On his third studio record and sixth solo release, Semko steers away from the white line of straight-ahead, radio-friendly pop he was known for with the Northern Pikes, heading instead down the gravel country roads. The result is a soulful, sweet offering that shares similarities with Buck Owens. Recorded in Saskatoon, with several of the songs co-written in Nashville, Semko uses these rural locales as further inspiration. As the bassist/vocalist for the Pikes, Semko may not have been an international superstar but he certainly experienced the dark side of life as a rock’n’roller. The title cut is a semi-autobiographical song of hubris and sympathy, where the songwriter makes light of his own troubles using self-mockery as a cathartic experience, painting a picture of where a life of excess can lead. With the weeping of a pedal steel and a playful banjo, he sings of a guy at the end of the bar who "is as drunk as a skunk/trying to light a cigar.” Semko recently beat his battle with the bottle and as a sober songwriter, his head is much clearer and at peace. That’s evident in the disc’s dozen tracks, which are some of the catchiest of his career.
The title cut, "International Superstar,” sounds autobiographical.
That song is definitely semi-autobiographical. It’s funny, sad, condemning and a bit sympathetic. Yes, I’ve been there. For a while I was pretty messed up, abusing myself and living in my own version of reality. I’ve always had a bit of a knack for turning pathetic situations into pretty good pop songs.
You hear so many stories of musicians who battle the bottle. What made you "get out alive,” to use a cliché, and how has this sober outlook changed your songwriting?
It was like watching a slow-motion train wreck with me as the engineer. I had to reach a new low; alcohol was running, and ruining, my life. I finally woke up and took the steps I needed to get back on track. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I love writing more now than I have for quite a while. It’s still cathartic and it’s always a great workout for the brain. I feel like part two is just starting.
You co-wrote many of the songs on the new record. As someone who has tended to write solo, what was the hardest part of co-writing?
The weirdest thing about co-writing was just this instant exposing of my thoughts. After you get acquainted and you start to connect musically, it just starts to happen. I think maybe it’s this renewed energy that I seem to have now. I feel kind of like Rip Van Winkle. I just woke up after a really long hibernation and I’m ready to rock!
What is it about folk/country music that pulls at your heartstrings?
I grew up listening to a lot of folk-type music. My mother loves Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Beatles and that sort of stuff, and my dad’s into Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, Harry Belafonte, Eddy Arnold — so many good songs and such a high level of writing. I was lucky to be exposed to it at a young age. I don’t think you ever lose the early things that influence you. When I started thinking about songs for the new record, I wanted to keep it simple but smart. It was all really unplanned. I love pedal steel and a lot of traditional country sounds, and since I had complete freedom to do whatever I wanted, I took what I did on Redberry a step further. This time around I really wanted to get back to the craft part of songwriting. I’ve always had those folk/country elements in my writing. I guess this time I decided to let them be a little more obvious.
I read that you wrote many songs on International Superstar down in Nashville. Tell me about your Music City experience.
I co-wrote a number of the songs in Nashville. I had this concept in my mind that I was going to put out an album of songs about my recovery and the dark world I was inhabiting before that occurred, but the longer I was sober, the more positive I started to feel, so I gradually put that on the backburner. I’ve written a number of songs about those experiences. I think they’re pretty good, maybe I’ll still put that album out in the future, but I began to feel like I didn’t want to go back there right now. I’d played with the Pikes in Nashville a few times but didn’t really know the scene, and a few of my friends suggested I should take a trip down there to see what it was all about. I set up some co-writing sessions and had a great time writing with some new people. I hadn’t done all that much co-writing. It was kind of a newer thing for me, a bit of an adventure. I got so many positive vibes, made a bunch of new friends and I started thinking, "Hey, maybe this is the new album.” Everything just fell into place with the songs. I ended up with just such a natural feeling about it all. International Superstar kind of created itself, or so it seems to me.
Tell me the effect the documentary Love Will Set You Free had on reinvigorating your muse.
Marshall Ward has been a friend for a quite a while. He approached me in 2005 about doing this documentary dealing with songwriting and recording and the things that go into it. The guys came out to Saskatoon for a few days and shot us in the studio putting together the song "Love Will Set You Free.” It was the first new song I’d recorded in a while and it really got my wheels turning about making another solo record. I’d have to say that it was a wake-up call. It forced me to take a good look at myself and say, "get it together, man, you ain’t done yet!” It was the first part of getting it back together for me, as it made me realise how much I love music and how much I need to write for myself. I’ve always stayed busy with music but I had forgotten that first and foremost, I’m a songwriter and an artist. It’s like a third arm I hadn’t been using for quite a while that I just remembered I had.
Any chance for another Northern Pikes reunion in the future?
The Pikes still play occasionally. I love playing with the guys. We know each other about as well as any humans can. I’ve learned to never say never. Maybe we’ll do a new album sometime in the future. It could be pretty fun. You never know what’s around the corner.