Scholar, indigenous activist, writer and musician Leanne Betasomasake Simpson's latest album is a heartfelt cry of outrage about climate change

Theory of Ice: The Music
by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

NOTE There are two separate posts on Theory of Ice.
Part 1 covers the album and Part 2 features the lyrics of its 8 songs

Of Anishanabe heritage, Leanne Betasamosake is an indigenous scholar, novelist, poet, activist and musician (Zahra Siddiqui photo)


A powerful meditation on water as metaphor and the climate crisis

In 1971 indigenous Canadian folk singer Willie Dunn released I Pity the Country – a devastating, calmly delivered indictment of colonialism and anti-indigenous racism in our country. Of mixed Mi’kmaq and Scottish/Irish heritage, Dunn’s commentary remains painfully relevant today.

1971 also marked the birth of prominent indigenous and activist scholar, novelist, poet and musician Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Fifty years on she reprises Dunn’s most famous song and places its message of injustice at the heart of her third album – Theory of Ice – released in March. A scathing protest piece, I Pity the Country reflects the stark tenor of its times. Dunn’s spare, almost casual 60s-style acoustic treatment contrasts with Simpson’s more ominous and musically expansive slowcore-tinged rendition.

The eight titles on Theory of Ice embody the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg Simpson’s deep and essential connection to nature and her grief about our ongoing destruction of the planet. In her role as poet, she looks through a more metaphorical – but no less critical and potent – lens than Dunn.

Developed and workshopped over a period of several years with her band – sister Ansley Simpson plus Tanner Pare and Nick Ferrio – the album emerged as a cry of outrage about the climate crisis.

“I wasn’t aware that the climate crisis was so in my mind,” she told Toronto’s Exclaim! magazine. “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 [song tracks] 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.”

The theme of water was also integral to creating the album. “I thought a lot about water,” she told CBC Radio’s Andrea Warner in an interview last month. “It’s one of those things that’s inside me, and connects me in a really international, kind of global sense, to all of life. So that was the first thing that I really started to think about and to feel and to explore in this record was that deep, deep connection, to live through water… the second thing that really hit me was how transformative water is: how it changes form, from a gas to a liquid to a solid. That was just metaphorically really, really rich, in terms of witnessing those transitions.”

The sound of the album

Listening to Theory of Ice was a slow reveal for me. Simpson’s earnest and sometimes haunting sound isn’t one I’m immediately drawn to. At times, her well-articulated vocals feel a bit removed and lacking emotion despite strong sentiments. But, repeated listens to the album reveal nuanced and layered work. And in her interviews, lectures and storytelling she shows a keen mind as a communicator who creatively marshalls her message through a variety of channels.

“In a sense it’s the lyrics that drove what the record was going to sound like ,” Simpson told Andrea Warner.

“We spent a lot of time work shopping the pieces…and I think it was ultimately me finding my voice in this medium and actually, literally finding my voice and singing on this record, too.”

In her two previous two albums Simpson presents her incisive lyrics mainly as spoken word over music. While her vocals don’t soar in Theory of Ice, the collection is more melodic with songs that are better integrated lyrically and musically.

As she said, lyrics drive the music. Her delivery is often compelling: insistent, intimate and unhurried. Her sometimes innocent-sounding voice is close and hushed.

Simpson has also been developing both the structure of her writing and of the songs. She told Warner she has learned to simplify her language through penning lyrics.

“It’s almost a pulling back for me in the lyrics…in academic writing, and sometimes in fiction writing, and definitely in poetry, the economy of writing is different, and you have lots of space…. but in performance, and in music, I think the language is different, because you’ve got the sonics, and you’ve got these other musicians onstage that are communicating and often taking folks on an emotional journey through sound.”

At the same time, several of the songs on Theory of Ice have been built on indigenous cultural traditions which employ repetition.

“Repetition is really important in terms of story and in terms of song and in terms of seasonal cycles,” she says.

“I think that I use repetition as an esthetic tool in the same way that it’s sort of used culturally, to build and to sort of elevate and to take listeners and to take me into a different realm. I like using those old ancient esthetics and practices and bringing them into the contemporary and bringing them into the space that I’m creating with the audience.”

Awards and nominations

Last month Simpson won the Willie Dunn Award from Canada’s Prism Prize. The award is presented to “a Canadian trailblazer who has demonstrated excellence within the music, music video and/or film production communities.”

Theory of Ice has been shortlisted as one of ten Canadian albums in the running for the annual Polaris Prize.

Her book Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies has been shortlisted for the 2021 Governor General Literary Awards.

~ Kris Klaasen


Theory of Ice is receiving strong reviews. Toronto’s Exclaim! awards it a perfect 10 while veteran Pitchfork writer Grayson Haver Currin gives it an 8.


Leanne Betasamosake Simpson builds a better world on Theory of Ice

By Matt Bobkin / Exclaim!

The Earth is dying. The planet’s temperature is slowly creeping upward, and age-old climate patterns are hurtling wildly out of order. And without governments willing to make radical, immediate change to regulate the multinational corporations who generate most of the world’s greenhouse gasses, it’s easy to imagine that the planet — and all of us who live on it — are on the way to an apocalyptic end.

But Leanne Betasamosake Simpson isn’t going down without a fight. The acclaimed scholar, author and poet has devoted much of her career to utilizing Indigenous teachings in academia, and she works to incorporate many longstanding traditions and philosophies into today’s colonized society, particularly those about respecting the land we live on. Theory of Ice, her third album, transposes her strong narrative voice, honed by her many acclaimed books, lectures and poems, into the core of folk-rock arrangements alternately rapturous and confrontational. Where her previous albums, 2013’s Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories and Songs and 2016’s f(l)ight featured, more often than not, poetry backed by music, Theory of Ice breaks down the barriers completely.

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Theory of Ice

by Grayson Haver Currin / Pitchfork

On an album with the musical charms of British art-rock, the Indigenous writer and scholar uses our connections with water to explore the revolutionary power of community.

Willie Dunn’s 1971 song “I Pity the Country” remains one of North America’s most stirring protest standards. The Indigenous singer and activist canters through a litany of grievances with Canada’s so-called civil society—power-grabbing politicians, money-hungry people, bull-headed police, and all the pollution, subjugation, and suffering that ensue. But Dunn’s philippic is less remarkable for what it lambastes than what it lifts up: the notion that these seemingly mighty folks are the wretched and the woeful, because they’re too busy with themselves to notice there’s an easier way to live. Who wants to be, as Dunn puts it so incisively, “a man who thrives on hate”?

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Fueling resistance with poetry and song

by Jamie Ludwig / Chicago Press Reader

In 1876, the Canadian parliament passed the Indian Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that still dictates how the government interacts with the First Nations bands indigenous to the country and legally defines Indian status and band membership. Though heavily amended over the years, the Indian Act initially included policies that disenfranchised Indigenous women who married outside their band, stripping them and their children of Indian status and restricting their access to native communities and traditional land. In the early 90s, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s grandmother and mother regained their Indian status after the passage of Bill C-31, and Simpson and several other family members followed in 2011 upon the passage of Bill C-3; Simpson’s grandmother had been born in Alderville First Nation, and they all became recognized as off-reserve members of that band. By then, Simpson had become a prominent scholar, poet, and activist of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg people, also known as the Mississauga Ojibwe people, whose territory includes the north shore of Lake Huron (and two Alderville First Nation reserves). Her work, which includes several books, four records, and many academic papers, addresses contemporary Indigenous life and intellectual practices (such as resistance to cultural appropriation and environmental degradation) and describes her quest to reconnect with traditions from which she’d been largely cut off in her youth.

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