Because I was going to interview John K. Samson, the Artist in Residence at UBC’s Creative Writing Program, I spent several weeks playing his CDs in my car stereo and then finished off my immersion in his music by listening in bed with my eyes shut. Before that I wasn’t very familiar with his work. I knew him, of course, as the lead singer for the Weakerthans, and a tune or two of his had floated by me on CBC Radio 3. Several friends had praised his work, telling me that there was no one anywhere quite like him. The more I listened, the more I realized that I was encountering a powerfully accomplished artist who was, indeed, like no one else. If you give John’s songs your full attention, they wind themselves deep into your psyche in a way that tells you they plan to stick around for a while.
John is most emphatically not a baritone and not quite a tenor. His voice is not the least bit pretty. Clear, direct, slightly reedy, unadorned, and perfectly designed for conveying the quiet intensity of his lyrics, his voice grows on you—it’s a voice that you can believe absolutely—and no one is better than John at telling the stories of ordinary people, at finding exactly the right words to say the unsayable about the terrors and mysteries of simply being alive. In his song “Victory,” he calls it “the fear that everybody knows.” His characters think about it obsessively, or think about anything else so they won’t have to think about it—invent odd strategies to distract themselves, sometimes try to imagine something that might make it better.
“My Favourite Chords”
In one song the narrator watches a young woman become so dysfunctional that all she can do is sit on the sidewalk and spend the afternoon “willing traffic lights to change.” His anger belongs to all of us.
“Exiles Among You”
There are no neat storylines in John’s songs; they’re just as messy as real life.
John’s songs are mini-narratives, told from many points of view, but often are written from a singer/songwriter position—the voice of the puzzled observer trying to make sense of things. Throughout, there is an addressee—a “you” at the heart of the matter, that essential human connection, the beloved who might be absent or present, someone who might be “making plans to stay.”
“This is a Fire Door Never Leave Open”
When “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure,” she remembers how she used to be “desperate to hear you make the sound that you found for me.” We all of us try to make the sound that means “you.” It’s the only thing that can make us connect. Without it, we are truly alone, just like the cat who can’t remember that sound any more. In his songs, John has found the sound that means “us.”
John K. Samson is one of the great lyricists of our age.
Love this essay, Keith. Thanks so much for articulating what a great lyricist and performer John is. Rhea