"Hopefully the songs make people see these places in a way they haven't seen them before. That's what I aspire to." John K. Samson, the brainy and likable singer-songwriter of Winnipeg's alt-rocking the Weakerthans, is speaking about his debut solo album, Provincial, which is about Manitoba, as you may have guessed.
The album is an elegiac song cycle, with its subject matter drawn from roads and locations that orbit Winnipeg – stories, according to the press material, "united by a deep sense of place."
What does that mean, a sense of place? In Samson's case, it has to do with marginal towns and regions and the people who live there. The opening track is Highway 1 East, a solemn hymn with the line "Oh, wait for me, I fell behind three signs for services ago, and some satellite says I'm nowhere."
Writers, at least the ones we remember, know there are no nowheres. Things transpire where you are, and where you are not. "So much does occur," says Samson, who's set to appear at the Great Hall in Toronto for Canadian Music Week. "So much of real importance, to real lives."
There's a tradition of writing songs about Canadian towns. Where Americans often celebrate their famous cities – Frank Sinatra spread the news about New York, Lieber and Stoller were going to Kansas City, and Randy Newman loved L.A. – Canadian songwriters shed light on smaller scenes. Samson's One Great City! marked the love-hate relationship that Winnipeg residents endured with their city; Randy Bachman and Neil Young sang about the unbearable coldness of that same place, with their Prairie Town. And Guess Who went Runnin' Back to Saskatoon.
The object of Joel Plaskett's affection in I Love This Town is Halifax. It was written after he had moved across the harbour to Dartmouth, as he was driving to Arizona to record his 2005 album La De Da. Plaskett, the Juno-winning singer-songwriter, was writing the song for himself, but his audience accepts it as an anthem. "People celebrate it," he says. "They have their own experiences that they relate it to. It takes on a life of its own."
Look at the Tragically Hip's Fifty-Mission Cap, a song of two stories – one of them stolen from a hockey card – that has indeed taken on a life of its own. The saga of hockey player Bill Barilko, a Maple Leaf from Timmins, Ont., who scored a Stanley Cup-winning goal and later disappeared, is, according to songwriter Gord Downie, an example of someone being struck down in their prime after the accomplishment of a unique feat. The song's other imagery concerns the title: a 50-mission cap, worn by bomber pilots of the Second World War.
But fans of the Maple Leafs attached themselves to (and cheer for) just one line, making it an anthem for the beleaguered Leaf Nation. As Downie has explained: "If you like to hear someone say, 'won the Leafs the Cup,' then that might be all it takes."
To strike a personal chord, it usually takes a little more universality than Fifty-Mission Cap or Samson's Manitoba songs might have to offer. Take Neil Young's Helpless. Everybody has a place where changes happen. Everyone still needs a place to go – "with dream comfort memory to spare" – and it needn't be "a town in North Ontario."
Or Downie's Bobcaygeon, a community in central Ontario where he saw "the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time." But, as Samson says: "I know where my Bobcaygeon is. I think we all do."
Plaskett set his nostalgic rocker Ashtray Rock in a small patch of woods in suburban Halifax. "It was a place where we went to disappear from the adults," Plaskett explains, "but I sing about that as a time in my life."
It's the same as Samson's Cruise Night, from Provincial. It's set on Portage Avenue, but all of us had (or have) our own strips. We drove a while in one direction, and then turned around.
Samson could draw you a map to his song locales – it would take a couple of days to hit them all by car. But that's not the idea. "Most people aren't going to make that trip," says Samson. "As a songwriter, you're taking them places. And travel gives you a new perspective, on where you're from and who you are."
John K. Samson & the Provincial Band plays Guelph, Ont., Wednesday; Toronto (Canadian Music Week), Thursday; Winnipeg, March 27; Regina, March 28; Edmonton, March 29; and Vancouver, March 31.