In Reference Points, we ask our favourite artists to reveal what inspires them from outside the world of music. This week, we catch up with Welsh indie-rock trio The Joy Formidable to find out about the discovery of a character that would go on to inspire a song on the band’s new album.
There are many stories weaved into our latest album Wolf’s Law. Some are first hand, others are tributes to friends and family. There are daydreams, imagined scenes and then other moments of a much realer nature, that pay homage to figures that have lived a life that has spoken to us. One such song is ‘The Leopard and the Lung’ and the protagonist at its core; Wangari Maathai.
I feel almost guilty that I hadn’t heard about Wangari until January 2012, when a documentary about her life aired on PBS. We were recording in Maine, in a small cabin on the outskirts of Sebago Lake, living the simple life, free of phone signal and Internet with only a handful of TV channels, but thankfully a fully loaded record collection. What does Springsteen sing? “57 Channels, with Nothing on”? Sometimes it feels more like 800 channels, with the grotesque faces of The Real Housewives and Dance Moms staring back at you. This documentary stuck out, a moment of inspiration amongst the bilge.
Wangari Maathai was a feminist, environmentalist and a political activist. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement in 1977, a Kenyan organisation that focuses on conservation and promotes women’s rights through training and growing resources for a more independent way of life. The statistics are pretty incredible, 51 million trees planted since the movement started and over 30,000 women trained in forestry, food processing, bee-keeping, and other trades that help them earn income whilst preserving their land and resources.
Outspoken, brave and pro active, Wangari was starting to ruffle feathers within the Kenyan government and from the late 1980′s she was repeatedly targeted by President Moi’s regime. Evicted, imprisoned, beaten, her reputation maligned and her name on an assassination list and yet she didn’t back down, she fought back, she carried on protesting.
It’s a remarkable tale of courage, more detailed than what I can capture in this short piece, but the overriding sense of it for me, is few people have the heart and the tenacity to stand up to an entire establishment, to completely sacrifice yourself for what you believe in. Many of us will never be tested in this extreme, but it puts your own daily challenges in perspective, makes you question the power of the individual, how we can make a difference.
We wanted to write about her, Wangari – her name means leopard in Kukuya and she called trees the “lungs of the earth”. A truly remarkable woman, a legacy to be so admired, The Leopard and the Lung.
The Joy Formidable’s latest album Wolf’s Law is available now through Atlantic.