was probably never going to get off the ground,” Jordan said. “My wife, Michelle, was really supportive at that moment. She said, ‘If you need to quit and go full-time on this, we’ll get by.’ She gets all the credit for giving me the time needed to close the gap, get the funding and get it off the ground.”

The Canadian Recording Industry Association — now Music Canada — gave Jordan the seed money to hire a graphic designer, hire a sponsorship team and “keep me in groceries.”

Several industry heavyweights — entertainment lawyer Chris Taylor, Warner Music Canada president Steve Kane, agent Jack Ross and Warner record label exec Kim Cooke among them — helped Jordan raise the inaugural $20,000 prize, and support from music journalists and the artists themselves helped solidify the vision.

The program was assembled: numerous music-associated media professionals would voluntarily join a jury and suggest their candidates for favourite album; the lists would be whittled down to 10 favourites over a period of time, and a grand jury of 11 would argue, debate and come up with a winner.

“It’s 200 people from across the country and it’s not based on success standards,” says veteran freelance music journalist Mary Dickie, who served as a judge, gathering in a room with the grand jury in 2009 and repeating the experience this year, although in much more isolated circumstances via Zoom.

“It’s what everyone thinks is the best album. You’re comparing apples and oranges: the 10 albums are so different and they’re all really good in their own completely different way. Sometimes it’s really hard to say, ‘Well, this apple is better than this orange.’ But it’s also fun to have that exploration and discussion of ideas and what is most important about all the different elements that go into it: the lyrics, the production, the experimentation, the voice, the instrumentation. It’s quite a wonderful experience.”

Pemberton said the impact of his first nomination alongside such artists as Sarah Harmer, the New Pornographers, K’naan, Malajube and, among others, Final Fantasy, the eventual winner, was immediate.

“When I first got nominated for Polaris, it was the thing that put me on the map nationally in Canada,” Pemberton said. “It was a totally new award and seeing the people I was nominated with really gave me a lot of credibility. Being nominated with Broken Social Scene and huge bands like that, it was a real boon for me at the time.”

Jordan says his initial intent behind establishing Polaris has not wavered.

“I really wanted it to be … about the music, about the albums — not about the builder, but what the artists have built themselves — and we tried to create an environment where the show itself was really musical and it was really a celebration of all of it, not just the coronation of one of the 10,” he said.

“And it’s not just one person … A jury picked Tanya Tagaq’s ‘Animism.’ A jury picked that for a long list. A jury picked that for a short list. A jury picked that to win.

“They took Lido Pimienta with a self-released record, recognized that, and I watched it work its way through the Polaris system. Now she’s signed a deal to Anti and she’s a Grammy nominee.”

So why did he step away in 2019?

“Over the last few years, I made a pretty conscious decision that I wanted it to outlive me,” Jordan said. “I didn’t want to be the figurehead for it. I figure that the vision should carry on with someone else and it should be their vision.”

Pemberton says the winners over 16 years, ranging from Buffy Sainte-Marie to Backxwash to Patrick Watson to Arcade Fire, have added “a lot of significance to the awards.”

“You have people who are the leaders of the creative vanguard in whatever their genre is,” he said. “And I think there’s a symbiotic relationship between the artists who are nominated, the artists who win and the award itself.

“Now that I’ve won, it really feels like I’ve joined this hallowed group of people. I feel like somebody just put the green jacket on me.”

NK

Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based freelance contributor for the Star. He was a member of the Polaris Music Prize grand jury in 2017. Reach him via email: octopus@rogers.com


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