Canadian singer-songwriter John K. Samson is the humblest rock star you could ever meet.
And the prospect of meeting him isn’t that far-fetched, now that the Weakerthans frontman is UBC’s writer-in-residence for 2012-2013.
Dressed in a plaid vest and blue tuque, Samson resembled a misplaced Wes Anderson character as he casually tuned his ukulele in the hallway of Buchanan E. He seemed just as pleasantly surprised by his new gig as the students who will now have a chance to workshop with him.
“I’m not sure how it happened,” he admitted, almost sheepishly.
Though Samson may be bashful, there’s no real question why he landed the position. Following his late ’90s split from one of Canada’s most legitimate punk bands, Propagandhi, Samson went on to start Arbeiter Ring Publishing, a publishing collective that focuses on radical and anarchist literature. Shortly thereafter, he founded the Weakerthans, one of the most well-recognized indie rock bands in Canada.
Four Weakerthans albums and one solo album later, Samson’s introspective songwriting has defined him as one of this nation’s predominant living poets. His lyrics often create visual narratives that stick with his listeners long after the last chord; whether it’s “the stain in the carpet” or “the pain in your chest,” he rarely misses a detail.
Still, Samson’s more eager to learn from others than he is to dole out advice.
“I’ll probably get more out of it than the students will,” he joked.
This kind of statement is typical of Samson’s down-to-earth nature and nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic. The songwriter is known for carefully crafting each lyric and going above and beyond in doing research for his songs.
“Research is a big part of my work,” he said. “That’s something I’m really interested in too,… in university life, in that sense. I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a thwarted academic.
“It really excites me — getting into the archives and the libraries and discovering things you didn’t know before.”
His last record and first solo effort, Provincial, features a song that he says is “is the most university-based song for sure.” “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” is all about the anxiety of staring at a blank page and not knowing how to start — an anxiety that students are all too familiar with.
But while it’s been over a decade since Samson himself last sat in a lecture hall, he said that his creative writing courses were some of his favourites.
“I like creative writing programs. I think they’re valuable. People sometimes have mixed feelings about them, but I think the idea of workshopping something is a really powerful thing.”
Together with his wife and writing partner Christine Fellows, Samson will meet with students at UBC to write and workshop over the course of the next six months.
Samson emphasized that any students, regardless of faculty or program, are free to meet with him and get feedback.
“There’s this whole infrastructure and network for it here, and I think that’s fantastic. The students should take advantage of that.”
Samson is already integrating himself in UBC’s campus culture. On Nov. 8, he’ll be hosting an interactive reading with students from the creative writing program, and on Nov. 9, he will perform a solo concert at the Chan Centre.
Though no concrete plans are set for either a Weakerthans album or a solo album, Samson said that being at UBC will fuel his creative juices.
“I like the idea of writing in a surrounding where people are doing things, where there’s labour and work being done. And this feels like such a place:… kind of catacombs of people labouring away on so many different things. It’s exciting to me.”
As for that creative writing advice to students that he was so reluctant to give?
“Treat it like labour, like real work, ’cause that’s what it is. I sometimes forget that…. Sometimes you get a gift, you get a moment, an inspiration from somewhere, and you don’t know where it comes from. But for the most part, it’s just really hard work. And it’s worth it.
“It’s worth trying to express yourself and trying to connect to the tapestry of expression that goes on in the world.”