The Weather Station 'hit a nerve' with Ignorance
'People needed to feel these feelings,' says bandleader Tamara Lindeman of her Polaris-nominated climate album
"Music and art are like secret messages," muses Tamara Lindeman, the singer-songwriter behind the Weather Station. "And you want people to understand them as you put them out there."
Lindeman is referring to themes she encrypted within the 10 songs on Ignorance, the Weather Station's fifth studio album, which has been shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize.
On the surface, Ignorance is a breakup album, addressing stages of denial ("Atlantic"), helplessness ("Tried to Tell You") and hurt ("Trust") one goes through during a separation. But on a subtler level, it also chronicles Lindeman's emotional reaction to the looming climate crisis, which had become her preoccupation as she worked on the album.
"This is the most consequential aspect of humanity's existence on Earth," she told CBC Music recently of global warming's tightening grip. "People tune it out because it's too difficult and because they feel helpless and powerless and I understand that. I have very deep feelings about it. It intersects in my mind with so many aspects of my personal life and how it feels to be alive."
On "Loss" Lindeman sings, "It was only so wide you could open your eyes," metaphorically invoking the album's titular ignorance. "You could only let in so much light, but you knew the story had never been true." It's an ex-lover's complaint, yes, but it also reads as an observation on climate-change complacency.
It turns out the Weather Station's audience was quick to decode this subtext. The Rolling Stone review described Ignorance as "a breakup record with her own dying planet;" The New Yorker perceived Lindeman's exploration of "the personal implications of the climate crisis: human existence encroaching on nature, generations robbed of a sustainable future."
Yet Lindeman says she never intended Ignorance to be heard as a climate album. "I thought it would be, like, a line at the bottom of the review," she says. "But what's beautiful — and this is why I feel so grateful for the response — is that it hit a nerve. People needed to feel these feelings."
'I'm driven by instincts that I don't fully understand until later'
Those who've followed the Weather Station since the beginning have learned to expect the unexpected with each new album. The Line (2009) and All of it was Mine (2011) introduced a bluegrass-leaning, guitar-strumming singer-songwriter whose soprano drew comparisons with Joni Mitchell. Then came the folk noir of Loyalty (2015) and the roadhouse rock that seeped into the band's critically acclaimed self-titled release (2017).
"Sometimes I'm driven by instincts that I don't fully understand until later," Lindeman says of this stylistic evolution. "I think that with each album, I was making a decision to shape a sound around the reason that the album had to exist."
Which helps explain the surprising direction she took on Ignorance, many of whose songs embrace a pop esthetic, with dance rhythms and catchy hooks.
"That very urbane, slick, poppy sound was something that, from the beginning, was really important to me to include," Lindeman says. "It was like putting an idea on a very fast vehicle that would allow it to travel in a way that it couldn't have travelled if I had shaped something different around it."
There's also an unmistakable nod to new wave and pop music from the '70s and '80s, which Lindeman says is good at expressing heightened emotions: pain and love.
But balancing out those pop elements is some endearingly whimsical acoustic instrumentation, including flute, saxophone and strings, that sets the music apart.
"In 'Atlantic,' the flute became this beautiful embodiment of the shorebirds that I'm singing about," Lindeman says. "I just loved the lightness."
"My God", I thought, "My God, what a sunset"
Blood red floods the Atlantic
With a wine in my hand
Laid back in the grass of some stranger's field
While shearwaters reeled overhead.
Adding strings to the mix on Ignorance — as she also did on 2017's self-titled album — was a labour of love.
"I love strings, I love them," Lindeman enthuses, while admitting that creating the arrangements was a convoluted process. "I had a bunch of sonic touchpoints of strings in, like, disco music and new wave and realized that, actually, a lot of those were synthetic strings." But she was committed to using real string players, not synthesizer.
"I got out the keyboard and played parts, and with MIDI, you can manipulate time and it's very easy to edit it into place," she explains. "But if you ask me to print a score, it's not really very readable." Lindeman enlisted her friends Mike Smith and Owen Pallett to help. They took her "muddled mess," as she puts it, and turned it into fluent, legible arrangements. "[The string players] all breathed a sigh of relief and were like, this one's wonderful! [laughs]"
And then there's Lindeman's singing, remarkable for her almost exclusive use of head voice, even low in her register. "Sharing her headspace," wrote the Pitchfork reviewer, describing the way her voice enters your consciousness, like the whisper of a confidant.
"My head voice is more comfortable for me and I like the way it sounds," she says. "I've thought a lot since this record about how all of my favourite records are about thinking. Thinking is what I like to communicate."
And her hushed vocal delivery is the vehicle, as she explains.
"I'm a headphones listener and in headphones there's something so intimate about music, you know? It goes directly between minds. And so I've naturally cultivated that very soft head voice, that thoughtful way of singing, as the thing that expresses my music best [and] has the effect that I want it to, which is a feeling of intimacy."
Most intimate of all the songs on Ignorance is "Trust," a lament whose minor mode and accompaniment suggestive of a hurdy-gurdy recall the troubadours, those travelling musicians of the Medieval era who also embedded secret messages (and sometimes dire warnings) within their songs.
"I think at one point I had been calling [the song] 'Divorce,'" Lindeman says. "I guess I think about that a lot, like, those ruptures and how they happen and what they're caused by and why." But ultimately, "Trust" encapsulates an even deeper rupture: a disillusionment with governments and corporations that she says "don't care about you or anyone" when making decisions. "No one's even considering any options, which is pretty wild."
"Dim the lights and draw the curtains," she sings with a meandering melody — and chilling finality. "This is the end of love."
Don't miss Short List Summer: a season-long showcase of the 10 albums shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize. Read the weekly Polaris Spotlight feature at cbcmusic.ca/polaris and tune into The Ten radio special every Sunday night at cbc.ca/listen.