Leanne Betasamosake Simpson Will Make You Rethink the Planet

"I like the cold. And that's something that is very threatened and very fragile right now."
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson Will Make You Rethink the Planet
Photo: Aaron Mason
Everything has feelings in Leanne Betasamosake Simpson's groundbreaking new album, Theory of Ice (out today via You've Changed Records). Humans and animals, sure, but also ice, lakes, the ground, the oil rigs that siphon gas from the Earth and heat the planet from within. The propensity for every object to carry within it some sense of autonomy and sentience guides the album's central philosophy, a powerful treatise on the beauty of the natural world and what is threatened should humanity continue to fail to show it respect.

Yes, even the oil rigs, as expressed in a line from the middle of Theory of Ice's fourth track, "Surface Tension," a duet between Simpson and former Weakerthans vocalist John K. Samson: "The oil rig, it sang Marx," sing the pair in tones so hushed, it could almost be a lullaby, or the comedown song around a campfire. It's a jarring line on a record that mostly concerns itself with natural landscapes, but it indicates the depth and nuance of Simpson's arguments.

"I think that a lot of communities that have experience with large extractivist industries in their intimate spaces, a lot of workers who work in these industries know intimately the damage that they're causing. And I think that line points to the impetus for alternatives and the impetus to build a different world," says Simpson to Exclaim! "I liked the idea of this oil rig sort of rebelling, and having some sort of consciousness about the role and the responsibility that it was playing in this global climate disaster."

Climate consciousness is the central focus of Theory of Ice, the third record by the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, poet and writer. The album's eight tracks are almost entirely concerned with the precarious state of the planet, from "Break Up," which painstakingly details a lake melting during the spring thaw, to "Ok Indicts," about the 2014 declaration that the Ok glacier in Iceland had died due to climate change. It wasn't intentional, says Simpson — an example of how much it dwells in people's minds.

"I wasn't aware that the climate crisis was so in my mind," says Simpson. "I love winter, and I love ice, and I spend a lot of time in the North, and I like the cold. And that's something that is very threatened and very fragile right now. And with 'Ok Indicts,' with 'Break Up,' and then also 'Failure of Melting,' [a song] about a lake in the Northwest Territories that fell off a cliff because permafrost melted, those kinds of events ended up figuring really prominently. I think I had a very emotional and visceral reaction to it. So at the end of it, when I sort of spread it all out, that link to climate change and to global warming is something that was prominent in my subconscious, I think."

Though the threat of the climate crisis pervades the record, the album takes a more emotionally sustainable approach than its anxious contemporaries. Recorded with a band including sister Ansley Simpson, Nick Ferrio, Jim Bryson and Jonas Bonnetta, the album's sonic palette is steeped in soft folk, acoustic guitars and rolling percussion gently accented by synths and sung vocals, often contrasting Simpson's spoken-word delivery, informed by her deep body of work as a poet. Any dramatic elements — fluttering electronics on "Break Up," shoegaze guitar squalls on "I Pity the Country" — serve as more of a warning than a threat, like a distant crack of thunder.

Part of it, Simpson mentions, is that the primary drivers of the climate crisis are multinational corporations; there's only so much people can do on the individual level when, according to a 2017 study, 100 companies were responsible for 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Says Simpson, "Because the solutions to this are very collective and systemic, there's a feeling of powerlessness in it as well, in that there isn't a lot you can do to fix it as an individual."

She adds, "I think I wanted the record to be a thinking through together or a conversation with the audience, sort of an inventory of 'This is where we are,' and it's not a good or sustainable place. How do we build a better world?"

With that mindset, Simpson uses Theory of Ice to argue in favour of focusing on the world's natural beauty as a way to centre oneself amid society's many ails. While "Viscosity" initially dives deep into social media malaise — "Tethered to the kinship of disassociated zeroes and ones / Shining your crown of neoliberal likes" — it ends with a warm recounting of life's many natural pleasures as a way to centre oneself: "At the beach, we build a fire / Sit in our own silence / Peel off blue light / Lie back on frozen waves."

Says Simpson, "I hope that listeners come out of the record thinking about the land in a different way, and maybe have some inspiration to notice the way that light changes during the day while they're on Zoom from their office, notice the phase of the moon, notice the ice forming on the lake or melting. Just little, tiny steps to having an intimate relationship with the natural world that's around them, whether they're in a bush or an urban environment."

Theory of Ice is the latest in a long line of music by Indigenous artists that draw on generations upon generations of teachings to combat the effects of colonialism, a practice furthered by the album's centrepiece, a towering, slowcore cover of Willie Dunn's "I Pity the Country." Simpson first performed the song alongside Ansley and Ferrio at a "Native North America Gathering" in Ottawa on February 9, 2018 — notably, the night that Gerald Stanley, who is white, was acquitted for the fatal shooting of Colten Boushie, who was Indigenous.

"Right before I went on stage, the Colten Boushie verdict came down. And [host Rosanna Deerchild] had announced that the audience was sort of devastated. And there is this moment as a performer where the energy in the room was sad and devastated and angry and nervous and I had to kind of walk out onto the stage and step up to the mic and do something. 'I Pity the Country' was sort of the perfect song for that moment."

Written in 1971, Dunn's words — "Police, they arrest me / Materialists detest me / Pollution, it chokes me / Movies, they joke me" — remain vital, resonant and potent. It's a fitting tribute on an album about honouring the traditions of one's ancestors, while also drawing further attention to the issues that disproportionately affect Indigenous populations in North America, including boil water advisories, public health crises, police brutality, the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls epidemic, and building pipelines on unceded Indigenous territory. (Furthering Dunn's enduring resonance, a forthcoming compilation album of 22 of his songs, Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies, is due for release via Light in the Attic exactly a week after Theory of Ice.)

Says Simpson, "I'm really drawn to the time and the circumstances that Willie Dunn and his contemporaries were writing in that time. The late 1960s and 1970s was a very, I think, rich and fertile time for Indigenous rights and Red Power and organizing and Black Power. And I think there was a lot of activism, a lot of reading, a lot of discussion that was going on in coffee shops around music. And so I think that's reflective in the lyrics. And it's reflective in the way that I think Willie Dunn carried himself as an activist, and as a thinker, and as a lyricist and as a musician. I think that there's a lot of beauty. And now, when I see some of those old videos of him being interviewed on the CBC, it reminds me that, as an Indigenous musician, I'm not the first generation to have done this. Hearing him speak his truth in the mic is something that really makes my heart big, it makes me feel very proud. And it makes me feel like part of something that's bigger than myself."

That feeling is evoked throughout all of Theory of Ice, with its many vivid depictions of nature and how grounding it can be to simply bask in its beauty. That idea is central to Simpson's worldview and research, and the album makes a strong case for its power in shaping minds and, potentially someday, saving the planet.