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First Play: John K. Samson, Winter Wheat plus track-by-track guide

Judith Lynch

John K. Samson has had the title for his upcoming album, Winter Wheat, in mind for almost four years. Now the album is finally here, almost. CBC Music is pleased to offer an advance stream of the album before it’s released next week. Samson spoke to us from his home in Winnipeg (where he was cooking quinoa) and took us track-by-track through Winter Wheat and some of his sources of inspiration for the album, including Neil Young’s On the Beach, the work of Miriam Toews, a riveting film about the impact of the oil industry and a mid-20th-century art critic/Cold War spy.


'Select All Delete'

"I was responding to [the Neil Young] album, On The Beach. I was commissioned to write some songs for the 50th anniversary of the Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers and they wanted to put on a show that had something to do with Neil Young because he's from Winnipeg. So I decided that I would focus on that record, On the Beach, which I've always really loved and which has always sort of puzzled and delighted me. Musically and lyrically I feel like it's extremely prescient in a way. Young has this way of writing that's really generous, I feel, to the listener. It allows the listener to project and kind of claim the songs in a way that is sort of unique. So I've always just found a lot in those songs. 'Walk On' is the first song on the record so it's the first song that I tackled for that project last year. I wanted to kind of update the ideas in 'Walk On.' I wanted to update the song to modern technology and I also wanted to start to think about a theme that runs through the record which is this idea of nostalgia. This writer, Michael Harris, wrote this really interesting book called The End of Absence and in it, he kind of posits that people who have grown up with and without the internet ... We’re the kind of last people who will know both worlds so there are certain things that we should safeguard from the time before the internet. So yeah, that’s kind of what I was thinking about in that song."

'Postdoc Blues'

"There's a passage in the middle of [the book Active Hope] that's sort of a creed. And it's something that I printed out and put on my fridge and I read it every morning and a sort of shorthand version of it is the last part of [this] song. The last stanza, which is '... So take that laminate out of your wallet and read it,' that whole section is sort of crib notes of this creed that I found in the book."

'Winter Wheat'

"[It was inspired by] the last section of [Miriam Toews'] A Complicated Kindness and the first section of her new book, All My Puny Sorrows. There's a scene at the beginning of All My Puny Sorrows where the father makes a visor with his hand and is staring out at their house as the house is moved away. I just loved that image. And I had come up with the title for my record, Winter Wheat, like three or four years ago [when] I became really interested in this crop and its metaphorical possibilities. This idea that it's planted in the fall and sprouts and then goes dormant through the winter and then rises in the spring. I found that to be a very powerful image. I sort of always had that in the back of my mind that I wanted to write a song about that, and ... reading Miriam's work again I was suddenly struck by the fact that that sort of applies really well to much of her writing. So I just read the last chapter of A Complicated Kindness over and over again and then kind of wrote a song kind of inspired by that. I lift a line from Miriam: it's '... we know this world is good enough because it has to be'. I came to that sentiment in the book and thought, 'That's exactly what I want the heart of this record to say.' Not this idea that we should be complacent about how the world is, but the fact that we have to accept certain things about who we are and we have to survive."


"My friend Erika MacPherson has been making a film about her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother and their story of imigration from Iceland to Winnipeg. Winnipeg has the highest concentraton of Icelandic heritage outside of Iceland. So Christine (my partner) and I went to Iceland with Erika and shot a whole bunch of stuff and I composed this song when we got home [that's] sort of about Erika's story [and] what she's trying to accomplish."

'Oldest Oak at Brookside'

"This song is addressed to the oldest oak tree in Winnipeg's Brookside Cemetery. Brookside is the larges civic cemetary in Western Canada and contains more than 200,000 graves. The first internment was in 1876."


"[Inspiried by the documentary, The Overnighters.] Oh my god, such a good movie! I highly recommend it. It really moves me because it's the story of fossil fuel extraction from like, an atomic level, its effects on individuals and, in this case, workers in the [unintelligible] oil field and just how very used and abused and mistreated [they were]. There were so many images from it that really stick with me, but one [that] was the kind of theme for this movie was that all of these workers have no place to live because there's no housing so they're staying in this church and the church parking lot. ... [All] these really fascinating people ... are sleeping in their cars and trucks, so that line that 'the payday lonely prey in parking lots' [or] 'a one bar wifi kinda town' [were] kind of the images that came to me."

'17th Street Treatment Centre'

"[It's] from the point of view of the human companion of Virtute the cat, several years after we last saw him in "Virtute the Cat Explains her Departure", on the Weakerthans record, Reunion Tour."

'Vampire Alberta Blues'

"This was directly inspired by 'Vampire Blues' off On the Beach which is a really interesting song. [It was] also inspired by Young's kind of broad sides that I really enjoy ... songs like "Alabama" and "Southern Man" and also his Honor the Treaties tour. I thought [that tour] was incredibly inspiring. Neil Young went into a kind of hostile territory of the Alberta tar sands and laid out his argument as an artist and as a human being and he didn't back down from it. He was very overt and forthright about how he felt about it and the importance, so I wanted to kind of follow his lead there and write something like he would. Well, maybe he wouldn't.... I don't want to speak for him but I just kind of thought that would be [a quietly scathing indictment of the oil industry]. I felt like it was inevitable that I would have to write about that on this record. It seeps into every part of our lives, this addiction we have to fossil fuels, and it's something that we have to face. I was just like 'I kinda have to speak directly on this record in some way.'"

'Carrie Ends the Call'

"I thought a lot about [Neil Young's] song called 'Motion Pictures for Carrie' which is a song on On the Beach. It's a love song and it feels to me that it's a love song to someone who is far away. I wanted to kind of switch it around and write something from the point of view of someone who stayed to someone who left. Who they care about, right? So I took that idea — the idea of Carrie and that Neil Young song — and thought, 'What would it be if Carrie was from Winnipeg and stayed in Winnipeg and the Neil-like protagonist of 'Motion Pictures for Carrie' left Winnipeg?"... in a kind of contemporary setting. So yeah it kind of let me also think about the technologies that are advancing so swiftly and they kind of, I feel like, have in some ways overtaken us. That we're still kind of developing a way to respond and deal with technological advances. So, you know, Skype to me is a nightmare. Like it's just [laughs] like, it's the worst thing that I can think of. I just hate it so much. So I kind of wanted to write about that feeling of not enjoying that. And also this idea of the people that leave, and kind of encouraging them. I'm not one of those people that say 'people should stay,' but when they do leave, it's changed, right? The place that they leave is changed and that person is changed so we have to kind of accept and come to terms with that."

'Fellow Traveller'

"Oh man, that Miranda Carter book Anthony Blunt: His Lives — it's one of my favourite biographies of all time. I've always been fascinated by that era of politics. Of Cold War, mid-20th-century espionage and communism and state communism and social movements and all those things that surround it. And I feel like Anthony Blunt has always just been someone who really interested me. He was one of the Cambridge spies. He went to University of Cambridge and was recruited by the Soviet intelligence apparatus and he gave secrets to the Soviets 'cause he became a secret agent for Britain in the Second World War. So he was a double agent and he was handing secrets off to the Soviets who were allies at the time — I think that's an important point — but he continued to kind of help them out after the war. He confessed in the early '60s and was kind of outed — in more ways than one, I feel — by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

"I was thinking about that day that the press kind of ganged up on him. The day after Thatcher named him and all this homophobia was also unleashed at the same time because he was gay. I just found that moment in his life really interesting. So I wanted to write something about that moment and about that day. And so it's not even close to being an accurate portrait of Sir Anthony Blunt. It's just sort of inspired by that.

"And also I was excited to write a song set in London not in Winnipeg."

'Quiz Night at Looky Lou's'

"[It's] very loosely inspired by this Charles Portis book that I really loved (Masters of Atlantis) and also this idea of delusions and mental illness. That's something that I've struggled with for a long time and it's become more acute in recent times. So I felt like I had some insight into kind of delusional thinking. This character just kind of came to me and I wanted to explore it a little bit. So there's two songs about this character, 'Quiz Night at Looky Lou's' and 'Alpha Adapt.' 'Quiz Night At Looky Lou's' [is] a story about a man who believes that he's part of a secret society of people who can communicate with their minds. And in this case the character can sing to people with his mind and control their actions. It's kind of that classic.... what they talk about in cognitive behavioural therapy: the thought trap of thinking that you know what other people are thinking and kind of like obsessing on that. So I feel like for this character it was a way to try and kind of master that or live with that. So he comes up with this idea that he'll develop this quiz night that he'll take around to bars. I thought about this guy kind of going around small town Canada putting on this quiz night for a 'reasonable fee and a place to sleep' and using that as a kind of secret way to search for people who are like him."

'Alpha Adept'

"A happy(ish) ending for the narrator of 'Quiz Night At Looky Lou's.'"

'Prayer for Ruby Elm'

"Composed for Erika MacPherson's film May We Grow, about an elm tree threatened by Dutch elm disease which is a very common problem in Winnipeg."

'VPW 13 Blues'

"VPW 13 was a public access television channel here in Winnipeg and it really trained and encouraged a few generations of artistic workers. It was volunteer-run television and people had these really quirky and unusual and kind of delightful shows that they did and it was all crude and developed by people who had come up from the community and it was this beautiful example, I feel, of democratizing a corporate art form. So it was lovely and I feel like the internet has empowered a whole bunch of people to communicate in ways that they haven't been able to before. But there's something about the collaborative aspect of what a thing like VPW was that is kind of lost sometimes, I feel. So I wanted to kind of remember that collaborative spirit that I feel is sometimes missing in our world today."

'Virtute at Rest'

"From the perspective of Virtute the cat, resurrected in the brain of her recovering human companion."

John K. Samson's Winter Wheat will be available on Oct. 21. You can pre-order the album here.

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