When it came time to release his first album First Transmission in 2012, Halifax musician Jon Samuel took the direct approach to finding a home for it.
He made a list of his favourite Canadian independent record labels, and emailed them the same message: “I’m working on a new record, I think this might fit, can I send you some songs?”
It was so simple, and it worked, as a credit to Samuel’s do-it-yourself stick-to-it-iveness.
Hamilton’s Hidden Pony Records, home to well-regarded acts like Jeremy Fisher, the Elwins and Hanna Georgas, was intrigued instantly. It probably didn’t hurt that the Dartmouth native has a resume that includes ongoing stints with Nova Scotia alternative rock stalwarts Wintersleep and Contrived, but the main thing is that Samuel’s self-produced solo debut is still a darn fine record seven years later and a stark, stirring departure from his bands’ dramatic, layered sounds.
“I didn’t send them music, I didn’t send them a long bio, just an email three sentences long that I sent out to about 10 different places. And I heard back from just about everybody,” he says over coffee at Java Blend on Wednesday as snow blankets the city outside.
“And almost everybody had a similar response, they said thanks for making it short and for not sending music right off the bat, and they said they wanted to hear my songs. And Hidden Pony said, ‘Can we put this out? Immediately?’ I couldn’t believe it actually worked.”
That relationship continues with the release this week of Dead Melodies, Samuel’s follow-up on Hidden Pony, at a series of shows around the Maritimes starting Friday at the Seahorse Tavern, with Museum Pieces and Shadow Folk. He also plays Sunday just across the provincial border at Thunder and Lightning in Sackville, N.B. and on Friday, Feb. 8 at Wrangler’s Bar and Grill in New Glasgow, with the set of new, and even punchier, songs recorded at Wintersleep’s studio space in Montreal with the band’s drummer Loel Campbell along as co-producer.
Available on vinyl and in digital form, Dead Melodies has some of the acoustic urgency and enigmatic hushed vocals of its predecessor. But there is also some flat-out rock and British pop-inspired material — the interview went down a bit of a rabbit hole over a shared love of The Smiths — to make it stand apart from First Transmission.
The energy boost can be chalked up in part to a renewed sense of vigour from having recorded and toured for two Wintersleep albums in the interim (with the latest, In the Land of, launching this spring), and from Campbell’s percussive influence during the recording process. But there’s also a sense that Samuel is raging against the light on songs like Another Lie and the title track, which was written partly as a reaction to making a quality solo record seven years ago that went largely under the radar.
“No one can ever replace what we’re now given for free/Take the time to retrace, collect and rewind the tapes,” sings Samuel in Dead Melodies, shrugging his shoulders at how the overwhelming amount of music available via streaming services, YouTube and websites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud also means that so little of it gets the chance to stay and rattle around in your head before it gets washed away in the flood.
“There’s just so much of it, and it’s all so accessible too,” he says. “In a lot of ways, the music industry is in the best shape it’s ever been with so much music available right now. But how much of it stays in your brain, and for how long?
“Is it disposable? Will the cream even rise to the top, and will it last, even if it’s really good?”
Samuel speaks from experience, both as an artist in his own right and as a Halifax DJ with the alias Century Samuel who alternates between modern trap music and a seemingly bottomless well of 1970s disco from all corners of the globe. Neither of those tastes are reflected in the songs that he writes and performs himself, and aren’t likely to any time soon — “I just think that would turn out sounding a little too pretentious for me right now,” he chuckles — preferring to stick with what works best for his in-studio and onstage cohorts.
“Where I’m at, what comes out, comes out,” he says. “For this record, a lot of it is through the lens of working with Loel, having his input and how he envisions the songs I’m showing him.
“To me, that’s really important right now. Our collaboration and having him be really excited about what we’re working on too.”