A< relationship to a city is complicated, a matter of love and hate. This, John K. Samson knows well. Examining his own city, Winnipeg---and with that lens, the archetypal Canadian city---has been a career-spanning project of The Weakerthans founder and singer and now solo artist, releasing late last year his first in a suite of solo recordings, City Route 85.
"It's a handy tool for me to speak about the things I want to speak about," says Samson, on the phone from Winnipeg.
"Cities are both literal fact and metaphor for accessing those ideas," he says. "I've always just kind of loved writing that's shown me places in a different way, that makes me reconsider the place where I am and who I am because it's all tied up with identity and politics and all the issues I find interesting," adds Samson.
Among his interests are economic equality, empathy and compassion, social justice, peace and environmental sense (built and natural, our place in both)---and the converse of all these.
On City Route 85, he offers three songs (seven-inch vinyl or download) that take the listeners on a tour of sorts along this major thoroughfare: "It's the main street in Winnipeg. It's more commonly known as Portage Avenue. And it runs kind of right through the heart of the city."
The first song, "Heart of the Continent," refers to the sign at Portage and Memorial Boulevard welcoming drivers to Winnipeg. It replaced the one announcing the place as "one great city"---the basis for The Weakerthans' tune of the same name. Samson recalls his displeasure when the sign was changed, but then remembered he always complained about it before.
In another Samsonian turn, he draws on the demolition of a building at that intersection into the song's narrative. "It's this place called Army Surplus Sales. It was this really great, weird old department store that's been there for decades and decades," he says. For the next track, "Grace General," Samson moves "way down Portage" almost to the end, where a hospital houses the dying, including the one in the thoughts of the song's narrator. For "Cruise Night," the singer borrowed a car to participate in a Winnipeg ritual, a tradition called "cruise night."
"It's a really small town thing to do," he says. "They drive up and down Portage Avenue. It's crazy, it's a traffic jam on Sunday evenings."
Winnipeg is a small town dressed in big city-britches, Samson realized via City Route 85. As such, he wanted to present "not the glorified, romanticized idea of small-town life that's kind of a touchstone for Canadian identity, but the actual reality of small-town life, which is quite different."
Listening to Samson's simple songs of voice and guitar, we may still yet understand what makes us love and hate our cities.