Written by Kai Reimer-Watts for Swarm with contributions from the artists, June 2016
Heather and Danton are the creative duo behind the beautifully rich and inspiring 2015 climate album, Decades After Paris (www.DecadesAfterParis.com). They are also a couple, committed to life as both creative collaborators, activists and partners.
Heather and Danton work day jobs for the provincial government in B.C., Canada, in the natural resource sector. Their skills and experience in project management, communications and environmental policy came in handy for their concept album. So too did their proximity to the provincial delegates to the Paris Climate Conference last November, who went to the climate talks armed with their album.
The duo’s music uniquely bridges the common gap between climate science, policy and art. This approach also led to their collaboration and interest in the climate art group Swarm, which strives to build similar bridges. In particular, Heather’s experience becoming known as the “singing bureaucrat”, where she was invited to conferences to sing about climate action, was a key catalyst. For Danton, it was his environmental psychology studies as part of his degree, and the success he experienced with his previous album, Morcenx.
Decades After Paris is the duo’s first “public collaboration.” The album weaves a story of climate activism starting at the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York, continues to the very political Paris Climate Agreement, and imagines decades beyond it. As a climate artist and Swarm member myself, I reached out to Heather and Danton to discuss their album, inspirations and hopes for the future.
Interviewer: What inspired you to translate years of climate activism into a work of art? Why choose music and storytelling as the medium?
Both: We went to New York looking to be re-inspired, and to do something for the movement. Danton went down with his guitar, “looking for music inspiration, sounds, new styles of music, a muse…” Meanwhile, Heather was dressed all in white. She offered markers for people to write on her in answer to the question “what are you hopeful for?” She collected messages from people from all over. “Elizabeth May even wrote on me! It was something meaningful to take home.”
Prior to New York, Danton had already done an album about sustainability, so it seemed like a natural fit to keep going in that direction. Heather was looking for better styles and methods of communication – in her policy work, she’d seen a lot of climate presentations, but felt that “we’re just not going to get there without making people feel.” The need to do something big in response to this moment was clear – but what?
When Danton invited Heather to participate on a new album with him, the two quickly found themselves tiptoeing around both wanting to do a big project together, and the start of a new relationship. They knew they wanted to create a story with a variety of entry points, a “soft landing” into the space of climate discourse – music storytelling that would engage both the rational and emotive sides of its listeners. Danton’s interest in “transformative scenario planning” was one influence on the decision to incorporate conversations in the album that are based in the distant future, where the listener can imagine what it’s like to look back on a changed world in 2030. All this quickly led to the creation of Decades After Paris.
Creating an album that is both beautiful & political isn’t easy… can you speak to your struggle to achieve this balance? Can you think of any moments in the album where both the message of art and of “climate truth” come together most clearly?
Heather: “In the lyrics for Paris Takes The Stage, I imagined I was in a coffee shop on the street in Paris observing what was happening around me. Part of it was thinking about this experience of life and the mess we’re in, then connecting these experiences to the political. Lyrics like “We sip on beers from Belgium…” speak to this distant observing of society. These Eyes may speak to climate truth the best, opening up a space of fear and grief – we knew this was a hard space to ask people to go into.”
Danton: “In Carried Away, I think the lyrics are very nicely blended with music. The song has a sixties “peace and love” or “flower child” feel, whereas These Eyes is dark and somber. We like to think of it as our James Bond tune (laughs). Heather did the fine-tuning of the lyrics, and is magnificent with that – the final lyrics were written in the last week before recording.”
Heather: “It was difficult though. I couldn’t figure out how to move from this happy, hoppy, hopeful space we’d created in the rest of the album into a more intense moment of frustration for These Eyes… Danton knew I needed space to do this, and went out to get dinner. While he was gone I threw pillows around in a tantrum as I struggled, then wrote the lyrics stream of consciousness style. When he came back with dinner, it was done (laughs).”
Give us a picture of the album creation process as a creative couple / team … what was it like? Did you have distinct roles, and any influences or mentors along the way?
Both: From the start, we knew we wanted to write accessible music to reach a broad audience, and so started to explore the appeal and potential of pop. To develop the melodies, Danton rented a piano to explore pop styles and composed most of the music. Heather had written Carried Away with alternate lyrics previously, as well as part of Titans. We really enjoyed writing the riff for the song Titans together at the beach. We laid down the music first before writing the lyrics, which Heather then took the lead on.
Heather: “I’m terrible at remembering band names, song names that influence me – I work more intuitively I guess. Danton picked up on some funk and R&B influences that were channeled into songs such as Techno Junky, which has riffs, for example, with a clear Prince influence. Chants at the march were also a major influence, such as for the song Unstoppable.”
Danton: “Our producer Joby Baker was also a major influence – he played many instruments, and helped with many musical tweaks to craft more finished soundscapes. After the march, we participated in an after-party where a band called Daughter played a song connecting to the war in Syria. The music was timed to reflect bombs dropping, while groups of people saved others from the bombed buildings – for me, this song helped inspire the bridge of our song Twilight.”
Now that Decades After Paris is finished, what do you feel touches people the most about it? What have been some of your favourite moments post-release?
Heather: “The diversity of the album really allows you to pick and choose music that fits a particular mood or day. Ultimately, we wanted to paint a picture that is real, but not so daunting that people will simply shut off – we do want people to feel hopeful after. I was personally really surprised by people’s reactions to These Eyes, which became many people’s favorite – it has heavy-hitting words so I didn’t expect it to be so popular, but in many ways that song is what this is all about.”
Both: One of our favorite moments was the few rallies where we’ve played, with thousands of people chanting “We are unstoppable, another world is possible”. When people come up to us afterwards and say “thank you for writing this,” those are very special moments.
If you could get one politician or influential leader to really listen to your album and absorb its message right now, who would it be and why?
Both: Donald Trump is clearly a lost cause, so he doesn’t count. Instead we thought of Christy Clark, the Premiere of British Columbia, since we both work for the provincial government and so see the effects of her decision-making in a variety of ways. Someone who has such a large influence on our home would feel like a great person to convert. Additionally, BC has been a respected climate leader in the past, given its carbon tax, but we’re now mostly riding our own coattails. Beyond Christy, it would be great to put CDs in Justin Trudeau’s hands, given his international influence.
What are your dreams for the album in the years and decades ahead?
Both: One, that it continues to be that safe space for listeners to better feel and understand this issue, while also leading people to take action. Right now the oil industry is having a huge turnover; even the oil sands are burning with the recent fire in Fort McMurray; Paris is flooding – at these moments we feel music like this can really help to empower.
What is your big hope for the world?
Both: Getting the space to be able to grieve what we had and now have lost – These Eyes really speaks to this. Human migrations, cities burning to the ground are now a reality – we have to take time to grieve this. People in the West sing about how to grieve former lovers, but not the lifestyle or environment they’re losing so much… We need to find the courage with the communities we love to get through this while trusting that it’s not too late.
Heather: “She’s packing up her bags & leaving… it’s time to say goodbye.”