Sarah Harmer at the Inn of Olde, photo by Zach Bonnell Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Do As I Do, Not As I Sing

For Sarah Harmer, Jack Johnson and other green-hearted musicians, actions are proving louder than words.

IN THE MID-1990s, a Melbourne band called TISM roared up Australia’s alternative-music charts.

IN THE MID-1990s, a Melbourne band called TISM roared up Australia’s alternative-music charts. The band members were obstinately anonymous – rumoured to be high school teachers, they wore full-face balaclavas through even the hottest summer tours – but the call to arms on their track “Garbage” was anything but secret.

Do you want to save the world? Don’t recycle!

The catchy refrain wasn’t about separating glass from plastic, though. The band was pleading, oh-so-provocatively, against the recycling of old ideas.

Fifteen years later, at the nexus of environmentalism and music, that sentiment has taken firm root. Eschewing the lyric-based protests and paeans of earlier generations, green-hearted musicians are using their actions to inspire change. Heed what I do, they urge, not what I sing.

This approach can most clearly be seen at concerts and music festivals. In mid-song banter, bands will urge people to recycle. The grassy knolls at summer festivals now often house volunteer action centres and environment-information booths. Car-poolers get priority parking spaces. Water fountains are installed so that people can fill their own bottles.

The environmental message is being purposely dissociated from the medium. Musicians say this protects artistic integrity. Continually writing songs about the environment can undermine both the intended message and its potential impact, they say. For the industry, the split helps avoid the label of greenwashing. By improving the industry’s environmental record, musicians can use their public platform to spread the good word without being labelled hypocrites.

It’s an important division, says Jérôme Dupras, who plays bass in the cult Quebecois band Les Cowboys Fringants (The Frisky Cowboys). The band has released half a dozen overtly environmental songs in its 16 years, but has held back from writing more for fear of diluting the subject. “We felt that, in a way, we have already written our environmental songs, we have sung them,” Dupras says.

So, five years ago, the band members took what they saw as the next logical step: They established The Frisky Cowboys Foundation. One dollar per concert ticket and album sold, along with funds raised by the band, is used to launch conservation projects in at-risk areas, conduct tree plantings and fund scientific research.

“Just because you are aware and sensitive to an issue does not mean that you will write music about it,” Dupras says. “I know lots of artists that, without addressing it directly in their lyrics, are truly concerned, and they do involve themselves in their own way. They do benefit shows, fundraising … I’d say that for young artists, it’s heading more and more in that direction.”

Few bands currently make their name by singing about environmental issues. Probably the best known exceptions are Gojira – a death-metal band from France that has a Sea Shepherd vessel named after it – and, locally, Canada’s Bruce Cockburn and Sarah Harmer, who proudly wears her Niagara Escarpment-loving heart on her sleeve both in her music and as a co-founder of PERL (Protecting Escarpment Rural Land).

Instead, those recognized by the industry today as leaders – Neil Young, Pearl Jam, The Roots, The Dave Matthews Band, Jack Johnson – are focusing on greening their tours and lessening the environmental impact of their production practices.

A growing number of high-profile bands in Canada and abroad are doing the same. When Canadian rapper Drake embarked on his first solo US tour in April 2010, it was an openly environmental affair. As part of a larger program, he played at 15 colleges for the 5th Annual Campus Consciousness tour, which was promoted as a “half rock, half environmental campaign.” Joining him were fellow Canucks rapper K-OS and synth-pop queen Lights.

On an even more tangible note, bicycle-only tours are becoming something of a fad. Canadian “folk-pop troubadour” Jeremy Fisher has done three tours across Canada by bike and last summer bike-toured BC with The Malahat Revue, while Toronto’s Mr. Something Something asks fans to ride bicycles to power the quintet’s concerts. It’s all part of an effort to inspire change without ramming the message down the audience’s ear canals.

For environmental groups, this is actually more likely to win people to the cause. When Mark Mattson and Krysten Tully founded Lake Ontario Waterkeeper ten years ago, they knew they had to build a strong community of supporters. It soon became apparent that the people who most quickly understood their concerns and heeded their message were musicians and artists. “It was a natural relationship,” Mattson says.

Together, they developed the Swim Drink Fish Music Club, “an online music and audio experience” that brings together artists, activists and citizens. For $9.99 a year, members access the music catalogue, new tunes, information and spoken-word pieces.

Some of the songs at Swim Drink Fish are environmental. Some are about water. But most are not, and that’s fine with Mattson. In his opinion, a good environmental song is universal and emotional. It doesn’t necessarily have to be educational to help the cause. A decade on, the relationship has been so successful that Swim Drink Fish is viewed throughout North America as a model of effective community building. “The arts are 100 per cent essential to us to attract people of interest and curiosity,” Mattson says. “It’s a whole new voice, a whole new audience. These are amazing gifts to the environmental movement.”

This fission of lyric and message doesn’t mean musicians are abnegating their power to make real change. In an essay penned for the 2009 British Council report Long Horizons: An exploration of art and climate change, Scottish musician KT Tunstall asked if artists have a responsibility to communicate their feelings on important issues.

“After all, here I am, on stage in a room full of grinning people who feel connected to each other, open,” she wrote. “Yes, I feel I have a responsibility to get involved and push for change.” An artist has a voice, she added, but they wield other broader, more complex influences that come across through their attitudes and behaviour. “The integrity of an artist is communicated by combining words with deeds, style with content.”

Environmentalists are exploiting this broad confluence of impacts in green music’s current guise. Reverb, a Maine-based non-profit group that designs environmentally friendly music tours, has had requests for assistance skyrocket since its 2004 launch. In 2010, the organization greened 20 major music tours across North America, and many smaller events.

When it comes to converting music appeal into environmental action, Reverb general manager Brian Allenby believes simple and direct works best, like projecting green messages onto jumbo-screens. “I would much rather any day of the week that Dave Matthews get up and say ‘there’s some good stuff happening here, go check it out’ than sing a song about it,” Allenby says. “That’s so much more impactful for our fans than a line in a song.”

Those extra-musical messages carry more weight if musicians can show their own green credentials before asking fans to follow suit. “Fans are becoming more cautious of greenwashing and trying to take advantage of the environmental movement. You need to be doing good yourself,” Allenby said.

Hawaii’s Jack Johnson has gone further than other performers in harnessing his music as a base for social action. The former surfer has long drawn on the natural world for inspiration, but had trouble reconciling his environmental beliefs with the impact of touring and music production. So in 2008, he and wife Kim launched the All At Once Foundation, a social-action network that connects music fans with non-profit groups and environmental causes.

The organization ties the act of being a music lover to the potential for environmentalism. It has met huge success with Johnson’s fans. The 220 non-profit groups that partnered with his 2010 tour gained 3680 new members and were put in touch with just short of 15,000 interested volunteers. Concert-goers poured almost 25,000 litres of filtered water into reusable bottles, offset over 800,000 kilograms of carbon emissions and car-pooled.

When going on tour, Johnson doesn’t call for fluffy white towels and green M&Ms. He issues a nine-page Enviro-Rider that describes his demands: sustainable waste management practices, water-efficient showers backstage, compact fluorescent light bulbs throughout the building and more. If the venue doesn’t follow through on its green promises, the promoter is required to donate $500 to an environmental organization.

Meanwhile, the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation donated $525,000 to its non-profit partners, and raised another $700,000 through a donation-matching program. (Johnson also records in a solar-powered studio, and chooses responsible CD production and packaging.)

Yet when Johnson sits down to write a song, he doesn’t set out to send a green message. “It’s a very creative process,” says his wife Kim. “Once he has an idea, he puts in what he’s been thinking lately.” Environmental messages might slip in, but it’s not by design. Anything forced could actually lose fans. “People like their musicians because they’re talking about all kinds of things.”

In the end, she says, people like to be motivated, not directed. “I don’t think people like to be spoon-fed things. They want to be part of a movement. They need to buy in because they believe in it. That doesn’t come from one song.”

As always, though, the times are a’changin’, so the current dearth of green anthems might not last much longer. In the last year and a half, a growing number of smaller bands have sent Reverb explicitly environmental songs, but they are taking their cues from societal trends rather than activism.

Folk singers, those rebels of the 1960s and 1970s, had to be overt because their message was new. Then big musicians switched the focus to their actions because they needed to make sure that their message was true. The next crop, Reverb’s Allenby expects, will combine the two. Instead of creating music from a place of activism, or focusing on ensuring the off-stage legitimacy of their message, musicians will weave environmentalism into their work as they do for other significant issues. The change is one of maturation: Instead of seeing environmentalism as a message or a challenge, Allenby believes it’s going to become a part of mainstream musical discourse.

“The environmental movement has become such a popular phenomenon generally,” he says. Just as it’s popular now for people to sing about what car they drive, he expects future artists will integrate environmentalism into their work because it’s integral to their lives and the lives of their listeners.

After some time in the proverbial wilderness, environmentalism could be making its musical return not as a cause begging for attention, but as a part of popular life. Still, as this green change percolates through the industry, musicians are quick to point out the one eternal truth about their craft: If it ain’t good, no one’s going to listen.

“You have to be careful before taking on a topic, even a broad one, because if it’s badly done, it’ll have no impact at all,” Les Cowboys’ Dupras warns. “To write a song with that kind of message, and for it to be a song that flows and is cool, is easier said than done.”

Join SwimDrinkFishMusic.com to hear new song releases, podcasts and the music archive.

Tenille Bonoguore is a former managing editor for Alternatives Journal. She grew up Down Under singing “Rip Rip Woodchip” by John Williamson.