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A toast to the hosts!

· by Tab S.

And the clock is ticking down the final hours before tonight's 2011 Polaris Music Prize gala at the historic Masonic Temple hall in Toronto! Which one of the ten nominated albums will take home the $30,000 prize? Well, you'll have to tune in to find out – six of the nominees will take the stage to perform live on the big show, while the 11 Grand Jurors will be sequestered in another room to debate and deliberate to come up with their final selection.

While the gala is an invite-only event, music fans across the country can still tune into the show live at 8 pm EST in a variety of formats: listen live on CBC Radio 3 online, Sirius XM radio (Channel 152 in North America), or watch the webcast live on MuchMusic.com (check out the nifty Much webcast player here). And stay tuned for the televised broadcast on Much this Saturday, Sept. 24 at 10 pm EST.

And for those of you in Toronto, don't forget, you can always head down to the Drake Hotel to catch the HP Polaris Screening Party for a chance to score great prizes, including the ultimate VIP upgrade: two tickets to the gala, shuttle service in a Scion tC, and a new HP Envy 14 Beats Edition notebook. But you have to be there to win!

This year's gala will be hosted once again by CBC Radio 3's Grant Lawrence, who will be joined by a new co-host – Damian Abraham, host of MuchMusic's The Wedge and lead bellower of Fucked Up, who just so happened to take home the 2009 Polaris Prize.

As both hosts this year have a rather unique perspective on the Polaris Prize, we thought it would be illuminating to pick their brains about how they're preparing for their hosting duties, what to expect from this year's gala, and – perhaps most importantly – what they think about being paired up to host the event.

The veteran host: Grant Lawrence

Tabassum Siddiqui: So, Grant, you've been hosting the gala for the past five years straight, so you must be an old pro at this by now… In these last few hours before the event, how are you getting ready for the big show?

Grant Lawrence: Well, I'm in charge of putting the script together a lot of the time, so we put together kind of a word-for-word script, and then we kind of just use that as a backbone… We of course stray off of it fairly easily. I've never worked with Damian before, so it'll be interesting.

TS: So, have you and Damian been planning out how you'll approach co-hosting the show?

GL: No – we have planned nothing! Absolutely nothing. [laughs] I've written the whole thing, and we're going to be tweaking it here and there, but I have planned absolutely nothing otherwise. I hope to get a hold of him this weekend to touch base and just brainstorm a bit and see what we can come up with.

TS: Have you checked out Damian's work on MuchMusic to get a sense of his hosting style?

GL: I think it's awesome that The Wedge is back, and that he's the host – that's a really great tie-in, because I think the Wedge was a big catalyst for many people when I was in my teens and 20s. The show where we discovered music wasn't on radio – CBC was pretty square at the time – now CBC plays good music all the time, but back then, we were turning to television for our music. It went in the reverse for a while – there was no music on MuchMusic for the longest time, but it's awesome to see The Wedge back, and to see someone like Damian – who actually ‘gets it’ – hosting the show.

TS: How did you first get involved with Polaris?

GL: I've been involved with the Polaris Prize from the very, very start. Steve Jordan told me about it over six years ago – I immediately thought it was a great idea. I'd just started the CBC Radio 3 podcast, so when he told me about it, I thought, this would be a great fit for the podcast. So I interviewed Steve about it, and basically we were the first media outlet on a national level to really give Polaris a push.

And then Steve asked me to be on the Grand Jury of the first year – I have to tell you, I didn't really love the process that much, because it was a lot of deliberating and a lot of arguing, and I was hearing all the amazing performances happening outside the room – Deadly Snakes, Sarah Harmer… I wanted to be so much a part of the actual show, I kept sneaking out of the jury room to see the performances, because there was an incredible crop of bands nominated that first year. I guess Steve noticed that, because after Jian Ghomeshi hosted that first year, I've been the host of it ever since.

TS: Do you have any favourite memories from the gala from over the years?

GL: You know, it probably involves Damian… I think so far the real golden year for the Polaris Music Prize was 2009, when Fucked Up won – that was an absolute bumper crop, with all ten nominees performing. It was just an incredible mood in the hall that year, an unbelievable crackling of excitement. We'll probably look back on it as an apex in Canadian music.

So there were two moments from that year – the spontaneous food fight that broke out between K'naan and Malujube and Hey Rosetta – it was in perfect fun, and I was standing onstage with the microphone, and I got to kind of call it like it was a hockey game or something. So that was my one of my favourite moments. And the other was the infamous kiss that was amazingly caught on film when Fucked Up won. Damian bounded up on stage, and before I could even hand him the cheque, he just basically planted one on me on the lips. So it's nice that we get to be up there again in an official capacity.

TS: Yeah, I was going to ask about that – any chance of a repeat at this year's show?

GL: We've talked about that: “Well, we've kind of done that, so what's next?†So I dunno – I'm not sure if we'll do that… But maybe it'll be like a wedding, where people will clink their glasses for the kiss. [laughs]

TS: As the host, do you feel like you have to keep your opinions about the prize and the nominees to yourself?

GL: On the night of, when I'm actually doing the gala, I try to stay neutral, and I try to just have fun. I'll zing the bands occasionally, but my rule of thumb is that I try to make fun of myself more than anyone else. But in the online community [for jurors], that's totally private, and so I'm way more opinionated on that [email] list, and I don't care that I'm hosting. That's supposed to be where we can exercise our opinion on these records.

I will stand by the fact that even though I'm the host, I do feel like this is kind of a weird year – this is kind of a weird list. You've got the bookends of the Arcade Fire and Ron Sexsmith, but in between, there are a whole lot of weird acts – acts that don't create the most accessible music, acts that you wouldn't exactly call pop bands. I mean, Broken Social Scene is like Cyndi Lauper compared to some of the acts that are on there…

TS: Do you find you end up discovering records or artists through the Polaris process?

GL: When I first heard Colin Stetson, I know he's talented, but when I heard his actual record, I was like, “What the hell is this? How many animals were harmed in the recording of this?†But now, it's growing on me – I hear it, and I think, “Wow, this is really cool…†But it took a while.

And sometimes I think that the critics, who make up the majority of the jury, that's their job – to be kind of ahead of everyone else. Everyone else has to catch up to the critics – that's what makes a good critic, when they can spot trends or sounds that we will eventually appreciate.

Final Fantasy is a great example – when he won the first year, pretty much the reaction was, “This is insane, this is crazy, this isn't music.†Now we're six years later, and the guy basically makes most of CBC Radio One's themes, and he's completely accepted as being a virtuoso, right? So sometimes I guess the critics are ahead of the game.

TS: Any predictions as to who will take home the prize this year?

GL: Every single year my prediction has been wrong. Like, wildly wrong. And I may use this line on the gala night: Some people have told me, “Well, there's the Arcade Fire and then there's nine dark horses.†A lot of people are predicting Arcade Fire, but who knows? The Feist record The Reminder didn't win this thing – and she swept the Junos, too. It's impossible to predict what the 11 people in the jury room will choose. But that's kind of what keeps people coming back, the fact that it's so wildly unpredictable.

Those records are on there for a reason – they're not random; they weren't picked out of the clear blue sky. Enough people voted for them and really liked the records that they're there for a reason. And that's something important to keep in mind.

TS: What's the best part of hosting the gala?

GL: Well, the best thing is that I just get to be a part of the process, and I get to be a part of something that is so giving and has been so exciting in Canadian music. It's one thing to capture the imagination of the industry, it's another thing to capture the imagination of the artists, or the media. But if you can capture the imagination of fans, you really have something special.

And Polaris has managed to capture the imagination of all four of those pillars in Canada. It's the hottest ticket in town. I have listeners to Radio 3 begging for tickets to this thing. They could hold it in a way bigger place, but it's a very unique event that Steve has fostered over the years.

TS: And what should people watch out for at this year's gala?

GL: This year, we're not doing ten performances, unfortunately – there are several acts who cannot be there for whatever reason. We are looking into maybe hooking up some of the artists through Skype, so who knows, we might see some of the artists on screen… Members of Arcade Fire will be there – they're not going to perform live, but they will be in the house. All sorts of celebrities will be there – athletes from the NBA and the NHL, and various past Short Listers will be in attendance – I'm going to point out as many as I can from the stage. There's also international media coming this year, too, from as far away as Australia and England, just because they're interested in the results of this prize.

The new co-host: Damian Abraham

Tabassum Siddiqui: Damian, you're co-hosting the Polaris gala for the first time – how did you get involved?

Damian Abraham: I was approached by a friend of mine who used to work at MuchMusic, and he asked if I had any interest in hosting the Polaris. I told him that I thought [previous host] Sarah Taylor did a great job with Grant, but he said, “We’re thinking about going with you for this year.†I'll admit, I was pretty surprised, but I said, “Sure, why not?†I'm kind of nervously looking forward to it now.

TS: So, what kind of preparation have you been doing for the big show?

DA: Well, that’s the thing that’s kind of terrifying me now. I was talking to Grant and asking him about when we were supposed to go over things… “Um, what do you mean, ‘No rehearsal?’†Apparently there's only a really short one on the day of the show itself!

But I’m excited – my favourite type of humour is ad-libbed humour, so I think it’ll be open to a lot of that kind of thing. Grant and I have gotten a lot of good times in when it comes to Polaris, so hopefully this will just be another part of all that.

TS: You have a rather unique vantage point when it comes to Polaris, given that your band has won the prize itself. What does it mean to you to actually host the show given that you've been a vital part of the history of the award?

DA: This award is so important to Canadian music – as a former recipient, I want to get that across. The other amazing aspect of it is that this is a live show in every sense of the word, right down to who's going to win. This is going to be decided that night, in the moment – I want to get across that kind of energy.

Hopefully I can bring a fresh perspective to what it's like as an artist to be nominated. Other than that, just to continue on in the same great way the show's been going every year. Grant's incredibly funny, so I just want to keep up with him.

TS: As an artist who's won the prize, what advice would you have for whoever takes home the $30,000 this year?

DA: Give me $5000 of your extra $10,000! Nah, just kidding. I'd say: “Think very long and hard about what you want to do with that money, because it goes pretty quickly.â€

TS: What does the Polaris Prize mean to you?

DA: I think it means acknowledgement from the critical community – as much as there's a love-hate relationship between the critics and the artists, we also need each other. Maybe that's why I'm so quick to applaud them – if you look at critics' awards, they're kind of like a stamp of artistic achievement.

TS: What are you excited about when it comes to the gala itself?

DA: I'm looking forward to seeing the live performances – I saw a bit of the soundchecks today, and they all have great things planned. I'm looking forward to seeing how they handle the no-shows, as it were – the artists who aren't going to be there. They all have their different reasons for not showing up, but it’s an interesting issue to have for a live show.

TS: Do you have any favourite moments from past Polaris ceremonies?

DA: For me, meeting Joel Plaskett was up there – that was a pretty big thrill for me as a fan. And of course when we won, which was so surreal and ridiculous – it didn't feel real until two or three days later.

TS: As a previous winner and now a host of the awards, do you find that Polaris gets discussed beyond simply music-industry circles? Do people talk to you about it?

DA: Absolutely. I think it's an award that at this point has entered the mainstream. My brother just got married, and at the wedding, even family members were asking about it.

TS: Any predictions as to who's going to take home the 2011 prize?

DA: I really don't think it's a predictable award at all – we're living proof of that, but people try to guess every year, and it’s never the ones people think it might be. I think Arcade Fire has a shot, but you don't know until the jury enters that room.

We live in a world where all these award ceremonies are just about glad-handing – this one, people genuinely get excited about it. There's something special about that.

The Polaris Music Prize 2011 gala takes place tonight, Sept. 19, at 8 pm EST at the Masonic Temple in Toronto. Tune into CBC Radio 3, Sirius XM 152, or MuchMusic.com to watch the ceremony live.

This website is made possible with the support of Ontario Creates.

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