TORONTO - Usually, a solo debut is an opportunity for an established artist to do something different, free of the co-operative constraints of a band. But the Weakerthans' John K. Samson just wound up writing another album about Winnipeg.
That's not to say that the intricate lyricism of "Provincial" is a lateral move for Samson, but doesn't Manitoba's foremost modern-day minstrel ever get sick of being so closely associated with his hometown?
"I was talking to my sister yesterday and I told her I was going to Toronto to do some interviews, and she said: 'Oh, you're off to talk about Winnipeg, are you?'" the personable songwriter recalled with a laugh during an interview earlier this week.
"You know, frankly, I'm OK with that. (Winnipeg) is my theme. A lot of writers have things that they return to. It's something I'm trying to get right, and I don't think I have yet."
And "Provincial" represents Samson's most concerted attempt yet at capturing the unique dimensions of his hometown in song.
His intention when he began this project — more than three years ago — was to burrow deeply into Winnipeg and portions of the rest of his province, writing songs devoted to specific strips of road and to say something "historical and contemporary," with landscape details adding further shape.
Originally intended as a series of seven-inches, the project kept expanding, and Samson didn't want to stop.
The resultant disc (released this week) charts a vivid roadmap through forgotten corners of Manitoba, with Samson spinning typically literate yarns about retired hockey players, faded towns and the experience of wandering into Prairie plains too remote to be recognized by GPS.
To stitch those stories together, Samson delved into the Manitoba archives and his local library, then drove out to the sometimes far-flung places he wanted to write about — like Ninette, where an RV park stands on the former site of a tuberculosis sanatorium, or a Riverton cemetery where a local man once knocked down the gravestones and used them to build his house.
The process was fun, Samson said, but far more painstakingly challenging than he anticipated.
"It's certainly the most specific record I've ever made," he said. "I'm kind of looking forward to doing one that's less specific."
Musically, the record is a mostly quiet, contemplative affair, with finger-picked guitars and handsome strings providing an unintrusive vessel for Samson's detailed poetry (the album's release coincides with a new book of Samson's lyrics and poems, appropriately titled "Lyrics and Poems.")
Rarely does Samson and his band — which includes guitarist Shotgun Jimmie, former Constantines drummer Doug MacGregor and bassist Doug Friesen — kick up the sort of caffeinated jolt that often bubbles forth from his regular act, but Samson said the point of the album was never to necessarily venture outside the comfort zone of the Weakerthans.
"We pretty much do whatever we want to do with the Weakerthans — so it wasn't really that," he said. "There was an internal logic to the record that dictated what it was I guess, that it wasn't a band record but something else."
Certainly, the soft-spoken, unassuming Samson doesn't seem to desire an increased slice of the spotlight — in fact, he laughingly suggests the motive behind his releasing a lyric book was to have something to sell at the merchandise stand other than a T-shirt with his name on it, a prospect that "just kind of made me feel really awkward," he pointed out demurely.
He says the ideal situation would be for solo excursions to co-exist happily with albums by the Weakerthans, though he expects it could be a while before he has the urge to make another record on his own.
"Maybe in another 10 years ... I'll have another idea for a solo record, but I don't think that I would go out of my way to make a solo record."
(He also dismisses the suggestion from some fans that his real solo debut came years earlier with the obscure 1992 cassette-only release "Slips and Tangles," an album of "juvenilia" Samson sold to his friends that is "best quietly forgotten.")
He says the Weakerthans — whose last new record was 2007's "Reunion Tour" — will reassemble to begin writing something new this year. It'll be a while before anything is ready for fans, however.
"Our pace is really slow," he said.
He acknowledges that the announcement of his debut solo LP caused some fans to fret that the Weakerthans were quietly heading for a breakup, particularly given the long gap since the group's last album.
But they didn't need to worry, Samson said. The same way his loyalty to Winnipeg seems to have a limitless endurance, his commitment to the Weakerthans is unlikely to waver.
"The Weakerthans is like family, it's not really something that I feel like any of us really have much of a choice in, you know?" he said, laughing.
"It's just something we do and we'll always come back to doing, in whatever ... degree of seriousness.
"So yeah, we're all doing different things this year and we'll definitely start playing again at some point this year and work on something new. I can't imagine not doing that."