'Winter is the real us': Songwriter performing this week in Fargo opens up about Winnipeg, depression and that one cat
FARGO — There’s only 222 miles between Fargo and Winnipeg, but separated by the U.S.-Canadian border, the two towns can seem worlds apart.
“It’s astonishing to me that I’ve never played there,” says Winnipeg singer-songwriter John K. Samson. “Fargo’s been a part of my life my whole life. I have close relatives there. My sister went to college there. I’ve been there a lot and it’s always mystified me that I never figured out a way to play there.”
That changes Tuesday night, Nov. 26, when he plugs in at The Aquarium in downtown Fargo.
For nearly 30 years, the singer has been playing around the world, first in the 1990s with the punk band Propagandhi, then fronting the rock group The Weakerthans and finally focusing on a solo career since 2009.
While he’s never played Fargo, he feels a connection through the Great Plains, which includes Winnipeg. Earlier this month he talked with The Forum from his home about his life, music and, like anyone in this region, the weather.
“It’s been brutal,” he says about the cold. “My favorite part of being in this part of the world is fall. Oh well, I’ve turned towards it. Curling season has started here.”
Winnipeg isn’t just home to Samson, it’s an integral part of his identity, his muse and something he’s worked at trying to make better. He and his wife, Christine Fellows, have long been writers-in-residence at the Winnipeg library, holding songwriting workshops and mentorships and being involved in the activist community. He even musically lobbied for Winnipeg’s own Reggie “The Riverton Rifle” Leach to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“I think there’s something political and powerful about location,” he says. “It’s transferable. It makes people think about where they are from and what their place in the world is. I feel that Winnipeg has always been a theme and focus in my writing. What keeps me writing is knowing I haven’t gotten it right yet.”
He’s perhaps most famous — or infamous in certain circles — for The Weakerthans song “One Great City.” Samson lovingly takes aim at his hometown and its icons, depicting congested streets and commuters, cursing, “The Guess Who suck, The Jets were lousy anyway,” and muttering the chorus, “I hate Winnipeg.” On the 2003 album “Reconstruction Site,” it’s a quiet, acoustic song, but live crowds often sing along to the haunting refrain.
“I like it. When I go to Germany, it’s always amusing to hear it in a German accent,” Samson says. “I think it resonates because people recognize their right to interrogate the place they’re from, the good and the bad and own it and be honest about it and try to make it better. That’s my hope for that song. It’s a jokey song, but I hope there is a kernel of resisting boosterism and promoting the idea that we’re responsible for the places we come from and we should try to make them just and sustainable and great. Songwriters don’t always get to choose which songs catch the listener and I’m always surprised people want to hear it.”
Among cat-lovers, he’s known for his song cycle sung from the perspective of the feline Virtute, a play on Winnipeg’s motto, “Unum cum virtute multorum" ("one with the strength of many").
“I feel bad that people are disappointed when I say there is no Virtute,” he says. “It was a conglomeration of cats that I knew. And I also confess that I am a dog person. Cats are the most expressive, inscrutable and judgmental of the pets. It’s been fun to check into that perspective every once in a while. I’ve been grateful for that vehicle, that character.”
In its first appearance, Virtute laments its person’s depression and tries to engage him, suggesting they throw a party before threatening to bite him, “If you don’t stop the self-defeating lies you’ve been repeating since the day you brought me home. I know you’re strong.”
At the end of Samson’s 2016 solo album, “Winter Wheat,” he closed the story arc with the short, bittersweet “Virtute at Rest,” with the late great cat taking solace knowing it remains in the owner’s memory. “You should know I am with you, know I forgive you / Know I am proud of the steps that you’ve made.”
“I think most people have understood it as the most gentlest demise of the cat,” Samson says. “That hope and perseverance live on inside of us, that presence is always with us somehow.”
Songs like that prompted some critics to use the word “melancholy” in writing about “Winter Wheat.” Samson has another word in mind.
“I’d say ‘depressed,’” he says with a laugh. “I’m not sure ‘melancholy’ hits on the clinical character of those songs especially. I was going through a period of very overtly clinical depression and anxiety. It’s definitely reflected in the record. I also think there’s definitely some hope woven into that. I think the expression of it has helped me a lot.”
Over three decades of songwriting, he’s found it easier now to open up about his depression in music, not just for himself, but that listeners may be more accepting to hearing about someone else’s struggles.
“I do feel like we’ve come a long way towards understanding the real fact of mental illness,” he says. “It’s been inspiring for me to see, as someone who lives with it, to see the expressions and support and the bravery of people breaking down that stigma.”
He acknowledges that he’s lucky to live in a city with free coverage for the crisis center, psychiatry, group therapy and medications he’s used.
“Everyone needs access to these things and they need to be accessible to everyone. We’ve still got a long way to go to make that a reality,” he says.
While he’s comfortable addressing some of his feelings, he’s not writing autobiographically.
“I don’t feel like I can address my actual, first-person life so I always need to do it through fiction,” he says. “I’m a thwarted fiction writer. I’ve never been able to write it except in two-and-a-half-minute pop songs. I feel that there’s political and emotional power to fiction, to being a little bit removed from who you are.”
Samson has a pretty good idea of who he is, one that comes into focus with the winter months.
“Fall and winter are real life,” he says. “Fall and winter in this part of the world define us. Spring and summer are defined by not being winter. I feel that winter is the real us and it’s beautiful and I love it and hate it. I love winter, but it’s a struggle. And that’s good for us.”
If you go
What: John K. Samson with Christine Fellows
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26
Where: The Aquarium, 226 Broadway N., Fargo
Info: Tickets for this ID show are $25, $28 on the day of the show, https://jadepresents.com/