The Long Road Home

Photo Jason Halstead

Though he’s been in the Canadian music scene since the late ‘80s, this week marks a first for John K. Samson: it’s the first time The Weakerthans frontman will tour with his name on the marquee. He’s crossing the continent in support of his new solo LP Provincial, a record that started out as a series of seven-inch demos about stretches of road in Manitoba. The demos soon took on a life of their own, tied together by the strange self-published history of a forgotten sanatorium in Ninette, MB.

Samson uncovered the stories at the library in his home town of Winnipeg, where he’d been writing more and more as his years with The Weakerthans went on.

“For the last Weakerthans record, I spent a lot of time writing at the library just because I found I couldn’t focus at home with the Internet there,” he said. “I think this was just a natural extension of that. I started reading about the things I was writing about, doing research in that way.”

On Provincial, Samson takes this research-heavy writing even further, travelling to small towns in the province to hear the stories of the people who live there, transcribing memories and weaving them into folk-rock frames with the care and intimacy he’s become known for.

He reaches in by telling histories, lifting important places from our past; he appeals to nostalgia, adventure and solace throughout the record.

But while this may sound just like the formula for a great Weakerthans record, his fellow members are nowhere to be heard on this LP.

“To be fair to the other Weakerthans, I would have had to bring them in at an earlier date for their full input to be heard on the songs,” said Samson. “I don’t think it was terribly conscious, it’s just kind of the way it happened. I feel like the project dictated the way it should be handled.”

Samson pieced together demos from the last two years and re-recorded them for Provincial last April, arranged with the help of producer Paul Aucoin. The resulting work finds slow, strings-and-piano-backed songs alongside the up-tempo rockers and acoustic ballads. There’s nothing radically new, but there’s growth here—and it is definitely his most pensive record to date.

“I took a different approach for each location musically. […] The varying instrumentation and arrangements give a sense of travelling to the record,” said Samson. “I feel I’ve stretched myself on this record. Some people won’t feel that at all, but I can only judge myself against myself as a musician.”

For those itching for a new Weakerthans record,Provincial isn’t that far off. But fans shouldn’t fear—once this tour wraps up he’ll be back with the band, where he still finds great comfort and inspiration.

“There’s some kind of strange math going on,” he laughs, in reference to the increasing number of years between Weakerthans records. “I don’t think that’s going to change, it might get even slower as we get older and all have different interests in different things in our lives.

“It’s family in a way—you don’t always want to go to Thanksgiving dinner, but there are great and rare things about it, that you can only get with the accumulation of time and experience with other people.”

Samson’s words have always been at the heart of his music and that’s no different on the album, whether it’s in the form of a petition to induct his hockey hero Reggie Leach into the Hall of Fame or in a matured reprise to his infamous anti-Winnipeg anthem, “One Great City!”

“Often the music acts as a hook to hang the words on and I’ve always been grateful for that as a writer,” said Samson. “I think I’ve always been a thwarted short story and poetry writer; both of those things seem forebodingly difficult to me because that structure isn’t there.

“You can invent structures, but it’s not like a song, where you have a frame laid out and you stretch things across it. I think that’s one of the great traditions of folk music, which I guess is the tradition that I come from. Folk music that kind of turned into punk rock is where I learned to appreciate performance and communication through the arts.”

Samson played bass in Manitoban political punk band Propagandhi in the early ‘90s before leaving to pursue work in publishing, and soon after combined his love of music and poetry with The Weakerthans. While it’s been more than two decades since his anarcho-vegan days on the four-string—and while the bpm is markedly lower now—he still has a lot to say.

“[With Provincial] I’d like people to recognize themselves and the place that they’re from. It’s the thing that we all have in common, that we’re all from somewhere. Those places are all both universal and unique, and those unique things about a place are really important; I think they allow us to relate to other places,” said Samson.

“I hope the record makes people think about their own house, their own city, their own town in a way that they hadn’t considered before.”

Originally published by The Link Newspaper.