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John K. Samson on Neil Young, the role of the artist and the making of his new record, Winter Wheat

Judith Lynch

John K. Samson, the principal songwriter and lead singer for Winnipeg's the Weakerthans, is a thoughtful musician known for writing music about the parts of Canada that often don't get the attention they deserve.

An activist and keen observer, he draws some of his musical inspiration from struggles — his own and those of others — and subtle acts of bravery. On Winter Wheat, an album four years in the making, Samson articulates his feelings on our addiction to fossil fuels, coping with technological advances and ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations. There are also a handful of songs that either reference, respond to or are otherwise inspired by Neil Young's 1974 record, On the Beach. It's a record that continues to puzzle and delight Samson, so it's no surprise that its influence turns up again and again on Winter Wheat.

Samson spoke to CBC Music about his relationship with that record, his definition of the artist's role and the nightmare that is Skype.

What is it about On the Beach that puzzles you?

There’s something really strange about it. Musically and lyrically I feel like it’s extremely prescient in a way. Like his themes of fossil fuels and shaming and of artistic struggle are really interesting to me and I feel like Young has this way of writing that's really generous to the listener.

"Vampire Alberta Blues" is another Neil Young song that you drew influence from for "17th Street Treatment Centre."

Yes, absolutely. "17th Street Treatment Centre" was directly inspired by "Vampire Blues." It’s a really interesting song and also inspired by Young’s kind of broad sides that I really enjoy. Songs like “Alabama” and “Southern Man” and also his Honour the Treaties tour.

Tell me more about that.

Well, his Honour the Treaties tour I thought was incredibly inspiring. Neil Young went into a kind of hostile territory like the Alberta tar sands and laid out his argument as an artist and as a human being. And he didn't kind of back down from it. He was very overt and forthright about how he felt about it and the importance of it. So I wanted to kind of follow his lead there and kind of write something like he would. Well, maybe he wouldn't, I don't know [long pause]. I don't want to speak for him but, um yeah. I just kind of thought that would be —

A quietly scathing indictment of the oil industry?

Yeah, exactly. I mean I felt like it was inevitable that I would have to write about that on this record because it seeps into every part of our lives, this addiction we have to fossil fuels. And it's something that we have to face. So, I was just like, "I kinda have to speak about it directly on this record in some way."

When did you write the song?

I wrote it in January 2014. So yeah, I am concerned [about backlash] but I mean I don't want to, you know, hurt anyone's feelings but I think in the context of the record and in the context of thinking about Neil Young and in the context of thinking about what the artist’s role is, I'm hoping that it'll spark some conversation.

Tell me more about the artist’s role.

Well that's something I think about every day. The lines between what an artist should be overt about and should be, you know, [long pause]. George Saunders, the short story writer, said one time that the reason that fiction is so powerful and so political is that if you try and understand someone it makes it difficult to hate them. So you know, to me that's an important point. Politically I'm a leftist and a progressive and I think of myself as an activist in a lot of ways. And for me it's a constant thinking about how do the politics emerge in the writing, right? I feel like I try and do that by writing empathetically about other human beings, right? And I feel like that's important to do. But I think sometimes overtness is required. It's a tactic, right? So it's one of the tactics that I think is available to us as writers and one that we should use when we feel it's appropriate.

Have you ever written anything that maybe you're currently sitting on? That was almost too overt or too political?

No. I don't think so. I don't sit on anything [laughs]. Really, what you see is what you get. I write maybe like three songs a year in a good year. So I'm not hoarding anything. It's all there. It's weird sometimes even thinking of myself as a writer. I feel like I've written like 75 songs maybe? I don't know, maybe a hundred? In my life. Like, it's not a huge body of work. I'm 43. If you do the math, it's like 500 words a year or something [laughs]. But I'm not sure how people are going to react to that song. I'm concerned about it.

Concerned that it could end your career?

Oh no, no. Well maybe not. No I mean [sighs], I don't know. What's your opinion on it?

I read it as, like I said, a quietly scathing indictment of the oil industry. I'm not a huge Neil fan. I know the hits, he's a great guy but I'm not a huge fan. But I went through some of his lyrics and then I listened to your album again and thought, "Yeah this sounds like Neil."

Oh, thanks! Yeah, 'cause I do feel like that's a key to it in some ways especially that song. It's such a Neil-inspired song.

“Carrie Ends the Call” is another song inspired by Neil.

Right. So Neil Young grew up in Winnipeg and he left when he was 18. I thought a lot about his song called “Motion Pictures for Carrie,” which is a song on On the Beach and 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 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] it's just — like it's the worst thing that I can think of. I just hate it so much.

You mentioned that "Vampire Alberta Blues" was written in 2014. What was the very first song that you wrote for Winter Wheat? Or was it just a collection of songs and then you realized, "I have enough for a record here."

It was a bit of both, I have to say. So I probably started, hmm, I can't remember. It took me four years and that's about what it takes me now. So I probably started in 2012-ish. But probably more like 2013.

Were the songs recorded as you wrote them or all in a batch?

No. I wrote them all first. I wrote 12 of them and then Christine [Fellows, Samson’s partner] said it wasn't done, much to my chagrin. Which is kind of classic. I was really annoyed and then I was like, "Ah, she's right." So I wrote three more and then we started recording in my drummer Jason Tait's garage studio in January 2016.

I was told that for the first single there's a video that came about, by a chance meeting in a coffee shop.

That's right. I was sitting outside my favourite coffee shop in Winnipeg, which is called Little Sister, and I was kind of just sitting there drinking my coffee and this guy Nathan [Bowie] recognized me and came up to me and we just started talking about music. We had a really nice conversation and then he went inside to get his coffee. He came out and as he was leaving he gave me his card and said, "I make videos and if you ever think you wanna make a video, let me know." I took his card home and looked up his work online and immediately phoned him and said, "Would you make a video?" and he said, "Yes." So it was kind of this classic Winnipeg story.

Did he pick the song? Did you pick the song?

No. The label and myself pick the singles. [And] Leap Manifesto is going to be featured in the video. And I've been really inspired by their work — I don't know if you're familiar with it.

No, I'm not.

Well it was sort of started by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis and it kind of takes the crisis that our world is in right now and tries to outline a way forward that's hopeful and practical and can be initiated by us as Canadians if we want it. It's a thoughtful and inspiring organization and manifesto and something that I am encouraged and inspired by, so I was excited to kind of partner with them. Avi and the Leap team helped with the video outline a little bit. I approached them and asked if they'd like to be involved and they were really excited about that and I was really excited about that. We kind of had their manifesto in mind when brainstorming the content of the video. And Nathan did as well. So it was kind of this nice way to — like we were talking about the artist's role, this kind of nice way of being slightly more overt about what I believe. My intention.

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