Can an Indie Rocker Change the Climate Conversation?

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Jonathan Bernstein
·5 min read
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This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

When singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman began talking very explicitly and openly about the climate crisis on social media in 2018, she received an overwhelming response from fellow artists. “Musicians reached out to me privately, and they’d be like ‘Oh my God, I think about this every day, but I didn’t think I can talk about it,” says Lindeman, who for the past decade has performed as The Weather Station.

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Soon she noticed a pattern. When she attempted to recruit famous artists in her native Canada to sign a public petition for a Green New Deal resolution, it was an uphill battle; when she tried to get artists to show up for a new conversation series she was starting in Toronto called Elephant In the Room, where musicians speak with one another about the climate crisis, her peers’ hesitation proved the very point of the event’s name.

“There was so much shame,” Lindeman, 36, says of her fellow musicians’ reaction to the idea of speaking publicly about the climate crisis. “People would be like, ‘I can’t express that I care about this, because I’m a touring musician.’… ‘You can’t want me, I drive a car’ — or whatever it was. They had their climate sin they wanted to confess to. I was like, ‘Wow, for trying to build a movement, this is really useless.’”

Lindeman understands that misplaced sense of shame. While she’s chosen to make the climate crisis a central point of her artistry and public persona over the past few years, she admits that she too is often overwhelmed by feelings of guilt or imposter syndrome when speaking about the topic.

“Musicians have huge carbon footprints, so people have felt that if they were touring, they couldn’t show up,” she says. “There’s also this weird public idea that if you express care about a political idea, you should be held to this really high standard of being an expert.”

Those feelings are exactly why — after writing the Weather Station’s fifth record, Ignorance, largely in response to growing feelings of climate anxiety — Lindeman decided to make a point of fighting her instinct to keep quiet. She had spent her twenties doing what she thought were all the right things as an environmentalist: becoming a vegetarian, trying to cut her own carbon footprint. After a while, that conscientiousness turned into a low hum of worry. “My lifetime of anxiety, and a lifetime of anxiety of everyone I know — this is the under-layer that, in my mind, doesn’t get noticed, and is essentially just the backdrop to our lives,” she says. “Finally opening the door and going into the neglected space, and just taking a moment to understand what will happen in my lifetime, was a pretty wild experience.”

Though Ignorance doesn’t contain many overly literal references to the climate crisis, Lindeman sprinkles the record with alternating feelings of futility, hope, and despair regarding the planet’s future. “I feel as useless as a tree in a city park/Standing as a symbol of what we have blown apart,” she sings on “Tried to Tell You.” “Don’t ask me for indifference,” she sings a few songs later on “Heart.”

Since releasing the album in February, Lindeman has talked about climate in nearly all of her interviews, and has been surprised to see the degree to which she’s been able to make climate a centerpiece of her album campaign. “On the one hand, I don’t really know what I was thinking,” she says, half-jokingly. But Lindeman has also embarked very intentionally on a project of forcing conversations in spaces they’re not expected to take place. She’s dedicated to the idea that the climate crisis deserves to be just as present in the arts section of a newspaper as its science pages.

Reading most coverage of music and pop culture, she says, “You’re not expecting to have climate come into it. But I would make the very strong argument that that’s wrong. Every conversation is about climate, on some level. For me to drag it into the conversation is something I can do.”

The process of sharing Ignorance with the world has involved some necessarily clunky perception-shifting for Lindeman, who operates in an artistic space where it’s often assumed that her work is primarily a reflection of her own personal life and experiences.

“I have had funny moments with friends where they hear some of the songs and they are really worried about me,” she says. “They are like, ‘Oh, what is that [song] about?’ And I’m like, ‘Honestly, I wrote that song about Justin Trudeau.’”

Lindeman hopes that her fellow musicians increasingly look to the climate crisis as an arena in which they can wield their influence as artists. “As a group, we have cultural power,” she says. “Large companies want the cultural capital of artists. They want to sponsor something and put their name on a building. I think that’s a place where artists have this bit of power to say, ‘No.’ In an ideal scenario, in the next couple of years, if you work for these major oil companies — making that publicly unacceptable is something we could do.”

Lindeman praises a few mainstream artists like Billie Eilish and Coldplay for their very public stances on the climate crisis. (Eilish has lent her support to the music industry campaign No Music On a Dead Planet; in 2019, Coldplay stated that they would pause all touring until live music becomes more sustainable.)

“It’s about how we can change what the conversations are, how we can change what’s considered normal,” she says. “That’s the fastest way to shift society, and we see it happening on climate but also on other areas: trans issues, racism. Cultural power can make change happen very quickly.”

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