Polwart grew up in the small Stirlingshire town of Banknock
and had an interest in music from an early age. She has described her
whole family as being interested in music and one of her brothers,
Steven, is also a professional musician who plays guitar in the Karine
Polwart band, whilst her sister Kerry developed her own musical
career with the group The Poems.
Despite an active musical career from a young age, including forming
her own band KP and the Minichips at age 10, Polwart was discouraged
from studying music at school and ended up studying politics and
philosophy at the University of Dundee. After graduating with a First Class Degree in Philosophy Polwart moved to Glasgow to study for a Masters in Philosophical Inquiry.
Her first job after her studies was as a philosophy tutor in a
primary school, a job she describes as giving her a 'massive buzz'.
After this she spent six years working for the Scottish Women's Aid
movement on issues such as domestic and child abuse and young people's
rights and these experiences have influenced her songwriting.
Polwart initially gained prominence as lead singer of the group Malinky. With the release of their debut album Last Leaves in January 2000, Polwart left her job to concentrate on her musical career. After successful stints with Malinky, macAlias and Battlefield Band, and several contributions to Linn Records' Complete Songs of Robert Burns project, she decided to embark on a solo career. In 2003 she released her first solo album, Faultlines. Written and recorded with assistance from the Scottish Arts Council, Faultlines won the Best Album award at the 2005 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
This award, along with 2 others at the same ceremony, increased
Polwart's profile not just in the folk community but also in the wider
The songs on Faultlines cover a variety of topics, and
although she has claimed at live performances that they are all quite
depressing, many have an uplifting aspect. This is particularly notable
in "The Sun's Comin' Over The Hill" (which won Best Original Song at the
BBC Folk Awards 2005) which tells the story of woman who reacts to the
death of her partner through a period of depression, drink and drugs,
but has a more optimistic chorus, with the narrator foreseeing an end to
this period. There are exceptions to this: "Waterlily" — the tale of a
man whose lover is killed during the war in Yugoslavia, based on the
book Cold Night Lullaby by Colin Mackay
— offers no such comfort. "Only One Way", on the other hand, is an
upbeat song with a strong political theme and some biting humour.
In April 2006 Polwart released her second solo album Scribbled in Chalk. This album was heralded with much critical acclaim receiving impressive reviews from amongst others, The Scotsman, The Sunday Times, The Independent on Sunday, Time Out and BBC Music online.
A UK wide tour followed as well as appearances on BBC 2's Culture Show,
Simon Mayo's Album show on Radio 2, Mike Harding's folk show on Radio
2, BBC Radio Scotland on the Janice Forsyth show and the Janice Long
Late show on Radio 2. Polwart's music also reached a wider audience when
her songs were used during the opening sequence of a Hollyoaks episode in July 2006 and for the final programme of The Hairy Bikers' Cookbook.
Like Faultlines, Scribbled in Chalk
often looks at the darker side of life with tales of sex trafficking
("Maybe there's a Road"), the holocaust ("Baleerie Baloo", which is
about the missionary Jane Haining)
and the uncertainties of life ("Hole in the Heart"). But these stories
of despair are balanced by others that describe the joy of a slower life
("Take Its Own Time"), of hope triumphing over cynicism ("Where the
Smoke Blows") and the wonder of the universe ("Terminal Star").
According to her official website, she believes that songs should
stand up by themselves. However, for the sake of those interested in the
backstory behind the songs, the website provides information about each
of them on the basis that even if a song does work by itself, sometimes
the story behind it can make it more meaningful. She has also made
guitar tablature available for several of her songs through her website,
including notes on tuning and style.
As well as her solo work, Polwart spent much of 2006 collaborating with other artists on a variety of projects; Roddy Woomble, the lead singer of Idlewild, asked her to help co-write and provide backing vocals for his solo album, My Secret is My Silence, whilst Polwart provided several original songs for the BBC Radio 2 music/social documentary series The Radio Ballads. Two of these songs, "Can't Weld A Body" and "Firethief", would later appear on her albums Fairest Floo'er and This Earthly Spell respectively. Polwart also supported The Beautiful South on their tour and she guested with David Knopfler at The Globe Theatre for a charity benefit for Reprieve.
At the 2006 Hogmanay Live celebrations on BBC Scotland, Polwart played several of her songs and also dueted with new sensation Paolo Nutini.
Toward the end of the year, she became one of the founder members of a
genre-crossing musical collective called The Burns Unit, which has since
performed at festivals. The other members are Sushil K Dade, Emma Pollock, Chris Difford, Kenny Anderson, singer Kim Edgar, pianist Michael Johnston and rap artist MC Soom T. The collective issued its debut album, Side Show, in August 2010.
2007 saw Polwart playing once again at Celtic Connections both with her band and collaborating with other artists including Dick Gaughan and Roddy Woomble.
She took time off from live performance during 2007 as she was pregnant
with her first child. During this time she recorded two albums: Fairest Floo'er comprising mostly traditional songs, and This Earthly Spell, containing only original compositions.
Polwart also sings with Corrina Hewat and Annie Grace in, what they describe as, a "girly trio".
In March 2009 Polwart took part in the Darwin Song Project, a multi-artist songwriting retreat organised by the Shrewsbury Folk Festival to create songs that had a 'resonance and relevance' to Darwin. A CD was released in August 2009.