Individual, intimate, communal: water and the Theory of Ice with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
The Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer, scholar, activist and musician discusses her shortlisted album.
As wildfires burn out of control across the country, and climate change sends temperatures scorching to record highs, thick smoke has made its way to Peterborough, Ont., where Leanne Betasamosake Simpson makes her home. It's an ominous reminder that we are all connected and it makes for an unsettling-yet-compelling backdrop for a conversation about a record that is a celebration of water in all its glorious myriad permutations.
Theory of Ice, which is shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize, is an utterly original creation and for Simpson, an acclaimed Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer, scholar, activist and musician, it's the record where she finally feels like she's found her voice. This is particularly powerful given the recognition the album has received, and that it's Simpson's fourth release since her 2013 debut, Islands of Decolonial Love. Theory of Ice was also years in the making; much like the transformational nature of water, so too does this project capture multiple states of existence for Simpson, her band (sister Ansley Simpson, Nick Ferrio, Tanner Pare), featured vocalist John K. Samson, and musician-producers Jonas Bonnetta and Jim Bryson.
CBC Music spoke with Simpson over Zoom to talk about water, the economics of language, and the power and purpose of repetition in Anishinaabe culture.
I feel like this record celebrates both our relationship with water and our relationship to water. Those are a little bit distinct sometimes and we don't always hear that nuance.
I think you're right. I thought a lot about water, because it was very generative, artistically and creatively for me in this record, which I think is really clear, but it also struck me that it's one of those things that's inside me, and connects me in a really international, kind of global sense, to all of life. This cycle of breathing and of living is this exchange through the medium of water, through all kinds of living things. So that was the first thing that I really started to think about and to feel and to explore in this record was that deep, deep connection, to live through water. And then the second thing that really hit me was how transformative water is: how it changes form, from a gas to a liquid to a solid. That was just metaphorically really, really rich, in terms of witnessing those transitions, and that's obviously always a part of all of us. I just started thinking about it in a really different way, and in a deeper way, and it led to the Theory of Ice.
Something in my brain just really lit up when you said that, about the different forms water takes and how that relates to your writing across music, poetry, fiction, non-fiction and academics.
I really like the interplay between the individual and the intimate, and then also the communal, and I think water really, really speaks to that. And I think that sort of just happened in our conversation here where obviously I've thought really deeply, maybe obsessively, about every sort of artistic decision that went into this record, and thought very deeply about meanings and how I wanted to convey those meanings and layering. But I wanted the record to be kind of a different listening experience for audiences and that the meaning-making would be communal and collective. I think that that's kind of a really beautiful collaborative part of performance for me, that interaction and the relationship between the performer and the audience, or the performer and in this case in the listener, since we haven't had audiences for a really long time.
I would imagine that even your relationship to your creation can change in the space of performing it with an audience?
Sure, and I think meaning, so often, is contextual. It's about the relationships and the people that are around you. And it's also about how you're feeling in your own body. And so I do love that part of touring and the part of music that's durational performance, where you're performing the same things over and over again, in this repetitious sort of way, in a way that oftentimes you have to work very hard in order to stay present in because I know as soon as I'm not present, and I'm performing, then that's when I can't remember my lyric cues [laughs]. I find it really interesting in terms of the kind of neural pathways that it develops, and I love how you can be performing a song for the 200th time and some new little nuance will be revealed to me.That's such a gift, I love that part of it.
You're writing across different disciplines and creating these worlds, and vignettes, and scenes. Has language always been a fascination for you or are you approaching writing from a different place than language?
I think I may be approaching it from a different place than language. I think that one of the challenges in creating is finding languages that accurately are able to communicate what you're trying to communicate to your audience. In music, I think sound becomes a kind of language. I'm bringing sound and I'm bringing the artists that I'm working with in conversation with my lyrics and we're layering and creating something new through those conversations, through the thinking beside, playing beside, creating alongside, sort of deepening and layering the conversation and the thought process and doing that in a band, in an embodied way. And then bringing the audience and their experience and context and meaning-making into the conversation as well.
How was that collaborative process for you, to take your writing and then expand it outward with a band?
It was very challenging, particularly originally, because I was new at it. And it's one of those things that you learn by doing. Starting a new practice [music] later in life can feel very vulnerable, as you sort of try to figure out what you're doing and how to be excellent at it, or how to execute it in a way that is rigorous and well done. So I think there was a lot of fear and a lot of apprehension. The learning curve was really big, but I was kind of craving it because writing is very — and academics can be — isolating and individualistic, and you're in your head a lot. I really got drawn to this embodied collective experience of relating to people onstage with an audience, and being forced to be in my body.
My band and my collaborators on this project, all are excellent musicians with their own solo projects and their own musical foundations and touchstones. So the making of this record was a rigorous, difficult struggle at some points, because we had so many ideas, and so many different versions of songs. We were really pushing each other to be excellent. But also at the end of the day, a lot of it comes down to like, when you've got the technical stuff, and the lyrics and the music, a lot of it's just trusting yourself.
I love Gitchi Gaming, I love Lake Superior; it has this Anishinaabe power to it that I really connect to.- Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
How did you decide who you wanted to collaborate with for this project?
I started pretty closely working with Nick Ferrio and Ansley Simpson, my sister, to try to find the sound of this record, and they did a lot of the initial writing of the pieces. Then we brought in Jonas Bonnetta [Evening Hymns] as a producer, and he really challenged us and really pushed us in different directions, and some directions we didn't want to go in. In a sense, it's the lyrics that drove what the record was going to sound like and who was sort of doing the writing. We spent a lot of time workshopping the pieces over a number of years in all different kinds of formations and we have just so many versions of all of these songs and that process was very difficult at the time, but I think it was very, very valuable. And I think it was ultimately, me finding my voice in this medium and actually literally finding my voice and singing on the record, too. So not just as a metaphor [laughs], I literally found my voice.
I was particularly struck by your vocal performance in the duet "Surface Tension," with John K. Samson. It's this hushed, almost childlike innocence that's reverent and sing-songy. Were there different iterations of that song?
We tried a few other things before we found that melody. I think that is a really accurate expression of John and Leanne, the way that we connect and sort of that gentleness. I remember when I was singing that song, and it's sort of a very quiet, almost hushed, intimate, sort of vocal delivery for me that he matched. I was thinking of the surface of a lake and that surface tension and how sometimes it breaks and sometimes it doesn't break. There's a fragility to it, but also a strength. And I think that I remember really just having that picture of me and the surface of water in the studio. John really matched that. And I also think that that's just how we are when we're together and how we work together. It's sort of just a really beautiful expression of that friendship and that relationship as well.
'That first warmth of spring' evokes such a powerful, visceral, ephemeral, emotional, spiritual sort of reckoning for me.- Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
So few people have a literal vocal snapshot of their relationship. That's really lovely. There are also so many lyrics in "Surface Tension" and throughout the record that are deeply affecting. I'd love to talk first about "Break Up" and these lines: "aabawe the first warmth of spring/ aabawe a loosening of one's mind/ to forgive." Those three lines are so strong and feel very healing.
"Aabawe" it's to forgive in Anishinaabemowin. And John Borrows has written a little bit about it and Basil Johnston has done a little bit in the Anishinaubae Thesaurus. In Basil's description he talks about forgiveness as the first warmth of spring and of sort of a letting go. And I took those ideas and wanted to kind of capture the transformation of a lake: breaking up and changing form, of transforming from ice, from a solid to a liquid, and sort of use that as a metaphor for transformation in all kinds of different relationships. "That first warmth of spring" evokes such a powerful, visceral, ephemeral, emotional, spiritual sort of reckoning for me. You know, when you feel that in February and you're like, "Oh my God, I remember the sun, I remember warmth, everything was going to be OK! [Laughs] There's summer, it's not gonna be like this forever!" So I spent a lot of time feeling that and thinking about that while I was watching the lake melt into its summer form.
"The Wake" is also gonna sit in my ribs for a while. "Everything we tried to grow/ this year has died/ you've tripped/ inside my head." The simplicity of language sometimes can be such a gift.
That's something that I've learned through writing lyrics. In academic writing, and sometimes in fiction writing, and definitely in poetry, the economy of writing is different, and you have lots of space, and you can use lots of different words. But in performance, and in music, I think the language is different, because you've got the sonics, and you've got these other musicians onstage that are communicating and often taking folks on an emotional journey through sound. So it's almost a pulling back for me in the lyrics. And you also want folks to be able to connect with them, or I want my audience to be able to connect with them sort of on a one-off if they're hearing it for the first time in a live show. But also, I want to write it in a way where it invites them to engage with the work and hear it over and over and then kind of make that meaning for themselves as well and have it rich enough that they can find something other than just sort of the literal.
There is some real power, and obviously purpose, in repetition in different places throughout the record, and particularly "Head of the Lake," at the end: "We made a circle/ and it helped/ the smoke did the things/ we couldn't/ singing/ broke open our hearts." I found myself extremely moved through many different spaces with each delivery.
"Head of the Lake" is a song about Thunder Bay, and Thunder Bay as a place. It's one of my favourite places. I love Gitchi Gaming, I love Lake Superior; it has this Anishinaabe power to it that I really connect to and the landscape there is so storied in Anishinaabe story. There's lots of lyrical references in the song to that. One of the things in our ceremonies and in our meaning-making practices is repetition. Repetition is really important in terms of story and in terms of song and in terms of seasonal cycles. It's important because it's generative, and it's important because it works on the neural pathways of a different part of your mind than say social media, or watching Netflix. And so I think that I use repetition as an esthetic tool in the same way that it's sort of used culturally, to build and to sort of elevate and to take listeners and to take me into a different realm. I like using those old ancient esthetics and practices and bringing them into the contemporary and bringing them into the space that I'm creating with the audience. Or the listener, I guess.
You've differentiated between the audience and the listener a couple times. Have you been able to perform Theory of Ice in a public setting yet, or is it still a dream piece after all the work you've done?
It's still a dream piece but we're recording a show in mid-August so we're in rehearsal right now. In the past, when I've talked about albums, it's often with people who have seen live shows, and we're talking about it in that way. We both have this embodied experience of being in the same place at the same time doing the same thing. And so for a lot of the last 18 months, there's been a lot of grief and a lot of sadness for me, and I think for my band, because we want to make sure we can perform every track of this album. To not have that piece has been a big loss. But then I think in talking about it just sort of in the last week, with people like you who have listened to the album with headphones over and over again, and who are asking me, like very amazing, deep, cool questions. I'm like, there's something here though! There's no live shows and people are spending a lot of time listening and a lot of time with the work and a lot of time thinking about the work and that's sort of why I made the album in the first place. So that's actually a really interesting, good part of it.
You were recently honoured by the Prism Prize with the Willie Dunn Award, and now the Polaris Prize. How does it feel to be on the short list?
Pretty lovely! It's a lovely thing to have happened, particularly this year because releasing an album feels a lot like not releasing an album. My sister posts it on social media and gets a few likes and we're like, "I guess that was worth it." [Laughs] And this list is incredible, there's so many poets on the list. I'm really, really enjoying spending time with the other artists through their records and through the playlists that are on the short list.
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.