Welcome, New Readers

The Tar Sands Song Book is a documentary music project about our relationships to oil. 

I was born in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada in 1970. That makes me roughly the same age as the industrial development of northern Alberta's oilsands: a project that, in my lifetime, has grown from a remote northern mining operation to what many have called the largest and most destructive industrial project on earth.

By dint of geography and personal history, I have a complicated relationship to oil. Growing up in Alberta in the 1970s and 1980s, oil was everywhere. My growing awareness of the environmental costs of oil shaped my decision, at age 14, to become a professional musician. Music, I reasoned, would be like water to oil—ubiquitous, essential and un-mixable. But oil is also what afforded me the opportunity to make that choice.

Oil is a vast and complex issue. It flows, largely unseen, into every aspect of our lives. For years, I let the divide between "oil" and "music" stand: it was a neat division that insulated me from complicated changes taking place in the world. 

But when recent events put Fort McMurray at the center of international debates over energy and the environment, it brought my gaze back to my own history, and to a closer examination of my old divide between music and oil. 

If you want to figure out how the world works, your own life is as good a starting point as any. So this summer, with the support of a grant from The New School's Tishman Environment and Design Center, I'm going back to Alberta. For a month, I'll spend time with people whose lives, like mine, have been shaped by living close to oil. Their stories, and mine, will inspire a new body of musical compositions and a documentary theater play that examine our complex personal relationships with oil. 

There isn't any good label to describe what I'm doing. It's part music composition, part design, part enthnography and part theater. 

"Tar Sands" or "Oil Sands"?

When I was a kid, the "tar sands" were just the "tar sands". It's what I remember everybody calling them: industry, government, media, and ordinary people alike. 

It was only after I started this project that I learned that the terms "tar sands" and "oil sands" carry specific political gravity. Industry, research and government favors the term "oil sands", while those who are openly opposed to industry tend to use the term "tar sands". 

According to this report by the Pembina Institute, the term "oil sands" came into use in the mid-1990s, as part of a deliberate strategy to improve public perception of Alberta's oil operations. I can see why the change came about: "tar" sounds dangerous: black, sticky, heavy. "Oil" sounds neutral: useful, natural.

When I started this project, I thought these two three-letter words were interchangeable: but I'm learning that one's choice (tar, or oil) can serve to communicate one's location in a complex array of issues, interests and communities. 

Words have weight, and memories have meaning. It's not without some discomfort that I've decided to keep the "Tar Sands" in my project name. It's partly out of fidelity to the location of my childhood memory: it's a clue to a story that I'm trying to hear.  It's partly out of my stubborn conviction that we must keep trying to learn and tell our stories, even when all we have to go on is a three-letter word.