Capturing the Climate Crisis — in Song
By Jeff Turrentine
Tamara Lindeman certainly doesn't seem particularly anxious, or grief stricken, or angry. In fact, in a recent Zoom conversation, the Toronto-based singer-songwriter (who records and performs under the name The Weather Station) comes across as friendly, thoughtful, and a little shy.
Nevertheless, anxiety, grief, and anger are what fueled Lindeman's creative process for the making of Ignorance, her just-released fifth album. Over skittering drumbeats and densely layered sonic textures that hover somewhere between chilly and ethereal, Lindeman has crafted a 40-minute song cycle that examines our collective climate trauma as experienced through a single, highly agitated psyche.
"People are like, is it a political album? And I say no, it's an emotional album," she tells me. "I wasn't trying to write about these feelings; it's just that these were the feelings that I was having at the time, so they kept flowing through." Lindeman wrote more than 40 songs over the course of the winter of 2018–2019, much of which she spent in relative isolation. And when she wasn't writing, she was reading. "I had gone down the rabbit hole and had become obsessed with trying to understand the climate crisis," Lindeman says. "I was trying to figure out how I could be of use. Could I become an activist? Do I have that in me?"
Apparently she does. Lindeman joined the throngs who took to the streets as part of the "Fridays for Future" movement inspired by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg. She studied the massive report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warned of the catastrophic consequences of failing to curb global carbon emissions immediately. Lindeman even hosted a series of public talks on the subject, interviewing economists, activists, political figures, and other artists about the need for climate action.
Amid all of this, she continued to compose—moving away from the indie-folk that had defined The Weather Station's earlier albums toward a new style that incorporates jazz, chamber pop, and (especially) the lushly produced soundscapes of artists like Kate Bush and Sarah McLachlan. It's a style well suited for a song like "Robber," Ignorance's opening track, which sets a tone of foreboding that permeates the entire album. As strings swell nervously, Lindeman sings of a thief who
permission by words, permission of thanks, permission of laws, permission of banks,
white tablecloth dinners, convention centers.
It was all done real carefully.
"I wrote that song right after I had read an article about Exxon," Lindeman says. "I hadn't known the full story of Exxon—that long before most people knew about climate change, [Exxon] knew about it. Because they had researched it, as far back as 1981." After tasking its own scientists to study whether the burning of fossil fuels could lead to climate change, the oil giant sat on its findings for decades and even funded a vast network of climate deniers in order to maximize profits. "They had two paths," Lindeman says, "and they chose, actively, not just to allow it to happen, but to hide what they knew and to make it difficult for us as citizens to fight back."
Notably, "Robber" never mentions Exxon—or oil, or climate change, for that matter. As she does with all of the songs on Ignorance, Lindeman approaches her subject obliquely. There's no calling out of specific bad actors, and there's certainly no discussion of carbon emissions or sea level rise. She understands that such language would instantly and lethally deflate these songs, plunging them from the realm of art into the wide but shallow pool of didacticism.
Instead, Lindeman gives us something very much like poetry. In another song, "Trust," she makes a final appeal to a lover at what feels like the ending of a relationship:
Bring me all the evidence,
the baskets of wild roses,
the crumpled petals and misshapen heads of reeds and rushes,
the bodies of the common birds, robins, crows, and thrushes,
everything that I have loved and all the light touches,
while we still have time.
That the lover remains undefined—is it a person or a planet?—is another indication that Lindeman is less interested in preaching than in exploring feelings of profound loss through the use of concrete, if highly personalized, imagery. But this song, too, has its creative origins in a real-life incident. In this case it was the songwriter's despair at witnessing the Canadian government, in the form of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), attack and arrest members of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation in northern British Columbia for blocking a roadway in an attempt to stop the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through their ancestral lands.
"The RCMP was approaching with dogs and helicopters," Lindeman says, recalling the late-2019 event that led to the writing of "Trust." "They looked like an invading army. And I thought: This is my government." As she followed the conflict on social media, Lindeman recalls, all the lines of communication from the scene suddenly went dead. "No one knew why. There was, like, two hours where the WiFi in the area went down and people weren't able to communicate. And I wrote that song in those two hours, while people were waiting to find out what had happened and if people were OK."
Lindeman acknowledges some ambivalence about sharing the story, "because obviously it's not my story to tell—I'm not Indigenous," she says. "But I felt, as a citizen, an immense betrayal. This government that had been elected to take action on climate and Indigenous reconciliation had essentially invaded people's land in order to protect a pipeline company. And people were there chaining themselves to fences to stop it from happening. Somehow that filtered into the song. There are other things that went into it—from my life, from my subconscious. But that image was the crux of it. Why are we still having to argue over the value of something like water, or a landscape?"
It's not easy to make poignant, lasting art about climate change. The problem is so immense and all-encompassing that the vocabularies of music, poetry, theater, painting, or film can seem insufficient to the task, but in fact, they may be just what we need. As people and governments mobilize to address this global existential crisis, we need artists to check our work, to hold us accountable, to spur us on. And we need them to remind us of the human toll—both physical and emotional—as we head deeper into an uncertain future.
And we need to them to be as persistent as the tiny yet full-throated creature Lindeman memorializes in her song "Parking Lot":
Waiting outside the club in a parking lot
I watched some bird fly up and land on the rooftop
then up again into the sky, in and out of sight,
flying down again to land on the pavement.
It felt intimate to watch it,
its small chest rising and falling as it sang the same song
over and over and over and over again,
over the traffic and the noise.
Reposted with permission from Natural Resources Defense Council.
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