John K. Samson
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John K. Samson’s songwriting was the driving force behind four albums by Canadian indie-rock band The Weakerthans, so it’s no surprise that his prosaic lyrics sit front and center on his first solo full-length, Provincial. Ditching The Weakerthans’ folk-rock amalgam in favor of more delicate, orchestral-rock arrangements, the album collects songs from a pair of EPs and supplements them with a handful of new tunes. True to its title, the album takes listeners on a tour of points both familiar (Winnipeg) and obscure (Riverton and Ninette) as Samson provides slice-of-life glimpses of small-town life. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Samson about his love for geographically isolated cultures and his unabashed leftist political leanings.
The A.V. Club: Why did you decide to do a solo record rather than putting these songs on a new Weakerthans album?
John K. Samson: I had this idea for a specific project where I would do three 7-inches about three locations in the province where I’m from. It started out as something to do while The Weakerthans were touring and not writing. I started working on it and made two 7-inches, and then it kind of snowballed into this bigger project. It just came out as something I thought should be a solo project, and kind of became a bit more ambitious than I thought it would, then became a full-length record. I feel like the project itself dictated the instrumentation. Also, it was just fun to work with a wide variety of musicians. There’s a lot of different musicians on the record.
It was really fun to do. I really enjoyed the research side of it; the writing of the material was really enjoyable to me. I spent some time in libraries and going on car trips to areas I hadn’t really explored before. The whole process was kind of fun, and slow. It was a three-year slow accumulation, and it became what it is now.
AVC: You’ve made research a large part of your songwriting process for several Weakerthans albums, correct?
JKS: Yeah. I had really specific goals for this record. I wanted to write three songs about each location, and try and encapsulate something, some kind of sense of the place I was writing about, and try to cover a historical aspect and a contemporary aspect, and also just a sense of the place itself. I guess it was more actual location research than I’m used to. Going to a place and spending time in a place I don’t know as well as I have in previous records.
AVC: Just to soak up the feel of the area you were going to write songs
JKS: Exactly. Just try to explore the communities and to try to understand what makes them go. I was also interested in small towns and the culture of small towns, and how the culture of small towns is changing so rapidly, I think. It was enjoyable.
AVC: So Provincial is more about writing songs around settings than prior albums that focused a lot on characters?
JKS: Yeah, I guess it’s true. My prior records have all had a Winnipeg theme, and this one does too. There are three songs that are specifically about Winnipeg. I guess this one branches out into the surrounding communities and tries to take their measure as well.
AVC: Why do you think that the culture of these small towns is changing so rapidly?
JKS: I think the culture’s becoming more and more centralized in a way, and focused on major centers. On the other hand, the Internet and the digital age are opening communities that weren’t there before. Videogames are certainly a theme on this record. I don’t play videogames, but I’m really interested in the cultures that seem to rise around them. I have friends who play online and have all these communities online that they’re a part of that just would never exist anywhere else. I kept thinking about how much of both a comfort and an alienating device that must be. There’s so many pros and cons when I think about that kind of community. I think that must be really changing—well, it’s changing everyone’s worlds—but those focused small-town communities, I think it’s a real change. I think there’s something really interesting in the margins, the geographical and the cultural margins. I think places I was trying to explore are really examples of that.
AVC: Do you feel popular culture tries to marginalize that kind of small-town life you’re documenting?
JKS: I think so. The record itself starts out with a quote. There’s an epigraph that’s on the lyric book by Karen Solie, and it goes, “Everything happens here, then nothing for a long, long time.” I think just because there isn’t constant activity in a place, it doesn’t mean that incredibly important and interesting things don’t happen there. The culture’s so driven on immediate events that we sometimes overlook what happens on our own street, in our own house, what happened there 100 years ago, and what happened there last week. Those are things I think sometimes get lost.
AVC: Why do you think that is?
JKS: It’s just the way our brain works. It’s just what I’m interested in. It’s those places and moments that are marginalized, and therefore forgotten.
AVC: You seem to be picking up from where Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp were writing about small-town life in the ’80s. Not many songwriters seem interested in that anymore.
JKS: In my mind, I wanted to—it sounds dumb—I wanted to make a little musical map of these places. It’s really like I could take a map of Manitoba and with scissors, just cut out a circle of this record. I like that idea, that I could make a little musical map of these places. I like the idea that if someone were to want to go for a couple days of driving with me, I could take them to the site of every song, which I thought was fun.
AVC: You’re often described as a literary songwriter. Are there influences from literature that influence your songwriting?
JKS: I’m influenced by music as much as I am literature, I think. I read. I like books and I like poetry. I think of myself as a thwarted short-story writer, so maybe that’s something I invented myself. [Laughs.] Like, I’ve pushed people toward that idea, because I grew up having, and I still have that idea that I’d love to be a fiction writer. That is always what I wanted to do, and could never really figure out how. But I have been able to figure out, I think, how to put a story into a three-minute pop song. That’s what I aspire to.
I’m not saying that’s better or worse than other kinds of writing. That is always what I wanted to do, and it’s also where I came from. The punk-rock scene I learned how to make songs in was all about that idea that you had a certain amount of time to say something in and you shouldn’t waste it. That’s something that is still rooted in my writing that I can’t shake.
AVC: Are you still trying to become a fiction writer?
JKS: Not really, no. I get to spend some time and work on books, because I help run a small publishing house in Winnipeg. I think I exercise that dream in a way, because I get to edit people, and work on books. Maybe someday, I hope to write something that’s worthwhile. For now, I’m focused on songwriting. I love what I do. I’m extremely lucky that I’m able to do it.
AVC: Does working at a publishing house change your perspective on songwriting?
JKS: I wonder. For me, it’s really important to have something else to do. I don’t really see myself as a full-time writer. Although I’m always working on something in my head, I need input from elsewhere. I can’t just sit there and write for eight hours a day, like I know most novelists and prose writers tend to do.
AVC: The publishing house where you work, Arbeiter Ring, is a progressive publisher, and most of your fans know you played bass in the leftist Propagandhi before starting The Weakerthans. Do those political values turn up in your songwriting these days?
JKS: Absolutely. I think my politics are a pretty entrenched part of who I am. It does leech out in the songs. I hope it does. I don’t think I’m really overtly political in my writing as much as some are, but I think the politics are there. They do emerge. I’ve been a political person as long as I can remember. It’s an important part of my work.
AVC: Do you think it’s possible for a songwriter to compartmentalize strong political views to keep them from leeching into his work?
JKS: I don’t think it’s really possible. I don’t think so. I think my politics are really based on the idea of empathy and alienation. Those are the two things I’m always writing about. I think those are really political things.
AVC: Empathy and compassion seem to be core values in all religions, as well.
JKS: I agree. I’m not a religious person, but I grew up in the Lutheran church, a fairly conservative Lutheran church. I think that central point emerged from all of that. It emerges despite all the trappings and horrors of organized politics and organized religion. That kind of kernel, you can’t defeat it. It’s at the center of it all.
AVC: Why do you think right-wing politics and religion have gone hand-in-hand? At their roots, their agendas don’t seem to mesh at all.
JKS: It’s all about power. It’s a very basic thing. If there’s a means to control someone, someone’s going to take advantage of that. These institutions that have so much potential for change and for grace also have these potentials for great evil.
AVC: You’ve said you’re glad to see the major-label foundations of the music industry crumble because it opened up more opportunities for independent artists. Isn’t that an unpopular opinion in your business?
JKS: Maybe it is. Since I’ve started recording music, there’s been an incredible democratization of the means of production. People can make records in their houses now, and they sound incredible. That was just not possible 20 years ago, when I recorded the first record I was on. I think the Internet has this potential, again like those institutions, for a great force of artistic good in the world. That punk-rock ideal, where if you want make something, if you want to express yourself, you should. The means are more readily available to folks than they ever were. It’s an exciting time to be a writer and a musician.
AVC: Is that affecting artistic culture?
JKS: I think so. I can’t even keep up with it, but I get the sense that it does change things, for better and worse, but it’s changing. The role of labels and the role of live shows, I never would have guessed 20 years ago that most musicians would be making their living through performance. That’s really exciting, too, because 20 years ago, I hated performing, and now I love it, so it’s lucky for me.
AVC: Was learning to love performing a process of just getting used to it?
JKS: I think it took me maybe 10 years to get comfortable with the idea of it and get comfortable onstage, just to get confident enough. Luckily, people were patient with me. Audiences and musicians I worked with were all patient with me and let me grow up and figure it out at my own speed.
AC: Most of your career has been at your own speed.
JKS: That is true. That is something I’ve come to terms with as well. I have other things that I do in my life. I like input from other sources. I figured out that I can’t just be a writer. I have to do other things. I’d love to be a full-time writer, but I don’t think I can. It takes me a long time.
AVC: Did the changes in the music industry that you talked about give you the freedom to work at that pace?
JKS: Definitely. If it was a record-sales-based industry, maybe I would have more trouble, because I would have less to give. I hadn’t actually thought about that, but it’s totally true. I like to work [on my songs], and I like to take my time. I want to make sure it’s something I want to show the world.
AVC: The concept of a record’s permanence is getting lost to the immediacy that comes from Internet-based culture.
JKS: That’s one of the drawbacks of the Internet age, that you can write and record a song and have people listening to it in 45 minutes, from the start of the process to the end. For me, I like a song to grow up a little bit before it goes off into the world.