Published Jan 24, 2012It's hard to imagine a songwriter more qualified to write an entire album about Manitoba than John K. Samson, who has long used his home province as a source of inspiration, and was even named Winnipeg's Musical Arts Ambassador in 2010. On this solo LP, the Weakerthans frontman favours the personal over the political, and these 12 songs examine the lives of everyday Manitobans in intimate and frequently harrowing detail. Hushed folk waltz "The Last And" tells of a schoolteacher mourning the end of an affair with a married co-worker, while "When I Write My Master's Thesis" acts as a cathartic, hard-hitting middle finger to post-graduate ennui. Most affecting of all is "Heart of the Continent," a sequel to the Weakerthans' 2003 classic "One Great City!" (Yes, the "I hate Winnipeg" song), filled with emotional uppercuts like, "As I stand before an unresponsive automatic door/Just another door that won't open for me anymore." These songs aren't so much descriptions of life in Manitoba as they are glimpses into human frailty, and just about anyone, even those not from Samson's province, will be able to relate.
The album began as a series of seven-inches. Was it always meant to turn into a full-length?
No, it wasn't, but it kind of just rolled into becoming one. I decided to do this project of three seven-inches covering three different sections of road in Manitoba. And then after I did two, I realized I wanted it to be four ― there wanted to be two more sections, and also one about home. And then it just kind of started to make sense to make it into a full-length. I also had this little fantasy that if someone were to have a couple of days free, and were to come to me with in a car, I could take them to the site of each song. I could go and point out the exact location of each song. I thought that would be kind of cool to have a record like that. Then I started to talk to Paul Aucoin, who became the producer of the record and who's been a good friend and someone I've really admired musically for a long time, and we started talking about ways that we could rearrange the songs that we'd already done and work on the other songs that I had. It started to make a lot of sense to do it this way.
You mentioned that it's about roads. Why roads?
It's about stretches of road. I would take points on a stretch of road and try to explore and make a musical map, in a way. That's the only way I can describe it really: a musical map of four different stretches of road in Manitoba.
Are the characters and scenarios imagined or real?
A little bit of both, actually. There are certainly stories that I made up, but even those are based on research I did. The songs "When I Write My Master's Thesis" and "Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San" are both kind of based on research I did on this sanatorium that was in Ninette, Manitoba, from 1915 to 1973, and it treated tuberculosis patients. I just found it a really fascinating place, so those characters both rose out of that experience. And then there's an online petition in song about [hockey player] Reggie Leach ["www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle"], and that song rose out of the town of Riverton. I spent a lot of time there and Reggie has a large presence there. He's got a street named after him, the arena and a mural. So there was real and then there were entirely fictionalized characters as well.
The Reggie song might be the first song I've ever heard of with a URL for a title.
I was hoping so; I don't know if it is the first or not. I thought it was kind of useful. I didn't do it when I put the seven-inch out. It was recorded in a different way. And then I was disappointed at how many signatures I actually got, so I thought, "Actually, it should be just the URL as the title," because it is an online petition ― that's what the song is. My fantasy is that when I'm done touring and working on this record, I'll have a goodly amount of signatures to submit to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
You mentioned doing research for some of the songs. What did that research entail?
A lot of it just involved driving around and spending time in each place that I was writing about, and talking to people there, talking to strangers and talking to local historians. Especially in Riverton, there were a couple local historians who were really helpful and interesting. There was a lot of that, and I went to the Manitoba archives and the local history room at the Winnipeg library and had a really enjoyable time tracking things down and researching in a pretty open way ― just things that interested me. It was fun; I enjoyed it a lot.
You famously sang about how much you hated Winnipeg. How do you feel about the city and the province now that you've examined it with a full album?
I have to say that I still offer 100 American dollars to anyone who can prove that I have ever said that I hate Winnipeg. In "One Great City!," the song, it's a dollar store employee, a bus full of people and a statue that say, "I hate Winnipeg"; I never have. But I think Winnipeg has been a theme of my writing since I figured out that I wanted to be a writer. I don't feel like I have any better a handle on it, but I think it's something that I'll be writing about for the rest of my life. I think Winnipeg is made up of small towns; it's like a whole bunch of small towns under this medium-sized city umbrella ― maybe all cities are. But getting out and exploring even smaller communities that orbit Winnipeg's sun as a centre, I found really interesting too. It gave me a new perspective on both small towns and bigger cities. It was a fun process, but I'm not sure I'm any closer to knowing what I think about it all.
Like "One Great City!," "Heart of the Continent" takes its name from a Winnipeg slogan. Is it intended as a sequel?
It's quite a vague sequel, but it is. That was my idea; I used the same chords and the same fingerpicking structure as "One Great City!" It's kind of a cannibalized version of it, a darker and maybe more serious version of it. An aging version of it, I think. Thanks for noticing that; I thought that would be a little more obvious than it is. People have been going, "Y'know that it sounds a lot like your other song?" And I'm like, "Well, yeah, I know."
How did making a solo album differ from making an album with the Weakerthans?
Well, it certainly had its challenges. I'm really grateful for the fellowship, camaraderie and the musical connection I have with them. Partly, there was some vertigo at first. But I got to work with a really wide variety of musicians, and my producer, Paul Aucoin, was certainly helpful, and my mixer, Cam Loeppky, who's done sound for the Weakerthans for 15 years. I had a real community of people on the record that helped me out. And the core band are an interesting and solid group. Doug Freisen and Doug MacGregor, and Chuck and [Shotgun] Jimmie are the core of the rock band songs, and they're very solid and I feel really comfortable with them.
Who's that singing on "Taps Reversed"?
That's my wife, Christine Fellows. That last song is about home; I wanted to end the record at home instead of leaving the listener out on the road somewhere. That's a song that we wrote together and we recorded in in our living room, and you can hear all three of our animals at the end clacking their feet around. I wanted to end it on a domestic note.
Why did you set these songs aside for a solo record instead of bringing them to the Weakerthans and turning it into the next Weakerthans record?
That's a valid question and I'm not entirely sure why. I don't know that my answer's very good; it just seemed like the songs themselves dictated something else, like it would require a lot of different people to do and a lot of different sounds. That isn't to say that the Weakerthans are limited in any way ― those guys can play tons of things and are very exceptional musicians ― but the way the project started, I had a little bit of time off and I wanted to do a little project. I did this series of little projects by myself and put them together. It seemed, at some point, that if it was going to be a Weakerthans record then they should have had access to the process much earlier than where I was at. I feel like the record itself sort of dictated the idea.
You put out a solo album about 19 years ago [1993's Slips and Tangles].
I don't think that qualifies; it was a cassette tape. I made, like, 30 copies of it. It's juvenilia; I don't consider it a record.
Will we have to wait another 20 years for the next solo collection?
It's totally possible, actually; we're going to start working on another Weakerthans record as soon as possible. I'll be out touring for a bit for this. But we're already starting to think about it. I'm looking forward to that; I'm looking forward to getting back into that culture again. So, who knows? It might be another 20 years. That wouldn't be so bad.
Do the Weakerthans have any concrete plans?
No, it's very vague. I mean, it's vague, but we know we're going to get together and play music; we just don't know where that's going to lead us. We just lifted the corner up on some songs late last year and then put them away. We're all doing different things for at least the first half of this year and then we'll see how it goes. I can tell you that we'll be working on it, but I don't know how long that work will last. (Epitaph)