Samantha Crain is some kind of wonderful.
A progressive thinker who recognises the importance of roots (historic and musical), an astute, intelligent songwriter with a gift for well-crafted and catchy songs, a passionate defender of her beliefs and a no-nonsense approach to stupid interview questions. Which is why, when I delicately try to suggest a landmark birthday on the horizon affords her the opportunity to reflect on her career to date, she quite rightly shoots me down – Slow down bud…I’m getting ready to turn 29, not 30. Let me hold onto my 20s for another year. Strike one for my mother; she always told me to avoid age related questions.
Thankfully, it was one of my last, so some of the fires raging within her are captured below, ahead of the July 17 release of Under Branch & Thorn & Tree, her follow-up to 2013s Kid Face.
FRUK: Where are you now; home or touring?
SC: – I just arrived back home, in Oklahoma, from a tour up in Alaska.
How has the reaction to Under Branch & Thorn & Tree been on the road so far?
Well the album isn’t out yet so I’ve really only been playing a few of the new songs but the reply to “Elk City”, “Outside the Pale”, and “When You Come Back” have been really great… as I’ve been playing them pretty regularly. I’ve also played “Kathleen” and “Big Rock” a couple times and people seem to like them.
You went back to John Vanderslice for production; what is it about John and his methods that you like?
John works really efficiently, which I like. I like getting to the end of recording a record and feeling like I can’t wait to hear the masters because I don’t remember what all we did. I like not feeling like I’ve heard it a thousand times and really labored it into some uninspired state. That feeling keeps me moving forward as a writer and as a musician and as a singer.
Was the recording all analogue?
Yes, We recorded straight to two-inch tape on a Studer 24-track machine and mixed down to 1/2-inch tape on an Ampex machine. The pre-amps were tube and we never used a computer. Our effects were done manually through tape looping and manipulation.
Most of the arrangements happened in the moment, as we recorded. My guitar and vocals are all first or second takes, as are most of the other instruments.
John is an analog genius, which really appeals to an audiophile nerd like me (inherited from my dad and continued through my manager, Dolph Ramseur). He’s a master at accomplishing hi-fi analog sounds with a killer taste in all things tone. He’s also hilarious and the perfect mixture of laid-back and high strung, which I find really appealing for a creative atmosphere.
What is it about analogue that you favour?
I just like that it sounds like everything is glued together and you get such a full range of frequencies and human musicality.
During my research, I was struck by how many references there were to your music being ‘miserable’ or ‘gloomy’, and your voice being compared to Joanna Newsom at one extreme and Carole King at the other. Terms that would normally be considered negative (like miserable) are celebrated in these articles. I’m interested in how you perceive yourself and what you think of those references?
People listen to music to feel and think about all sorts of things, not just to feel validated and happy, so that’s why I think most people don’t really consider miserable or gloomy to be negative adjectives when it comes to music.
I don’t think of myself as a miserable or gloomy person, I just happen to have written a bunch of songs to deal with those moments in my life or in characters’ lives. My singing voice, I think, just lends itself more naturally to more sorrowful music anyways, and that has probably influenced the type the songs I tend towards writing.
A lot of writers and reviewers seem to revel in your ability to connect on a very human level even if that means it’s not party time 24-7. How’s your glass; half empty or half full?
Well, as far as I know, human-ness isn’t party time 24-7. Maybe it is in some corners of the world, I can’t speak for all, but where I live most people are just waking up every day with a set of struggles in one hand and then some potential moments for joy in the other, and they’re just doing everything they can to keep it balanced.
My glass isn’t half full or half empty, its just half…like most people on this planet.
A lot of reviews suggest a cohesive theme to the album. Is that something you were aware of, perhaps consciously chosen?
Yes, the main inspiration of this album is the working class woman. It does stray from that figure at times to point at underdogs from all walks of life, but the working class woman was my main inspiration. The first song I wrote for this album was ‘Elk City’. It tells the story of a woman in a busted oil town in Oklahoma and her struggle to lift herself up because of alcohol, abandonment, and, eventually, because of her own single motherhood. After writing this song, I realised the rarity of painting a woman like this in song.
Most women in music are two-dimensional – manically happy or heartbreakingly depressed. This was a song about a multi-dimensional woman and I felt like I had a real opportunity to make a full album about women that could potentially lend itself to a wider conversation about really changing the framework of society when it comes to sexism and gender inequality.
The album does touch upon the general underdog as well though; it is fitting for marginalized groups of all kinds in the more politically charged songs.
You’re known for stepping up and speaking out, whether within your lyrics or silently, as in your stand at Pink Pony’s gig last year (Crain organised a peaceful protest at the Norman Music Festival where Pink Pony’s white lead singer, Christina Fallin wore a headdress/shawl considered by some to be native American in an unnecessary piece of cultural appropriation – Crain has Choctaw heritage). Do you consider yourself a mouthpiece for moral issues, or is that a by-product of your writing?
I’m not any more or less moral than anyone; I’m not appointing myself a messenger or prophet. I just have opinions, I have a basic set of beliefs when it comes to society and I hope they come true. Sometimes I feel like they need to be said out loud, directly (like in an actual protest), other times, I feel like they should be more nuanced and tucked into my writing.
So many people I know have dreams, ideas, wants of equality and freedom, but because of their position in the world (job, family, religion, location, government, etc.) they can’t fully speak their mind. I’m a largely independent person (in regards to the categories I mentioned earlier), and I count that as a real opportunity to put myself out there where other might not feel able.
Did the reaction to the Headdress protest surprise you – the ripples continue to spread even now?
I wasn’t particularly surprised. The protest I organised was just an addition to a fight and frustration that has been going on publicly for years, probably as far back as when Charles Dickens wrote “The Noble Savage” in the 1850s.
There are so many Indigenous activists that came before me and have given so much more to the struggle of cultural appropriation than I have and probably ever will. I just hope to try and keep the conversations going until it isn’t even an issue.
How much did the incident influence material on Under Branch & Thorn & Tree?
The protest against Pink Pony is such a small, small, small small portion of any thing I’ve ever said or done. The interest in the incident just proves how much people are consumed by and interested in rich, white, powerful people. If it would have been any other person I’d spoken out against, nobody would be talking about it over a year later, but because it was the governor’s daughter, who happens to be beautiful and rich, people still want to talk about it, like its some kind of David vs. Goliath situation.
I don’t ever think about the event unless someone brings it up, so in that light, nothing about that specific event influenced the new album. My thoughts aren’t consumed by tearing down the powerful, they are more consumed with building up and bringing attention to the underdog, so they can organise and overcome by sheer number, and by dipping into the plentiful well of determination and love and passion that exists within the marginalised populations of our world.
When the messages and stories you tell flow from such rich seams, and are articulated in a way that leaves the listener in no doubt as to the strength and purpose of the woman singing them, it’s hardly surprising Crain’s star has been rising true and fast for the last few years. Audiences can smell authenticity a mile off and Crain exhibits it in spades, but without any of the earnestness that can sometimes be off-putting. She just puts it out there and moves on. It bodes well for her next set of gigs here in the UK (details below).
We’re going to be lucky enough to see you in the UK at shortly – what can we expect?
Songs from the new album, songs from older albums, and lots of my, sometimes incoherent, banter.
Is there anything extra-curricular you hope to achieve when you’re here – what’s a good day on tour in our neck of the woods?
I love touring by train when I’m in the UK so I can walk around the center of the town when I arrive. I love walking, so I just do a lot of walking around the different towns.
And any time I can view some bodies of water, I really go for that. I wasn’t around water much at all growing up so I’m particularly fond of any oceans, lakes, rivers, and seas I can view.
What were the last two albums you listened to – are they indicative of your collection?
Frazey Ford’s ‘Indian Ocean’ and ‘Happyness’ ‘Weird Little Birthday’. My record collection is all over the place, so really anything could be indicative of it.
It was at this point that I dared all and set up the final question below with one about her (not so) impending birthday. True to form, having warned me off wishing her life away, she was unblinkingly honest about the girl whose music first saw the light of day in 2008.
What does the current Samantha Crain make of the version who released The Confiscation EP in 2008?
I think she was dumb and selfish – on the downside, but I like to think she was pretty freshly non-derivative at the time, which is nice to look back on.
She may think her banter between songs is incoherent, but this songwriter is anything but. The ability to cut through the BS and get to the heart of the matter is a rare one, rarer still when accomplished in style. Crain has a great BS radar and bags of style. Add that to powerful words and delicious melodies and it’s a package you shouldn’t ignore. You have been warned.
Interview by: Paul Woodgate
Under Branch & Thorn &b Tree is released 17 July
Order it via Amazon
UK Tour Dates
31 Jul – Perth, Southern Fried Roots Festival
01 Aug – Perth, Southern Fried Roots Festival
02 Aug – Glasgow, Broadcast
03 Aug – Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
04 Aug – Manchester, Gullivers
05 Aug – Bristol, The Louisiana
06 Aug – London, Sebright Arms
07 Aug – Brighton, The Latest Music Bar
Photo Credit: David McClister