When cellist Rebecca Foon, BA’00, MUP’07, decided to come to Montreal from Vancouver in 1996, it was because of the city’s vibrant, underground music community – specifically post-rock group Godspeed You! Black Emperor and what would later become the revered Constellation Records scene.
More than two decades later, Foon and her cello have become as inextricably linked to the inimitable Constellation sound as Godspeed themselves, and her myriad projects over the years, from Esmerine to Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, have solidified her place in the pantheon of experimental, thought-provoking composers in Montreal. She has performed alongside musicians ranging from pioneering avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson to Polaris Prize-winning experimental vocalist Tanya Tagaq.
Upon her arrival in Montreal as a 17-year-old, Foon was passionate about both music and the environment, and that hasn’t changed over the years.
Her latest album, Waxing Moon, is her first under her own name, and it’s because it’s her most personal, intimate project yet.
“I’ve always wanted to integrate music and environmental work,” says Foon. “If anything, I’m more hardcore now, but as a teenager I was going in the streets, protesting at logging companies. The climate change conversation was different then, but I’ve always cared deeply about the future of the planet.”
Foon composed the stripped down Waxing Moon on piano – a first for her – because she wanted to get out of her comfort zone by working on an unfamiliar instrument with simple chords. Le Devoir music critic Philippe Renaud describes the record as “superb and solemn.” The online cultural magazine PopMatters says Waxing Moon is “full of hope, beauty, and perseverance.”
“Every day is different, but my fundamental belief is you need to have hope,” says Foon. “If you give up hope, you’re giving up on life. You have to take care of yourself to maintain that ethos. There’s a lot of sadness in the album, because I also believe we shouldn’t hide our emotions, either. Humanity is looking at our own extinction.”
Waxing Moon also looks forward, at what needs to be done to preserve the planet.
“An unenlightened world can’t survive. An enlightened world is the only way forward. A waxing moon grows throughout the month, and the idea behind that is it’s the product of your own awakening,” she says. “Enlightenment will save the day.”
Foon sees Waxing Moon, and music in general, as a spiritual appeal to hearts and minds with the hope of inspiring a transformative change. But Foon is also action-oriented in life, and her career in urban planning has allowed her help guide cities towards a renewable future in a practical, tangible way.
Foon has worked with Sustainability Solutions Group, a planning firm that collaborates with cities, universities and institutions on sustainability projects that address climate change, since 2007. She currently sits on their board.
She says her McGill master’s degree in urban planning “gave me the tools I needed to start working at Sustainability Solutions Group right after graduating, and to begin working with cities and universities on their sustainability plans. A big part of sustainability is visioning, researching and inspiring creative collective thinking, and the program definitely helped me find the foundation to then dive into the world of sustainability consulting.”
Foon is the co-founder of Pathway to Paris, a nonprofit dedicated to turning the commitments made in the Paris Agreement into concrete action, in part by raising awareness about the urgent need to address climate change. Through Pathway to Paris, Foon has been able to combine her artistic and environmental endeavours: last November, Foon and fellow co-founder Jesse Paris Smith played a benefit concert in Argentina with music legend Patti Smith, and afterwards met the Argentinian president-elect. Other Pathway to Paris events have involved Thom Yorke, Joan Baez, Michael Stipe, Martha Wainwright, Naomi Klein, Talib Kweli and others.
“I like being able to show my duality,” says Foon. “I care about action but I also care about spirituality and connecting through art.“
Pathway to Paris supports the 1000 CITIES Initiative, which helps cities achieve their zero emission goals by 2040. 1000 CITIES offers a technical how-to guide to help cities go fossil fuel free, including a matter-of-fact emissions calculator – which amazingly, didn’t exist prior – that states simply how much greenhouse gas a city can emit until they’ve reached their limit.
Although she splits her time between New York and Montreal these days, Foon still finds inspiration in the music scene that drew her to Montreal in the first place. She recorded Waxing Moon at Breakglass Studios in Mile-Ex alongside longtime collaborator and friend Jace Lacek of Besnard Lakes fame. They wrote a track together in the studio that appears on the record, the uncharacteristically rocking “Wide Open Eyes.“ Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Perry helped co-write the song. Foon records always have the feel of a welcome gathering place for Montreal creatives – Patrick Watson guests on the song “Vessels.“
“When I started the album, I didn’t know what was going to come out,” she says. “I knew what was important to me and I wanted to express it, but I didn’t have an agenda. I like letting the magic unfold with art. When it comes to making music and art, whatever you care about and whatever your life experience and ethics, it’s all going to come out.
“Playing the cello is very therapeutic for me, and making music keeps me rooted in health and wellness,” Foon says. “When it comes to making music with a purpose, I can get behind it more often than not because I believe creation is outside of the ego. It’s coming from a spiritual place, and when you tap into that energy with love and compassion, caring about the state of the world and a renewable, vibrant future, even if that’s a utopian fantasy, just believing it in your core and wanting to communicate that through music, it’s easier than making music about yourself.”