"There's something increasingly revolutionary about writing and reading": My Interview with John K Samson

If you would have told the 27-year-old me that I would meet John K Samson in Winnipeg ten years later, I probably wouldn't have believed you. But this is exactly what happened eleven days ago in a small café in Winnipeg. The poet, writer, musician and former frontman of The Weakerthans and I met for an interview while the temperatures outside reached freezing -20. I couldn't be any happier about the fact that John took one hour of his time answering questions about "Winter Wheat", why he doesn't want a Weakerthans Reunion and how the Internet is altering all of our lives (pictures taken by the lovely Melanie Braith). So here is our conversation at full length: 

Hi John! Thanks for taking the time for this interview. I want to talk about the winter in Winnipeg and of course we have to talk about your new record. The album was made during a long Winnipeg winter. Can you tell me when the songs were written and how the recording was made? 

"Winter Wheat" is another unique record by John K Samson
(left, but not leaving, bad pun, I know).
The songs were written over a four-year period from 2012 to 2016. But a lot of them were written around this project called “For The Turnstiles” which was a piece with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers about the Neil Young Album “On The Beach”. Five or six songs came together around this project and that provided the framework for the album. we began recording in early January last year. It was an interesting process. It kind of spread, I thought it would go much faster but it took a long time. It was basically me and Jason Tait sitting in his garage and trying to record. That’s how it started. Yeah, it was a difficult process in many ways. Both Jason and I were sort of struggling with mental health issues at the time that presented certain challenges. We worked two or three hours a day. That was all we could handle. That made it a longer process, but it also added to it, doing things deliberately and slower. This is a more personal record.

We’ll come back to your album later on. Let’s talk about Winnipeg for a bit. It’s my first time here, and I’ve got the impression that it takes more time to do things during these really cold months. It takes me ten minutes to layer up, for example…and you have to think about when you go outside in order to not wait at a bus stop for too long. How does the winter in Winnipeg affect you and your songwriting, but also other people here?

I think that is a really good point. I haven’t thought about it that way before. It slows time down. Everything has to be thought through. The implications of the weather have to be incorporated into everything you do. It creates spaces that perhaps – for me at least – I would not have in other climates. Once you’re inside, you stay inside. And I do feel that it isolates us, it’s very difficult for people to visit and to tour for example. Performers from away don’t come here as often in the winter so we have to invent our own entertainment for each other. I feel like that’s kind of how I started my music and how a lot of people here start. We need to entertain each other, we need to have an excuse to get together, to socialize – because it needs some fortitude to leave the house.

When we explored the city, I didn’t see any typical tourist souvenir shops. Would you say that Winnipeg is much more of an authentic city in comparison to more popular cities like Toronto or Vancouver? 

Still trying to understand this place: Even after all these years,
 John K Samson is bewildered by Winnipeg. 
Yeah, absolutely. I mean there are pockets or places like The Forks: That’s a place for people from away, but not for people living in Winnipeg. Most cities have many places like that -- to the point where cities have become entirely that. They become a parody of themselves in a way. I can certainly feel that in some cities the idea of the place is more important than the place itself. Winnipeg is different in this sense, more unique. It requires a certain determination.

Did you grow up in Winnipeg? 

Yeah, I’ve been here for 43 years now.

The city itself and Manitoba are an important topic of your work. Can you explain the fascination? 

It has something to do with still being quite bewildered by it and trying to understand this place, to come to terms with it. That is a huge part of it. I’m not sure…yeah…it's a good question. I feel like it’s also a lens that can be used to try and understand a lot of other things and other places as well. This place is on the margins, both geographically and culturally. I feel like it has a certain perspective that is valuable and useful.

It's similar in Germany: Berlin is a place that is so popular and people from all over the country move there to be cool, leaving smaller towns. The people that stay in their hometowns also have to create their own culture. But the provinces are often looked down upon.

"I believe that there is real power in the provinces",
says John K Samson. 
I believe that there is real power in the provinces. I feel like the culture increasingly is centralizing in a way that surprises me – since the Internet is supposed to be democratizing everything. But instead it feels like it’s pooling these sources of cultural authority in smaller and smaller places. So yeah, there is real power in small, independent media, which is, you know, what music comes down to.

You mentioned the Internet. One topic on “Winter Wheat” is our addiction to screens. When I wrote to you, I wrote a letter because you had a post on Facebook which said you don’t partake in social media anymore and if one wants to get in touch with you, they can send a letter. It was funny, because I wrote a draft and then copied the draft. Writing by hand felt like a new experience, it felt good. How has the decision to abandon social media affected your life? 

I don’t participate in it, but I feel like I’m still complicit and it still sort of defines me as it defines everyone. It’s weird because it goes on without us, it’s actually something that we can’t really escape. So to me it asks some interesting questions about who we are and about what we think community is. I think that community has to be physical, people sitting with one another and speaking. My decision wasn’t based on that, it was based on a gut feeling of anxiety. Social media gave me a fundamentally kind of uneasy feeling.

To be connected all the time, that you can be reached all time?

Yes, exactly. That connection really frightened me, I realized. And so when I stepped back from it, it helped. But it’s still something that I struggle with. Like I don’t want people to think that I’m somehow a role model. Because it's still something that troubles me. I try to figure it out. But I do feel like there's an addictive quality to it. That is very troubling to me.

In an interview with CBC you said that we are the last generation that experienced the time before the internet and the time after its invention. You also said there are things from that time before that we should save. 

Screens and notebooks - both important tools. 
I feel like that's true. I've been writing a lot of letters and short postcards since the record's come out. I find that a really powerful act, writing words on paper. The medium itself also alters what you say. That's an interesting problem, too.

You write poetry. Do you also write poetry that you don't use as lyrics for songs? 

Not really. Mostly, I cannibalize my poetry for my songs. I often write a poem and end up taking a line from it and using it in a song and then I feel like the poem doesn't stand on its own anymore.

So there are no poems that will be published in a book sometime later? 

No, I mean, I write really slowly and deliberately. So pretty much what you see is what there is. I think I write like 500 words a year.

Yeah, you said that in an interview, like three songs a year. And that you have to start from scratch with the songwriting. I can relate to that feeling, it's the same when I take photos: Everytime I think: Ok, what do I have to do? 

Yeah, trying to remember how. But do you have the same thing with journalism? You probably don't.

Me, trying to come up with a good question. 
Sometimes. When I write an article or when I have to come up with questions for an interview. 

I still admire journalists in that sense. They have to do that every day which I find dreadful.

It can be dreadful. But having a deadline is kind of a good thing. I have to deliver, so...

I find that really productive too. When I work with other writers I often give them deadlines. That does seem to help.

On your new album, you worked with Jason and Greg, your former band members from The Weakerthans. Could you imagine getting the band back together sometime in the future? 

Not really. I feel like it's altering, closing the focus a little bit. And making things more manageable. The Weakerthans were sort of getting away from me. It was a lot of work and I feel like having it under my own name makes it more manageable for me. It was a very natural process. Perhaps we will play together again one day...

But there are no current plans for that. 

No, no plans to do so. We play Weakerthans songs in our live sets. So I don't feel the need to do that. It's interesting what labels are. I understand it, but it's interesting to me that it doesn't feel like the same thing when you change the name.

But the people who know The Weakerthans will know the name John K Samson and buy the record, right? 

I don't know if that is necessarily true. There are people who know the band, but a lot of people don't understand how it's made. The labels become really important to people. I'm not sure what it all means. I find it all very puzzling. But I also feel like stepping back from the machine that was The Weakerthans...it was not a huge band, but narrowing and focussing the audience a bit has been helpful to me. I do feel like larger rooms don't interest me as much as smaller rooms. A smaller audience is just better for me. I'm just better as a performer and I get more out of it. This step committed that in a way. It focused my work.

Maybe it's also simpler to open up. The topics are very personal, and maybe that is easier with a smaller audience. 

I haven't thought of it that way, but that is exactly right. An intimacy has to be literal, I'm speaking about intimate things, so it should be directly to a room of people that can receive it.

And if you imagine the concerts that you go to as a fan: For me, the smaller venues always made for the best and most memorable gigs – and not the big stadium shows. 

Stadium shows wouldn't have happened with The Weakerthans. But it was still kind of larger than I wanted.

The Weakerthans and you are featured on pretty much every list of the most influential musicians. And also in Germany: You have so many fans there. 

That's sweet. I feel a certain connection to Germany because we started touring there before we started touring here. It is an important place for me.

Did the fans respond to the split? Music fans can often be demanding and give musicians a feeling of obligation, for example if you change the style. 

John K Samson is happy playing for smaller audiences. 
Weirdly, I do feel an obligation, but I kind of appreciate that obligation, for example to play old songs. I really like that, putting old songs in a set with new songs. It's an opportunity for them to interact together in a way I feel very grateful for. I'm with those people. I, for example, love Radiohead. Their guitar player is my favorite guitar player. And I wish he played more guitar. And there's some validity in feeling that. I can get on board with that.

On “Provincial” and on “Winter Wheat”, your wife Christine Fellows plays an important part in the music. How does being married to someone influence your collective creative process and vice versa – how does your music change your relationship? 

Our work has been braided together for the last decade at least. I feel like we're collaborators and everything that comes out of our house is a kind of joint project. It's hard for me to pars where her influence starts and where it ends. It's built into the work itself. I'm really lucky to have a creative partner as well as a life partner. It's really valuable.

I can imagine that her feedback on lyrics or music are more important than when it comes from another person. 

Yeah, and it's also more brutal. The editing process requires a certain amount of brutal honesty. I don't get that from anyone else. People are too kind if I show them things. They're like “Yeah, it's lovely” but what you really need as a writer is someone who says “Good try”. That's the worst words you can hear, “nice effort”. But you need people that keep pushing you until it's actually good. That's something that's rare and maybe part of our forced cheerfulness. That's also part of social media. People pretend to get along or the increase in exclamations marks. I use them all the time now and I never did. You have to force some kind of emotion into these forms so you're using emoticons. Ironically there's less honesty in our interaction. We need that as artists especially. We need complication. And I feel like so much of our culture flattens everything into the kind of love or hate.

Like or dislike.

Exactly...it's built into the language itself.

Interesting point. Social Media changes our language, the Internet changes the way people communicate – often not in a good way. 

That's true. And it leaks into the way we interact with each other which is why expression and the arts are so important. There's something increasingly revolutionary about writing and reading.

Should the arts include and reflect upon those topics or should it be like a stronghold against such new influences? 

I think it could be both. But I'm most interested in art that includes it, maybe doesn't embrace it. I feel like it's the question of our times, it's the big topic that we're all thinking about. When I speak to someone for longer than two minutes you come to this discussion about how they feel as an avatar and as a human being and how they interact, their problems with that. So I think it's unavoidable. We have to think about it and we have to make work about it. And I feel like the language itself, that's something I stumble over. These words become part of our vernacular. Some of them just don't sound right, they sound intrusive in a song. For example the word “dongle”. Is there a German word for it? If you're setting up your Powerpoint presentation the thing that goes into the computer. I mean, “dongle”, it's a horrible word. But if you say it enough, it becomes beautiful. So I use it in the song “Postdoc Blues”. When you're doing a powerpoint presentation, it's always the wrong dongle. I can't remember where, but I heard the word “cellphone” in a song and I was like “Uh, that's...”. Artists are weary of dating and locating themselves in their time. People want things to be timeless. But I feel like I don't. My favourite movie director Ingmar Bergman said he didn't expect his work to last at all. He wanted it to be like good furniture. It could be used and then thrown away. I feel the same thing. I think people are too concerned with dating themselves. It prevents us from actually engaging with our time. And that's what we should be doing, engaging with our time and place. That's why I'm interested in specifics and uniqueness in writing, descriptions. We're all in this troth of history, we can't see out from where we are. And that's ok, I guess.

We just watched “The Matrix”, and it's so strange how we thought back then “Wow, the new Nokia, what a modern phone” and today it's just nostalgia. 

It's important to experience what is beneath all our
technology: The physical community is what
really counts, says John K Samson.
(laughs) I know, so weird. When you think about the last 15 years...I was just writing something about Facebook and it's only been around for ten, eleven years now. The amount of change seems so unimaginable. And everyone says this about their own time, right? That it's so crazy and strange. It does seem like this whole idea of how microchips double in speed, what is the calculation, every 18 months or something? The capacity of our computational devices, there's a calculation about their increasing strength in ways that, like, until what, the  telegraph, 1850ies, 1830ies? Between antiquity and the telegraph, there was writing letters and speaking to each other like for 5000 years. Suddenly in the last 200 years...that's just nothing. I think about how the very art form I work in is entirely predicated on technology. I'm a recording artist, right? The recording technology has only been around for less than a hundred years. And my entire way of working circles around the center of this technology. Which is also why I feel like this idea of making things smaller is important to me. That direct interaction of me standing there playing the song at someone and then receiving it and giving something back is like...that's important to me. That connects us to actually to what is beneath all our technology.

If you play in front of an audience, you get something back, right? When you record in a studio, you're mostly alone. Isn't that playing into a void?

It's difficult, but there's also something interesting about that too. You're never alone, I'm never alone. It's always with other musicians. Even if it's just me, there's always someone, because I don't know how to do things with computers. There's always someone there assisting me. There's always a collaboration in some way. But it's true, sometimes it feels like a void, and I feel like there's a frightening doubtfulness that creeps into that. The way I used to work was more inclusive because what we used to do was: We would write songs and them play them in front of people and then record them. But almost noone does that anymore, because everyone is afraid of the devices in everyone’s hands, right? They're afraid of the process being interacted by people recording that and then having opinions on that before the fruition of the work is allowed. So I feel like that's discouraged them. People don't want to let the songs grow up in front of an audience. And I miss that. I miss performing songs and seeing what they do in a room and then reviving them.

When you have an idea for lyrics or a song, do you record it immediately or do you write it down? Or do you take the time for special songwriting sessions? 

I couldn't do it without recording devices. I use my phone now and before that I would use a cassette player and I constantly record little snatches and ideas. If I just had to remember it, it would be difficult for me. And I can't just write music.

So you catch the creativity on the spot. 

I guess. There's also something said about just sitting down and doing it. Labour, that's what it is. That's another thing that's lost in the modern understanding of modern writing. It's work, and it's useful, and it's exciting work.

Earlier on, you said that you like brutal honesty. You were a writer in residence at the University of Manitoba and you're a writer in residence at the Millenium Library at the moment. Now, in an interview you said that you get more out of that than the people presenting you their songs. In what ways? 

I like editing things. Every time you get to look into a creative process, it kind of subtly assists your own. Just in that sense that we're not alone. We're all engaged in the same struggle, that's powerful for me and I'm grateful for it. And also the things handed in are quite different from each other. It's also a political thing. I feel there shouldn't be a hierarchy of the arts. It's all the same work, whatever it is.

You went to Churchill and played a benefit concert in Churchill for the Hungry Bears Food Bank. Can you tell me about it?

It was fun, it was kind of a random thing. They approached us and it all fell together in a nice way. I always wanted to go there. It's difficult to get there from here. So I was glad to get there. It gave me more of a sense of the province. The ocean is up there, that's crazy.

It's not the only social project you've been doing. So I was wondering, what makes social activism so important to you? 

Being in a room with other people, that's what it's all about.
I don't make a distinction. It's all these things I enjoy, so it's a bit unfair to call it activism sometimes, you know? But I do feel I like situations where I meet people who I otherwise wouldn't meet. And I feel like I get a lot out of that. I work in prisons for example. Just outside of Winnipeg, I help run a book club in a prison here and then I'm part of a visiting program. And that again is more like, for me, I really love meeting people which I wouldn't encounter otherwise. Churchill was  like that, I normally couldn't get up there. And it was an example of the problems of capitalism and addressing them directly. It's a community which is under attack simply because the people who control the economy of the community have no direct investment. They're all investors from the United States. To me it seemed like such an obvious and fixable problem, and I wanted to bring attention to that. I feel like that's happening everywhere. And again, I feel like the Internet is actually contributing to that problem. It makes communities more diffuse. So yeah, always bringing the idea back to physical communities – I feel like that's everything I do, I want to come back to. Being in a room with other people.

You say it’s happening everywhere. So that means we don't have to sit and wait but everyone can do something about it, right? 

Yeah, that's true too.

It needs some motivation to get up, get out into the real world and not just sign an online petition. 

Yeah, and I feel like there's this danger of clicktivism. The exceptions of social media are wonderful. Idle No More, Black Lives Matter – the key to both of those things was, they were transposed to the real world. They brought people together in a physical place. That's the fundamental necessity that is too often overlooked.

You can listen to the current album by John K Samson, "Winter Wheat", here: