intricately simple songwriting

by Alyssa Robinson

July 31, 2009

To John Antoniuk, the Saskatoon-based lead songwriter and vocalist for the alternative folk/rock band Smokekiller, living the life of a musician is all about being true to yourself.

Although John is just entering his prime, at age 31, he has been a long-time participant in the music industry.

Eleven years ago, John and some fellow musicians started the evocative rock band Field Boss, who played together for a successful six-year term. In that time, Field Boss produced three albums, garnering them top honours with a showcase at the 2000 Prairie Music Awards and opening spots for such hit bands as Econoline Crush and Bif Naked.

Although John says he enjoyed the excitement of Field Boss’ notable popularity, he felt it was time for a change.

“I got tired of trying to be a rock star,” John explains. “I just wanted to stop playing songs that we thought would be ‘marketable,’ and start writing songs that really meant something to me.”

Shortly thereafter, John whole-heartedly began delving into the world of songwriting. And then, Smokekiller was born.

Although Smokekiller began as John’s solo project - performing many of his shows playing his acoustic guitar - Smokekiller has become known for its Ryan Adams/Radiohead sound, and is now compromised of John as lead vocalist, Josh Palmer on guitar and background vocals, drummer Brian Hankewich, and Jeremy Lane on bass.

“I always had an interest in songwriting, but I didn’t realize how important it would be to me until I started Smokekiller,” says John.

At the age of 17, John wrote his first song, “Days and Nights”. After high school, John continued to write songs periodically while attending both the University of Saskatoon and the University of Winnipeg, as an English major and History minor.

Since then, songwriting has become a deep passion of John’s.

“I write about everything and anything,” John reflects. “I find it’s easier for me to put things down on paper. It’s a more subtle way of expressing myself.”

Songwriting is a very personal experience for John. Or, as he would put it, songwriting is a “prolific journey of finding oneself”.

“All my songs come from something,” John earnestly expresses. “A lot of them are love songs – pure and simple.”

In fact, his third album, Side B, which was recorded over the past Christmas season, continues the love theme started with Side A.

On this melodically heartfelt album, John sings a chronological narrative within the span of six songs, about a guy finding himself, then meeting a girl, becoming comfortable in his relationship with her, then the relationship getting crazy (crazy in love), and then a reflection on the memory of the whole event.

“When I started the album I didn’t plan on this theme,” John articulates. “Things just fell into place.”

Originally, John had 52 self-written songs to pick from when putting together Side B.

“For me, writing songs is the easy part,” John describes. “That’s the part that comes naturally to me. It’s who I am.”

“Right now I’m at a place in my life where I’m really happy with the way everything is going,” John expresses. “I’m just taking things one step at a time.”

After the eliminations were made, and the finished product was out, John couldn’t have been more content with the album.

“With Side B I’ve put out a product that I’m really proud of,” says John. “It’s all about good lyrics, good melodies and good hooks. It’s simplified music that doesn’t sound simple.”

For John, this is the essence of what music is all about.

“You really have to put yourself into your songs,” John reiterates. “You have to do it for you, and not because you think it’s what everyone else wants; those are the trappings of success that most people get hung up on. Once I stopped caring about all the outside pressures, I was given all the things that I once cared about.”

John continues to explain: “It’s philosophical. You have to treat people the way you would like to be treated. But, you can’t expect people to treat you the same way in return. Karma doesn’t come back in a reflexive way.”

It is this humble and honest attitude that has taken John this far and gained him an increasing amount of recognition in the local music scene, even granting him the coveted spot of opening for rock legend Ron Sexsmith.

“Opening for Ron Sexsmith was my most memorable music experience so far,” John says. “It was just me and my acoustic guitar. It’s a good feeling to know that I can make it on my own and that I don’t (always) need a band. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great guys to have around, but it’s just nice to know that I don’t have that dependency.”

In fact, John says one of his most important beliefs is taking full responsibility for the outcome of his career, life in general, and putting music first.

“You have to open all the doors and make preparations for the opportunities out there,” John describes. “There’s no luck involved. It’s all about what you’re willing to put into it.”

“It’s not about what you’re going to lose,” John continues. “It’s about what you’re going to gain.”

In this sense, songwriting, like life, is an ongoing process, says John; each person learns new things along the way and adapts to each new lesson.

“Each song teaches you how to write the next so you can perfect your songwriting process as you go,” John articulates. “But, you shouldn’t self-edit your songs. Put everything down on paper first and then go back and simplify the structure.”

Although the songwriting process is key to John, performing is also a crucial part of being a musician.

“I really enjoy the whole experience of performing,” says John. “But it can get very emotional. I take in every moment of it and become completely mesmerized.”

“Sometimes I pretend that I’m sitting on the edge of my bed playing guitar and thinking about the moment that I’m singing about, and how much it hurt to get to that point,” John describes. “If I really get into (my music), I give a better performance.”

According to John, every musician must enjoy playing for themselves before they can enjoy performing for others.

“You must be true to yourself,” John expresses. “And that goes for both writing and performing. If (your writing) is honest, it’s not cheesy.”

Perhaps it is this sensible methodology that has carried John this far in his career, or perhaps it is his sincere dedication. Whatever the case may be, there is no denying that John is determined to whole-heartedly continue making his music dreams a reality as started in his song, “Please Me”:

Give me something to write
In the history books
Give me all that I want

Smokekiller’s Side B will be available for sale at their official CD Release party hosted at Lydia’s in Saskatoon in late March.

By Alyssa Robinson for SaskMusic. Originally published February 2005.

This article is posted as initially published. For reprint/usage permission or any other questions, please contact SaskMusic.