The Weather Station and UBC Contemporary Players soundtrack climate grief

Experimental folk musician Tamara Lindeman sat at the piano bench against a looped video of ducks on a tranquil lake, with an ensemble of UBC music students arrayed behind her. Lindeman, who performs as The Weather Station, came to the Chan Centre on January 21 to perform new arrangements of her songs by composers Darren Fung and Mark Marinic — co-presented with UBC's Centre for Climate Justice.

Sheets of lyrics scattered across the piano, and Lindeman counted in the ensemble with a whisper. She comes to climate justice not as an activist or a researcher, but as an observer and complicit participant seeking to make meaning from loss.

Three days before the show, Lindeman participated in a talk with UBC Professor of Climate Justice Naomi Klein. They focused on how art can help us process the climate crisis — both on the existential scale of mass extinction, and the more personal tragedies of sparse grocery store shelves, flooded homes and stilted hopes.

However, as they addressed, these losses are not distributed equally. Settler Canadians like Lindeman benefit from exploited labour and land, and the billionaire class that holds the most responsibility for global emissions continue to face the fewest repercussions.

“I spent a lot of time writing these songs thinking about the luxury of being in such a safe Northern country but also the existential crisis I was born into,” said Lindeman during the concert. Her music processes climate injustice not through advocacy or anger however, but through close consideration and self-reflection.

Before she played her song “Ignorance” at the concert, Lindeman told the audience the song was inspired by her encounter with an Australian bird that a local told her was a magpie — but Australian magpies actually have little in common with the English birds of the same name. The only connection between the two black-and-white species are the British settlers that manufactured familiarity between them.

“This feels very innocuous, but when we label something with a familiar name we ensure we will never understand it for what it truly is,” Lindeman said.

Australian magpies actually have little in common with the English birds of the same name.
Australian magpies actually have little in common with the English birds of the same name. Robert Lynch / Public Domain Photos

Anecdotes like this one, which integrate the vastness of natural history with Lindeman’s detailed personal observations, mourn how thoroughly colonialism has obscured our understanding of where and how we live. They reflect the awareness that comes to settlers too little and too late — what Lindeman described as the “realization when you look at what you’ve been too afraid to look at.”

While the original song is a spare piano arrangement, Marinic’s version begins with airy violin scratches meant to imitate bird calls. In rehearsal, the UBC violinists struggled to create bird sounds with their bows until curator Jarrett Martineau held up his phone to broadcast the Australian magpie’s gargled screeches, which the violinists worked to mimic.

The scratching violin bird call was one of several moments of deliberate dissonance that Marinic included in the songs, which he said “contribute to the theme of climate grief.” The Weather Station channels the cognitive dissonance of going about life as normal — the business-as-usual approach that fossil fuel companies like Exxon push, even as they have known for decades about climate change.

The dramatic score and Lindeman’s lyrics rarely lift completely out of melancholy. The songs that draw on anger and defiant hope both feel the most musically compelling and most related to the climate justice theme.

Driven by energetic percussion, songs like the 2021 single “Robber” added much-needed variation to the setlist. Lindeman’s plaintive piano and wispy tone are signatures of the band, but she could have further explored the deeper, richer part of her voice that better reflects the frustration that her lyrics attempt to convey.

Lindeman, who performs as The Weather Station, came to the Chan Centre on January 21.
Lindeman, who performs as The Weather Station, came to the Chan Centre on January 21. Mahin E Alam / The Ubyssey

The classical contemporary ensemble added depth and range to Lindeman’s songs, building sonic worlds of bird song and rushing wind to match her nature-inspired lyrics. However, the two also felt disjointed at points in both timing and style.

“We usually play in a rock band, so this is very, very different,” Lindeman said during rehearsal. Playing with an ensemble of classically-trained music students in addition to her normal bassist Ben Whiteley and drummer Dan Gaucher presented unusual challenges.

Still, the collaboration represented a labour of love for both composer and performers. Marinic told The Ubyssey that the compositions have been in the works since October.

“By the time Apple Music year round came around in early December, my top five tracks were all the Weather Station’s — I don’t know [what I listened to] the rest of my year,” he said.

The show ultimately seemed designed to help those who already get in their feelings about folk music and birdwatching to commiserate about the state of the world together. Although the Weather Station may be preaching to the choir, they are more concerned with the softer goal of processing with them.

Tova Gaster has previously worked for the Centre for Climate Justice as a research assistant.