John K. Samson’s musical road trip

Weakerthans frontman travels the backroads of Manitoba on his first solo album


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John K. Samson doesn't believe his music will change the world, but he'll settle for getting Reggie Leach into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/01/2012 (4080 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

John K. Samson doesn’t believe his music will change the world, but he’ll settle for getting Reggie Leach into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The hockey star known as the Riverton Rifle played 13 seasons in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1975 and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy the following year when he scored a record-setting 19 goals in the post-season.

Leach’s Manitoba hometown of Riverton has honoured him with a mural and named a street after him, but Samson is hoping to take things to the next level by being immortalized with hockey’s top honour.

With a record of 381 goals and 285 assists in 934 games, Leach might not have the numbers to make the hall, but Samson believes it’s more than points that should be taken into consideration.

“What is there is intangible rgreatness,” he says during an interview over coffee at a downtown restaurant. “There’s all the things you don’t see in the numbers, so I wanted to talk from the point of view of the townspeople who felt strongly about Reggie and why the community would feel pride in someone.”

To achieve his goal, Samson wrote the song and created an online petition that he will present to the hockey hall in Toronto after spreading the word about his proposal and touring in support of his debut solo album, Provincial, set for release Tuesday on the Epitaph Records imprint, Anti-.

He came up with the idea to pay tribute to Leach during frequent visits to Riverton, located 130 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Samson wrote three songs about the town his father grew up in while researching material for a three-song EP, Provincial Road 222, released in 2010.

The EP was one of four the frontman of indie-rock group the Weakerthans was planning to release about different Manitoba roads, but after Provincial Road 222 and City Route 85 — three songs that deal with people and places on Portage Avenue — he decided his vision would be better served by a full-length album.

“I got this idea I’d really love to make a record if someone came to me and had a couple days of free time I could take them to the site of each song. I got that in my head and couldn’t shake it really,” he says.

Provincial is something of a musical Manitoba travel planner that starts on Highway 1 East, comes into Winnipeg, heads out to the tuberculosis sanatorium in Ninette before getting back on the Trans-Canada on the way to Riverton, then finally back to the city house he shares with his wife, singer-songwriter Christine Fellows.

“I didn’t want to leave listeners on the side of the road, I wanted to leave them with something domestic and that immediate community of home so I ended it with a song Christine and I recorded together in our living room,” he says.

Fellows is one of 15 different musicians who appear on the album as what Samson calls his “safety net” who helped him achieve the sounds he was hearing in his head, whether it was a string section, horns, the guitar work of Damon Mitchell or Gilles Fournier on double bass.

“I wanted different musical palettes to signify different places and a kind of broader thing than is sometimes possible with a rock band,” he says. “It’s probably the most musicians I’ve ever played with. That was fun, too, kind of going on every whim I had. I wanted to play with some classical musicians and got to do so with the Correction Line Ensemble people. I wanted horns and (producer Paul Aucoin) dialed them up.”

“For me a real John Samson solo record would be pretty dire. I don’t think I would want to hear that record — just me clanking around on some instruments. For me, that collaborative process of making these songs come to fruition was a big part of it.”

And it wasn’t just musicians who the 38-year-old relied on for collaboration. He did countless hours of research and writing at the Millennium Library and the Archives of Manitoba as he completely immersed himself in Manitoba’s history.

As a child, he heard stories about the former tuberculosis sanatorium in Ninette from his mom — who grew up down Highway 18 in Killarney — which left an impression on him and the urge to learn more about the facility that treated patients from 1910-72.

He travelled to the site at the northeast tip of Pelican Lake (now an RV park) and delved into the archive records and imagined a story where a student is trying to write a thesis about the sanitarium (When I Write My Master’s Thesis) and a letter that might have been written by a patient there (Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San).

“The letter is not real. For me I pictured it as a piece of research the guy in Master’s Thesis has in his desk drawer lying there untranslated. It’s something I think would help his thesis if he managed to get his act together and get it translated. That was my idea. I invented this piece of research, this piece of evidence or something. It was the last song I wrote for the record. For me it ties up all the places on the record, too, because I picture the patient who’s writing the letter is from Riverton and he’s writing the letter back to his brother in Riverton. I don’t expect anyone to read as much into it as I do,” Samson says with a laugh.

Maybe not, but much like his locally themed music in the Weakerthans, Samson hopes the regional subject matter will translate to a broader audience wherever they are from.

He will be spreading the Provincial word with a 30-date North American tour that stops at the West End Cultural Centre on March 27 followed by a trek to Europe.

Weakerthans fans shouldn’t worry this is the end of the group. Samson’s band members were fully behind the project and the band has even laid down some of the groundwork for its followup to 2007’s Reunion Tour but doen’t have any sort of deadline.

“I’m not as workman like a lot of writers. I need a lot of input from the world to write. I don’t think I could be one of those six- or eight-hour-a-day writers, people who just sit down and write. I need input and other things to do. I’m kind of a part-time writer, which kind of makes it even slower for me. Then again, to be honest, I’ve always apologized for how slow I write, but I like writing that slow. I like walking around with a song for a long time and working away at it while I’m doing other things, it’s just kind of the way it works.”

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