Extended Q&A: John K Samson

I often say, without thinking about it too much, that John K Samson is the greatest living songwriter. I really should say he's "my favorite" instead of getting all high and mighty about it, but I suppose that in pushing the issue, I hope to get people to pay attention to his words and the truth that seems inherent in his storytelling. His songs—with the Weakerthans or on his own—always offer something new to hear on repeated listen—be it a turn of phrase, a character worth revisiting or just a really sharp hook. I was excited to finally get a chance to interview Samson, who was as charming and thoughtful over the phone from his home in Winnipeg as he is on his records. Here is our interview. (John K Samson plays Doug Fir Lounge on Monday with Shotgun Jimmie. 9 pm. $12 advance, $14 day of show. 21+.)

WW: What was it that drew you to punk rock, and what do you hold on to from that?

When it comes to songwriting, I wonder if you consider any part of what you do a gift, or if you consider it a trade and a skill.
I guess a bit of both, but it definitely is a trade. There are certainly moments where you do feel like almost something kind of supernatural involved in 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—just sticking it out and working at it. It's about 98 percent of that for me, two percent of something else. But it's still a gift. It's something I love to do and every time it's a thrill.

Which song came to you the most easily on this new record, and what song was the hardest?
"Heart of the Continent" was kind of the easiest one and one of the earliest ones. It was kind of just me riffing on a song I had already written, "One Great City." They changed the sign, it used to say "One Great City" and they changed it to "Heart of the Continent." So it's a bit of a sequel and I used the same kind of music, almost. It kind of fell into place. I really like that song, though, I have a great fondness for it.

And then the more difficult ones are the songs that really tie the record together, "When I Write My Master's Thesis" and "Letter in Icelandic From the Ninette San." I think the record sort of starts in the middle and spreads out from there, in either direction.

So you see this album as a lot of interconnected songs?
They're all interconnected, they're linked in a way. Some of them more tightly than others. So "Letter in Icelandic..." is the culmination in a way, because it ties all the different roads together. So, back in the 1920s and 30s, there used to be a tuberculosis van that would head out from the Ninette Sanatorium and tour towns and take x-rays of citizens, and if you were found to have TB you would often be shipped off on the train to Ninette Manitoba and you wouldn't know how long you'd be there or if you'd even survive. And at the same time I was studying this town of Riverton Manitoba where there are all these Icelandic immigrants, which is where my family is from. It's the biggest Icelandic population outside of Iceland. So I invented this fiction about these two brothers whose father has died and they're taking care of their mother—they saved up enough money to buy a boat—and they're fishing on Lake Winnipeg, and the older brother gets tuberculosis and is shipped off to Ninette and the younger brother is left there to take care of the family and the business. That's not what he wants to do with his life, so he writes kind of complaining letters to his older brother in the San saying this isn't what I want to do. And the dying brother finally writes back and says "well, you're just going to have to forget about me and forget about the family and get on with your life and go."

That's such a powerful moment. I've been moved to tears by your songs on many occasions, and that to me is one of the most moving songs you've ever written. But you talk about it as a research project at the same time.
It is a bit. I did make up a lot, but getting the foundation for it, just the world of the Ninette Sanitorium. I spent a lot of time wondering what the parties must have been like, because I found all these photos of haloween parties, and there's this one specific photo of a guy who I think is dressed up as tuberculosis. It's really frightning. He's this big kind of white thing, like a tuberculol germ or whatever.

It took me a long time to figure out how to write it as a letter. And I came across that by the previous song, "When I Write My Master's Thesis." I was trying to think of a way to write this song, and I was thinking about how I was feeling like a thwarted masters student who just can't get it done. So I thought of this guy who, like me, was trying to write about the culture at the Ninette Sanitorium, and maybe he was zeroing in specifically on the halloween parties at the Ninette Sanitorium and the culture that would have risen around the parties and how unique they would have been. So it was this idea that maybe he had this letter in his drawer, his desk drawer, but it was just sitting there untranslated and would have really helped him finish his thesis.

This poor miserable guy.
Exactly, these two miserable guys that are connected but not connecting. And I was lucky to find, at that moment, I was up in the Yukon, I had a writing residency in Dawson City. I was trying to get this done and I couldn't and Bob Dylan's "When I Write My Masterpiece" came on the radio when I was in this bar up there. I immediately was like, "there it is, there's my structure." So I took the first line of each verse of "When I Write My Masterpiece" and then riffed on them. Like "Oh the Streets of Rome are Filled with Rubble" became "Oh the Streets of Grand Theft Auto San Andreas." I riffed on Dylan.

That's one of two videogame references that the nerdy among us appreciate.
[Laughing] That's true. I'm glad to hear it.

It's these two miserable guys, but one of them is putting off writing and one of them is dying in a hospital. And yet you give them the same kind of dignity. Why is that important to you? I really can't think of a song where you belittle someone or attack someone. I wonder why that's important to you?
I hope that's true. It is important to me. I think there's perhaps a time for a songwriter to write 'you done me wrong' songs and 'I hate my parents and my friends' songs, but songwriting shouldn't be used as a weapon. It's a more thoughtful and important artform than that. It's too easy to do, as well, I think.

Is there any tension in coming from a punk rock background, where the idea is to shove stuff in society's face, versus the empathetic songs that you write?
I think of empathy as a sort of politics. I love this short story writer George Saunders, who I often paraphrase badly, but he said something like fiction is political because it forces you to empathize with other people, and that makes it more difficult for you to kill them. I do think that empathy is the hallmark of progressive politics. It's the foundation of it. It's the foundation of any kind of forward movement in this world.

Have you changed the way you observe the world in the time you've been writing songs? You're such a detail-oriented writer and I wonder if you have almost a training regiment of observation.
I don't know, it's a good question. It's kind of sad, almost, because I only write about three songs a year. Three or four tops. But I do feel like I'm always working, so it's kind of like I carry them around with me. So maybe you're right, I do kind of see the world—it's kind of my way of trying to figure out where I am and who I am and all of those things. Mostly where I am, I think. That has been kind of an obsession. I feel like this project is really clinging to me in a way.

Do characters ever haunt you? Do people from your songs haunt you?
Definitely. Yeah, they do. I feel really lucky in a sense, that I've always wanted to be a fiction writer and I've often felt thwarted that I haven't been able to do that. But I've been able to do it in songs. And I'm frankly incredibly lucky that I'm involved in a form where I get to go reenact these songs in front of people many nights a year. So in my mind these characters kind of come to life and change in different contexts, and do different things with different groups of people. Performance has become a really important thing for me. It's something I used to have real troubles with and dislike, and still have, certainly, anxiety about. But I know that it's also a real gift.

What keeps you coming back to the pop song?
Maybe it's my not progressing as a musician. I think it's so comfortable. I'm so comforted by a pop song, by that mysterious thing that a melody does and a hook and a chorus—even though I don't really know how to write a chorus to save my life. Just the fundamentals, I find them really comforting. I just keep coming back to them, they're sort of alluring. And they've been there forever, right, these really simple structures. And I feel like I'm in the tradition of people who view them as folk songs. I think of myself as coming from a folk tradition but processed by punk rock, which isn't far off, you know? These simple structures that are there for anyone to use. I'm never one of those people who worry about running out of music. I feel like there's enough I can thieve and access that's already there.

Do you get dissuaded when you turn on the radio? The fact that the popular culture isn't all that interested in lyrics, especially?
I suppose. I mean, I don't get discouraged by it. I think there's a role for that kind of song and, you know, who am I to make fun of something that actually moves another person. And obviously it does. A lot of those songs are really simple, but sometimes that's what people need, right? And everyone can only write the kind of songs that they know how to write. I'm a political person and I've tried for years to be more directly political with my writing but it's just not something that I know how to do, so I realize that whenever I do it, it sounds false, right? When I see a writer writing something, if they do it effectively and honestly, I have trouble dissuading them from doing that. It's an impulse, and it's filtered through everything in that person's life. And I think it's actually a pretty incredible time for lyricists.

What do you listen to that keeps you optimistic?
There are so many. More than ever, I think, right now. I just bought a live Townes Van Zandt double-LP from 1972, and there's that whole body of work that's going to inspire me for the rest of my life. There are countless writers like that from the 60s and 70s and 80s that is a great foundation for me as a writer and I know a lot of people. And there are people who are just churning out incredible work. Darnielle of the Mountain Goats is making a great record every year and I think pushing the form forward. There are countless people like that. Seems like every week I discover someone new. Craig Finn is another writer who has an exceptionally unique voice and burns with a creativity that I really admire. Both of those guys, I know both of them and they're really inspiring figures and people who really encourage other writers like myself.

Does writing these songs ever drain you emotionally?
For me, and I think it's different for other writers like Finn and Darnielle, who are both really prolific writer. I spend probably too much time in the company of the songs that I'm writing. I find them to be good company in a way. They become like a puzzle and I walk around with them and I don't really want to let go of them at some point. So to me it's not the process as much as actually putting them out there that is difficult. They change. You start something and you stand above this incredible potential of something fresh and new and as you're picking up the corners you can see that it has the potential to be something incredible. And in the end, even if it is something really good, you wish you could go back to that moment when it was nothing but potential. To me that's the troubling part. And then you've got to do it again.

Do you have songs that you've been living with for years and haven't finished?
Yeah, I do. There are a couple things in them that make it so they won't go. They won't move in the right way, won't operate, won't turn on. There's something good about those songs, too, because they're something to tinker with while you're waiting for the bus.

You talk about them like they're a garage full of broken-down cars.
I do think of them as sort of delicate machines in a way. You can wear them out. If you tour a lot a song can stop working somehow and you don't know why. Something wore out. It won't walk around the way it should anymore.

For you.
Well, exactly, but it translates to the audience as well. If it's not working for you then it's not gonna work. I think that that's true. An audience will sense that. Audiences for the most part are really kind and polite so they won't say that something wasn't as good as it should have been to my face, but you can get a sense of it by the feeling in the room.

Are there subjects that you've wanted to tackle but haven't felt qualified to write about?
Probably. I'm trying to think of what that would be. I've written from the first person point of view of a woman a few times now. I find that to be really challenging.

Like "The Last And."
Yeah, that was the most difficult one to write in a way, for me. I guess the John Prine song, "Angel From Montgomery," was one of those things. I'd love to write a song that good. I think he does it really effectively.

He's one of the all-time greats.
Yeah, for sure. And he does it really effortlessly. I don't know how he does it. To the extent that a woman can sing it and it sounds right. It sounds true.

And you know, I write fiction, so none of the songs are really about me anymore. I guess the biggest challenges for me are writing about real people. Songs like "Hymn of the Medical Oddity," about a man here in Winnipeg who committed suicide. That was really hard. And that song "Bigfoot!", about a man who saw bigfoot and really does exist. Those to me feel quite dangerous. I want to write them but I'm also really frightened about stealing something from those people. I try to take just the smallest section of those lives and try to extrapolate something from them rather than understand the larger person and who they are and where they come from. I just want to feel something for them.

It seems like you lean towards the small rather than the grandiose in your songs.
Yeah, I mean, I think that's where all the big ideas are, you know? They're in the smaller moments.

You talked about John Prine and he's a guy who has written great songs his whole life. But most songwriters have strong eras and then long droughts. Do you worry about that? You're married, too, isn't that supposed to be a creativity killer?
It's kind of been the opposite for me. I felt a real renaissance. My wife's a songwriter as well. She's pretty much my primary collaborator and editor and I feel like the last ten years I wouldn't be writing the same kind of songs without her, because she's kind of the one that helps me fix them.

I've, almost a few times come to the point where I thought, that might be it for me as a songwriter. I wouldn't be surprised if that day actually came. I'm not totally sold on the idea that this is something that I'll do for the rest of my life. And I'm actually pretty comfortable with that. I'll certainly write as long as I feel like it's what I should be doing--write as long as I think I have something to write--but I've always felt like a part-time songwriter. I've always needed to do other things, I've always had other jobs. I have a part-time job in the publishing industry here in Winnipeg when I'm at home, it's an office job, and I do work with other organizations here in Winnipeg. So my days are pretty full when I'm at home. And I think maybe, I don't know, to dedicate a life to it, I've just kind of realized it isn't for me. I don't think I could be an eight-hour-a-day writer. I really admire those who can be, but I think I need input from otehr places in order to have something to write about, frankly. I mean, I think I'll always write things, but maybe they won't always be songs. It could get even slower than it is now, or, who knows, it could be the opposite.

You don't want to force it.
I don't, really. Maybe I should, but I don't. If I'm gonna force something it would probably be doing something new, like learning a new trade of some kind.

Does writing depress you? I think of folks who put this much passion and humanity into their work, and it's often people like Elliott Smith or other writers who battle with depression.
Definitely, I battle with depression. But I find the opposite is true for me—I find it really therapeutic in a non-therapy way. I find that when I've finished a song it feels like good clean labor. It's something that I've done. Performing feels the same way to me. The only things that dissuade me are some of the public figure aspects of the job.

[Laughing] The interviews?
No, I really like the interviews, though. But I live in a small town. I'm not a celebrity, but people recognize me sometimes. I don't like that, frankly. I love talking to people like you and talking about my work, but I have some problems with the anxiety around the 40 percent of the job that isn't creative. Which is not the fault of anyone except the culture.

Is it easier in Canada, though? I always had this vague notion that Canada let people be.
No, it's actually quite the opposite. I actually like the US more because in Canada, there's all this cultural baggage where I'm asked to fit in to this idea of a Canadian artist. Which I don't have any interest in, frankly. I think of myself as a regional artist. I think I have more in common with an artist from Minneapolis than I do with a songwriter from Vancouver. And that's upsetting to most Canadian cultural people, because they don't believe that should be true. It's a pretty contentious thing. They read a national identity in my work. And it's there if they want to read it there. I don't see it there, I see it as more of a regional identity. But it is this real line that I find difficult to navigate.

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.