After a disturbingly friendly-weathered day, John K. Samson welcomes the subzero chill that we Winnipeggers are so familiar with. “I’m kind of relieved it’s getting a little colder. It was freaking me out yesterday. It was kind of unsettling… We need the real winter,” he explains over the phone.
His debut solo album Provincial, came out January 24 on Epitaph. Despite releasing several solo EPs in the past, Provincial is decidedly bigger, with focused Manitoba devotions, and also different than his regular Weakerthans appearance. “It was really a research-based record, and my idea was to research four different stretches of road in Manitoba and write three different songs about each of them and use techniques and research as well as exploring the places themselves and just try to use different strategies to try and get a sense of each of these places.”
“Doing something on my own was frightening,” Samson continues. “Not having the fellowship and camaraderie of the Weakerthans was hard for me because those guys are like family and we’ve been making music for 15 years and I love making music with them, but I just felt like this one had to be done in a different way.”
Topics flowed pretty naturally for the album. “My mother grew up near Ninette, Manitoba, and some of my father’s family came from Riverton, so those two spots had some built in residence for me. And Winnipeg of course is my main theme in my writing anyways. Highway 1 is the other route, which I’ve spent a lot of time on over the years as a touring musician, so that’s just something that I thought would be a through line for the record.”
The lament of a driver stuck on the roadside of Highway 1, “Highway 1 West” was one of the first songs written for the new album. Samson laughs when asked if the song was the result of a specific incident, saying, “No, but I have been stuck on the highway for sure. And I’ve been stuck on Highway 1, but I guess I was kind thinking probably, of the couple times I’ve broken down on Highway 1… yeah, definitely, actually I have done that. But the city of Winnipeg is always sort of there in the distance, in my mind at least. If you stick to the road you’ll get to Winnipeg eventually. All routes lead there.”
One thing to note about the album is that two of Samson’s most recent EPs, 2009’s City Route 85 and 2010’s Provincial Road 222, have been included. “Petition” from PR 222 is now “www.ipetitions.competitionrivertonrifle” on Provincial – an actual web address for an online petition to induct Reggie Leach into the NHL Hall of Fame.
“It’s from the point of view of fictional townspeople of Riverton, Manitoba. It is kind of interesting to write about a person who actually exists, it’s kind of scary. I’ve done it a few times before. Reggie Leach is such an important figure, it’s almost like he became a fictional figure to the town of Riverton. When you go there there’s a big mural with his face on it, and there’s a street named after him and an arena named after him, so he’s become this larger than life figure and I was trying to write about that.”
Another song set in Riverton (as well as being partly inspired by The Simpsons) is “The Last And.”
“I was writing about the elementary school in Riverton for some reason and I was kind of idly trying to write about someone from a small town, teaching in an elementary school and having an affair with their principal. It’s the kind of story about the dynamic of a small town and how closed it can be, and how ‘desperate’ it could be, to be someone like that. And about halfway through that I thought, ‘Oh wait, this is sort of reminding me of something’ and I thought about Principal Skinner and Edna Krabappel. And that’s always kind of struck me as a sad storyline and an interesting one on the Simpsons. It was just kind of something that wandered into my brain as I was writing.”
The song is written in the first person, and as Samson reasons, “I think that the first person is the most direct, and accessible for me as a writer but these are fictions for the most part, they’re characters that I invent. So it’s first person fiction I suppose I’d call it. I find those to be the most immediate and the most dynamic kind of narratives to come up with. I guess that’s my neutral gear, it is I what I lean towards is to find the voice of someone to explain something or to describe a place.”
New to Samson’s repertoire is the song, “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San,” which was researched at the Manitoba Provincial Archives.
“I put on the little white gloves and I did some research into the Ninette Sanatorium and some stuff around Riverton. I was trying to find this film of the Ninette Sanatorium that I knew had been made, and it said that they had it in the archives. But the movie has been pulled from the archives so I didn’t get to see it. I actually had this long talk with the archivist there about my project and he was kind of interested in it, so we got to talking about places that if I wanted to do more sites would interest me. He had this list of fascinating stories of Manitoba that he started to unspool on me, and I thought ‘oh, this is going to turn into a four record thing.’ So I had to kind of draw back from that,” he jokes.
“I don’t have much of a analytical or a prose-writerly brain. I have trouble writing anything longer than a pop song,” John humbly admits. Yet Provincial begs to differ. As “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” would suggest, the album really is a thesis of sorts: Sunday cruise nights, the Army Surplus on Portage Ave, and various small town dramas are just several of the components that seem to make up a Manitoba existence.
“I think of Winnipeg as a small town in a city disguise. I wanted the record to be like a map. If someone came to me and said, ‘I have 2 days of time’ I could take them to the site of every song, like there’s an actual place for each song. In my head I had each song mapped out, I just had to write the songs about these places.”