Five Questions With… Jon Samuel
The keyboardist for Wintersleep has released a second solo album, one featuring input from his bandmates. Here he describes its songs, his creative process, his love of Sam Cooke, and a great story he heard from Gord Downie.
By Jason Schneider
As the keyboardist for Wintersleep, Jon Samuel has had a front-row seat for the band’s evolution from Halifax indie-rock phenoms into a Juno Award-winning juggernaut that’s shared stages with Paul McCartney and Pearl Jam and collaborated with Rush’s Geddy Lee. But as a solo artist, the process of introducing songs to the world has been a lot more challenging.
Samuel’s 2012 debut album, First Transmission, was a solo effort through and through, recorded in his apartment in his then-home base of Montreal. And it revealed that the unassuming musician tucked behind Wintersleep’s keyboard rig was, in fact, a charismatic singer whose acoustic-based, synth-tweaked tunes abounded with irreverent details and quirky charm. But like so many self-recorded, self-released efforts, it mainly flew under the radar, lost in the ever-expanding virtual record store that is the Internet.
The experience led Samuel to question the point of releasing music at all, and he eventually channeled his frustration into a song he called “Dead Melodies.” Ironically, creating that track opened up Samuel’s creative floodgates, becoming the title track of his new solo album, available now through Hidden Pony Records.
Rather than dwelling on the negative, the song “Dead Melodies” charges forward with carefree vigour, building toward a joyous, anthemic chorus that conveys stubborn defiance rather than defeat. That liberated energy flows through the entire album, on which Samuel was determined to have no two songs sounding the same.
That process was significantly aided by the artists who collaborated with Samuel on Dead Melodies, starting with producer/drummer (and Samuel’s Wintersleep bandmate) Loel Campbell. Guitar duties were handled by fellow Wintersleeper Tim D’Eon and Halifax roots-rock hero Matt Mays, with Chris Seligman of Stars contributing French horn, and Keith Doiron of Walrus chipping in on bass.
Find out more at jonsamuel.bandcamp.com.
What makes Dead Melodies different from other work you've done?
It’s informed by a new process for me. To begin with, I’d say the collaboration between Loel and me has had the biggest influence. Having such a strong creative viewpoint to filter ideas through and take inspiration from yields amazing results. The songs feel more realized and much more vibrant.
Also, just feeling confident in the initial songwriting process was a big breakthrough. I’d sit with pen and paper or at a computer screen and just work on the whole thing—melody, structure, and lyrics all at once in my head. I’d just wait for a turn of phrase that excited me, like “I’ve lost to the lesser evils,” and I’d be able to build a song around that simple idea.
What songs on the record are you most proud of and why?
“Dead Melodies” is the oldest of the songs on this album. The concept for the lyric just came to me very quickly. I was able to write it all in about five minutes. I like the idea of writing a song about the unsure footing we are on sometimes as artists, while at the same time striking this triumphant tone with the instrumental. It was Loel’s idea to speed the song up, and doing that gave it some swagger.
“Modern Lovers” is a very key song on this album too. It doesn’t sound like anything else on the record—a cool building instrumental with very emotionally relatable lyrics. And I love playing it live.
What song by another artist do you wish you had written?
“A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. This is an all-time favourite of mine. I cried the first time I heard it, sitting in the movie theatre watching Spike Lee’s Malcolm X biopic. The song still hits me hard when I hear it. I listened to it alone in the Wintersleep jam space the night after the 2016 U.S. election and had another moment. I think a lot of people assumed countering racism was moving permanently in a positive direction. I think people see now what others have always known. Things are not so simple. And, unfortunately, the song’s subject matter is still so relevant. If anything that lyric, “A change is gonna come,” hurts now more than ever. I think Sam Cooke knew it would still hurt.
What are your fondest musical memories as you were growing up?
Growing up as a teenager in Halifax, I was so fortunate to have access to two of the oldest all-ages venues in North America, Cafe Ole and then later the Pavillon. In my first few years of seeing live indie rock, punk and hardcore shows I would just go to every show every Friday and Saturday. It really didn’t matter who was playing. I didn’t want to miss anything. Even when things got weird with a couple of neo-Nazi “punks,” it didn’t stop me. I went out anyway. I just bummed smokes from them, and they’d give them to me, which I thought was kind of funny. Cafe Ole was what I always pictured a punk rock club to be. I lit my guitar on fire there in homage to Jimi Hendrix, and the punks didn’t like that one bit. I played shows for another year or so using that scorched guitar.
What's your best touring story?
Around 2007 Wintersleep got the chance to tour with The Tragically Hip in the U.S. After one of the first few shows we played with them, we were hanging out with the band backstage, and Gord Downie told us about the time the Hip opened up for Nirvana in Vancouver. Kurt Cobain walked in during the Hip’s sound check, and just kind of scowled at the stage then laid down on the floor of the venue and took a nap. Having one of your heroes tell you that kind of humbling story about another of my heroes was unbelievable to me. Gord told that story so well with such humour. It was such a cool moment in my relatively early days of touring. I could tell how cool all my bandmates thought that moment was and were loving it. I was definitely in the moment.