Jon Samuel Interview: In Halifax, everyone is playing in three bands and then some

Last year, I did an interview with Wintersleep‘s Paul Murphy (I am working on it, so it can end up here, promised) because they were playing a show in Berlin at some club-night. I was sickly, tired and the show would start two hours after the interview. I was on my own and decided – foolishly – to not wait around but go home and nurse myself back to health, thinking that every band always plays twice in Berlin. Fortunately, I was right. When they announced a show in April, I was on there like butter on toast and I had one more reason to be over the moon – I did organize an interview with one of their awesome members, Jon Samuel, who released his solo-debut last year.

Jon Samuel was a very surprising and nice discovery because only a few months before I stumbled upon his beauty of a song (“To Love”), I gushed over Wintersleep who have been slowly sneaking into my head over the last couple of years, becoming a true favourite. During prep for my show, I found out that Jon is actually a member of Wintersleep and as I love musical connections, this made my day. Jon is not only a member of Wintersleep, he’s also playing in a fantastic band called Contrived who do some smashing experimental Postrock and are currently on hiatus. Before that, Jon played in a band called the Ancients and then he finally decided to do some solo work and it is magnificent.

“First Transmission” is a debut that shines bright like a diamond (cool pop reference to show that I am hip with the young crowd). Seriously, a debut is the one album that can pack a bunch of flaws and doozies and still be a hit if people can hear and see the potential but Jon didn’t even bother with a half-assed first try, no, he just stormed into the room and brought his A-game, an album by someone who understands that a true songwriter basically is a craftsman who has an idea and then works on it tirelessly until it takes form (I could venture into some philosophical theory of the arts but rather don’t, let’s focus!). No song on his album sounds like the other, there is a blues song (“Follow the Leader”) a venture into alternative music (“NADA”), an electronic popsong that has something of a less aggressive Awolnation tune (“The Man Who Fell To Earth”) and with “Crater”, there is even the one obligatory song to lay down in a fetal position and cry man-tears of despair.

The overall frame is his awesome voice. You’ll see in the interview that he actually is not too sure about his voice but that’s ridonculous, because it is stellar, I want to drench it in maple syrup because it is soft and perfect like a pancake.Yeah…better work on some more appropriate metaphors.

This album is so beautifully crafted that every song could be a single, a song that stays with you, a song you hold so dear that the first few notes of it already make you smile. Listening to “Maelstrom Lyric” always puts me close to tears because it is such a wonderful song, it is so delicate and yet it is no fluff, there is something to hold onto, a story and something more than lyrical clichés.

There is an airy, weightless quality to the whole album, with the exception of the heavy and darker “NADA” (and its glorious warrior cries) and “Follow the Leader” that only underline the overall ballet that Jon created. It sounds so easy but it is meticulously put together and I was more than surprised when I heard it in its entirety for the first time.

So, who is this amazing human (is he even human?) being who created this gem of the one album you can give everyone and they will love it unconditionally? Well, I sat down with him behind the Privatclub in Berlin, the sweet sound of birds and fire sirens in the background, asking him the how and why and whoa!!!

The Interview

Why did it take so long to work on a solo project?

Just working up the nerve to do it I guess. I am just used to playing in bands and writing songs in that format with other people, I really enjoy doing that and a couple of years ago I got a computer and just wanted to slowly learn how to record something that sounded half decent. And then I got a few songs together and then with a few friends decided to make the record and see if I can release it somehow.

How did the songs change from the beginning to what we have right now?

Oh, quite a bit. Messing around at home with different synths or I didn’t like the structure of songs, instrumentation. It took a long time, probably six or eight months, trying different things, trial and error a lot.

Were there songs you used that you already wrote long before you started out solo?

There were a couple of older songs that I did. The song “Crater” is one that I did when I actually played with a couple of guys back in Halifax, we were called Ancients, I used that song. There is another song on the record called “Nada” which I played with a band called Contrived that I was in.

The first song I heard was “To Love” and I didn’t expect the album, I expected something completely different because every song was something else, as if you tried to experiment a lot with each song. How did you go about that?

I don’t know. It’s hard. It took a long time trying to figure out the order of the record and I just wanted to treat every song as if it was its own project and really not trying to unify everything. Just being free with it, treating every song as if it was its own thing and developing it as much as I could.

So, did you take the song and think, ‘Ok, now I need an electro song’?

No. It was more of ‘What treatment would work?’, obviously because I was doing it by myself I had the freedom to just try and experiment and I guess through that every song hat its own unique imprint. I would just go back and forth. I would think of something while I was cooking dinner, try that, and after that go back and do another song so it was a mish-mash of recording over a good period. It was fun.

Was it difficult to find your own voice with that?

Yeah, I think I am still learning how to record and even write songs, it’s a continuous process, I think that’s what you’re always searching to do and this is a first step on my way.

How do you write songs?

I do it different ways. With “To Love” I came up with the guitar part first and then wrote lyrics around that, lately I’ve been writing lyrics and a melody first, I just sit down at the computer and type out lyrics and through having lyrics and melody, I write the song out and figure out the chord changes on the instrument and that’s really fun because the songs are so lyrically focused, so melody-focused with the singing and I really like that process and it’s fast, too, which is cool.

How long does it take for you to get the songs out there to the other people because you worked with quiet a few people on the album.

I’ve always been sending Tim D’eon*, who’s playing in Wintersleep, songs and he was always like ‘Jon, when you record these songs I help you out’, so, I got to the point where I recorded the basic tracks for three or four songs and I was excited about what I had so far, so I sent them to Tim and asked if we could do something and we had time to. We took a year off, so we had time. We went to the studio into the jam space and some days he would come to my apartment in Montreal and work on stuff.

(edit.note: *D’eon’s partner Anne-Marie Proulx is, by the way, responsible for the cover art. Jon was inspired by a faux news story, where a family claimed that their kid was trapped in a hot air balloon. Well, it wasn’t but the story is better than “a dingo ate our baby!”)

How did you work on the tracklisting?

It took a little while. About halfway through the recording process I would put all the tracks down and go for a walk and listen to what I’ve done and decide whether I wanted to keep things and through that I just came up with an order that I never changed once I figured out what it was. That was less stressful.

Are you one of the artists who pile everything on or do you edit when you work on a song?

Both. A lot of it is trial and error. I would even spend a considerable amount of time trying but if it doesn’t work in the end and if you gave it your best shot then you just get rid of it. The song “Darkwood” I recorded three or four times and it took ten months by the end of it and I thought, ‘I really like the first one but no, I can’t release it like that’ and I re-recorded it and scrapped it and re-recorded it and finally got it where I liked it and I am glad that I went through that process because in the middle of it you are doubting yourself and think, ‘Am I just being too neurotic?’ But then I was right in the end. You don’t want to lose yourself too much but you also have to give a song your best shot.

Do you walk away for a while or do you keep on working on it when you get stuck?

You don’t want to force yourself. If you wake up in the morning and you’d rather be doing something else, just do something else. For me, anyway. That sounded too definitive as if I was giving advice. I am not. FOR ME, if I wake up in the morning and don’t feel like working on a song, I am not going to work on it. I just do something else.

I figure, there is this giant bunch of musicians in Halifax that always work with each other and help each other out, is it really like that?

Yeah, we always worked together, we grew up in this small town of Halifax and there are not many musicians even at that time, so we decided to play together, got along pretty well. I joined Contrived in 2003 and that’s basically everybody in Wintersleep except Paul and through that I came to touring with Wintersleep and ended up joining them as well. We always enjoyed playing together.

With what musical influences and instruments did you grow up?

I guess, the most important one when I was a teenager was Kurt Cobain and then later on Radiohead. The Beatles I listened to a lot when I was really young. Just being able to get hold of a Nirvana record and kinda playing along pretty easily. The songs were great and brilliant but also very simplistic in the best way and it was a good way to learn how to play and getting together with other kids who were into jamming.

Back to your music. How was it to put your songs from the record onto stage?

That was hard. Lately, I’ve been just playing shows by myself, so it’s been just an acoustic or electric guitar and my voice but I think it’s fine because the songs are really the lyrics and singing, that’s the main part, they are really simple songs and they can translate with only me on stage. I do like the idea of a record sounding different than live, too, because they are just different mediums and you should treat them differently. I am really enjoying playing by myself and getting better at it. I haven’t played that many shows and I feel way more confident than a year ago when I first started. I am actually able to enjoy the show without getting too nervous about it or overpractice. I can just let go and have a good time.

Because suddenly you are alone on that stage.

Yeah, which is hard but I am getting used to it.

Are there tricks you learned how to work with the audience?

Yeah, just don’t overthink it. You can’t help but be yourself and do what you do.

How is the conversation with the audience going? Because for a solo artist that is always key.

I think it is key and I am terrible at it. That is something I have to get better at. In my normal life I am just a normal confident person and then I get up on stage and become quiet which isn’t me, really. I have to figure out how to take who I am and put it on stage in a way that is not weird. You definitely want to interact with the crowd and it is important as a solo artist to connect with the crowd.

How do you work on your voice for your solo work because your voice is different from the stuff you do with Contrived.

I think for the Contrived record – I didn’t really have a lot of experience with recording at that point and I am starting to figure it out. It’s a really long process for me. I find recording vocals really hard, it’s next to impossible for me to be happy with them. It’s something I am really trying hard to do and hopefully I improve and get better at it.

It doesn’t sound like you’re trying hard.

That’s good?

That’s good, I didn’t mean that…now I see that it could mean both but I mean it in a good way. (edit. note: I really did!)

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