If you've spent any time with John K. Samson's catalog, it will not surprise you to learn that Winnipeg's unofficial poet laureate is patient with his craft.
"I write like three songs a year," Samson says. "And every year around this time, I always think, 'OK, this is the year I'm gonna write four.' And it's always three."
Almost always, that is. In 2014, not long before Samson's beloved band the Weakerthans called it quits, Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers tapped him to write a handful of songs for For the Turnstiles, a dance production inspired by Neil Young's 1974 album On the Beach. The commission spurred Samson to ramp up his productivity.
He wrote four songs that year.
The songs Samson contributed to For the Turnstiles eventually found their way onto his second solo album, Winter Wheat, which was released last October by the Anti- label. As Samson tells it, his work for Contemporary Dancers helped "cement the record in place." But it would be a mistake to think of Winter Wheat as Samson's "Neil Young album," because Young has always hovered at the periphery of his practice.
"He grew up not too far from where my house is now," Samson says. "We went to the same high school 25 years apart. He's kind of been a great inspiration for Winnipeg songwriters, maybe even more so than he is for people who aren't from here. I feel like I've always been in conversation with his work. I don't really write like him, but something about the uniqueness of his voice and the uniqueness of his playing has been really important for me."
In a way, Young is just another local landmark for a regionally inclined artist intent on bringing his corner of the world to life in song. Samson's themes are as universal as any pop songwriter's, but they are rooted in the reality of Winnipeg and the country that surrounds it. The dolorous characters populating Winter Wheat are pegged to proper nouns, places that actually exist or at least once did. The beleaguered academic in "Postdoc Blues" might finally "get it right" in the town of Nipigon. The titular public access station in "VPW 13 Blues" gives punks a little something to live for. And the cemetery tree in "Oldest Oak at Brookside" offers Samson a vantage from which to view a version of his local landscape unsullied by human beings.
There isn't much sentimentality in Samson's odes to home, however. The men and women Samson writes about on Winter Wheat are hooked on drugs, lost in delusional thoughts, enraptured by screens. For Samson, the specificity of setting bridges the gap between his fictional constructs and the very real and scary world in which they are consumed.
"I feel like building a more detailed world is kind of what I love about reading and listening and writing," he says. "I think there's something really political about it. Truth is a political thing—seeing things for what they are. I think what I mean by that is that everything has a history. Human beings are incredibly complicated, and the way they live is incredibly complicated. And trying to include all the complications is, I think, what I'm interested in. And that to me feels political. Any kind of increase in empathy is a progressive act."
It's clear that Samson, a self-described anti-capitalist, has faith in the power of songs to improve the world at least a bit. But even though he's more than 20 years into a career as one of North America's finest songwriters, he still bristles at the idea of becoming a "capital-M Musician."
"I always want my songs to, if they can, emerge from the life I live, instead of the other way around," Samson says. "I don't want to be kind of grasping for things to write about. I want it to emerge naturally out of the community I live in and the people I encounter in it. I do feel like that's more important to me. My daily life in the community is more important to me than writing about it."
Five John K. Samson Songs for Beginners
A song so nice Samson recorded it twice, first as a member of pop-punk agitator Propagandhi, then with a brand-new Weakerthans. You can't go wrong with either version, but encountering a P.G. Wodehouse reference in the middle of a Propagandhi album is especially magical.
"Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist"
A mid-'60s Godard feature crammed into two minutes, "Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist" evokes the waning days of a romance fueled by revolutionary spirit and lofty ideals. If you fell in love during your senior year of college, you have probably lived this song.
"One Great City!"
It's impossible to pick one great Winnipeg song in Samson's discography, but "One Great City!" nails the begrudging love and sidelong pride we all have for home, wherever and whenever that place may be. Consider this your warm welcome to Samson's great regional project.
"When I Write My Master's Thesis"
Samson spins the refrain of Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" into a sad and hilarious portrait of academic frustration and creative dehydration. It is an elegy for that dead space between an idea and the work required to bring it to life, and it is solace for anyone who's stared at a blank white page and seen deepest, darkest black.
"Quiz Night at Looky Lou's"/"Alpha Adept"
Winter Wheat's stunning centerpiece is a two-song study of delusional ideation that begins at a sports bar and ends in outer space. Samson has written dozens of great songs. These two might be his very best.
SEE IT: John K. Samson & the Winter Wheat play Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., on Tuesday, Jan. 24. 9 pm. $18 advance, $20 at the door. 21+.