This article was published 14/10/2016 (1103 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
John K. Samson doesn’t partake in email or Facebook or Twitter. The Winnipeg singer-songwriter offers that information in an automatic reply to an email I sent to him in the spring, asking about his new album. The automatic reply suggested a P.O. box address as a means of contact. I gave it a shot, and a week later I received the response above. It was the first of many.
After weeks of exchanging my questions and his answers via Canada Post, we planned our first face-to-face meeting; he suggested we play a game of cribbage — something we discovered we both enjoyed through our written correspondence.
The longtime Weakerthans frontman arrives at a Corydon coffee shop, fully bearded and smiling under his bicycle helmet. The initial handshake feels a little formal, but neither of us knows what else to do. There is an inherent warmth about him, though, that sets the potentially awkward situation at ease; he’s soft-spoken but well-spoken, with not a whiff of arrogance or ego despite the clout his name carries, particularly in this city.
We talk a little about his new solo record, but more about our lives and families and friends, many statements beginning with, "I can’t remember if this was in a letter or not, but..."
We use his playing cards, which feature images of locally created artworks, and my board, a folding wooden one that belonged to my grandmother.
We cut the deck, he wins first crib; we play, fuelled by tea (me) and black coffee (him), which he says is the last of his vices after quitting smoking and abstaining from alcohol for the past three years.
He congratulates me on good hands, and laments with me when my hand holds only a point or two. He counts his cards slowly, and I let him know when he short-changes himself. We laugh a lot. He wins.
When the game is over, I spread out the half-dozen envelopes he’d sent, each one hand-addressed with the same all-caps letters in black ink. Inside, every note is different — some typed on the computer, one on a typewriter, one hand-written.
Some of the content was related to the album, some of it was more personal. Almost all of it ended with the same signoff at the bottom: "Best, yrs, jks."
The beefiest of the bunch contains a preview of the record’s liner notes, complete with all the lyrics to the 15 songs on the unusually long album, which Samson, 43, calls "a bit of a sprawler," a phrase he uses both in print and in person. The songs took four years to write, which he deems about average for him at this point.
It wasn’t until Samson was tasked with writing a song honouring the writing of local author Miriam Toews that the idea of winter wheat turned into a song, and, consequently, a viable choice for a title.
"It emerged kind of slowly, and then all of a sudden," he says of the title and title track. "I always felt this was sort of a record about rehabilitation, I feel like almost all the songs have some kind of urge towards that... I feel like all the ideas of the record are contained within that song, in a way."
Originally, Samson had intended for Winter Wheat to have 12 songs, but his producer, collaborator, fellow singer-songwriter and wife of 12 years, Christine Fellows, strongly suggested he add three more.
"I had 12 and then Christine told me that it wasn’t done," he says with a laugh. "So I got really mad and frustrated, and then I wrote three more songs, and I have to say she was totally right."
Samson speaks of Fellows with unwavering admiration, respect and love; she is his partner in every sense. She doesn’t pull punches when it comes to critiques of his work which he, begrudgingly, appreciates. They are currently the Millennium Library’s writers in residence. Fellows is also part of the Winter Wheat band.
"I feel like she’s been my editor and collaborator for 15 years now and so it’s a very natural process. Our creative lives are twinned to the point where we can’t really separate them anymore, I don’t think. She certainly pushes me and we frustrate each other because we are merciless about editing," he says, laughing.
"It can get frustrating but it’s always worthwhile. I do feel like my writing is… I mean no one’s writing is just their writing, but mine especially is not just my own, it’s hers as well.
"Having her as the co-producer of this record was... I can’t really overestimate how important that was to me."
Fellows isn’t the only family member whose name can be found in the liner notes; the album art, a painting of Grand Valley near Brandon, was created by Samson’s uncle, David Owen Lucas, in 2009. The painting, and the series it was a part of, had a "huge impact" on Samson and entered his mind a lot as he was writing.
"Since I started making music, I’ve always wanted to work with David, and so this was like… I finally managed to make it work," says Samson. "I’m extremely happy about that, it’s one of the things I’m happiest about this record, for sure."
Winter Wheat is Samson’s first release since 2012’s Provincial, a record that was almost universally lauded by fans and critics alike, even snagging a long-list spot for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize that year.
That album might have been some listeners’ introduction to Samson, but he has been a staple of the local music scene for more than two decades, starting with punk outfit Propagandhi before moving on to front the Weakerthans.
The indie-rock foursome, and Samson’s lyrics specifically, became a voice for the city; a critical one, sure, but one that always had an underlying feeling of affection. One Great City, from their 2003 album Reconstruction Site, introduced pockets of music fans all over the world to the uniquely strong love-hate relationship many of us have with this city.
Samson carried that regional writing style into his solo work, and on Winter Wheat has penned a song that may rival One Great City in terms of Winnipeg-specific references.
Oldest Oak at Brookside touches on the new airport, the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, our obsession with the cold, malathion use to battle mosquitoes, the placement of Winnipeg on Treaty 1 land and even takes a quick jab at the new Jets logo, among other things in its brief 2:33 running time:
"Before we built that smirking airport, before the phones told us where to go, before the strike, before the streetcar, before we read comics on the radio. Long before we found a way to gauge the coldest day," he sings.
Being dubbed a "Winnipeg writer" doesn’t bother Samson; he said in one of his early letters that he has always enjoyed the label. "I feel like this city is an endlessly interesting collection of themes and places I want to explore," he wrote.
In relation to that, he mentioned briefly that he has begun to think of himself as a Treaty 1 writer, saying Idle No More spurred thoughts on the spirit and intent of the treaties. He expands on that idea when we speak:
"I feel like sort of Idle No More led me to that idea, and I think of it in the sense of the spirit and intent of the treaties, not in the way they’ve been administered by the settler culture which is pretty unjust, but also just thinking of it as a framework for an artist and having that as the primary identifier changes the way you look at the place where you’re from and it’s a constant reminder of where we actually are, which is on indigenous land," he says.
"So that to me is just really helpful and really inspiring; it’s kind of just changed the prism of how I look at my work and it’s also expanded the borders of my work a little bit, both metaphorically and physically, so I feel like a more… like I can step outside of Winnipeg, I’m more and more interested in the small town and in the smaller communities that are outside of Winnipeg. I feel like I’m slowly moving outwards a little bit."
Samson draws in a lot of his inspiration from outside sources, be it books, films, places or other songwriters, with each song on this album tied to a specific piece of reference material.
Three of the songs on the new album are inspired by or are responses to work by Neil Young, an artist whose influence, he says, goes "much beyond admiration."
Opening track Select All Delete is a response to Young’s Walk On, from his album On the Beach; Vampire Alberta Blues is inspired by Young’s track of a similar name, Vampire Blues and his Honor the Treaties tour; and VPW 13 Blues (yes, the public access station) was inspired by Young’s Ambulance Blues.
Young’s writing style, too, has informed how Samson approached Winter Wheat. "There’s something about his work that’s very generous, that allows the listener to do so much work on their own that I really respect," Samson says.
"I feel like I’m a real structure-based narrative songwriter, and for this record I really wanted to loosen that a little bit and kind of be more reflexive, like Neil Young is, and more imagistic and create at least a few songs that wouldn’t immediately impress an obvious storyline onto the listener. I think there’s a few songs on the record that would have been out of place on my previous records that are sort of like that."
The first single from the record, Postdoc Blues, was released in early September; the response was, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly positive, with fans flocking to Twitter and Facebook to express their delight and anticipation to hear the rest of the album.
When I ask if he knows about the favourable buzz, Samson simply shakes his head.
"Nothing?" I ask.
"No," he shrugs while sipping his coffee.
"It was an explosion of, ‘Oh my God, this record is coming out,’ and everyone was very excited."
"Well, that’s nice."
"Is that exciting for you to hear?"
"Um, no," he says, laughing.
Despite praise for his songwriting from critics the world over, Samson remains almost painfully humble; his previous successes don’t relieve any of the anxiety surrounding the release of new material, and the current success of his newest singles seem to somehow only amplify his concern.
"That makes me worried about people’s expectations. It is a very… I feel like it’s an unusual record, and it’s very small and direct, I mean musically, it’s kind of small and direct. It’s a puzzle and I’m sort of surprised by it which delights me, but I’m not sure that everyone is going to feel the same way," he says.
"But it has nothing to do with me now, it’s something else, it has its life, whatever that life is, it’s not mine anymore, so I sort of have to shield myself from both good and bad."
Many artists find a catharsis in writing about pain — heartbreak, grief or illness — but for Samson, the opposite is true. When he began writing the songs for Winter Wheat, he experienced a particularly drastic period of depression and anxiety that limited the amount of work he could do — usually just three hours a day — which he wrote "made the process stretch out over months."
When we broach the topic in person, my question about how much he wanted to reveal publicly was met with a long pause.
"I feel some obligation to be open about it but I also feel some obligation to not," he says. "I’ve struggled with these things like a lot of people do for my whole life, I feel like I’ve had these problems, these mental-health issues, and they become more and less acute over different periods of time.
"And I feel like the last couple years, they’ve become more acute and more kind of... they’ve emerged as a more powerful force in my life that I’ve needed to confront in a more direct way than I ever have before."
He credits Fellows and co-producer and former Weakerthans drummer Jason Tait with being an incredibly supportive and patient team behind him, and says the routine of working every day, even just for a few hours, was good to have in place.
"I’m still doing work, I’ve been in therapy for at least a dozen years now and that’s been enormously helpful for me, too. So I feel like I’ve been lucky that I found those supports."
He has been an outpatient of the Crisis Response Centre — a facility that offers walk-in assessment and treatment for people dealing with a mental health crisis — for about six months, and says he is now on anti-depressants that are helping him "enormously."
"I’m feeling good, I’m feeling quite good now, actually," he says. "I’m still doing work, I’ve been in therapy for at least a dozen years now and that’s been enormously helpful for me, too. So I feel like I’ve been lucky that I found those supports."
He says he’s concerned about the accessibility of treatment, both in terms of cost and doctor-patient ratio, not necessarily for himself but for others.
And he says he’s worried about people who are in a similar situation to his but who have fewer supports outside of the system.
Samson manages to lighten the mood in his own endearingly honest way, saying many people weren’t as surprised as he suspected they would be when he started speaking more candidly about his mental-health issues.
"I’ve never really spoken about it to people outside of my family and friends, and I have a great community there, but on the other hand, when I do tell people I don’t know as well, they aren’t surprised," he says, laughing.
"To me, I’m like, ‘Isn’t that a surprise to you?’ And they’re like, ‘Um, no, it’s not really a big surprise.’
"Because, you know, I think it’s evident in my writing, it’s a theme that’s run through my writing forever, so now I just feel like it’s a little bit more explicit, so that’s kind of where I’m at with it."
Last spring, an ominous Tweet by Tait sent Weakerthans fans into a tizzy; the band was, apparently, done.
Even though it had been more than seven years since the Weakerthans had released a record, the news came as a shock to many who were holding out hope that new music could be in the cards.
No official confirmation of the dissolution has come from any of the members, and Samson isn’t about to change that; he says there are no plans to make any new music, but adds it’s not outside the realm of possibility that one day, the Weakerthans could play together again.
"We consider ourselves cryogenically frozen, so if there are scientific advancements..." he says with a chuckle. "I just feel like I can’t think of a band that’s broken up and not gotten back together."
"Reunion Tour the reunion tour?" I ask.
"Yeah, we were prescient about that title, I think. It’s funny; it’s funnier now even than it was before," he says with a smile.
The Weakerthans aren’t really gone, though; the songs live on in Samson’s solo sets, which he now performs with the Winter Wheat, a band that contains two Weakerthans members — Tait on drums and bass player Greg Smith.
"I’ve been performing Weakerthans songs at my solo shows for years now, but never in a band setting. It felt good to hear hem in that way again," he wrote after his trip to the Brandon Folk Festival with the band during the summer.
And the connections to his former group continue within Samson’s solo work as well. For longtime fans, a familiar name waits at the end of Winter Wheat: Virtute.
The fictional cat has popped up on two Weakerthans records, and, in a way, makes a double appearance on Winter Wheat — in the final track, Virtute at Rest, more plainly, but also in 17th Street Treatment Centre, a song that touches on the theme of addiction in the most obvious way on the record, the narrator of which Samson thought of as the human companion of Virtute.
Virtute at Rest, then, became the words of the cat, resurrected in the mind of that recovering narrator; it’s brief and sweet, and simple in its execution, featuring just Samson’s voice and his guitar. He considers the song a "strange gift," as it came to him fully formed — his songs usually don’t — and was one of the last songs added to the album.
"Virtute at Rest came to me almost complete and when I needed it, so it was something that I took great comfort in and so I was really grateful for it," he says.
"I wasn’t certain whether I should put it on the record or not but I decided to. I think it’s a nice sort of conclusion to that story and I sort of like looking at it over the years as a way I’ve used to gauge how I’ve changed as a person...
"It went from Plea from a Cat Name Virtute, which was very large and and broad, and then the next song, Virtute the Cat Explains her Departure is smaller, and this one (Virtute at Rest) is whittled down just to one voice and one instrument, so it felt like where that person had landed. And I didn’t want to leave that person out there, alone.
"It’s a little bit of closure for both of them."
As I pack up the pile of letters after our interview, making sure to match the right papers with right envelopes, he tells me he has saved mine too, filed away in his office, reinforcing the sense of confidentiality in this process between two former strangers.
The last note I got from him, dated Aug. 24, was a small card with little pictures of golden paper airplanes dotting the front.
He apologized for his delay in providing a longer response to my questions and assured me a letter was coming.
"Hope the last days of August are bright and clear," he concluded. "Yrs, John K."
Winter Wheat will be released Oct. 21; Samson and his band, the Winter Wheat, will mark the occasion with a pair of shows at the West End Cultural Centre Nov. 4 and 5.
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.