‘Oh My God’: Debby Friday Wins Polaris Music Prize, 2023’s Best Canadian Album

Critics-powered award successfully moves to Massey Hall

“Protect your strangeness,” advises singer Debby Friday Tuesday night (Sept. 20) at the end of her acceptance speech for winning the Polaris Music Prize, declaring her debut album, Good Luck, the Canadian album of the year. Her first full-length came out in March on Sub Pop and Arts & Crafts.

The Nigerian-Canadian, who at the start of the evening gives the industry-heavy audience at Toronto’s Massey Hall a taste of her dramatic dissonant-rock inventions via a two-song performance, drops to her knees, completely overwhelmed by her win.

The Polaris Music Prize, now in its 18th year, is solely based on artistic merit, voted on by a grand jury of 11 members of the music media from a short-list of 10 albums that was determined by a jury pool of more than 200. Albums that are eligible for 2023 Polaris Music Prize consideration must have been released between May 1, 2022, and May 1, 2023.

The nine runners-up are Alvvays’s Blue Rev; Aysanabee’s Watin; Begonia’s Powder Blue; Daniel Caesar’s Never Enough; Feist’s Multitudes; Gayance’s Masquerade; Dan Mangan’s Being Somewhere; The Sadies’ Colder Streams; and Snotty Nose Rez Kids’ I’m Good, HBU?

Last year’s winner Pierre Kwenders announces Debby Friday’s name, after mini sets from seven of the shortlisted acts, including Aysanabee, Begonia, Gayance, Dan Mangan, The Sadies and Snotty Nose Rez Kids (who gave the most fun performance of the night, and perhaps should have kicked off the night — not closed it — to get everyone pumped up).

In addition to the prestige, the Polaris Music Prize comes with $50,000 courtesy of Slaight Music.

“I know it’s a lot of money, so be wise,” Kwenders says before pulling out Good Luck on vinyl from a white Polaris-branded briefcase. “I’m not going to tell you how I spent mine,” he quips to laughter, “but, yeah, be wise.”

The pair hugged. “Oh my god,” Friday yells, after standing up and composing herself. “I’m so shocked. Oh my god. I’m in shock.” She says she had prepared a “little speech,” throws in another “oh my god,” then begins.

“First, I have to say thank you so much to every single person who has supported me from the very beginning and was following me on this journey. I’m talking from the [2018 EP] Bitch Punk days.” As people cheer, she laughs in joy, pauses and throws in another “oh my god” and some thank yous.

“It’s impossible that I could have done this without you. I’m just so happy right now,” she gushes.

“Back then, I didn’t have the imagination for where I’d be today or where music would take me. This is something that I didn’t realize was even a possibility. I was born in Nigeria, in a small village, and now I’m up here today, and it just feels like a miracle.”

She then thanks her producer, Graham Walsh of Holy Fuck, and a long list of other people in her camp, including her manager Taylor Brown, “who was there at the beginning and believed in me so much.”

Friday caps her speech with these words of inspiration:

“I just want to say I’m a believer in miracles; I’m a believer in destiny and I feel like, right now, this moment is so special because it just shows me what happens when you stay true to yourself. I’ve always been a little bit strange, a little bit different from other people, and it’s only in retrospect that I’ve been able to see that it has been a superpower all along.

“I just want to say that I think it’s very important to protect your strangeness, protect the things that make you different. These are gifts that you’ve been given in this lifetime.”

The Polaris Music Prize was held for the first time in the beautiful setting of historic Massey Hall, albeit a venue a bit too big for the in-the-know awards, even if it has been going for almost two decades.

A different kind of awards show — because it’s just one award — it’s now really just a concert with the short-listed acts performing a couple of songs each with breaks in between for set changeover. Feist and Daniel Caesar were not in attendance due to tour commitments, according to Polaris. Members of Alvvays were present.

The Polaris Music Prize has changed over the years. There used to be a host and a champion from the music industry introducing one of the short-listed acts with an often over-the-top essay about their album. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, somewhere on the premises, the 11 jurors were hashing it out, taking blind votes, until just before the evening ended. They were then led out — not knowing the winner — until it was announced at the end of the night.

Now the voting is done by Zoom over a weeklong period rather than on the night of.

Highlights from this year’s Polaris will air on CBC Music Live on Fri., Sept. 22 at 2 p.m. (2:30 NT) on CBC Radio One and CBC Listen and on Mon., Sept. 25 at 6 p.m. (6:30 NT) on CBC Music and CBC Listen.

Past winners are Pierre Kwenders (2022), Cadence Weapon (2021), Backxwash (2020), Haviah Mighty (2019), Jeremy Dutcher (2018), Lido Pimienta (2017), Kaytranada (2016), Buffy Sainte-Marie (2015), Tanya Tagaq (2014), Godspeed You! Black Emperor (2013), Feist (2012), Arcade Fire (2011), Karkwa (2010), Fucked Up (2009), Caribou (2008), Patrick Watson (2007) and Final Fantasy / Owen Pallett (2006).