"I remember being around 14 or 15 years old and really for the first time noticed all of this garbage – things like plastic bags and scraps—in the water, and realising what an issue this was becoming," says Cody Simpson. "Ever since, I've tried to stay aware and be conscious of it." With a public profile comprising in excess of 17 million followers across his social media channels, the 23-year-old musician and poet's personal interest in the health of our oceans has transformed into an important role as Ocean Advocate for the UNDP. With the United Nations, Simpson helps to spread awareness of the critical condition of the seas.
"I'm by no means one of the most well-known people in the world but I'm disappointed when I see people that are not really taking advantage of their [public] profile and doing enough to care about these things, because if they did they'd make such an impact," explains Simpson. "You see some people with hundreds of thousands or millions of followers just promoting products and saying this is what you should care about, and you have sixteen-year-olds seeing that and believing that's what they should be interested in. If I have four million followers on Instagram and even just one percent of them identify or resonate with a message then I feel like that's a worthwhile effort [to have] influenced 40,000 people."
Simpson grew up in on the Gold Coast of Australia, and as an avid surfer his connection to the ocean grew naturally. "It's just been a part of my everyday thought cloud ever since I was little," he says. "I've just constantly been around the water; it's the most immediate thing available to me to be able to draw any kind of inspiration from and was one of the first things that I really cared about."
While plastics aren't the most immediate threat to the health of the world's waterways—overfishing, acidification from the warming of the planet are the most destructive—Simpson considers it as a tangible representation of the ocean's fragility at large. "People see it and they can connect with it because they know and use it, and so it helps them to understand what's going on," he says. "I'm part of a generation that's seeing changes to our world firsthand, an actual physical shift in the state of the world, and I've seen plastic [pollution] worsen over the course of my life."
The overwhelming physical evidence of our destruction of the world's environment, and the bleak prospects of our ability to recycle, reduce and revive our way out of it. "There's only so much we can do with our individual choices," admits Simpson. "But if so many people make those choices then at the end of the day, in an economic-driven world the dollar speaks, and if enough people are not buying [harmful products], and are making sustainable choices, then big industry doesn't have a choice to adapt, so I hope enough people start making those positive types of choices."
What are some of those things? When we speak, Simpson was driving through California in an electric car, though he's quick to point out that oftentimes the more eco-friendly alternatives—healthy plant-based meals or indeed electric cars—are not necessarily financially accessible. "I think it comes down to being aware of what actions and activities contribute the most to CO2 and fossil fuels, and obviously the automobile industry and animal agriculture are two big ones," he says. "It's sort of redundant to even mention the objects you choose to use, the single-use stuff, and replacing that with reusable items, because awareness for that is pretty widespread now, although then you do go to some parts of the world or even to places in the US and there's really no effort from people or the industries or the governments."
The ocean seems to have a way of feeding into more of Simpson's life than surfing and his UNDP duties. After a split from his band, Cody Simpson and the Tide, in 2019, he marked a return to solo work with the release of a new single, 'Captain's Dance With The Devil', in April. Last month, he dropped the accompanying video, directed and shot entirely by his girlfriend Miley Cyrus at home during the COVID lockdown.
Released almost in tandem with his debut book of poetry, Prince Neptune, the track marks a departure from the traditional structure of pop songs, with their versus-chorus-bridge composition, and in its wake, a more stream-of-consciousness narrative mode. "I take a lot of inspiration for these kinds of songs from Bob Dylan, who doesn't necessarily write in a conventional sense. It's almost just five verses that are kind of similar but all compartmentalised into different parts of the story, and that's what 'Captain's Dance With The Devil' is for me," he explains. "I've written a lot of music but this genre is newer for me, so to take that step as an artist was nice for me."
Certainly the publication of his poetry—something he's been pursuing since childhood—has helped Simpson to break down the conventional rules of song writing, with the two processes intertwining into an almost singular creative practice. "As a poet you don't really have to abide by any structure or rules, and the poetry I like is very free-form, so I took a lot of inspiration from that, and really this book marks a pivotal shift in my life.
That change is marked too in the Cyrus-directed music video in which Simpson inhabits a series of guises as representative of the protagonist. "I write this song almost as a literal narrative short story, and that's of this captain's struggle with conventional masculinity—which we attempted to portray in our own way—especially at a time when this was much less accepted and people were often vilified, condemned and even killed for attempting to, say, explore gender or be sexually fluid, and for me having never dived into something like that was really interesting and really insightful."
And in Simpson's conviction, along with the amateur, almost voyeuristic style of the videography, it doesn't come across as a clumsy cis-gendered interpretation of gender politics, but something more nuanced. "It's definitely a turn from the music of my younger days into the adult artist I am, and it was a conversation we wanted to have, we wanted to start, with this."
It also marks Simpson and Cyrus' first professional collaboration beyond their personal lives, and Simpson explains it as an extension of their day-to-day creative exchange. "We put the costumes together from our wardrobes, we designed the sets and shot it all in our house, so it was a lesson in improvisation and resourcefulness, but I think even the immense boredom of imposed lockdown can produce unconventional ideas because you want to do something to excite yourself—your brain has more freedom to work in way that it wouldn't otherwise."
Simpson shies away from discussing his plans for a new album, but the new song and music video have his fans across the world buzzing with anticipation, particularly following the cancellation of his nine-city book tour as a result of the pandemic. For now, he's continuing to use his voice to advocate for the health of the oceans. "I'm always super stoked when I see people tagging me on Instagram or on Twitter with things they've done to help reduce their plastic waste, because it might seem minor but if it can catch on in a bigger way how cool would that be," he remarks. "I always say not to destroy what you came to enjoy, which for me is the beach, the ocean, the earth in general. It's something we love and something we need to live, so we've got to do our best to protect it."