Some time back, you may recall, we started a culture series for the site to highlight TED Translators’ cultural interests outside of translation. We’re happy to report that we’re resuming the series and that we plan to publish contributions on a regular basis. To kick off this return, yours truly is throwing his hat in the ring with the music recommendation below. But before that, one more thing: If you, dear readers, would like to make your own recommendations (in this case, music), feel free to do so in the comments section; we’d love to know what’s inspiring you and feature it in a future post.
Winnipeg, Manitoba-based folk-rock singer and songwriter John K. Samson has been crafting distinctly profound and poetic music for over two decades now. In 1993, while a bassist and sometimes-vocalist/lyricist for punk band Propagandhi (who also hail from Winnipeg), Samson began a long stretch of recording and releasing his own material—a stretch that continues to this day. During this time, he’s arguably become known most for fronting yet another Winnipeg act, The Weakerthans, but it’s safe to say that Samson’s solo work stands on its own, traversing and exploring a vast landscape of emotion and experience as sincerely and empathetically as any of his other music. Also a published poet, Samson writes songs that abound with the qualities of excellent verse, as put by British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “…the best words in their best order.” Samson’s lyrics possess no fluff, no decoration, but they’re far from spare; they often encapsulate whole lives or histories with what seems like effortlessness—but an ease which belies the meticulous writing and editing actually behind them. This extends as well to the melodies, harmonies and tempos of Samson’s work. As for his vocals—well, they’re hard—perhaps impossible—to describe without resorting to facile comparisons. I’ve yet to try, and I won’t here. I only humbly suggest you listen to them yourself, and then decide if you agree with me that their valence with regard to Samson’s music is near-perfect. In short, one listens to a John K. Samson track and thinks (among other things): I can’t imagine this song, its words, its music any other way.
While Samson’s first “official” solo record, 2012’s Provincial, largely reckons with isolation, with lonely people in remote places who seem trapped in their circumstances (for example, a tuberculosis patient warehoused and forgotten in a sanatorium, or an overweight schoolteacher jilted by her ex-lover/principal and mocked by her students for her figure), Winter Wheat, his 2016 follow-up, surveys what such isolation can do to us and what it can make us do. Depression, addiction, self-delusion, retreating farther into loneliness—the 15 songs on Winter Wheat, colored in large part by Neil Young’s 1974 album On the Beach, grapple with all of these and more. But running underneath these struggles is a current of redemption, or at least an attempt at it, that slowly but surely reveals itself with each listen.
Here, where one might expect a track-by-track or selected-track analysis of Samson’s two LPs, I’ll spare you that predictable tedious exercise that never comes close to hearing a record for yourself, and I’ll steer you over here and here instead, where you can listen to Provincial and Winter Wheat, respectively, in their entireties—and watch videos for three songs. Enjoy, fellow travelers!