John K. Samson Explores the Inner Workings of 'Winter Wheat'

John K. Samson Explores the Inner Workings of 'Winter Wheat'
Photo: Cody Penner
Throughout John K. Samson's time leading the much-beloved and now-defunct Weakerthans, plus his burgeoning solo career that saw him release his 2012 debut Provincial, the Winnipeg troubadour has emerged as one of Canada's most talented songwriters. His lyrics tell fascinating stories and have often captured the distinct feelings of both rural and urban Canada.

Samson's second solo album, Winter Wheat, is a wide-ranging case study in songwriting that is both a tremendous step forward and a return to form for the 43-year-old. The 15-song album, out now on Anti-, finds him telling stories of idiosyncratic characters both new and old, and conducting thought experiments to push the boundaries of his storytelling, while also using his lyrics to address what he feels are important social and political issues of our time.

Winter Wheat is quite heavily influenced by Neil Young's revered 1974 album On the Beach, both in sound and concept (even including the fact that both albums have three songs with the title suffix "Blues"). Perhaps the most Young-esque song is "Vampire Alberta Blues" (a play on the On the Beach track "Vampire Blues"), in which Samson, also inspired by Young's anti-oil Honour the Treaties tour, laments the reliance of the Canadian economy on the Alberta oil sands.

"I would like to say overtly and directly what I've always felt: That fossil fuel extraction is not tenable, and there's no future to it, and that once a place is destroyed, it is destroyed," Samson tells Exclaim! "You can't bring it back. I'm opposed to the pipelines and the tar sands, and I feel like I want to be direct and open about that.

"It's a broader song than I generally make, but again that was inspired by the way [Young] can make these broad, painterly political songs, and also make these detailed, emotional songs. So I wanted to try that out."

Addiction to computers and mobile technology is also referenced in at least two Winter Wheat songs, "Carrie Ends the Call" and "Select All Delete." Inspired by personal experience as well as a book by Vancouver writer Michael Harris called The End of Absence, Samson addresses what he feels is a need to be more mindful of how much attention we give to our devices.

"I've had some very difficult times with screens, to the point where I've had to actually shut down a lot of my access to them," he says. "I do think it's a failure of the psychological and psychiatric world that it isn't recognized as an addiction, officially. They're always quite slow and careful and deliberate in labelling something as addiction, but the DSM-5 doesn't include it, and I think it should.

"I think it's incredibly obvious to most of us that this is an actual addiction, and there needs to be more open and forthright discussion about it. I feel like anyone who does bring it up is shouted down as a luddite. I don't feel that way. There are wonderful things about screens and the Internet, and it's democratized and empowered so many fields and so many people, but I do feel we have to be aware of the drawbacks and the very real erosion of some people's mental health due to these advancements."

Samson has incorporated his hometown into his songwriting so much — most famously with the Weakerthans' song "One Great City!" and his solo sequel "Heart of the Continent" — that he was even named the city's art ambassador for music, and Winter Wheat continues this tradition. "Oldest Oak at Brookside," named after Winnipeg's historic cemetery, finds him delving deeper into the city's history and making yet more discoveries in his ongoing search for understanding of the place he calls home.

"I wanted to situate myself in the context of the history of this place, and recognize how fleeting and insignificant my time is here — and taking comfort in that, in a way. This place has been here for millennia, and I thought using an oak tree — which can live 200 years or more — as a measurement of time seemed like an interesting way to think about the history of this place. It was fun to think about it in a very long way," he says.

"I'm constantly not sure what I think about this place, and I can't really figure it out. That's sort of what propels me as a writer, in a lot of ways. It's trying to understand this place and recognizing that I probably won't. The lens of Winnipeg is really valuable to me, but I don't feel like I'm an expert or anything. I still get surprised by this place."

While Samson didn't go to university himself, he says many of his friends are academics and he can empathize with the frustrations encountered in their profession. In "Postdoc Blues," he offers some words of encouragement for those who find themselves wrapped up in cynicism.

"Academics are often people who have done exceptional thinking on very important things that we should pay more attention to, and I feel that a lot of them are labouring in the margins of our culture, and that the academy itself does a lot of work to marginalize them. I recognize their plight, I think. I'm interested in that life, and I wanted something hopeful [and] unabashedly optimistic, because I feel like so much of [their] work can get quite pressing, given the state of the world. I based the end of the song on a book called Active Hope that I really enjoyed."

Two of the most fiercely beloved Weakerthans songs — "Plea from a Cat Named Virtute" and "Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure" — both involve the story of a cat and her depressed, alcoholic owner. On Winter Wheat, not just one but two of the songs involve those characters.

"I didn't think it would be finished," Samson says of the story. "I thought that the last chapter of that story left the human companion alone in a very bad, frightening place, and the cat gone feral. I didn't really see a way that there could be any more story."

His wife and producer Christine Fellows then handed him parts of a song that would become "17th Street Treatment Centre," written about the man's recovery. And with the album's final song, "Virtute at Rest," Samson felt compelled to end the story in a not-so-bleak way.

"I suddenly had this idea that perhaps with this person, through work, through the labour of therapy and treatment, and through pharmaceuticals and struggle, there would be a softening in his mind that would allow that cat to reappear, and they would be able to accept what was offered and would be able to carry that forward," he explains. "I was really grateful for that. It came to me when I needed it."

Samson has a series of Canadian tour dates lined up in support of Winter Wheat, and you can see those below, where you'll also find a full stream of the album and a video for "Postdoc Blues."

Tour dates:

11/04 Winnipeg, MB - West End Cultural Centre
11/05 Winnipeg, MB - West End Cultural Centre
11/08 Toronto, ON - The Mod Club
02/02 Vancouver, BC - The Imperial