The Weather Station: The Camp Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Portraits of moments — of stillness and space, and of relationships and roads traveled.
File next to: Will Oldham, Bahamas, Joni Mitchell
Playing: Camp Wavelength, Sunday August 30 at Artscape Gibraltar Point (Toronto Island)
Get your ticket here!

“…for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must — and this is all that is necessary — start recounting it.” (Sartre, Nausea)

Over three albums as The Weather Station, Tamara Lindeman has been honing her vision, stripping away the inessentials to find moments of truth. Working with folk music forms, she creates songs that can be appreciated for their musical beauty, but contain layers of meaning that unfold themselves with patient contemplation. For her previous album (2011’s All of It Was Mine) Lindeman had to strip her songs to their barest core to find her voice; the new Loyalty sees her joined by a band, finding new ways to frame the space and stillness her observations require. Joe Strutt sat down with Tamara Lindeman on her porch to eat watermelon and talk about the specific truth of moments, band dynamics and what it takes to be revealing on stage and in life.

How is it going? Are you dizzy from travelling?

Good! A little bit, yeah, I just got home. I think I feel pretty darn good for going on tour for so long. Great Lake Swimmers had a tour bus, so there was just that much less driving, and that much more sleeping, and that’s really nice.

How far did you go?

We did the whole western half of the country, basically. I did my release shows here, then I met them in Thunder Bay and we went across to Vancouver, and then down to California, and then across Arizona and Texas and back up. So it was a lot of long drives. So it was nice not to have to drive — you just go to sleep in the bus, in your little bunk, which is really nice. It’s weird to sleep on a moving vehicle, but…

Did that give you a bit of that “rock star bubble,” where you just wake up in a new place every day?

Yeah, totally! That was a thing I found strange, because I’m so used to being really aware of where I am. I really like maps and navigating. The impact of being in Arizona or California was lessened. You wake up somewhere — “Oh, I’m here now! This is a cool place.” But you don’t have any sense of where you are, how far you’ve traveled.

Back on home turf, I was thinking about the first time I saw you on the Island, at the 2011 ALL CAPS! Decompression Show…

And it was, like, rained out, and there was no amplification…

… and you played in the rec room. Because of the thunderstorm there were maybe a dozen people there. You could hear birds singing through the window. That was a pretty excellent way to hear it.

I remember that fairly clearly, ’cause I was terrified. Well, I wasn’t terrified — it was such a strange day.

I was thinking about all the times I’ve seen you live, and because of the circumstances, and I think more times than not it’s just been you playing in a very stripped-down way. So now, when you’re playing with the band, and you’re playing at bigger places, how does that change the dynamic of what you’re doing as a performer?

Well, it took a long time to feel like it was possible to play with a band and have it work. I feel like the music is in the lyrics, in the subtlety — it needs silence and space. I got used to playing music at the Tranzac, and places like that, where quiet is something you could count on, and now, that’s not often the case. But I’d always relied on silence, so I’d go up there with my little tiny guitar, and I’d quiet big bars because I was so quiet. [laughs] So, now that I have a band … it just took the right people and the right group of songs to feel that it maintained that delicacy and subtlety but was also powerful and loud. It’s very different, and I feel much more powerful on stage, which is really exciting.

How do you mean powerful?

I’ve been playing electric guitar, which is, by nature, loud. You barely touch it, and you have this huge sound. And I have these other people too. [pause] It just feels powerful, I guess. It’s nice to be the opposite of what I was, but still maintain the space in the music and the silences.

I guess the flipside of that is you’re wielding this power now while you’re bringing these songs that are often so small and close. Did you have to sit down and think about how you’re arranging them to get them across without spoiling that closeness?

Not really. Strangely, most of the live arrangement is the same as on the record — there’s almost less going on. The only difference is I’m playing electric guitar instead of acoustic from sheer necessity. We have pedal steel as well, but the steel fills in the spaces that are already filled by other things on the record, so it isn’t really a huge difference in arrangement. Certainly we have thought about dynamics a lot, keeping the space in there. But to me, this batch of songs has as much expanse and distance in it as closeness, and that was important to attempt to create some sense of… I feel like I should be adding three-minute solos at the end of every song…

I’m sure that’ll come.

Yeah! Look out! [laughs]

Especially with the band you have now. Maybe you should catch us up on who you’re playing with and how it all came together.

Adrian Cook plays pedal steel and keys. He has an approach to pedal steel that I really appreciate — using it as a pad and sonic texture as well as a lead instrument. Ben Whiteley plays bass. He’s an excellent player and human and really drew us together as a band. He’s so good at making things happen — he’s a force!

Ian Kehoe plays drums when he’s around. He’s the most sensitive, thoughtful drummer I know. He’s touring these days so sometimes we have guest drummers, like D. Alex Meeks [of Hooded Fang], or Afie Jurvanen [of Bahamas] for the occasional show, which is something special.

And then for hometown/festival shows, we have Ivy Mairi and Misha Bower, or sometimes Carleigh Aikins, or Isla Craig, or Felicity Williams. It’s a dream come true, no matter who’s singing. The female vocal harmonies are a deep thing for me, so important.

I’d been playing with various band iterations with these people for a while. But it really gelled after I made the record, with the new songs. We played at the Horseshoe for the YCR [You’ve Changed Records] fifth anniversary, actually with Afie on drums that night, and that was the night where it felt like it became a band, not just a collection of people, playing.

The songs you’re writing now don’t have that textbook song structure: verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus.

I think I just follow… I’m not really sure what I follow in my songs. Just as long as the song is interesting to me, I don’t think that much about structure, I guess.

Did you more, before?

No… on my very first record, most of the songs were verse-verse-verse-verse, no chorus. [laughs] But on that record I just wasn’t thinking about songwriting at all as a craft. I was mostly thinking about the way it sounded, and then the inevitable, “Well, I should probably sing something on top of this.” And then, as time went on, songwriting became more important. I edit a lot, and I think mostly about the words. The song happens as it happens.

I think the first couple times I sat down with the album I felt this moment where, if I didn’t immediately grab onto the song, if I got distracted or gazed away, the words of the song could sort of go right past me. And until I went back to dig into the words, it was just this superficially lovely thing.

Totally, yeah.

So do you worry — especially if you’re in front of a crowd of people, can you get this song…

…Across? Yeah, I do think about that. I just find it depends on the audience. If you’re playing in, say, Eugene, Oregon, chances are people are going to be like, “Oh, you have such a nice voice!” And buy the CD and go home. There’s only so much I can do, to communicate what I’m doing, especially alone. But in a crowd of 100 people there’s always a couple people who really get it, which is all I need, really. Or in Montreal, Toronto, places where people know the records, it’s very different.

I mean, I just try to be present with what’s happening in the show, which is a lot harder than it seems. It’s very easy to be anxious or have other feelings and not be present, and I just try to take whatever I’m feeling at the time, or whatever’s happening, and put it into the show in a way that makes it feel meaningful in the moment. I know most of the audience isn’t gonna pick up on the lyrics. A lot of people just don’t listen to them, and a lot of the audience isn’t going to pick up on the double meanings and things, which I can’t really control. So I just try to be thoughtful and… alive when I’m performing, which is hard. It is a hard thing, I think about it a lot.

Because all the reviews — I try not to read the reviews but you see things, or people interview you and say things like, “Your record is so quiet and mellow.” And I’m like, “Really?” In my mind it’s not quiet or mellow, at all. It’s definitely really beautiful, which was a conscious choice. But I think there is totally this thing, where if you’re a woman and you have a nice voice and you write nice melodies, people see it in a certain way: “Oh, it’s so gentle and soothing!” I don’t know. I did make the choice to make accessible music. My desire was to make something that worked on two levels: was easy to listen to, was a good musical companion, but also had a lot to give, if you took the time with it.

Speaking about being present in the moment, I think a lot of the songs are about that idea of being in a moment. It’s not a narrative, even if you’re talking about driving or being in a place, it’s more like a postcard, a snapshot, than a story. Are you thinking about that: fixing an instant rather than telling a whole story?

I am really cognizant of that, actually. I’m really sensitive about what I’m saying, and about truthfulness and honesty. And I feel very allergic to singing things — or saying things — that I don’t believe. Even when I’ve written a song and a few months have gone by, and I don’t know if that’s 100 per cent how I feel or what happened, the next time I sing it, I feel like a fraud. So over time I’ve learned to be more and more specific. Writing the moment is much more precise and truthful, to me, than writing a narrative story. Stories are so problematic: even in life, they’re a construction, and they’re not always true. I guess it’s sort of just the way I see life and the world. I think this record is very representative of the way I see things.

Is this just particular to your way of working right now? Do you think five years from now you’d still think, I have to sing a song about…

…This one little thing? Yeah, I don’t know. I can’t really picture myself changing, because it feels like it took a long time to get to a place of confidence that this was a way to view the world and to write. I mean, I really like a lot of genre music. For a long time, I wanted to be able to write genre songs, and I just never could. [laughs] I respect when other people have a lot of pageantry and presentation in what they do. But I just can’t do that. And I think it’s because I worked a lot as an actor that I just feel very allergic to representing this… fantasy. The record is really a lot about fantasy — getting to the other side of fantasies that I’ve had or have been projected onto me. As a person with a strong imagination, I tend to live in a bit of a dreamworld, and I feel as a result I’m really drawn to being concrete or straightforward.

I hope that I change as a musician, but I don’t know that aspect will change, particularly.

Despite all the craft and editing that goes into the songs, do you ever have a moment where you wonder if people will just think you’re reciting your diaries or stuff like that?

Definitely. Especially to that whole “confessional singer-songwriter” thing — I do cringe when people say it’s diaristic or confessional. I mean, definitely yes, it is — but it isn’t. Ninety-nine per cent of what I could have said of it is left out. I spend so much time editing.

So, you don’t feel you’re being unduly revealing?

No, not this time. The last couple times I’ve made a record I always have this moment — when you finish it and you send it off and it’s too late to change it, and you go, “Oh my god!” and you feel ashamed, because you’ve revealed something… in public. I think in the past I used to feel a lot of shame over this, and it would manifest itself in me being very controlling about other aspects of what I was doing, in sheer terror of having revealed too much. I mean, I feel that shame all the time — writing an email, having a deep talk with a friend, after an interview… But this was the first time I made a record, felt that shame and terror, and just embraced it, on some level, was proud of it.

Do you feel like as you grow up — in the sense that we’re all still growing up — that to reveal stuff about yourself feels better than to not reveal stuff about yourself?

Totally. Absolutely. And that’s what a lot of the songs are about. I recognize that I’m an emotional, somewhat dark person. And that’s fine. I think it’s powerful, too. I mean, when I see someone on stage who presents with a lot of pageantry and performance, it’s beautiful. It’s like they have this freakishness that they need to release, and when you see them on stage, you feel the sense of release yourself. And I think, perhaps, that the draw of a really personal songwriting is the same thing: Where you might not be able to express highly personal things yourself, but you can watch someone else doing it. Though on some level, my songs are still very guarded — I leave almost everything out.

For me, growing up, I held in everything. And it just takes so much time and getting over yourself to realize that letting something go that you thought was outrageous wasn’t all that outrageous. I think that’s a learning-to-survive kind of thing and realizing how un-special your emotions are. If you held all of that stuff in forever you’d just explode.

Totally. And at a certain point you have more to gain from being honest and allowing yourself to be yourself than not.

Do you ever worry as you learn to let stuff go and become more secure about things in your life you’ll have less grist for the mill to write songs about? Or do you think you’ll always have enough problems to keep going — not that songs have to be about problems.

I find the opposite is happening. There are always more things to write about. I constantly see things I want to write about. And I’m just more interested in writing about other people — I did a lot on this record. Even writing about other people from my personal perspective — you don’t have to assume a character to write about other people. It’s more just a matter of time and creative energy than lack of stuff to write about.

Thanks so much for your time. I’m looking forward to hearing you on the island — I wonder if we’ll be able to hear the birds singing in the background again!

The Weather Station plays Camp Wavelength Sunday, August 30 at Artscape Gibraltar Point (Toronto Island). Get your single day tickets here! Or better yet, join us for the whole weekend and get a Festival Pass!