Hey Kevin Kelly!

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Behind the scenes as a
Polaris Music Prize judge

Yesterday, we learned that Hey Rosetta! had made the top 10 shortlist for the Polaris Music Prize, for their Into Your Lungs album. Hey Rosetta! is in the running for the $20,000 top prize, which will be awarded at a gala event in Toronto on September 21.

You can read more about the nominees and the Polaris Music Prize by clicking this link.

The Polaris Prize nominees and winners are selected by a small army of judges from across the country, including Kevin Kelly, a writer and editor with The Newfoundland Herald.

The Polaris awards have come out of nowhere the first awards were presented in 2006 but already are generating tremendous buzz across the country. I sent a message to Kevin Kelly, asking if hed like to give some background on the awards, his role as a judge, and his opinion on how Hey Rosetta! will do against the competition (which includes Joel Plaskett, Patrick Watson, Metric and Great Lake Swimmers).

Kelly replied promptly, with plenty of detail (hey, the guy is a writer) so Im going to use lengthy tracts of his text, broken up with occasional questions from me.

Geoff: How long have you been involved with this?

Kelly: I've been on the Polaris Music Prize Jury since 2007, one of 182 music journalists, music bloggers, and radio and TV personalities who make up the jury. I was invited by Polaris Music Prize founder Steve Jordan to be part of the jury and each year, I gratefully accept. Each juror isn't allowed to have any specific financial relationship with artists, to make the process unbiased. It's an amazing jury to be part of.

Geoff: How do you develop the short list of nominees? And is there the potential for judges to vote for artists from their regions, thus putting bands like Hey Rosettas! at a disadvantage?

Kelly: Each member of the jury is asked to submit their top five Canadian albums of the year from June 1, 2008 to May 31, 2009. With 182 people on the jury, that creates some wide opinion. There are three journalists on the list with Newfoundland connections, myself as a music writer with The Herald, Alex Pierson of The Scope and Matt Wells of Much More, but that regionalism doesn't really come to play. There is a google groups discussion board that's only open to Polaris Jury members where we recommend certain albums that the rest of the jury should hear about. Believe you me, there is no shortage of passionate debate about which albums should be heard, and of course, as a Newfoundlander, I'm more familiar with Atlantic Canadian music than say someone in Toronto, and will recommend such. So each region has a fair chance to be represented.

Each album that gets named is available to download thanks to a special password-only site, in case we haven't received a particular album. That is really great to get a chance to listen to records you haven't heard yet.

From that five albums everyone comes up with, each #1 album is worth so many points, with #2 worth a lesser amount, and on down the line.

Then the Polaris officials tabulate our votes and the ones with the highest numbers make the Polaris Longlist, 40 titles in all. There are both English and French journalists, print and radio, etc. There was a French album that made the long list this year, Coeur De Pirate, for example. It was a diverse long list, from Leonard Cohen's Live in London album to Jill Barber's Chances and many emerging talents such as Beast, Pink Mountaintops, and the Handsome Furs. Arkells actually played George St. on Canada Day with Hey Rosetta!, by the way.

Then after the Long List is released, each jury member gets to vote for a Top 5 again, but only from the titles on the long list. The Polaris people tabulate again, and a 10 album shortlist is determined by the same point structure.

This is when it gets interesting. The Polaris Music Prize officials tabulate a 11 member Grand jury, and they are pretty stringent on who makes it. Once you make the grand jury, you aren't allowed to be on it anymore in future years.

It's a hodgepodge of male and female, print and radio, or internet, and various regions are represented (even though last year, I was the only juror from east of Montreal). They look at our shortlist, and pick some jurors that had five out of 10 shortlist titles, some 2 or 3, or maybe some with none at all. The grand jury is selected and contacted, and each of the Top 10 titles are sent to each of them to be engulfed and experienced fully.

All the grand jury members a few weeks later are flown to Toronto, we stay at the Drake hotel, and we all meet for a dinner. At that dinner, we each get a chance to plead our case to which album from the top 10 we are most passionate about. I can tell you, as a grand juror last year (the first from NL) the diversity of opinion is incredible among grand jurors. I was more of a mainstream music juror, while there were others who were experts in hip-hop or other genres. I had a deep respect for my fellow jurors, and at times wondered how I was deemed worthy to be part of such a prestigious group. I felt like a novice compared to the expert opinion around the table, many who have written or been part of music all their lives, and many had more exposure than I did.

We then have another night to digest the albums, and the next day, we have a more indepth meeting, where the Top 10 gets unofficially dropped to three or four titles by another vote. Later that night. sequestered away from the actual gala, the grand jury once again votes, and we do not find out the winner until it is announced at the actual gala.

The winner gets a $20,000 prize, no small change. Each act performs at the gala. What a great night of Canadian music. I was sequestered last year, unfortunately, and missed most of it.

Some of the Top 10 shortlist for this year, admittedly, I haven't heard, and were off my radar when I voted. But now that the list is out, we now have a chance to engulf them fully if we so desire. I plan to do so.

Who will win is anybody's guess. It's all about artistic merit regardless of album sales, but I did notice that five of this year's shortlisters had been shortlisted before for other albums they did in past years. I found that interesting. Of course, I'm pulling for Hey Rosetta! as a Newfoundland journalist, but there are many strong contenders. Joel Plaskett's Three is a sprawling triple album that is epic in scope. Metric's Fantasies is one of my favourite Canadian albums of the year (and catchy as heck), but I was also impressed with K-Naan's Troubador, and Great Lake Swimmers and Elliot Brood both impressed during recent live shows in St. John's, and I like their albums too. Chad VanGaalen may not be a household name, but he is definitely innovative musically. So I don't envy the grand jury this year, that's for sure. There are other gems I can't wait to hear.

The whole premise of the prize is to open people to the rich depth and breadth of Canadian music, and I urge people to look at the list and experience these albums themselves. You'll be completely impressed with them, I assure you.

Geoff: So you don't think Hey Rosetta! will be at a disadvantage because of regional bias (as in, not enough judges from this province versus the wider group, with their regional faves as well)?

Kelly: I don't think so. Hey Rosetta! has earned a lot of praise from many of the journalists during discussions, but it depends on the make-up of the grand jury. It isn't going to be easy, but they have a one in 10 chance now, and I think their chances are good.

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