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Interview: John K. Samson talks empathy and connection in his music

By Jared Davidson on April 4, 2017

John K. Samson’s influence on Canadian music is undeniable. Beginning his career with Propagandhi in the late eighties, Samson would go on to front The Weakerthans, a band that would inject credibility and poise into a Canadian music scene that was experiencing a rebirth. His folky strumming and intricately crafted lyrics influenced a generation of Canadian musicians, and many committed followers.

And while fans of The Weakerthans are unlikely to receive a new album soon (the band is on seemingly-permanent hiatus), Samson has taken his recognisable sound with him through two solo albums, Provincial and Winter Wheat, the latter of which brings Samson on tour to the Bronson Centre Theatre this Friday, April 7th.

This tour promises to be the most Weakerthans-esque tour Samson has been on in years, as he’ll be joined on stage by the band’s rhythm section: Jason Tait and Greg Smith, in addition to his partner Christine Fellows. Indeed, the band will be playing many Weakerthans songs. But Samson is clear that this is not a vanguard of the band’s return, but just another step in Samson’s career as a songwriter.

“I’ve never felt a huge distinction,” he says. “I’ve been playing Weakerthans songs as long as I’ve written them with and without the band in a way, but it feels really good now.”

These are the musicians with whom Samson has spent much of his musical career collaborating. No wonder it feels good.

At this point in his career, returning to the more-or-less constant road life that being in a large band entails is not what Samson wants. His move to solo musicianship was part of an effort to keep songwriting and performing balanced in his life. He’s whittled his workload down to three songs per year, a feat he is currently managing while serving as a Writer-in-Residence at the Winnipeg Library.

“I’ve always felt that songwriting is a part of my life, but I don’t want it to be the centre of my life,” says Samson, explaining that the Weakerthans lifestyle was not always the most conducive to good mental health for him. “This seems like a scale that is appropriate for who I am now.”

“There’s something I find very hopeful about people speaking to one another in person. I know that that sounds like a faint hope but to me there’s something profound about that.”

Samson is the kind of person who thinks deeply about the best way to live. He often writes about characters struggling through problems. His songs sometimes take the form of practical self-care advice, as with the series of songs featuring Virtute the Cat talking to her depressed owner, a series that has perhaps concluded on Winter Wheat with “Virtute at Rest.”

It is in these songs that Samson’s core message is so clearly conveyed. Samson’s characters struggle against modernity in its disregard for human suffering and long for a connection that always seems just out of reach. Which is why there’s so much sadness in his music, expressed so clearly in Samson’s quiet voice: we’re all in this together. This sadness should be explored, Samson contends.

“There’s something in the culture that demands cheer,” he says. “There’s something lost when that’s demanded of us at all times. It’s actually a condition of being human to be in sadness.”

In his music, he is trying to reach out to these characters. He is Virtute the Cat as she reminds her owner that he is strong.

The antidote that he prescribes his characters is connection: “There’s something I find very hopeful about people speaking to one another in person. I know that that sounds like a faint hope but to me there’s something profound about that.”

If there is a theme to Samson’s music, it is that connection. The kind of live performance Samson produces lives this message of intimacy and openness. It is doubtless what the crowd at the Bronson Centre will experience this Friday.


John K. Samson and The Winter Wheat perform at the Bronson Centre Theatre (211 Bronson Ave) on Friday April 7. Tickets are $20 and available online at www.spectrasonic.com or at Vertigo Records and Compact Music locations.

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