In his 15-year career as frontman for the Weakerthans and as a solo artist, John K. Samson has written dozens of increasingly masterful story songs from the perspectives of bed-ridden hospital patients, young revolutionaries, weary road-trippers and (twice now) a bored house cat named Virtute. Samson is equal parts poet, investigative journalist and activist—he began his music career playing bass in seminal Canadian punk outfit Propagandhi—and in the last decade he has become one of the finest songwriters of his generation.
He's not exactly sure what he wants to do with his life.
"I've always felt like a part-time songwriter," Samson says via telephone from his home in Winnipeg, where he's nursing a cold. "I've always had other jobs. I have a part-time job in the publishing industry; it's an office job...so my days are pretty full when I'm at home.
"I'm not totally sold on the idea that this is something I'll do for the rest of my life. And I'm actually pretty comfortable with that."
It's not the writing itself that gives Samson pause. He only writes three or four songs a year, and finishing them feels like "good, clean labor." And while fronting a live band took years for Samson to feel comfortable with, he enjoys that now, too. It's "the anxiety around the 40 percent of the job that isn't creative," he says, that makes the job tough. Being recognized in Winnipeg—a city he has penned countless songs for, including "One Great City" (the singalong chorus to which is "I hate Winnipeg") and its quasi-sequel "Heart of the Continent," which describes the town in similarly dark fashion ("Our demolitions punctuate/ All we mean to say then leave too late")—is awkward for him. Being pinned as an artist that represents Canada—Samson considers himself a regional artist who has "more in common with an artist from Minneapolis than a songwriter from Vancouver"—is more difficult still.
And yet Samson's new album, Provincial, is both presented under his own name and loaded with songs about his native Manitoba. It is a loose concept album that "starts in the middle and spreads out from there, in either direction," Samson says. The two songs in the middle, about a burnt-out master's student who can't finish his thesis and an 80-year-old letter from a dying tuberculosis patient at Manitoba's Ninette Sanatorium, respectively, are related. "It was this idea that maybe he had this letter in his desk drawer, but it was just sitting there untranslated, and would have really helped him finish his thesis...so it's these two miserable guys who are connected but not connecting."
That Samson gives a procrastinating student and a dying Icelandic man the same dignity is a hallmark of his writing: Some of Provincial's characters flirt with death, and some—the teacher who feels neglected after a fling with her school's principal on "The Last And"; the computer nerd who tapes garbage bags to his windows so he can shut out the real world and play Call of Duty—seem ripe for judgment. Samson stays right there with them, taking their problems, their hopes and their dreams as seriously as the characters do. It's not, perhaps, what one expects from a guy who got his start with a confrontational punk outfit. But Samson, who says he has tried to write directly political songs that never seem to come out right, says it comes from a similar place. "Songwriting shouldn't be used as a weapon. It's a more thoughtful and important art form than that," he says. "I do think empathy is the hallmark of progressive politics. It's the foundation of any kind of forward movement in this world."
What keeps Samson coming back to songwriting, though, has less to do with politics than it does with pop. "I'm so comforted by a pop song, by that mysterious thing a melody does, and a hook and a chorus," he says. "There are certainly moments where you do feel like almost something kind of supernatural is involved in [writing] a song, but then there are also those days just spent sitting at a desk, super-frustrated, scratching out one line in a week and throwing it away and being incredibly mad. It's about 98 percent of that for me, 2 percent of something else.
âTo dedicate a life to it? Iâve just kind of realized that isnât for me.â