Betrayal, abuse, gaslighting: the story of our times
The Weather Station makes music about these climate truths and feels saner for it
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As artists have always shown us, human pain and preoccupation can drive exquisite expressions, not least in music. The Weather Station is a folk music band fronted by Toronto’s Tamara Lindeman, and their album ‘Ignorance’, released earlier this year, pulled off an incredible feat: It inhaled the truth of climate denial, deception, corporate malfeasance and “the culture of uncare” (Sally Weintrobe’s awesome term) that surrounds us, shook it all up, and exhaled it as an achingly beautiful record. As the New Yorker writes, “The album explores the personal implications of the climate crisis: human existence encroaching on nature, generations robbed of a sustainable future. Lindeman’s graceful vocals drift just above her well-crafted songs as she sings softly and achingly about making a life in a place that’s gradually decaying.” If you haven’t yet, take a listen. It’s so very good.
All images courtesy of The Weather Station
I got the chance to catch up with Lindeman over Zoom back in March. Listening to her talk about the various ways she has related to the crisis according to ever-changing life stages, the vulnerability involved in going out on a limb to try and process climate distress through courageous conversations, and her ambivalence around being called an activist-musician were totally permission giving. Her story helps us see the various ways we can get involved with engaging with this existential threat, and put ourselves in the ring in ways that feel authentic to who we are, even if that also feels messy. I loved hearing Lindeman’s perspectives and I hope you do too. An edited version of our conversation follows.
BW: First of all, your name, The Weather Station...does that have anything to do with an enduring interest in climate?
TL: It's interesting, because I would say no, it’s just a funny coincidence. Though, at the same time, it feels like a coincidence with more than a grain of fate, perhaps? I actually came up with that name when I was 20. When I first started making music, I was afraid to attach myself to it. I was very shy, and it was very private. So I created a fake story, that the music was made by a person who lived in an abandoned weather station in the Arctic. It was a romantic idea of the lighthouse keeper. I wasn’t thinking of climate change at the time I came up with the name. But part of how I was drawn into the climate crisis was that, because my social media handle is @TheWeatherStn I started getting tagged in people's posts, mistaken for The Weather Channel or The Weather Network. And for some reason, the people that accidentally tagged me tended to be climate deniers, and I would get tagged in wild, angry climate denial rants. And I found it kind of frightening, and strange, to encounter the rage and emotional vehemence with which people talked about this stuff. It’s part of what drew me in. And now of course, the fact that this is my name, and my social media handle, it works in a beautiful way.
When did you start processing the climate crisis on a deep personal level? And how did that eventually make its way into your music? What was that whole journey like?
I was born in ‘84. So when I was a very small child, my parents were aware. I'm assuming the James Hansen testimony was probably a big deal. And my parents told me about global warming, as it was called then. I remember it being very, very scary and intense. I remember that I couldn't fall asleep because it felt so scary. I have a strong memory of my mom telling me “don't worry, it’ll be ok” and me being like, “but you don't know that it's going to be okay.” It was the first anxiety I experienced that felt unfixable.
Then in my early 20s, there was a time when I was dating a quasi-environmentalist, and I was very caught up in it again. But as my 20s went on, I fell away from it, and stopped paying attention. It was so heavy, so difficult to pay attention to. I was that classic person, where I would see the article with the apocalyptic headline and not read it. I would scroll past. I was avoiding knowing about it. I encountered it as this existential, distant, low hum of anxiety and dread in the background that I couldn't face.
I think it's interesting to reflect back on that time because it's so common, I think, for people to have this distant anxiety about climate that is shapeless and unconsidered. You imagine the future being the future you've been raised to believe would happen - a positive future - or you imagine this total and all consuming Apocalypse. And I think my generation thinks that way, right? I've heard people make jokes about “when the world goes to hell from climate change, it’s not gonna matter, is it?” That was me - I made those jokes too. Then at the end of 2018, with the IPCC report, and Greta Thunberg, all of this consciousness being raised, something shifted for me. I was home from tour for the first time in a long time, and I just started reading articles about it. And then I went down the rabbit hole of being that person googling everything, reading everything, compiling this enormous list of bookmarks on my computer, just trying to understand everything about the crisis, becoming that obsessed person. I'm sure you've talked to lots of people where this is very familiar.
It felt like I fell off a cliff, and then I was living in a completely new reality where climate wasn't in the background anymore, and it was all I could think about.
Were there particular people or platforms that you would revisit in order to get your information?
I found Bill McKibben to be a useful guide. He's very measured. I always really appreciated his voice on things. And Mary Annaise Heglar, I felt really glad to find her because I saw myself in what she was saying, and I felt less crazy. Actually, though, when I look back, something I think about is how difficult it was to get information. Simple questions like - is it possible to power the world with solar and wind? Is it possible to hold warming to 1.5? What about developing countries? Is it too late? How bad will it get? All of these questions were surprisingly hard to answer, and took a lot of googling, and checking footnotes, and double checking. It shouldn’t be that hard, but it was. It’s getting a little better now. But a lot of climate figures were really helpful in shaping my understanding of what to do. Early on, I came across that Katharine Hayhoe TED talk about talking about climate change. I figured that's something I can do. Then I just started being really annoying.
You started bringing it up in every conversation or what?
I started bringing it up on my personal social media. I just dove into that. And I got really personal and really vulnerable there. And then I started doing that on my Weather Station social media. Once I started being very candid on social media, it led to all these real life conversations where people would suddenly seek me out, wanting to talk about climate change. I felt like I suddenly became people's climate therapist, just by virtue of saying, hey, this matters to me. That was very interesting. It seemed like people had this very pent up emotional need to express their feelings about it, and in a lot of cases, hadn’t really talked about it with someone before.
So where did that lead?
I was wondering what to do, and all the articles I was reading were saying “do what you do best”. So I was like, well, I can put on a show. I know how to do that. So I made this short lived event called Elephant in the Room where I booked a couple of musical guests and interviewed people on stage about climate change. It was really interesting, weird, and actually very intense.
I did this because I noticed how in my circle of friends, no one knew how to talk about it. No one knew how to express themselves. Everyone was very filled with shame, primarily. When they wanted to talk to me about climate change, the first thing they wanted to tell me about was their climate sins, basically, or they’d start every conversation with a disclaimer about a climate sin, and some elaborate justification for it. And then everyone who I asked to be part of the event would always say “you shouldn't talk to me, I'm not the right person. I'm not good enough.” There's just this shame. And so my thought was to model what it feels like to just ask questions and just be talking and have this openness, and not let shame enter the picture at all. Focus on the other feelings - the fear, the grief, the love. My hope was that if I got up on a stage and I asked my friend about her climate feelings, and we were both vulnerable with each other, that maybe I could tip off a little bit of change in the people around me, where they could then also talk about their climate feelings to each other. And then maybe it would snowball into becoming a broader thing that we're allowed to talk about.
I'm curious about the actual events and what was said on stage. Are there any anecdotes that stand out to you from what are basically these experiments in bravery?
The hardest one was in Newfoundland. That was the one that kind of broke me, where I realized that I needed help in order to keep the event going. Like - fact checking, vetting, institutional help of some kind. Newfoundland is an oil province. There are very strong emotions there about climate because much of the province is deeply entangled with the oil industry. Combined with deep and highly emotional tensions going back to the cod moratorium in the 90’s, and the immense poverty and disempowerment that resulted from that betrayal. Oil was what pulled people in Newfoundland out of a dark place. So it’s highly sensitive. I could see that, and that was why I wanted to do it - I wanted to talk in a non judgemental way with someone who worked in oil and gas, someone who worked in fishing, a historian, all kinds of people. But then again, I felt a bit like an interloper, and like I shouldn't have done it there because the tensions there are so strong, and I am an outsider. It did go well in the end, and wound up being a really special night, but still, I was in way over my head. It was very stressful, because I needed help, I needed to not be doing it on my own.
Were you interviewing these guests on specific topics related to climate change, or more-so anything goes?
I think that was where I went wrong. I did try to do some educational stuff - like trying to catch people up on climate science and where things are at. And, having read, for example, Emily Atkin’s article on ‘first time climate dudes’, I realized that I should be very careful and not be that person, no matter how informed I think I am. There’s so much misinformation around climate - I think you really should be careful about being qualified and sufficiently educated if you’re going to try to do education. So I realized that I personally should stay in my lane, a bit, and focus on climate feelings, because that’s something I’m allowed to talk about, as an artist, and regular citizen. And I actually think it’s very important, and very effective. I’ve found it to be effective anyways, as a way to get through to people. Most people understand the science. It’s the emotions that hold them back from engaging.
That sounds like a powerful forum to me. What has it been like to write songs about these feelings?
Once I started reading a lot about climate change in that winter of obsession that I had, it was a really fruitful time. I've never written so many songs in my life. I wrote 40 songs in a couple months. I'm usually a very inhibited songwriter, but all of these songs were coming out easily.
It wasn’t my intention originally to say that this is a climate change record, though that's what has been picked up on. It’s interesting because that is my truth in my heart of what I was writing about and what I was thinking about. I would have an encounter on Twitter and the emotions of these encounters I found very intense, very profound, and I was writing songs about that. But I didn't intend the songs to be taken that way, necessarily. I thought people will just read these songs as emotional, you know, personal relationship songs.
What I've personally found in caring about climate change, and in following the conversation, and in reading about it, is that this is the story of our time. This is the story of my life, on so many levels. The emotions of climate --- the denial, the betrayal, the weight, the gaslighting, this is the story of my life. And these emotions that have occurred on a societal level that come with creating a disinformation campaign, feel no different than certain romantic relationships or familial relationships. The personal is the political is the personal. These patterns repeat in the micro and the macro. All my friends are obsessed with understanding the concepts of emotional abuse and gaslighting. We’re also obsessed with the phenomenon of Donald Trump. And I’m personally obsessed with the story of Exxon and the API and how the span of my life spans the 30 odd years of propaganda and misinformation around climate science. It all feels like the same thing to me, frankly.
Caring about climate change has made me feel a lot saner, in a way, because I feel like I'm in touch with what actually matters and what has always mattered to me. When I was avoiding it, I felt so uncomfortable. I was living in a state of cognitive dissonance. Now that I'm not, it just feels like my feet are on the ground, at least. It’s the same thing as coming to terms with any of these emotional issues - recognizing that you’ve been gaslit, that you’re not crazy. It’s very grounding, in a strange way, to understand the climate crisis, even as it’s very heavy.
Now that people are identifying you as a climate change musician, and you’re getting grouped in with other artists who’ve written songs about the climate crisis like Weyes Blood, is that tagline something you feel comfortable with?
I was reflecting a lot about this the last few days. I have been increasingly uncomfortable with that headline. And I've been trying to figure out why I feel that way. In a way, I shouldn’t. It is accurate. But I think it has to do with the way that the world has treated climate activism. I experienced it from day one, the first time I tweeted about climate change. The moment you say you care about climate, people have a whole series of narratives about you - about who you are, what you care about, what you should do. People actually put a lot of baggage on you. Instantly. Or they see you as some kind of saint, or something. And to me, it shouldn’t be like that. It should be commonplace and normal to express concern about climate, to engage in climate activism. I don't think it should be unusual. Calling your MP, going to a demonstration is not a big deal. And I think that’s part of why I was uncomfortable with that headline, in that I felt like it positioned something that I think should be commonplace as noteworthy and unusual.
But I do hold to the idea that we all should be making climate albums, and we all should be making climate art because this is our story, and who's going to tell it? We have to. It shouldn't be a big deal to make climate infused art. This is literally the story of our time, of our generation. And so of course, I'm gonna keep doing it.
What’s something important that you’ve learned from putting out this album?
I find it so strange that people talk about the climate like it's this abstract scientific thing. Journalists ask me, how could you write these personal songs about climate change? I think people have this distance. And I think we need to examine that. It’s true that it is distant, for many of us in Canada, in that most of us have not yet experienced actual climate impacts that affect our ability to survive. So I suppose for us, so far, it’s less personal than it is for someone in Honduras, who has become a climate refugee, or someone in Paradise, CA. But that in and of itself is a function of our privilege. The fact that we see it as abstract - distant - impersonal. That’s only an accident of geography. And despite the fact that I’m still safely housed and safe in general, it still feels profoundly personal to me. Profoundly emotional. And so of course it's going to lead to songs and deep vulnerable expressions. And if you don't see that, then you're kind of missing the point. I guess I feel like - if you can’t see how I could write personal emotional songs about the climate crisis, figure out how to see that because then maybe you and I can be on the same wavelength.
Thanks Tamara, I’m glad to already be on that wavelength with you.
Thoughts? Responses? Reflections?
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Have a great couple of weeks! - Britt