Breakup Ballads Can Be About Climate Change, Too

 

WORDS BY LANDON PEOPLES

PHOTOGRAPHS BY RIMA SATER

For Tamara Lindeman—the singer-songwriter behind The Weather Station—songs about heartbreak and loss have just as much to do with climate change as they do an aching heart. The Canadian artist tells Atmos how music can be used to raise awareness about our warming world.

WORDS BY LANDON PEOPLES

PHOTOGRAPHS BY RIMA SATER

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Nevermind the guitar skills, the mirror suit, nor the natural backdrops of her music videos. It’s what Tamara Lindeman (The Weather Station) is saying that, at least by 2030, should hit home. The Canadian musician writes about climate change in ways that few of us are willing to admit: that we’re allowed to be afraid of it, that we’re more connected to the atmosphere than we let on—and that, deep down, even the deniers hold the capacity to care. It’s why, if you consider yourself fluent in carbon jargon, when she sings “I cannot sell you on your own need,” you might recoil from memories of a connection lost—or be compelled to confront with her the ongoing heartbreak that is the weathering of our planet.

 

On Ignorance, her fourth record, Lindeman does the opposite of turning a blind eye: with allegorical lyrics atop mild melodies, she draws you into a body of work that, whether you picked up on it or not, is about the climate crisis—more precisely, climate grief. In 2018, when the IPCC report that detailed the impacts of a global 1.5 degree Celsius increase in temperature was released, Lindeman felt a rush of anger and intensity. It caused her to write more songs than ever before, telling Atmos, “I wasn’t intending to write about it… But that’s what was happening. I had an experience that many people around the world have had.” And the album is more dimensional because of it.

 

What’s more of Lindeman’s acumen as an artist is that she doesn’t consider her music a form of activism. She’s not even sure if her music is lost on fans who participate in climate action or not. She recommends a less familiar territory, however—vulnerability—as recommended headspace to understanding more particular songs on the album, like “Robber,” which was inspired by ExxonMobil. Outside of music, Lindeman herself participates in Fridays For Future activations and once hosted a series called Elephant in the Room, where she interviewed other musicians and activists about climate change.

 

As she tells Atmos, Lindeman has written about the climate crisis before. But, as we rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and press restart on what should be a new political era for a lot of things, it seems climate grief should come as second nature to any pop star who hopes to capture the attention of a new generation who daydreams of a pre-industrial climate; something as important as going viral. Hopefully, a new era of songwriting is upon us, too.

Photograph by Rima Sater

Landon Peoples

How did the album come together?

Tamara Lindeman

I wrote most of the songs in the winter of 2018-2019 and it was kind of this very intense time. I wound up writing a ton of songs—like, I’d never written that many songs in my life in such a short period of time. And then I sort of formed a band and created the sonic idea of the record at the same time, and then recorded it that spring—April and June of 2019. And, you know, mixed and mastered that summer and then it was done.

Landon

Climate change is obviously a through line that traverses the album. Was that always the plan?

Tamara

No. I’ve tried to write about the climate crisis before… On this album, I wasn’t intending to write about it and I didn’t really think I was writing about it. But that’s what was happening. I had an experience that many people around the world have had… In the fall of 2018, when the IPCC report came out, I basically just went down a rabbit hole of learning about it. And the more I learned about it the more angry I got and the more intense I felt.

 

It’s a very radicalizing experience to really, truly understand the reality of what science says. When you’ve grown up with this knowledge, you form a bit of a callus over it; you have to work your whole life around avoiding knowing about it because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to think about the future at all, right? But for me, I just decided to push through that and to actually understand it. It’s like ripping the bandaid off—you just feel everything suddenly very acutely and it was a very strange experience. I didn’t really know anyone who I could relate to on how I felt about it. So, I wrote a lot of songs. And that’s how I deal with emotions and, to me, they’re all very related to climate (though, I’m sure they also have personal dimensions, too). The personal and the societal are the same, so the way that the songs are makes sense to me as being as much about betrayal in the world as well as within relationships; it’s sort of the same behavior. The songs are all very knit together, for me, with my personal experience of climate grief.

Landon

Music, and things within culture like fashion, film, or art, are supposed to reflect the times. And I think when it comes to lyrics, so many people pull from heartbreak and romance and that type of emotional, personal grief as a way to release and move forward. Do you think that, with what you’ve done with this record, we’re entering a new era of songwriting?

Tamara

Climate is the story of our time. When historians look back on 2020 or 2021, they’ll be so confused as to why we weren’t talking about it and singing about it; like, Where was it? When we look back at the pandemic of 1918, it’s barely mentioned in the newspapers. There’s this strange lack of documentation even though it was devastating. The fact that we still have a stock market ticker and not a carbon net Mauna Loa ticker at the bottom of CNN is bizarre. It’s all a function of our broader denial as a society that this is happening.

 

So, if we were to turn and face it in ways that we need to as a people and as a species—will that show up in songs? I think so. Has it already shown up in songs? Absolutely.

 

The way that people write songs about heartbreak through pop music history has always been more to do with the fact that that’s what’s allowed and less to do with the fact that that’s what is in peoples’ hearts. That’s the only thing that people feel. As a lyricist, I’ve always found that topic to be a bit boring and I’ve always been trying to broaden what I’m writing about and what I’m saying.

 

When I look back through history at great songwriters, I think a lot of people were writing within the allowed parameters but they actually were saying something else. Like, there’s all these heterosexual love songs written by people who were not heterosexual, y’know. There probably are a ton of climate grief songs that exist—it’s just that maybe the artist didn’t explicitly say that that was part of it. The problem is that the words, like [climate] jargon, is not poetic in songs—so very few people use the words.

Landon

Climate change is such a direct threat and it requires direct, to-the-point language that can be very scientific. But when it comes to artists like yourself, metaphors that also connect themes of love and connection (or disconnection) can also be applied to so many aspects of it. Do you think in climate activism we need both? We need the science and the data as much as we need the art.

Tamara

I haven’t thought of the music as being activism, but what I see when I look at the world and people around me, and the way that we respond to climate conversations, is that people don’t know how to feel their feelings about it. Like, people think that they’re not allowed to. There’s a very strong narrative that if you’re from the Global North and you’re living in a wealthier society, you’re the perpetrator or the bad guy.

 

And you could make the argument that we are. But I think that that narrative has been too strong and that people haven’t been able to feel, like, But I’m also sad. I’m also afraid. I don’t know if I wanna have children. They’re all very profound feelings. And you can feel those feelings even if you live in a house that’s heated by natural gas. There’s all this confusion of How am I allowed to feel? Most people, like I say, have a callus over the words—carbon, greenhouse gasses—and just turn off when they hear them. They can be conversation killers.

 

And because we’re just used to them, we’re inured to them. I do think music is there to be emo. It’s there to be emotional and it’s there to give you a conduit for your emotions. If I tried to put some of these songs out and explain that they do have a climate element, maybe some people somewhere would have an experience of allowing themselves to feel that grief that they already feel without it being activism. To me, that is activism. Once I actually felt how I actually felt, it was this waterfall of emotion and it did drive me to act. And in a way that I hadn’t before.

Landon

Do you think vulnerability is required in understanding what’s ahead for climate change or of being an activist in this space?

Tamara

It actually takes a great deal of vulnerability to actually admit that we’re at risk, that the situation is out of control, and that no one person… you know, Greta Thunberg cannot solve this for us. There’s this immature inability to be vulnerable and to understand that we’re actually so vulnerable to the climate in so many ways. We are very technologically advanced but carbon capture [alone] is not gonna fix this. And yet the desire to be omnipotent and to be like, Well, we’ll just inject the sky with, you know… is so pervasive.

Landon

What’s the biggest takeaway from the album?

Tamara

To notice and to look, and to see and allow, the negative information to show up—and to allow the negative feelings to have space.

 

Because I think we’re not really taught in this society how to feel grief, or loss, or sadness. And grief, and loss, and sadness are enormous features of where we are in our lives and in our world and culture. We are losing so much every day in a strange way. And we don’t know how to see that. I think many people are left with a low hum of unease that has no name. In terms of the climate crisis, if you can turn to see it without trying to, you know, fix it and actually understand it, then you’re gonna know what to do a lot better than if you’re trying to stay optimistic. I guess humility is really the answer in that.

Landon

Wouldn’t you say then that noticing, seeking, and looking, and leaning into those feelings is the opposite of ignorance?

Tamara

Yes, it is. It’s the opposite. But what is racism, sexism, and colonialism but structured ignorance? It’s the decision to decide that you don’t know and adhere to an ideology that’s absurd.

 

To acknowledge your own ignorance is to have a moment where you might be able to ask questions, where you might be able to be curious, where you might be able to be humble… And, if you are those things, you are going to learn more than if you cling to your rigid, false knowledge.

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