Best known as the leader of the Northern Pikes, Jay Semko has performed frequently as a musician in Yorkton.
YORKTON – For those growing up in the 1980s, The Northern Pikes were one of Saskatchewan’s finest bands, having naturally played in the area over the years.
Much of the Pikes material was due to frontman Jay Semko, who later released a number of solo albums after the Pikes, again playing locally for events.
Semko also happens to be a poetry writer, which is perhaps unsurprising given how closely related song lyrics and poetry are.
And now Semko, who was born and raised in Saskatoon, has collected some of his music lyrics and poetry, and combined the two in a recently published book.
The poetry side Semko’s writing can be linked to school days.
“I excelled in English at school and started writing poetry as a child. I started writing songs in my late teens and attended the University of Saskatchewan for a year and a half majoring in English Literature – although I loved English and Political Science, I found it hard to motivate myself for other subjects and so my academic career was short-lived duration,” he told Yorkton This Week. “I guess I learned to be an ‘on the job’ writer so to speak, writing song lyrics and adapting some of my poetry into songs’ lyrics.
“I’m still writing – it’s everything to me, absolutely essential for my mental and physical health and something I love to do.”
While college wasn’t Semko’s “thing”, English undoubtedly helped him when it came to writing lyrics, where he would find his lifelong career.
“Music has been my career for most of my adult life, although I’ve had many other jobs over the years – Canadian Tire, warehouse work, retail clerk, janitor golf courses, driver, supervisor and the like – but ever since my early twenties music has been my career,” he said.
“I played in many bands as a teenager and beyond, and when I was 23 I formed The Northern Pikes with Bryan Potvin and Merl Bryck. After playing live for three years through Canada and released two independent albums, we signed a worldwide recording contract with Virgin Records in 1986, with Don Schmid as our fourth member.
Of course, a group needs material.
“I started writing songs in my late teens and played in a few bands performing original material before The Northern Pikes – I learned by trial and error how to write songs, and after a lot of practice , effort, time and patience, became proficient – I have always loved words and written poetry for most of my life,” Semko said.
“I also became a music composer for film and TV – I wrote the theme song and was co-composer with Jack Lenz and John McCarthy on the syndicated TV series ‘Due South’, and I composed music for many other productions, I also co-wrote with other artists and songwriters, taught songwriting at the University of Saskatchewan, and am a voice-over artist who expresses advertisements and narrates.
So why combine his words and his poetry in a book now?
“It was suggested to me by a few people over the years who wanted to read all the lyrics,” Semko said. “I have written, and continue to write, many free-form verse pieces and fragments – some of them may become lyrics and/or a stand-alone poem, and sometimes I will go deep with this in which I continually work on like a long free-form verse – it happens in many ways, with inspiration coming from many different places inside and out.
Semko said that as he reviewed what he had written over the years, he began to see the potential for a book.
“I started going through my scribbles and thoughts and realized there was a lot more out there than I originally thought, both in terms of volume and depth” , did he declare. “I started to think I could actually be worth a book of poetry, so I made a commitment to finish it with a deadline in mind – it forced me to take a hard look at everything. was about every poem I envisioned for the book, and also approaching the lyrics with an idea of how they would ‘read’ rather than be ‘sung’ It was a challenge in a good way – I became more aware of every word – a lot of internal struggle over the brutality of sharing this piece of my life.
The effort was somewhat introspective of what Semko had created over the years.
“I went through everything I thought was good to have in the collection and started to find interesting but unfinished poems – I dug them up and completed them, and once I started that process, it had a domino effect in amplifying what I had to aspire to with each poem,” he said. “That being said, some poems were complete as is, and others needed more tweaking/editing.
“As I went through all the material, I started noticing how many of the poems were about my addiction and mental health issues, and after being a bit taken aback at first, I decided to completely embrace what I had written.”
Open to struggles
Semko said it’s important to talk about struggles when people are ready.
“I have been quite open in the past about discussing my personal challenges – I have discovered, or rather rediscovered, that discussing this part of my life openly was and is cathartic for me as well as others. others who may experience this in their own lives or in the lives of their loved ones,” he said.
“I was really reminded of this on the Pikes 2017 Big Blue Sky 30th Anniversary Tour across Canada, where CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) had an information booth in all of the locations we visited. are produced.
“During each show, I would talk onstage for a few minutes about my addiction and mental health issues, educating the audience about the CAMH booth. CAMH had its booth next to the Pikes merchandise booth in the theater lobbies, and after each show we went to our booth in the lobby to sign for merchandise and memorabilia. Invariably many people would come to me and thank me for sharing my personal struggles, and it was often a very moving experience – I made the decision to speak more about my experiences, as I witnessed the positive effect it could potentially have for others.”
The struggles Semko faced appear in many works in the book.
“There are a number of poems in the book dealing with my internal battles, as well as others that deal with many other topics – poetry can be very subjective, and I love words so much – each one matters “, did he declare.
Creating the book always meant challenges too.
“Probably the most challenging aspect of the book was the editing process – Jeanne Martinson of Wood Dragon Books (the publisher) was very helpful in this regard,” Semko said.
“We went through many drafts – it’s a somewhat laborious process as far as poetry goes, but well worth the patience and focus required, in my opinion. I found many parallels with the writing, recording, mixing, mastering and producing a music album – it just takes time and hard work.
It also had to deal with exactly what he was doing in releasing poetry to the world.
“I guess there was also the reality check when I realized as we neared the final version that I was really baring my soul in some of the poems, and I had to check with myself that I was cool with it, and eventually I was,” Semko said.
“It was a challenge to separate myself from the lyrics of the songs as music, to have them become their own entity – I heard music when I read them, and when I was able to fully embrace them without music. by modifying, rewriting and editing, I was able to help them evolve into more interesting poetry.
So what does Semko consider the best aspect of the book?
“For me, the best aspect of the book is the somewhat winding journey that connects the poems, ending in redemption – although it is a varied collection, I believe there is a cohesion in the chaos that is subliminal but apparent,” he said. “I also believe there is catharsis and release in very personal sharing, for myself and for others.”
Does the writer have a favorite piece or two?
“Well, one couple I find myself coming back to is ‘No Rabies Necessary’ and ‘My Mom in Hospital,'” Semko said. “There are a number of poems in the book about addiction, mental health issues and aging – ‘No Rabies Necessary’ is about the inner skirmishes that can turn into monsters, at least with me.
“My mother in the hospital; talks about my mom’s illness and passing in the year 2017 as the Northern Pikes planned, rehearsed and performed our Big Blue Sky 30 tour. It was such a difficult and heartbreaking time, and my mom was so incredibly strong and brave. She passed away the day before our last show of the tour, in Saskatoon. I think anyone who has had to deal with the terminal illness of a loved one can relate to this poem.
In the end, Senko is satisfied with what all efforts have allowed him to create.
“Yes, I’m quite satisfied – it’s a collection I’m proud of,” he said. “Having said that, you never stop learning and I learned a lot while working on the book which I will apply to my next book of poetry, which I am currently working on.”
The writer believes there is also an audience for the work.
“The target audience is anyone who loves poetry,” he said. “People who enjoy my music as a solo artist and with The Pikes are very interested, and people who know about my journey through mental health and addiction issues are too, but I hope anyone looking for interesting poetry will enjoy it.”
The book is available in bookstores which can order copies. For a full list, see www.jaysemko.com