FRIDAY night saw DJ and producer Auntie Flo announced as the winner of this year’s coveted SAY Award for his incredible album ‘Radio Highlife’.
The news was delivered to a live audience in Edinburgh by co-hosts Nicola Meighan and Vic Galloway while the DJ played to thousands of fans onstage at Skye Live Festival in the north of Scotland. Beating off competition from a record-breaking 293 eligible albums to win the lucrative £20,000 prize, tour manager plus DJ and promoter of Glasgow’s Healthy club night, Phil Connor accepted the award on his behalf. Reading from a napkin of words written by Brian d’Souza, he said said: “It’s been a privilege to document 7 years of adventuring around the globe in this record. It has taken me everywhere from Cuba to South Africa to East Asia. Thank you to everyone who made that happen over the years”.
The final ceremony marked another triumphant year for Scotland’s most prestigious music prize. Taking place in Edinburgh for the very first time at the stunning Assembly Rooms, the eighth edition of the SAY Award featured live performances from some of the country’s most exciting emerging artists such as Lylo, Heir of the Cursed, Cucina Povera and Man Of Moon aswell as a celebratory moment for each of the ten outstanding albums which made this year’s coveted Shortlist. With each artist picking up a bespoke prize created by local designer Emma McDowall, this year’s Shortlist offered a brilliantly strong and diverse snapshot of Scotland’s eclectic music scene – covering everything from folk to dance to indie to jazz.
Its non-discriminatory approach to genre has undoubtedly been one of the main appeals of the SAY Award in its eight years of existence. An award which shines a light on the most outstanding Scottish albums, regardless of sales, genre or label affiliation, the judging panel are each year tasked with recognising artistic achievement and endeavour across a wide range of genres and styles when they compose the original Longlist – giving artists and fans alike a chance to acquaint themselves with music they’ve never been exposed to before. It’s an effective framework that makes the SAY one of the most egalitarian awards in the UK music industry
Ahead of the final ceremony on Friday night, TTV caught up with a number of the shortlisted artists to hear their thoughts on the award, its impact on their own careers and Scottish music as a whole. Nominated for her album ‘Laws of Motion’ alongside brother Steven and Inge Thomas, Karine Polwart spoke about what it was like to be shortlisted alongside such an eclectic array of talent.
“I listened to all the other albums that are shortlisted … most of the Longlist aswell. It’s lovely to hear how different and varied all the stuff is and then comparing it to what you’ve done… it’s quite cool to be in that company cause it’s such a varied bunch of stuff. Some of the records on it are genuinely some of the records that I love so it’s a confidence boost to be included in the list. It’s quite an honour – when you look at the quality of the albums that were on the Longlist and then the quality of records that didn’t even make it onto the Longlist… I’m very grateful”
“It’s a brilliant platform for exposing all of us to music we’ve not heard before and we’re all being viewed as equally valid. It’s easier for exciting things to happen like collaborative projects when there’s that community minded spirit”
Nominated for her second solo album ‘Impossible Stuff’, Carla J Easton discussed how the award “removes any kind of hierarchy”. “I think it’s great. I’m on a DIY not-for-profit label. We have no PR budget – it’s basically me and Lloyd emailing as many people and hoping people respond. The fact that you’ve got an award where little albums like mine can sit alongside bigger established artists is incredible.”
For Fergus McCreadie, shortlisted for his critically acclaimed debut ‘Turas’, the experience gave him the opportunity to delve into albums he had never considered before. “I don’t think there’s a group of musicians who would feel that their genre is cheated in this line-up. They’ve done a really good job. Because of the SAY Award I’ve listened to nine albums I maybe wouldn’t have listened to”
Not only has the award done a fantastic job of highlighting the eclectic nature of the nation’s flourishing music scene, it has also proved hugely beneficial to those artists who have been both long and shortlisted over the years. A number of this year’s nominees have been featured before and for C Duncan, it has been nothing but a rewarding experience. Shortlisted for his stunning debut ‘Architect’ and then its equally impressive follow-up ‘The Midnight Sun’, the classically trained musician gained critical acclaim once again this year with the release of his most personal and ambitious record to date ‘Health’. It’s safe to say the SAY Award has played a significant role in pushing him to the forefront of Scottish music.
“In the past my music didn’t really make it up to Scotland for some reason. I think it’s because the record label I was with were based in Brighton so everything was very much centric there. Beng nominated for the SAY Award pushes your fanbase up north and makes people aware that you’re actually a Scottish artist. I think a lot of people assumed I wasn’t … It’s been really good for that and reminding people I’m from Glasgow”
It has also given him a welcome confidence boost. “I don’t know how to explain it – it’s like reaffirming that what I’m doing isn’t completely shit! It makes you think you can do another one… that you shouldn’t just give up. It was really nice coming back in to this one (‘Health’) and I’ll feel the same with the next”
It’s a feeling that’s reinforced by Karine Polwart who reflects on her experience of being shortlisted in both 2013 and 2018. She said: “Although I was already quite successful as folk musician and quite established, it was a really big deal for me to be recognised alongside musicians that made different kinds of music – I think that’s the best thing about the award – it levels the playing field”
In an age where the music is industry is constantly evolving and our listening habits are changing thanks to streaming culture and instant downloads, the SAY Award remains hugely important as it shines a light on the album as an art form. Even in a world where instant gratification rules all, this year’s Shortlist has been all the evidence we need to show that the album is still the very best delivery mechanism for artists to showcase their creative output and identity. As we continue to take massive strides into the digital age, Fergus McCreadie hopes that the format is protected.
“I may be old-fashioned but I really really like the album as a format. For an artist it’s a lot easier to make eight songs and make an album that means a lot to you as you’ve spent so long picking an order and trying to make the songs relate to each other. It gives your music a stronger vibe. It’s almost like a book, each book has a chapter. Each album for a musician is a chapter for an artist in their musical journey – it’s hopefully a tradition that won’t get overlooked
This year alone, we’ve seen the likes of Foals and The Ninth Wave release their albums in separate parts while accompanying EPs have also become increasingly popular as artists seek to increase their creative output. It points to a growing trend that is seeing musicians experiment with their releases more and more. C Duncan says: “I’m quite traditional in that I’ve always consumed albums over the 40/50 mins they are and I really like that. Having said that I trained in classical music and that all goes out the window.. you may have a three and a half hour piece or a two minute piece … I like that idea, that albums don’t have to be ten songs and that you can intertwine all these things together. It would be fun to experiment that”
Karine Polwart has already embraced experimentation over the last couple of years. She followed up ‘Laws of Motion’ with ‘Scottish Songbook’ this year which was accompanied by a book aswell as CD and vinyl. She says: “We’re in a culture that’s all about individual downloads and streaming and the rest of it so the album is a vulnerable art form. For me I love it and I think it really important that this is an album award and not just an artist award.”
“Streaming and digital is where the growth is so physical product doesn’t sell the way it did ten or twenty years or go and you have to be creative with how you get it out there. That’s a challenge and some folk are struggling with that as it’s not easy to work out but for me, I’m trying make albums and then work out what else I can do… I’ve been doing visual art collaborations, creating bits of writing around it. Other folk are making films. We need to be nimble on our feet.”
In the midst of such political upheaval and social unrest, Scotland’s creative industries are flourishing. Small thriving music scenes have emerged in towns, cities and rural areas all over the country and it makes for a very supportive environment to develop your craft. Polwart explains: “I think part if it is being quite small, small in terms of the amount of people who live here. The proximity makes it easy to get out and about and see artists do all different kinds of stuff. For me personally as a folk musician there’s an amazing culture in rural areas in the Northern Isles and the Highlands and Islands so it’s not just about urban and city-based music – there’s amazing stuff happening all over the country
“There’s a cultural confidence at the moment aswell that’s connected to the political atmosphere. Music really matters.”
Perhaps then Auntie Flo’s victory is as timely as it is deserved. A kaleidoscope of sounds and ideas, Radio Highlife’s very diversity flies in the face of conflict and divisiveness. With field recordings and studio sessions from everywhere from Cuba to Cape Town, Bali to Kampala and voices from Russia, Istanbul, Senegal and the UK, it’s a visceral, uplifting and unifying record that transcends borders at a time when the contemporary world have become obsessed with them.
Polwart adds: “That’s the stuff that gets in the heart of you. I don’t think it’s just entertainment, it’s more than that. It’s one of the few ways we get to feel and god knows there’s plenty of things to feel about right now”