Songwriting – Karine Polwart & ‘Place’

Writing ‘Place’ – Karine Polwart

Karine Polwart is a multi-award-winning Scottish songwriter and musician, as well as a theatre maker, storyteller, spoken-word performer and published essayist. Her songs combine folk influences and myth with themes as diverse as Donald Trump’s corporate megalomania, Charles Darwin’s family life and the complexities of modern parenthood. She sings traditional songs too and writes to commission for theatre, animation and thematic collaborative projects. Karine is six-times winner at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, including twice for Best Original Song.

Here, she lends us her wisdom on writing ‘place’ in song, theatre and collaborative artforms, in celebration of National Writing Day and as inspiration for our Write Away!

How do the landscapes of Scotland and elsewhere influence your songwriting?

In recent years, I’ve written a lot about landscape and as sense of place. My musical background is in folk music. And old songs, like myth, have that magical quality of combining what’s local and particular with what’s universal.

My theatre show Wind Resistance and accompanying album, A Pocket of Wind Resistance, crafted with Pippa Murphy, are inspired by the ecology and history of Fala Moor, a wee scrap of peat bog in south east Scotland, three miles from where I live. I can see the moor from my workspace window. I love to walk up there. And I’m fascinated by the ways humans, and other forms of life, live in and respond to this landscape. In both cases, I use lots of different kinds of writing to tell a story: non-fiction narrative, traditional and original song, memoir, spoken word, fable, and poetic essay. It’s exciting and challenging to mess around with form.

My 2018 album Laws of Motion included a clutch of songs strongly influenced by place. I Burn But I Am Not Consumed is written from the perspective of the Island of Lewis in the Hebrides. It’s an address to Donald Trump, whose mother was born on the isle. And the tone is sort of bardic. It speaks to climate and weather and vast geological epochs of time, as well as to human vanity. Cornerstone is written for the tiny Isle of May in the Firth of Forth.  It tracks human settlement cross 1300 years, from early religious communities, through the first ever permanently manned lighthouse in Scotland, to the scientific community that stationed there today, monitoring the health of seabird and seal colonies. I’m fascinated by the similar attentive, ritual qualities common to monks, lighthouse-keepers and researchers, all watching, minding, tending and keeping in their own ways across time. And Matsuo’s Welcome to Muckhart tells the tale of a Japanese gardener who sailed to rural Scotland almost hundred years ago to look after an internationally renowned Japanese garden.

I have hunch every place has stories like these and that many of them are embedded in our landscapes, rural, urban and the edges in between.

My life doesn’t allow for much in the way of grand, maverick adventure for the purposes of writing, but even if it did, I find that quite ordinary places close to home are an endless source of curiosity and depth.

Right now. I’m writing a non-fiction piece for a forthcoming collection of Scottish nature writing, edited by the brilliant Kathleen Jamie. I’m writing about my friend and bandmate, Inge Thomson, and her beautiful music project Da Fishing Hands. It’s rooted in the unique maritime ecology and oral culture of Fair Isle, in Shetland, where she grew up. The island was recently designated a Maritime Protected Area (MPA). Its fishing grounds, seabird colonies and human economy are all threatened by climate change and a legacy of industrial scale over-fishing.


Where do you like to escape to when you’re writing? 

I’ve only just taken on a local workspace to write from, for the first time in twenty years of making a living as a musician and writer. It’s brilliant to get out of my kitchen, as it can be hard to concentrate amongst the distractions of family and domestic mess and responsibility. But numerous pals and colleagues have offered spaces of writing refuge over those years, and I’m grateful to all of them.

I often think and write as I’m out and about too. I’m a compulsive walker, and I get creatively stuck (and quite down) if I can’t get outside. I have piles of wee notebooks that I carry around, and a few favourite woods (Vogrie, Winton), beaches (Belhaven Bay by Dunbar) and cafes (Humbie Hub, East Lothian) which have been places of quiet and undemanding community for conjuring and developing ideas.

Obviously, I need a bit more space and privacy to make sound and work musically. More and more, I find intensive bursts of activity are most fruitful for generating and developing musical ideas. I like a brief, a thematic focus. And I respond well to a time constraint. When it comes to words, I do most work on my own. When it comes to music, I work best collaboratively.  All of that impacts on what kind of space works best. And sometimes it’s not a question of escaping at all. It’s a question of simply turning up. And grafting.


Your work has included some beautiful responses to place, with the likes of Spell Songs and The Burns Unit. How do you think uniting voices through writing and song can help us connect to the world around us, and empower us to make a difference? 

When collaboration across art forms works, it’s quite magical. Each art form has its own power to move, comfort, provoke. Each affects us in different ways. Song and sound moves through us, quite literally. It gets to different places in our bodies and minds than other forms of writing.

Spell Songs is a musical response to the The Lost Words, the visually lush book collaboration between Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris. That project was all about ecological connection and disconnection, about what we name, what we notice and what we value in the world around us, the world we’re in and also of. The book has been something of a phenomenon in the way schools and wider communities have taken to their hearts, and in the way that it’s sparked creativity, discussion and activism around environmental connection.

It’s been a privilege to write and create in response to that work, as part of a musical team that includes Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, Orcadian Kris Drever, Senegalese kora maestro Seckou Keita, cellist Beth Porter,  harper Rachel Newton, composer Kerry Andrew, and multi-instrumentalist Jim Molyneux. We’ve crafted a sister album to Rob and Jackie’s book that isn’t simply about setting existing words to music but about conjuring a musical and sound world from its pages. Certainly, it helps that Rob’s words were written to be read aloud, so they have an inherent musicality. It helps too that Jackie’s image are spacious and lyrical. But some elements of the original Lost Words spells on the page are themselves lost in sound and song. An acrostic poem has to be seen rather than heard, whereas in song, it’s most often the sound of line-endings rather than beginnings, which define rhythm and shape. And with song, words are only part of the story, of course. Melody, harmony, rhythm, tonality – they all impact on meaning and feeling.

Music in a shared space offers something else too. It’s most often a working model of collaboration and connectivity in the actual making, performing and communicating of it. And it can conjure a quite visceral sense of connectivity in a room. That’s powerful in a contemporary culture which, I think, tends to isolation and individualism. Sometimes I think what we make isn’t so much about empowering us to make a difference as offering us space to feel that we are not alone, in all the raw complexity of our love, joy, grief, anxiety and fear. I’ve been reading reviews of Nick Cave’s latest tour and the overwhelming sense seems to be one of collective grieving, and shared vulnerability, rather than anything more obviously empowering, or uplifting. Simply not feeling alone is powerful. So perhaps what song and music can offer is connection for its own sake as much as anything else.


What advice would you give to someone who has never put pen to paper or fingers to an instrument, but feels like they have a story inside of them ready to write?

I’d say: just begin. There is no magic elixir or formula. And there is no alternative to just writing, and acquiring the habit of writing, whether that’s song, prose or whatever. Make your goals manageable. Write free style each day for 10 minutes. Keep a book of possible song titles. Be curious. Build yourself a community, if you’re able. Writing is usually a solitary affair. But making music is also deeply collaborative. When I was emerging into becoming a professional musician, at about the age of 30, I hung out at song sessions and open mics in Edinburgh as often as I could. I got to know other writers and musicians. I became part of a scene, where I made friends, formed bands, and learned my craft from listening to and watching others. You don’t have to do everything on your own.

When it comes to writing about place, begin with what you know, just because you can. There are deep layers to dig into in every place. When you love and understand a place you can pass that love and understanding to others.

If you live in central/southern Scotland and want to hone your songwriting chops, book yourself onto the Glasgow Songwriting Festival, which my pal Findlay Napier runs in August each year. Highly recommended!


Take Part…

Our WriteAway activity will kick off from Glastonbury Festival! Join in.  All the info you need is here.

Take part on 26th June 2019:

Everyone has a story to tell – what’s yours?

Join the conversation:

Twitter | Instagram | Facebook



National Writing Day is led by First Story and partners across the UK.