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We worry about a lot of things these days—rampant corruption, bigotry, and inequality occupy a good deal more brain space than we would like. Most depressing is that planet-altering climate change may come to end us all as we try to solve all these other crises. It all can feel hopeless and soul-crushing. It nearly was for Marian McLaughlin.
“I asked my friend who studies climate change, ‘What can I do?’ and she told me, ‘It all doesn’t matter. We really need some huge shifts to slow down these gears,’” McLaughlin tells me one evening as we chat sitting on a park bench outside the U.S. Capitol.
“It makes me sad so I wrote songs about it,” she says.
Many of those songs make up the D.C.-area songwriter’s third album, the 18-track long song cycle Lake Accotink, released last month. McLaughlin channels her environmental worries into urgent and emotional songs. “I started writing it as a heartbreak album—like a heartbreak of what is happening to our planet,” she says.
Lake Accotink uses McLaughlin’s heartbreak as a launching point for a full-spectrum survey of environmentalism, from the human flaws that led us astray to a very deep appreciation for nature. It’s a reflection on the crisis itself, of course, but also on the root causes of climate change and on what will be lost on this planet because of it.
McLaughlin grew up near Lake Accotink in Northern Virginia. When winter came, she could see the lake from her house through the bare trees.
“When I go there I feel this deeper connection, a sense of familiarity,” she says, “I thought I would name [the album] Lake Accotink to pay tribute to a place I spent a lot of time.”
Her family would take her to the lake as a child. Her mother would point out the different forms of flora and fauna to her, patiently naming each. McLaughlin shares her mother’s influence throughout the album—some songs are named for very specific plants, and her detailed lyrics act like a catalog of sorts. She explicitly describes one of these trips during the final song, “Of the Lake and Land,” which acts as a kind of historical record as it paints a vivid picture.
These moments might feel exhaustive, but McLaughlin’s earnest joy shades the observations. In conversation, her exuberance for the natural world beams.
“[Nature] fills me with wonder and curiosity and appreciation,” she says. “Even just walking over here, past the Smithsonian, and seeing these pollinator gardens bursting with Monarch butterflies right now. I was like, ‘Wow! This is, like, food for my spirit,’” she exclaims.
McLaughlin puts aside her worry and breathes deeply throughout the record. “Grayson Highlands,” named after a state park along the Appalachian Trail in the southwestern part of Virginia, is a breezy and appreciative tune she sings about seeing things from a different perspective. Her joy is endless because nature is never quite the same. “You could go on the same trail multiple times a week and have a different experience based on the lighting of the trail … what you hear or, if it rained a lot, maybe there’s more mushrooms popped up and you’re like ‘What kind of mushroom is this? I’ve never seen it. There’s like seven different mushrooms I’ve never seen before!’” she says.
McLaughlin first remembers thinking about environmentalism because of her aunt, who was a Sister of Charity.
“Ever since I was a kid, she was trying to make me aware of the beauty of being outside and how we need to take care of it,” she says.
At 13, McLaughlin wrote poems expressing concern for the ways in which the modern world was overwhelming the natural one, especially highways.
“I don’t know what kicked that off. I just remember being in eighth grade and writing poems like that,” she says, “That feeling has never truly left so I’m trying to express it more in a richer form with these songs.”
On a recent trip back to Lake Accotink, McLaughlin noticed that the trails were starting to be paved. That overwhelming feeling crept back in and so she began to sing what would become “Modus Operandi,” one of the album’s most striking admonishments of the cycle of destruction people perpetuate.
“The doe and the buck and their little fawns/ Have run out of luck so they’re mowing our lawns,” she sings, “Then we call out the archer for deer departure/ May his clear precision prevent more collisions.”
Throughout the record, McLaughlin makes it clear that culpability lies with humans. “Open a Window” calls out digital culture for severing our natural connections (“Before the internet lived in my pocket/ Before we all had avatars/ There was an art to telling time”). “Hold the Space” gives a terrifying and tense sound to the confrontation between Water Protectors and police in North Dakota. While much of the album features acoustic strings and winds, for these moments, McLaughlin leans on an electric guitar to channel her anger.
The irony of it all is that Lake Accotink, the catalyst of McLaughlin’s environmental values, is itself man-made. It was built by the Army in 1944 before it was purchased by the Fairfax Park Authority in 1960. The lake is also in danger as water run-off fills it with sediment, something worsened by people and the development that surrounds it.
“I feel like the way to save it is to stop doing everything we do: mowing lawns, driving cars, building homes, expanding the beltway around the lake,” McLaughlin says.
While it wasn’t intentional, it’s a perfect example for the overarching themes of the album: It keeps the album locally rooted, even when McLaughlin is singing about Amazon expanding its empire while “the other Amazon becomes a pyre.”
Her thematic ambition holds steady because of the consistently compelling orchestration and pace. McLaughlin collaborates with Ethan Foote, who wrote the scores to half a dozen songs on Lake Accotink. Her writing process goes something like this: She starts by walking and writing her stream-of-consciousness thoughts, which form the clay to mold into lyrics. McLaughlin’s musical training was heavy on intuition and light on music theory, which gives her writing a natural quality despite the heavy subject matter. Foote matches these intuitions with strings, winds, and sound effects that weave and evolve around McLaughlin’s singing.
“It kind of reminds me of website design,” she says, “I’m doing the front end and he’s showing me the back end, the coding for it.”
The musical themes of Lake Accotink don’t start and stop with each track. Sometimes a song will halt and completely shift directions a couple of times before it’s over. And at other times, themes will stretch across multiple songs. Styles seamlessly shift from quirky baroque chamber folk to tense rock to quiet piano ballads without whiplash. All of the changing colors and tones feel as natural as breathing.
“When I’m outside, engaging with nature, I feel like I’m experiencing something that’s full of truth,” McLaughlin says, “If I’m on a hike, enjoying clouds passing by, observing an insect, listening to bird calls … these observations and interactions nourish my spirit.“
An 18-song long album about environmentalism may get pre-judged as a preachy bore—its themes are indeed serious and urgently stated—but McLaughlin’s Lake Accotink is one of the most ambitious and fulfilling local releases of the year. Give it a chance and it just may nourish your spirit as well.
Marian McLaughlin plays a record release show with Christian Perez on Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. at RhizomeDC, 6950 Maple Ave. NW. $10.
This post has been updated.