Singer/songwriter and former Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson blew us away with his full-length solo debut, Provincial, back in 2012, which nearly topped our list of the Best Songs of 2012 and remained in heavy rotation for years to follow. On his latest full-length, Winter Wheat, Samson maintains his lyrical wit and delves into the many addictions plaguing our society today, from substances to phone screens. Paste caught up with Samson about his creative process and the forces that inspire him. Read the conversation below.
Paste: One of the things that stood out to me on Winter Wheat was the overarching idea of technology as this negative force. Can you tell me about how that materialized in your writing?
John K. Samson: This record is about addictions in a way: addictions as a metaphor, and also the specific addictions that I feel are very much a hallmark of our time here on Earth.
I wanted to talk about drugs and fossil fuels, and screens just seemed like a natural addition to that. There are, of course, many wonderful, democratic and community-driven things about screens. But it’s a new and kind of massive disruption into the way we live now. So, it’s just something that naturally interested me. I find myself very attracted to screens.
I was reading this book, too. It’s called The End of Absence by a writer named Michael Harris here in Canada. He makes the point that people of my generation—I’m in my 40s now—and people a little bit younger than me, we will be the only people ever to exist on the Earth knowing the world both with and without the Internet. So there are certain things we need to safeguard from that time. That was a bit of the project with this record, was trying to recognize the great things about technological advances, but also recognize that there are things like being bored, like being alone, that are important for humans.
Paste: There was “When I Wrote My Masters Thesis” on your previous record, and now you have “PostDoc Blues.” What inspires you about academia?
Samson: I didn’t go to university myself, but a lot of my friends are academics. I really deeply admire them. I feel like they’re people that the culture should pay more attention to. They have some really remarkable ideas for how we can make the world a better place. I feel like a lot of times, the academy itself sort of marginalizes them. I’ve always been interested in those people. I see them as sort of heroic in a way—these people who are laboring in the margins, trying to put forth a new and better vision for the world. It’s not just academics, but thinkers, and writers, and activists of all kinds. That’s a character that really interests me.
Paste: What makes this a John K. Samson album rather than a Weakerthans album?
Samson: I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think the songs sort of dictated that. I wanted to make a record with Jason [Tait], who is the Weakerthans’ drummer. And Jason and myself have always been sort of the … We began playing together, as a twopiece, actually, at the very beginning. Just practicing and writing. So, I wanted to make something smaller and sort of more direct than I felt a conventional rock band approach would take. It’s not really something that I think about so much, but I recognize now, that other people do.
Paste: That makes sense. I’ve seen you mention in interviews that this record was somewhat of a response to Neil Young’s On the Beach. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Samson: I really have always been enamored and challenged by that record, On the Beach. I think it’s a really interesting record. I was actually approached by Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, which is a dance company here in Winnipeg. They wanted to do a 50th anniversary piece, and they wanted to do something to do with Neil Young because Neil Young was raised in Winnipeg, my hometown. So I came up with this idea that I would respond musically to On the Beach, and the choreographer would respond with movement, and then of joined them together and put on a show in 2014.
I found that it’s a very generous and interesting record in the sense that the lyrics are open, and wide and generous. They invite the listener to do some of the work of the storytelling. I really liked that about it. I found it really easy and interesting to respond to that as a listener, and as a writer. I think there are five songs on the record that respond to songs from On the Beach, and I found them to be nice “tent poles” for the record. They provided a structure for me to work around. I was glad to discover that.
Paste: Do you feel like you’re inspired a lot by Winnipeg and the geography of where you’re from?
Samson: Absolutely. I do feel like this place is kind of the lens through which I see everything, in a way. Or, I want to explore everything. And it provides that lens, this place. And the land itself is a big part of that. It’s a very wide, open, flat kind of expanse here in Winnipeg. So, I do feel like that has some kind of mysterious influence on me that I’m not sure how to explain. But yeah. I do feel like this place is really important to me. And I feel like I haven’t figured it out yet. I feel like it’s sort of a lifelong project for me to explore the place that I’m from, and I’m always happy and excited when I come back to trying to figure this place out. I find it endlessly interesting.