For The Record: Scott Helman Writes a Personal Plea For Climate Change

The songwriter reflects on what we can achieve through re-applying beauty to our global crisis.

FOR THE RECORD is an ongoing artist essay series where we invite some of our favourite artists to explore themes on their albums to provide a deeper level of insight into their work. The first instalment of songwriter Scott Helman’s Nonsuch Park (sa) album series was released on September 4. The album includes the devastatingly beautiful “Evergreen,” a pop single that tackles climate change with heart. Inspired by last year’s climate strikes, Helman reflects on his anxieties around the Climate Crisis and what we can learn from the current global pandemic. 

I suppose a picture of an empty San Francisco stadium with its cardboard cut-outs of fans facing an empty field would be the perfect “thousand words” this year had to offer, if not for the added horror of a sky drenched in the red hue of flames. But that picture, tweeted by Sportsnet, rolled over me like water on a canoe paddle. I don’t say that proudly. In fact, it feels shameful to admit. As a climate activist, a sports fan, and human being, the picture is horrible. It looks like the end of the world, or the beginning if we were in an apocalyptic film starring Tom Cruise that had within it a cumulation of the most grotesque messages of our time.

After the release of the first half of my sophomore album, Nonsuch Park, I did what felt unnatural to me; I pulled two sourdough loaves out of the oven, packed my clothes into a bag, turned off my phone, and drove up to Algonquin National Park with my closest friends. We spent three days among the lush and incomprehensible beauty of Ontario’s wildest region. It was a beautiful trip that put a lot of things into perspective. On our second day, we took two canoes on a six-kilometre portage and paddled for two hours through the winding lakes of Algonquin. At a certain bend in the lake, one with outstretched white pines and bulging Tom Thomson-esque rock faces, I found myself humming a melody, only to realize it was a song from my album. It was my favourite line from the song “Evergreen”: “I think I need a change of scene. I think I need to change my life,” and it had a strange relevance after the fact, something songs do often for me.

There have been many personal moments of pain for me during this pandemic: my girlfriend’s mother risking her life to work at the hospital, my aunt contracting COVID after suffering a life-altering brain aneurysm, and waiting two weeks to hug my quarantined brother after his arrival from the UK. Even a brief walk to the corner store can conjure the sadness of our times, the flood of sunken faces breaching the veil of my living room cocoon. I noticed this when I called a friend and could barely hold a conversation without digging through my phone for some temporary social media salvation. I knew I needed a change.

On that canoe, I felt lucky to be alive. I thought back on “Evergreen,” a song about climate change and love, about personal change and hope, and I remembered the day I spent in Toronto with my fans painting a mural, each of them signing a compiled list of climate anxieties titled The Evergreen Manuscript, a document that will be sent to people with considerable political power. I thought about the farmer’s markets and the animal sanctuaries, the electric cars, and the paper straws, the reusable bags, and the tofu, and I could see that we’re trying. 

We are doing what we can. We are fighting and voting and think-tanking and arguing and philosophizing and communicating. But still, the naive elation on a sun-soaked canoe can’t hold for long, and the voice saying “it’s not enough” comes back with a vengeance. It comes back so strong that I’m back on my phone, the conversation around me in the car-ride home melting into background noise while I try to find salvation in the one picture I took of that rock face. Like a kid who thinks he’s Harry Potter trying to make the car in the driveway levitate, I’m trying separately to put myself back in that Ontario landscape.

We stop for food and there are masks and sanitizer with COVID signs and arrows taped to the floor of the restaurant and it all merges. They said we had a break, that this would give us time. They said we’ll pause, we’ll reconsider. They said COVID was a blessing in disguise. Back into my phone, I read a USA TODAY, headline: UN report: Climate change continues ‘unabated’ despite COVID-19 lockdowns. It all feels connected to that picture of San Francisco. It’s like a joke and one that I didn’t want to get. I saw it when I got home from my trip. But a glimmer of sun remained in me and I couldn’t let that feeling of defeat come too near. If it truly is all connected, how have I found salvation in my personal tribulations of this pandemic? Is there a bigger lesson there?

Pandemic is a “world” word, and “world” words (in that they include everything) do a good job of explaining things. But they fail to do more, and they succeed in shrinking the individual down within a baffling expanse of global infinity. The philosophical implication of this linguistic failure is that it detaches us from the issue by removing beauty.

Wearing a mask “for the world” is much less immediately beautiful to me than wearing a mask for my next-door neighbor, my girlfriend’s grandma, or that lovely nurse I met once while on tour in London Ontario; the one who brought her niece to the show and danced to the whole set without pause. Fighting the rising tide of global fascism is much less beautiful to me than fighting for the family down the street whose rent is due and whose landlord is trying to evict. I’m tired of the depersonalization of conflict, of the coarse way that we communicate. I’m sick of only considering the world and not considering my city block. 

I have The Evergreen Manuscript on my studio desk and when I put the finishing touches on the first half of my album it served as a reminder of the great power of beauty in politics, music, and culture. It reminds me that cleaning an ocean is just as beautiful as cleaning a strip of beach, shopping locally, watering my garden, and tending my sourdough starter. We need to stop calling on ourselves to be the victors of everything always, and start calling on ourselves to be the victors of this, today. I think that is why I didn’t choose to fixate on San Francisco. Can this current Global Pandemic be, for me, today, a personal and beautiful journey? It will be hard, but I believe it can be done. And more importantly, I believe it will teach us to learn to face the other massive, unbearably huge, and infinitely complex systemic issue of our times—the Climate Crisis—with the same beauty, personalization, affection, and truth.

Scott Helman’s Nonsuch Park (sa) is available now via Warner Music.