Kicking back beside the stage before their Vancouver Writers’ Fest talk, Christine Fellows and John K. Samson joked that they were not being very fashionable today, sporting “the Larry David look,” i.e. runners and jeans. Fellows’ chuckles were contagious. She and Samson laughed frequently together in word play or self-mockery. And that night at the UBC Robson Square lecture hall, the creative couple brought a welcome breath of fresh, frozen Winnipeg air to the Vancouver soundscape.
Fellows and Samson are something of a power couple in the Canadian music scene. Fellows, a solo artist since 2000, has worked with artists including Veda Hille and the Weakerthans, and is currently working on a project with the Pan-Canadian Folk Ensemble. Samson is currently singer, songwriter, and lead guitarist for the Weakerthans, and is a former punk artist with Propagandhi. Both folk rock artists are known for their lyrics, and that’s what they’re here to talk about.
The married couple work in harmony, so to speak, in the same house, but in separate rooms on separate projects. “When one person’s writing it inspires the other,” Fellows said, even though, as Samson added, they are “very different musicians.”
Each artist approaches lyric-writing differently. When asked which comes first, music or lyrics, Fellows said that hers come together. Samson, on the other hand, will write his lyrics first, often long sentences or a sonnet, before setting them to music.
Both said editing plays an essential part in their process, and advised aspiring lyricists that lyrics are rarely perfect the first time around. Pared down words yield better songs, they emphasized. Sentimentality, on the other hand, is the kiss of death.
There’s something bittersweet (not sentimental) about the Canadian ethos that Samson and Fellows both capture. Meryn Cadell, host of the talk and an assistant professor in the UBC creative writing program, pointed out that Winnipeg, the artists’ hometown (native for Samson, adopted for Fellows), breeds a sense of longing in its music, and a sense of humour about death and tragedy. “It requires some fortitude to stay [in Winnipeg],” Samson said. The couple joke about the city’s influence on what Samson calls “all our secular death songs.”
Perhaps it’s why Winnipeg has become a nest for fledgling artists. The city is “full of characters,” according to Fellows. “Like dancing Gabe,” said Samson, recalling an especially memorable Winnipeg personality. The couple claim that nowhere else they have lived have they encountered such a cozy community of artists.
To stay perky in Winnipeg’s hibernatory, potentially depressing conditions, a sense of humour becomes a necessity. “I think whimsy is essential for all great art,” Samson said.
Whimsy brings Samson and Fellows together as artists and, I suspect, as a couple. Though they say their musical styles differ, there are key characteristics they share. Samson and Fellows are highly verbal—in person and in their music. They use complete sentences in their lyrics—something many artists don’t do.
Fellows and Samson don’t spout the clichés and generalities you would hear from lesser lyricists. Each of their songs is a short story. Fellows performed one song she wrote from the point of view of a statue in a museum’s archives that ached to be put on display. Samson sang his song about a cat disapproving of its depressed master. Together, Samson on guitar and Fellows on piano, they sang an ode to their former house. It was a dilapidated place in which poop from encroaching animals built up in the basement each winter. Every year they would have “another shit Christmas,” Fellows joked. As an homage to the house’s sinks, whose taps were installed backwards, Samson ended the song with military Taps, played backwards—playful, bittersweet, and thoroughly Canadian.