Winter Dies The Same Way

An interview with John K. Samson

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words by tom johnson

photography by cory penner

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“And I don’t mean to miss the good old days,

the good old days were mostly bad.”

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The above lines, taken from the opening track on John K Samson’s beautiful new record, Winter Wheat, do more to surmise my own relationship with both Samson, and his band The Weakerthans, than anything I could lay down on a page. Releasing four albums in the ten years between 1997 and 2007, the Winnipeg collective, through Samson’s unrivalled poetic vision, probably got as close as is possible for a cult band to join the big league, always dangling on the coat-tails of a full-blown crossover in to the mainstream, while never quite getting there. Hugely influential on both their local and national scene, The Weakerthans have never followed-up 2007’s ‘Reunion Tour’ LP and there’s been little to suggest that such a thing will ever happen. Despite this, Samson has continued working under his own name, often with members of said band in tow, and his latest record, released last week via the ANTI label, might well be his most wholesome effort yet; a fifteen-track collection that touches upon many of the themes that have flowed through his wonderfully prosaic work with perhaps more mystery, intrigue, and endearment than ever before.

Revisiting my initial point, The Weakerthans were a band that always reminded me, somewhat crushingly, of a place that never existed, or lives I never lived but missed all the same. Samson’s has a way with words that is strikingly potent; drifting between poetic meanders and plain-stated lyrics that can prickle senses and memories you thought were laid dormant for good. There’s a line on a track called “This Is A Fire Door Never Leave Open“, from 2000’s “Left & Leaving” LP, where Samson sings “I still hear trains at night, when the wind is right…I remember everything“, and I can still recall where I was the exact moment I first heard them and, more notably, the effect they had. They made me miss those same trains I’d never heard; made me pine for the house I listened to them from that never actually existed in my own world. I could see it, smell it even, and yet it wasn’t ever there.

Song lyrics are often a skeleton key for unsettled lives, memories, aspirations, but something in Samson’s writing made everything hit a little harder, delve a little deeper. I hear those songs now and I instantly feel myself sliding in to nostalgia for who I was and where I was when I first leapt in to those songs like embracing arms of youthful desire. I miss the streets I knew so well, I miss the people I hoped to avoid while walking them, despite my move away from such things being the most important thing in my life so far. That’s the kind of song-writer that John K Samson is, one that doesn’t just invite you in to his world but lends his own to you.

Now in his forties, Samson still resides in Winnipeg, with his long-term partner, and fellow singer-songwriter, Christine Fellows, and Winter Wheat finds him exploring paths both well-trodden and untouched. In early interviews – mostly always conducted via postcard correspondence – Samson spoke of his desire to write more ambiguously (especially following his previous, and decidedly Winnipeg-centred, ‘Provincial‘ LP) and while that might be the case from a constructive viewpoint, the resulting record is something markedly endearing.

Pertinently shaped by Samson’s love for Neil Young’s ‘On The Beach’ LP, and with the theme of redemption at its core – which even sees the return of Virtute the cat, a feline character that has peppered his songwriting for nearly two-decades – Winter Wheat comfortably sits alongside Samson’s finest work; the sound of maturation that grows more keenly focused, aware, and inquisitive with each passing season.

In something of a rare phone conversation, GoldFlakePaint spoke to Samson about the record’s origins, the avenues he wanted to explore, the weirdness of technology, and where Winter Wheat both leaves and finds him. Delivered here as a full transcript, the resulting conversation is a suitably sprawling aside to the new record which you can also stream in full just below as a companion. Make a lot of time for it, and check out the full interview below…

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Album Stream:

You’ve done most of your interviews this year via postcard. Did you enjoy that process?

Yeah I did that with a few journalists, it was kind of nice to have a really slow conversation with people again. I’m actually still writing postcards with one of those people, so it’s kind of nice…it reminds me of the olden times. It was a big part of my teenage life, actually, and feels like something that’s almost been completely lost these days.

‘Winter Wheat’ is out in the world this week. Could you tell us a little bit about its origins and how it came to be?

I had the title a long time before I had any songs. I was driving around southern Manitoba, where I’m from, and I saw an add for “winter wheat”, which is a crop, and I just thought it was a beautiful combination of words. So I did some research and discovered this really metaphorically-rich crop; one that is planted in the fall and then sprouts and goes dormant during the winter, under the snow, and then rises again in the spring.

So it was interesting, it reminded me of a lot of things I was going through in my life, and in my writing life, and also just the themes that have always run through my writing; the idea of recovery. So that was where the idea came from and then the songs emerged slowly, in little bursts, and actually a lot of the songs were commissioned by other projects. Two of them are for films that my friend Erica made and five of them were or a project about Neil Young that I worked on. Then I started filling in the holes and that’s how the record came about. It took about four years, which is how long it seems to take me these days.

I read an interview with you from last year that labeled you as being “defiantly Winnipeg” – do you feel that way?

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I think that is accurate actually! I feel like I am. I don’t consider myself a Canadian writer, I consider myself a Winnipeg writer, so that’s another way that I feel even more rooted here.

Why don’t you consider yourself a “Canadian writer“?

I think I feel like that because Canada, as a country, is clouded by colonialism. And it’s massive. It’s so big. I feel like I can’t really get a grasp on anything national in the culture. So I feel like it’s more productive and interesting to focus on the place I’m from.

Does the idea of living somewhere else for a while, and documenting that, appeal to you?

Yeah, it does. It really does actually. I’d love to try that. I spent much of my twenties and early thirties travelling a lot, so I feel like I spent a lot of time away it’s just that I never spent that time in one place, it was many other places, because we were a touring band, you know? But I’d like to do that; maybe that’s something I’ll get to do at some point.

In your interview with the Winnipeg Free Press from earlier this year you spoke about being interesting in a move towards smaller communities. What is it specifically that interests you?

I guess I’m interested in the margins, both geographically and culturally. I feel like increasingly the margins are the only place that can really comment on the centre, if that makes sense? I feel like our culture is so accelerated and monolithic because we’re all so connected, and I feel like there’s real power in small communities and I’m interested in exploring that, in the smallest sense.

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“And no one knows we’re anywhere we’re not supposed to be,

so stay awhile and watch the wind throw patterns on a field.”

(Lyrics from “Winter Wheat”)

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Moving back to Winter Wheat, it’s a far more sprawling record than Provincial. Was that a deliberate decision after such a place-specific project?

I did feel a bit unshackled after that record, which was so very specific, each song having its own location and history. So, yeah, I think I did feel a bit like I could sprawl out a little bit with this one and kind of let the themes wonder off, and I really did enjoy that part of it.

You also mentioned working towards a more ambiguous writing-style…

I guess I wanted to take some inspiration from Neil Young, for some of the songs at least. He has this thing that I think of as a generous way of writing; in that he doesn’t impose a strict narrative on his lyrics, which allows the listener to fill in the story in their own way…in kind of a radical way, actually. So I wanted to be conscious of not imposing my own understanding of the stories upon the songs, at least not in every case.

You’ve spoken quite openly about your sobriety, and also ongoing mental health issues. Do you think that your rehabilitation is a pertinent theme within the record or is its effect more abstract than that?

I think the latter. This is the first record I’ve written as an entirely sober person, so it’s curious for me. I never wrote when drunk, but it was a theme for me and in my work – it was always there. So in removing that theme there was a bit of a space that I still needed to grapple with and that certainly rises up in some of the songs for sure. I feel more excited about writing now, which is interesting. I’ve also been on anti-depressants for the same amount of time I’ve been sober, and that’s given me more periods where I’ve been able to write. That’s been surprising to me as I didn’t see that coming.

Did you notice that you were being shackled during that time, or is it something that’s become more apparent now that you’re outside of it?

I think that’s a good point. You don’t really see these things… I guess we’re all stuck in the troughs of our own history, right? We can’t always see out. Sometimes it takes being removed from it to see that it did have an impact and it was certainly a force in my life that I guess I wasn’t fully conscious of.

Do you like the Winter?

Yeah! Well, I say I do. I like it in theory. It gets extremely cold here – minus forty, minus fifty – and it’s dark a lot of the time. I also battle some depression that has its roots in the season, but I also really love the distinctness of the seasons here. It’s one thing I notice when I go to other places, a mushiness around the border of the seasons, but here it’s very different; you live and measure time within them and there’s something gratifying about that.

Do you see Winter Wheat as a “winter” album?

That’s a really good question, I hadn’t thought of that. I mean we made it through the winter, so when I think of it, I think of it as being a winter album…but yeah. I wonder. There are definitely songs that are not set in the winter but maybe they’re all working around the idea of winter and the effect it has.

I’m always surprised that so few songwriters mention technology in any way. The topic crops up a few times across Winter Wheat and I was wondering what your own views on it are? Is it something that excites you?

I didn’t really recognise that technology had crept in to so many of the songs until I was done, and, actually, I feel like that’s a mirror of how technology has crept in to our lives in a way. I feel like I woke up one day and suddenly realised how integrated it was with who I am; how I interact with my phone, and my screens in general. I think it’s difficult to write about because of the fear of sounding dated, or sounding too contemporary, too specific. But I’ve always liked that. I’ve always liked songs that are centred in a time and a place, and I kind of revel in that and feel excited by that.

And I’ve always really liked specialist languages. I feel like I’ve always leaned on the language of religion, and leftist politics, those kind of vernaculars, and technology itself has a really interesting language. Take a word like dongle which is both horrible and beautiful all at the same time; this weird word that just appeared in our lives one day. I feel like I want to captured some of the grain of that oddness, and the weirdness we’re living in right now. I’m not opposed to these technologies but I think we need to be a little more alert and aware of how they impact our lives. Maybe writing about them, plainly, as a fact, is something I want to explore more.

With that in mind; have you been watching Black Mirror?

I have, they’re brilliant! I haven’t watched the new series yet but wow. I’m glad you brought that up. Some of those episodes really stayed with me and I think about them often. That crept in to some of these new songs I’m sure.

The new ones are so good, I’d definitely recommend finding the time for them if you enjoyed the earlier ones…

Oh really? That’s good to hear. I can’t think of a viewing experience that has rocked me in quite the same way. I walked around thinking about it for a long time, looking at it from the point of view of my own life and trying to work our where the commonalities are. It’s really interesting work and also a great example of our accelerated culture being both exciting and interesting, right? I mean, I just found it on the Internet; in another age I wouldn’t have been able to encounter it as readily as I did, if at all.

Seeing it from our own point-of-view is what makes it so powerful, right? Like it really is the proverbial black mirror. Some of it feels very close, and cutting. 

Yeah absolutely, I think that’s exactly right. To see ourselves in those black mirrors is both frightening and gratifying though too, I think? Like, I crave those kind of interjections, that kind of pointed discussion about how we live now, through how we might live soon. It’s really powerful.

I do feel like it has been so accelerated though, don’t you think? The last ten or twenty years have seen so many advancements and I feel like the human brain is  desperately swimming with this current of change. It’s hard to keep up. So I think those moments where we can actually stop and look at it, and also when it emerges in the art of our time, is very gratifying and important; seeing people explore what it’s doing to us. And I don’t want to sound like a Luddite, as much as I admire the luddites, I just think the Internet has democratised and empowered so many people it’s something we really have to be aware of.

I’ve really enjoyed this book called ‘The End Of Absence’, by a writer in Vancouver called Michael Harris, and he talked about how the people of my generation are going to be the last people alive that know the world both with and without the Internet. I don’t know how old you are.

I’m a little younger than yourself, but I’m just on that balance for sure…

Right, exactly. So he talks about how there are things that we, as those last people, should safeguard from the world, to make sure they don’t disappear from the world entirely. That’s something I think about a lot, what those things should be…

I’ve not read the book but it’s certainly something I’ve thought about myself. I think the problem is that the whole thing is moving so quickly it feels almost impossible to preserve some of the things we might want to. 

That’s so true. I know. It does seem, at times, impossible to carry anything forward. I think, though, that I find the hope in the spaces where we’re encouraged to be together, in unmediated ways. I think music does that, and I think it’s such a direct experience, in both the headphones and the shared communal concert, and those things are hopeful to me because they can’t really be replicated or controlled, you know? They’re experiences that require actually showing up! My partner, Christine, always says “the presence is the present“. The gift is showing up and being there; everyone being deliberate and aware of who they are and where they are.

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“May the leaves puzzle out the canopy,

shake and photosynthesize everything we’re sorry for,

into one long breath of air.”

(Lyrics from “Prayer For Ruby Elm”)

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I wanted to ask you about your standing as someone who appears to both relatively private, given all of those things we just spoke about, and also someone who is viewed by a number of people as a local hero, and even a national hero. Do you struggle with that balance at all?

Hmmm. I guess so. I mean…I don’t have a clear sense of…that.

I guess I’m just always interested in how artists view their standing within their own cultures, if that makes sense. There are people who have been listening to your songs since, well, almost as long as the Internet has been around…

Wow, yeah. I guess you’re right.

I suppose my question is, are you comfortable being someone’s hero?

I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t think about it too much, and I try and stay away from it. I guess my philosophy is that if I have to read the good things about me then I have to read the bad things too, and so I don’t read either. That’s just a mental health technique for me, because frankly I’m not sure I’d be able to handle that very well.

So such things are sort of limited, for me, to the people I meet at shows, and the people I encounter in my life. And those people that I encounter in my life don’t really know that much about my artistic life, so I think I’ve built a life here that doesn’t have deep connections to that side of my life, and I think that’s the way that I have to live. It’s a good question though; I’m just not sure how to answer it.

Do you have a favourite track on the new record?

I like Fellow Traveller because I worked on it for a long time, and it was difficult to write, but also really fun. It was fun to write a song that wasn’t set in Winnipeg – it’s set in London – and I enjoyed that a lot. I guess Quiz Night At Looky Loos is one that surprised me. That was a really fun one to make, and all these weird things came together to make that song and I was kind of grateful for that.

It’s an odd song. I was thinking a lot about delusions. I guess I’d had some experience with delusional thinking, as most people have I guess, but especially people who have experienced anxiety and depression, which is probably most people too. It came from straight-up therapy; the idea of cognitive behavioural therapy. Not trying to change the way you think but sometimes how you have to learn to live with the way you think, and the way your brain works. So I had this character who feels like they’re on a mission. They have a mission to find other people like them – and I think that we all have that mission, really, just to different extents.

I wrote it as a story first and then recognised that it could be a song. Me and Jason, the drummer from The Weakerthans, would go in to his garage and make drones; just sit there and turn on all the instruments and we’d record it! I’m not sure how we started doing that, actually, but we ended up doing it a few times, spending some hours sitting around making these giant noises which Jason would record and then send me sections of. It was more about just enjoying making a lot of noise, but I took one of those pieces and just put it underneath the words and I was really happy with the way it came together.

I wanted to ask you about bringing back the ‘Virtute the cat’ characters back. Had you meant to do that?

It was interesting! My wife, Christine, had given me parts of a song which is something we do that for each other when we can’t finish something. So she gave me the parts for 17th Street Treatment Centre and as I was writing it I realised that the human companion had returned somehow…and I was like, oh jeez, he’s still not doing well out there! But there is some hope; he’s in treatment, and he’s working. He’s trying at least, he’s with other people, and that triggered some hope for that character for me; the idea that maybe he wasn’t getting better but he’s not getting better alongside other people, and maybe the idea of getting better is not always helpful.

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So anyway, I put that song away and it was weird because the last song, ‘Virtute At Rest’, came to me fully-formed, which was sort of spooky. It came to me when I really needed. I was in a bad place, I was not well, and it came to me while I was riding my bike, which was a weird thing too. I went home and just put the guitar chords underneath it and that’s what it became. It’s about the idea that this softening had occurred through therapy, and pharmaceuticals, and sobriety, and how this cat could now have a place in the human companion’s brain and that the companion would be able to accept what that cat had offered, finally. I was really grateful for it.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this before but do you see yourself as the cat or the companion? Or neither?

Haha, that’s a good question. I see myself as both, a little bit, for sure. I think those Virtute songs are running parallel to my life in a lot of ways. A lot of that companion is me, but a lot of isn’t too. So it’s weird for me. It feels more like a character that is running alongside me, rather than it being one who is actually me.

You’ve been writing about those characters for nearly two decades with those characters. Do those kind of things make you feel old? Or do they make you feel like no time has passed at all?

It doesn’t really make me feel older. The first inkling of that character came on the first Weakerthans album, with the song Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist, so it has been there for, you’re right, twenty years. But I’ve also been playing all of these songs for twenty years, so they all still feel somewhat contemporary for me. I guess one of the things I really like about playing live, actually, is building sets of songs and seeing what they do together. So even the oldest songs have always felt somewhat alive to me. So it doesn’t make me feel old, or maybe it does, now that I’m talking about it. I haven’t really thought about that before.

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And I love this place; the enormous sky,

and the faces, hands that I’m haunted by.

So why can’t I forgive these buildings;

these frameworks labeled “Home”?

(Lyrics from “This Is A Fire Door Never Leave Open” by The Weakerthans)

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You’ve talked about your own “softening”, that’s come with your sobriety and therapy. I wonder if you view those times spent with The Weakerthans any differently these days?

No, not really actually. It was excellent. It was a wonderful time for me, really, and I don’t view it any differently now. You know, the music we wrote, and the music we got to play, has always been pretty joyous.

Making music with my friends, to quote Willy Nelson, has always been one of the best things about, well, being alive. So no, I think, and still think, about all of that time with a lot of gratitude. If anything I feel even more grateful these days; grateful for everything that happened.

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‘Winter Wheat’ is out now, via ANTI Records

You can buy it here

johnksamson.com

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