The Weather Station's Tamara Lindeman Is Not As Calm As You Think
Tamara Lindeman's Weather Station makes complicated, urbane folk music that soothes even as it provokes. Just don't shoehorn her latest, tackling climate change, politics, and gender relations, into a new age-y, serenity-prone pigeon-hole.
"I always used to joke that no matter what I do, everyone will describe me as calming and soothing," notes Tamara Lindeman, the cool-voiced singer from the Weather Station, whose self-titled fourth album came out early in October.
Lindeman says that to her, the album seems anything but calm. It came out of her facing fears about reaching adulthood, concentrating on her career and putting off family, contemplating larger scale issues like climate change, and the navigating the shit-storm of political discord that surrounded her as she wrote these songs.
For instance, Lindeman was on tour in Glasgow when the attack on Bataclan occurred. She made a return trip to Calais and stared out the window at crowds of refugees. Her drummer lives in Brussels where the airport was attacked; two weeks after, she flew into that very same airport. Add to that a more general backdrop of Brexit, the rise of white supremacy, the threat of global warming and, on the very day she signed off on her latest album, the election of American President Donald Trump, and you can account for a certain amount of nervous energy in her lyrics and arrangements. Yet also optimism. Lindeman is more than ever convinced that she can make it through whatever the world throws at her.
"I was writing from this perspective of feeling a certain sort of fearlessness despite feeling a lot of fear," she says. "There was a dichotomy of feeling really happy even though I was feeling all these things were happening, and I hadn't resolved all these issues I needed to resolve, you know what I mean?"
The result moves briskly, over tongue-twisting volleys of lyrics. It's her most verbally acrobatic album to date, the most propulsive, and it does confront the issues that concern Lindeman. But, she shrugs, most people may still find it a bit serene. "There's something about the way my voice is that people feel that it's calming," she says. "But I think in a way people feel calmed by my music because I do confront things. I think it's more calming to hear someone sing about ways in which things are screwed up than to hear someone sing about how everything is going to be all right."
The Natural Child Who Ended Up on TV
Lindeman is Canadian, the child of two back-to-the-land types who set up home in a wooded rural enclave near Shelburne, Ontario (and about 75 miles north of Toronto). Though she had a sister, she spent a lot of time alone in the 25 acres of woods around her house, and she was always singing. "I can't remember a time when I didn't sing," she says. "I remember being upset about something and just like going off to the woods and singing. That's how I calmed myself down. So it's a really natural thing for me, and it always has been."
Lindeman joined a youth choir and learned to sing harmonies. "I learned a lot about my voice and my comfort zone in choir. Like I don't have the strongest voice in the world. It's not powerful. That's probably my biggest limitation of my voice," she admits. "I feel like I make up for my lack of power by just singing more, and also I think a lot about expression. There are so many words in these songs, and there are so many different inflections next to each other, and they all mean so many different things. It was just really fun and challenging to learn how to sing these songs. To learn how to breathe, first of all, so that I could sing the songs, and then just to try to let all of the different colors come through."
Later, as an extension of her choir, Lindeman was introduced to a community theater group in Shelburne and acted in several plays. A few of the other kids had agents and got parts on television, so Lindeman decided to give that a try as well. "So I was like, well, I can do that. I can figure it out. Why don't I do that?" she remembers. "Because if you did that, you don't have to go to school. So I started doing that, which was awesome because I hated high school. I started trying to act when I was 13. I acted a lot when I was a teenager."
Going from the woods to the soundstage was a little unsettling, Lindeman says, but she says this combination of isolation and exposure served her well. "I never really felt like I belonged in the television world. It just always felt like this weird dream. It always felt like I had this strange double life," she says. "I didn't tell anyone at school. Like I just would like disappear, and nobody would know where I went. When I came back, then someone figured it out. Like, 'Oh, this girl we never talk to was on TV.' And then like people accepted me. It was very strange."
Becoming a working actor at 13 introduced Lindeman to a community of like-minded people. "I think for any teenager just being able to get out of school and meet actual adults is a positive. In my case, I met all these artists, people who were doing cool stuff, and that was so helpful for me to recognize that there was a world outside of Shelburne, Ontario," she remembers. "I think it became less positive in adulthood when I sort of realized that I didn't want to do it. I just sort of kept at it because it afforded me the ability to make money and be free the rest of the time, which was really awesome."
Lindeman quit acting in her 20s and turned to music, recording The Line, her first album as the Weather Station, in 2009, followed by All of It Was Mine in 2011. Loyalty, in 2015, brought the Weather Station mainstream recognition. PopMatters' John Paul called it, "an exceptionally affecting masterpiece, at once timeless and very much of its time, highly personal in its specificity and universal in its emotional accessibility and resonance."
Strings, 1960s Drums, and Tangles of Words
The Weather Station's latest album is quicker, denser and more agitated than Loyalty, a 1960s Bleecker Street folk aura tempered by clean, modern sophistication. Lindeman says she tapped lots of different music for inspiration, from the bass playing on certain Gordon Lightfoot records to the drumming on late 1960s Dylan. Being Canadian, she admits, a certain amount of Neil Young seeps into everything, and she was also fascinated by the Incredible String Band. And she also drew on a rich, modern day scene in Maritime Canada where artists like Nap Eyes (also on Paradise of Bachelors) and Jon McKiel.
But she also worked to realize sounds she was hearing in her head, strings for one, and a rapid lyricism. "I started writing these songs with these very fast lyrics which I don't even know where that came from, but it just sort of happened and felt super natural and fun and that maybe came from a certain amount of being into people who really mess with phrasing," she says. "Like the way that Kurt Vile sings, for example. The way that he phrases and uses strange pronunciation of words."
For the self-titled record, Lindemen worked with long-time collaborator Ben Whiteley, who plays bass, and Don Kerr, formerly of the Rheostatics and Ron Sexsmith's go-to drummer. Ben Boyes, who plays with Ryley Walker, among others, contributed some keyboards remotely from LA, while Nathan Salsburg played additional guitar. She recorded bass, drums, guitar, and vocals in Montreal with Whiteley and Kerr, then added overdubs ad hoc. Her favorite part, she says, was arranging strings for the first time.
Lindeman wrote the string parts on a MIDI keyboard, then asked Mike Smith, a composer to go over the parts and make sure they made sense, for instance, all the parts had to be within the natural range of the instruments. Smith converted Lindeman's MIDI melodies into a score, and a string quartet arrived at Unions Sounds Studio in Toronto to play them.
"I don't really read or write music very well. So it was just so exciting to finally get to communicate exactly what I wanted," says Lindeman. "I have these ideas in my mind which I then create on the MIDI keyboard and to walk into the studio and hear it played with perfect timing, exactly what I wanted, was so cool. And it's so funny that it had to go through this process of translation, where I had to input these ideas into a computer which were then transcribed by a friend of mine, which were then written into music, which were then played. I don't even like looking at the music. I don't even know what it meant."
In addition to the core trio, Lindeman's friend Ryan Driver played piano throughout; you can hear his imprint on the disc's aching final song, "The Most Dangerous Thing About You", which is as stripped and raw as anything Lindeman has ever done. "We had recorded that song in the sessions for the record, and then I made the last minute decision to rerecord with Ryan. He has this really magical effect to him," she says. "He's the most musical person I know in his timing and the way he plays. He never plays a song the same way twice. He's just magical, and we had him in the studio, and I just, on a whim, invited my bass player to come, and I brought a guitar so we just recorded it live, the three of us and we were like, yeah, that's what song needs to be. So we just did it live."
Another highlight, fleet, breezy "Thirty" pokes at anxieties about growing up -- or not growing up -- reflecting Lindeman's conflicted feelings about work and family life. "I think I started freaking out about turning 30 when I was 27. I was like 'Oh no, I'm not going to have to have children because of fertility issues and I haven't found the right partner. I need to make sure that I can financially support children and all this stuff,'" she recalls. "And then I turned 30 and Loyalty came out, and I was touring and living a very different life, which was amazing, and I was really happy. All these fears that I was feeling when I was 28 disappeared. I haven't really solved any of the problems that I thought I needed to, but I'm fine. There are a lot of things that I care about a lot less than I thought. If I don't give birth the moment I'm 30, I think my life will still be okay. You know?"
The song, "I Kept It All to Myself" for instance beautifully combines quick-footed lyrics with a rich, dense sound. "I wanted this propulsive, fast sound, but I wanted really thick vocals, sort of like the 1960 influence on the vocal sound, and with strings, but then I needed it to be relatively modern sounding," she says. "I always want things to be dark, so I had to take the advice and listen to other people, and does it sound bright enough for you yet, and then once it did, I was like, okay great. It's too bright for me, but I guess that's what people like."
A Certain Amount of Trouble
Lindeman admits that she put a healthy dash of complication and difficulty into her latest album, but she thinks people will respond anyway. "A beautiful song, if you take it apart, if you think about standards from the 1930s, they have such strange chords and such wonderful juxtapositions. They'll put a beautiful sentiment over a very minor chord," she says. "I think it's like having a bit of salt and a bit of sweet together to express something in an unusual way. It's so wonderful when someone can do that right -- a certain amount of trouble."