Tramping the trails of Winnipeg

Local musician Thomas Steur, 17, a product of his hometown

Living in Winnipeg is not always easy, but it’s always something. Cold enough to crack bones and hot enough to melt pavement, Winnipeg is a city with a troubled spirit, a place of great social inequity and a strange sense of comradery. That our unofficial anthem hangs on the phrase “I hate Winnipeg” says a lot about our skewed sense of hometown pride.

Thomas Steur, just 17, has been playing the Winnipeg circuit for a couple years now — busking, hosting open mics and playing a set at September’s climate strike in a city known for its reliance on cars and an increasingly unaffordable public transit system.

It’s this city and its ambiguities that motivated Steur’s debut EP as Trampy Trails, December’s Beneath These Trees. The seven-track, entirely acoustic collection is a delicate portrait of one person’s Winnipeg, joining a long legacy of music inspired by the city and its people.

“I think it’s kind of emblematic of most artists from Winnipeg,” Steur said, “it’s like, well, ‘What do you write about? What have you always known about?’ Winnipeg.”

The Winnipeg that Steur has always known is a complex place, and Beneath These Trees is full of characters from the North End that raised him — downtown weekend warriors, failed songwriters and a man with a tattered backpack making a bedroom of a bus shack.

These were the songs he felt proudest of, the songs that were best loved by those around him. However, there are plenty more songs to be made and plenty more still that may never be heard.

“I have a running collection of notes on my phone, and — I counted, I actually have 272 notes in my phone — most of them are just lyrics I thought of on the spot,” Steur said.

“Some of them will never be used for a song probably, but I just kind of let them sit there. And then eventually if I get an idea, I’ll try and use one of the lyrics and piece it together.”

Though only writing songs in earnest for the past two years, Steur says he’s been playing music for nearly as long as he can remember.

“I started when I was about three or four, my parents got me started in piano lessons,” he said. “When I was four, I got my first guitar, but my fingers were too small for it. I didn’t start playing it until I was 12 or 13.”

Steur took to the guitar more than the piano, and at the age of 15 he was busking regularly. It was only more recently that he decided to set his sights on bigger things.

“It’s just been recently that I’ve thought like, heck, I’m going to go for it and try and actually get out there,” he said.

“I had been kind of thinking about trying to find ways to record but, of course, since I’m not really a big artist yet, I don’t have much of a budget.”

It was his performance at the Sept. 27 climate strike that changed things. There he met David Dobbs, a member of local band Vampires, who offered him a free recording session — no budget needed.

And so Beneath These Trees was born.

“It was a pretty basic process — it’s just acoustic guitar and voice, it felt a lot like performing, really,” Steur said.

The goal eventually, according to Steur, is to move beyond the simple acoustic folk of Beneath These Trees and into something more robust, something that pushes his songwriting beyond just guitar and voice.

“I’m always writing songs — I’m thinking about producing an album. I want to make something that’s fully produced, that has more instruments,” he said. “The current idea is to just record it at home and have someone master it for me.”

Steur cites Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Tom Petty as inspirations for his writing and a goal of where he’d like to take Trampy Trails.

It’s perhaps not the most surprising or subversive list of influences, but understandably so — there are whispers of each in Steur’s working-class stories of the everyday, his devotion to the realities of where he calls home.

There’s certainly the feeling that Steur is only just beginning. That this promising EP — in all its homespun simplicity — is simply a portrait of an artist in motion, growing toward something bigger.

Wherever he goes next, it’s unlikely that Winnipeg will ever fully leave his music. In some way, it’ll probably always be there — all that hot and cold, all the comfort and disbelief, the unrelenting summer sun and the long shadows cast beneath the trees.