Inside the Polaris: How the Polaris Prize gets awarded

Published at nowtoronto.com

By Anupa Mistry

During a pre-Polaris Music Prize pep talk, an editor and friend scared me with this: “The fate of Canadian urban music rests in your hands.”

As one of the grand jurors for this year’s prize, I would help determine the winner and, yes, I was pushing for The Weeknd’s House of Balloons. That half-joke described the weightiness of the situation. House of Balloons represented a hip-hop and R&B industry that struggles for wider recognition in Canada. More importantly, to me, it represented another side of the Canadian experience.

Every year, the Polaris team asks a growing pool of broadcasters, journalists and bloggers from across the country to nominate and vote on their favourites. In June, 198 members long-listed 40 full-length albums released between June 1, 2009 and May 31, 2010. In July, we narrowed this down to the 10 shortlisted nominees.

It’s my first year having anything to do with Polaris, so that’s where I thought my participation in the process would end. But by mid-August I was chosen as one of the 11 grand jurors. Some people asked if I wish it happened later in my career (grand jurors only serve once) or with a few years of Polaris familiarity behind me, but no. House of Balloons is the album I’ve most thought about, written on, spoken of and listened to this year. Steve Jordan, Polaris’ founder and executive director, explained that advocacy was one of the many factors for selecting grand jurors, along with fairness to region, role in industry, language, etc.

Much of August and all of the first two weeks of September were spent listening to more Hey Rosetta and Ron Sexsmith than I ever imagined. Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare: Vol. 2, quickly moved up my personal ranks because of its vivid, cinematic quality and range of textures. Every time the new wave pop of Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) came on while listening to Arcade Fire, I couldn’t help but dance. Galaxie’s growling guitars helped bridge my frail French language skills. Braids, Timbre Timber, Destroyer and Austra excited me beyond the music, for their cultural impact as well. And, of course, I listened to the Weeknd’s House of Balloons almost every single day.

Jurors traveled from Victoria, Halifax and Yukon’s Dawson City to the Drake Hotel. I just took the TTC from the Gaybourhood and still ended up late. A night of some of the most varied, stimulating, respectful discussion about music followed. Each album was evaluated, debated, questioned and redeemed. The amount of sheer education that resulted was astonishing and makes the Prize invaluable in another way.

Gala night, we were immediately sequestered in a room at the Masonic Temple to narrow the decision-making down to five. It took me a while to vote through my nervousness. An hour later, we shaved it down to three. Puffing quickly through a cigarette on a brief, allowed break, another juror and I cast loose odds as to who made the cut – would there be more surprises?

Back in the building, advocates pulled out their secret, last-ditch arguments for the three albums that had made it through, and it was the most illuminating, comparative round of talks in the whole process. I made my final vote and rejoined the gala, excited as everyone else for the winner’s reveal.