Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and musician based in Peterborough. The Alderville First Nation member released her latest record, Theory of Ice, in March and received significant critical acclaim for it. (Read reviews from Pitchfork and Exclaim.)
On Theory of Ice, Simpson takes a suite of poems about water she had previously written and reinvents them as a collection of intimate folk and pop songs with the help of a number of local musicians.
Simpson’s vocal work on this record alternates between a near-whisper spoken word delivery and soft, but melodic, singing. The thematic through-line of the poetry is water, but this emerges in a variety of ways: water as an object of fascination and wonder, water as a poetic metaphor, and water as a connective force that informs human relationships, to name a few.
Theory of Ice is a beautiful record — but it’s also painful. The climate crisis and violence of colonialism both impact our relationship with water, and so this record is also a witness to human failure.
“The molecules / calculate / the effects of hate,” Simpson sings on track six, “you breakdown / to a less / ordered state.”
Peterborough Currents spoke with Simpson about the record earlier this month.
Peterborough Currents: Firstly, can you tell me how Theory of Ice came together?
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson: So this is my fourth record, and I would say on my second record, f(l)ight, the band started to come together. The core members in this project were Ansley Simpson, my sister, who’s an Anishinaabe singer-songwriter from Toronto, and then Nick Ferrio, from Peterborough.
I brought the lyrics to the project. And I didn’t want the record to sound like poetry or spoken word over music, so we spent a lot of time collaborating in the songwriting phase, to have the lyrics and the vocal work be in conversation with the instruments and the other musicians. That was a beautiful process. It was a pretty beautiful struggle, I think.
PC: Where did that work happen?
LBS: It happened in my backyard [and] on my front porch.
PC: What is it about water that attracts you as an artist? What makes it such a potent source of meaning for you?
LBS: There’s a number of things. Water is critically important in my Anishinaabe culture. It is part of the land, it’s inside our bodies, it’s inside the bodies of all living beings. And there’s a global water cycle that connects all of the living beings on the planet.
So it has this intimacy to it, because our bodies are composed of so much water. It has this connective aspect, because of the droplets, which we’re so painfully aware of with COVID-19, that connect us.
Water also changes form — it goes from a solid to a liquid to vapour. I found that was really artistically generative.
I think living in Peterborough, lakes and rivers are really important in this area. And being Anishinaabe, I’ve always lived and grown up around the Great Lakes, so the Great Lakes are a big influence on me as a human as well.
PC: That’s a poetic, almost cosmic way of thinking about water. But it’s also political, isn’t it? You’ve previously written about how the settler state’s control and management of the Trent Severn Waterway has dispossessed Indigenous people of their territory and livelihoods, for example. How do you reconcile these two ways of thinking about water?
LBS: For me as a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg person who’s from this territory and who’s rooted in this territory, all I’ve ever known are these profound practices within my nation around water.
But at the same time, I was born into 400 years of the violence of colonialism. And so there’s always a pushing back. There’s a refusal, there’s a resistance. There’s struggle that comes with living in an occupied space, where the things that Anishinaabe people value and are the building blocks of our nation and our Anishinaabe life are not valued by the dominant culture. That’s just the reality that I was born into.
In my artistic work, I try to operate from a place of generative refusal, where I’m using that colonial reality and the violence that has been presented to me as inevitable and normal, and then generating an alternative, building a world that’s different and is Anishinaabe, but exists in the present.
PC: Why is it important to do that through art? How does artistic practice help you to visualize that alternative?
LBS: Making things and creative practice is a really important part of dreaming and visioning. But it’s not just just dreaming and visioning. It’s actually building those worlds.
I think a lot of activism and movement building and struggle does that as well. But I think it’s really important to have spaces where you can build the alternative, you can dream alternatives, you can amplify certain aspects of things and generate knowledge in a different way. I think artistic practice can generate that meaning. And I like how that meaning can travel. So it’s not the only tool, but it’s one tool that can be powerful.
PC: You’re an academic, poet and novelist in addition to a musician. Is there anything you can explore or communicate in music that you find more difficult in your other pursuits?
LBS: The performance aspect of music is something I’ve thought a lot about, particularly over the last year, when we haven’t been able to perform. It’s a tremendous responsibility and a tremendous power, to be able to go into a theatre, or a bar, or a venue, and to transform the energy of a collective space through sound and through your presence.
So this idea of connecting to folks in real time in the present in a physical way is something I don’t get so much from academics or from writing.
PC: And is that something you’re hoping to do soon? Will you be touring this record once it’s possible to do so?
LBS: Yeah, it would be wonderful to be able to play this record live. When we were making it, that was one of our goals. And I didn’t think that was going to be such a challenge. So yes, we would love to be able to share this with our audiences for sure.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.