Winnipeg still inspires Weakerthans' Samson
It's one thing to write a rock song from the perspective of a cat–and one with a Latin name, no less. If you do, you're begging to be labelled precious, at the very least. But it's quite another to bring back said critter in a sequel.
When it comes to pussy power, though, the Weakerthans' John K. Samson is fearless. After writing the first-feline narrative "Plea From a Cat Named Virtute" for the band's 2003 album Reconstruction Site, the singer-lyricist returns to the litter box for "Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure", a song on the group's latest, Reunion Tour. "There have been some people who haven't liked that I did that, because they have their own idea of what happened," Samson says, reached at a Lawrence, Kansas, tour stop. "But for me I wasn't quite finished with what was going to happen to the cat and the owner."
The confusingly titled Reunion Tour doesn't have anything to do with either a tour or a reunion–except, perhaps, to acknowledge the return of some of the characters, like Virtute and her owner, from Reconstruction Site. Samson wasn't sure if he had anything left to write about at the end of the touring for that record. Then he saw a retrospective exhibit of Edward Hopper paintings. Inspired, he considered writing 12 songs based on works by the American realist.
"It was one of those refreshing moments where I realized, 'Oh wait, I do have something to say,'" Samson says. "He [Hopper] is a really interesting painter. I don't entirely like him, which is another reason I'm interested in him. There's something cold and alienating in some of his work that kind of bothers me. But also I'm moved by it. So it was a good place to start."
There's nothing cold and alienating about Reunion Tour, including the tracks ("Sun in an Empty Room" and "Night Windows") that take their titles from Hopper paintings. Along with the addition of keyboards, pedal steel, trumpet, and banjo at strategic moments, all the tunes are warmed by the acoustic-electric dynamics of guitarist Stephen Carroll, drummer Jason Tait, and bassist-newcomer Greg Smith, as well as Samson's bruised-yet-defiant vocals. Even at its hardest-rocking, as on the road-rage opener "Civil Twilight" and the pounding "Relative Surplus Value", the Winnipeg-based Weakerthans are still, at heart, a folk group. This is largely due to Samson, who–whether inhabiting the perspective of a fed-up cat or a nostalgic curler (the upbeat "Tournament of Hearts")–is one of the most empathic lyricists of our time.
For proof, look no further than "Hymn of the Medical Oddity". Reunion Tour's most affecting ballad, the song is told from the viewpoint of David Reimer. Born a boy but raised a girl after a botched circumcision, Reimer's story (detailed in John Colapinto's 2000 book As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl) captured the imagination of Samson, who finds the humanity in the tragedy with lines like, "And if they remember me at all/Make them remember me as more than a queer experiment."
"It's such an incredible story, and the fact he was in Winnipeg just seemed to make it more compelling to me," the songwriter says. "In a lot of little ways it seemed like a Winnipeg story. I think of him as being taken advantage of by forces outside his own city." For some, Reimer, who committed suicide at the age of 38 in 2004, became an experiment in the nature-versus-nurture debate. "He was just kind of an answer to these people's questions and not an actual human being. And being from Winnipeg might have set him up for that, just because he was from this small city in the middle of nowhere."
On Reunion Tour, perhaps even more so than on previous Weakerthans releases, small-city life and, more specifically, Samson's hometown–where half the band (including Samson himself) still resides–provides much inspiration. When it comes to writing about his region, Samson says he looks less to examples set by other songwriters than to authors such as Margaret Laurence and Prairie poets Catherine Hunter, Patrick Friesen, and Karen Solie. Pressed for some lyricists whom he admires for their sense of place, he mentions Vancouver's Veda Hille and Ontario's Rheostatics.
"The Rheostatics tried to focus on the kind of localities and regions that had been unexplored before that," Samson says. "They were a big influence on me. Now that I think about it, when we were going back and forth on calling the record Reunion Tour, I thought of the Rheostatics' second record, Greatest Hits." That album is made up of all-new material, as is Reunion Tour.
"I like that the title is a little confusing," Samson says of his band's latest. "The record itself is made up of a whole bunch of reunions. A lot of the characters seemed to be longing for a reunion." And with this songwriter, those characters–human and otherwise–can always count on a fair shake.
The Weakerthans play the Commodore Ballroom on Saturday (October 6).