The first time I ever heard Samantha Crain, it was dark and late, I was tired, wandering back to my Pickathon tent from the barn. A voice came galloping across the hill from a stage somewhere, breaking the peace of the night with a certain crying cowboy sound. When I neared the stage, I could see a short woman with very long, very dark hair, crooning against the night with a collection of lyrics which were sort of dreamy and sort of all-too-real. That woman was Samantha Crain, and I left that festival with an EP in hand. I was excited when, a few months later, I got a full-length CD in the mail (Songs in the Night) and when, a year or so after that, I wound up on Cayamo where I got to see Crain deliver several days in a row at sea.
It's been interesting to watch her career unfold since that dark, tired Pickathon night. She was back at that festival the following year with more obvious confidence (not to be mistaken for ego) and a particularly surprising power in her voice. The disc which followed - You (Understood) - saw her exploring music as a creative force. Rather than just telling stories or setting journal entries to melody, Crain spent that disc studying how to capture individuals in song. It was a way of amplifying the intersection between human and melody. It wasn't perfect, but it showed us an artist uninterested in simply mulling over her own neuroses for an audience. It was as though she were saying "Okay, let's see what art can do; let's see what I can do with it."
Some time has passed since then and now Crain is back with an album of songs so honest, it sometimes feels like an imposition. As you can read in the interview below, she made a concerted effort to remove any fiction from the disc. Typically, songwriting is a fluid form of expression, where facts are smudged in the interest of rhyme, memories enhanced by some exaggeration which fits the rhythm. That she focused instead on telling the truth this time around is another step in her development as a writer. It's not a simple task, but she nailed it without forfeiting any rhyme schemes or resigning her predisposition toward catchy hooks. It's quite an accomplishment for a young songwriter, raised in a music climate where so many fans are fine with applauding expedient production over true artful expression. If she and her local peers (John Fullbright, Parker Millsap) are any indication, there must be some truth serum in the water out there in Oklahoma. Or perhaps the open spaces just offer a greater perspective on why an artist might be inclined to open their mouth in the first place.
With that in mind, here's my recent Q&A with Crain:
Kim Ruehl: Let’s dive right in and talk about Kid Face – where did this come from for you?
Samantha Crain: It doesn’t have an overarching theme other than the fact it’s the first record I’ve written where all the songs are autobiographical. Coming from more of a fiction-writing background, it’s taken me a while to feel comfortable with only writing things that have really happened to me, from my own experience. I’m always tempted to throw in a little more color. That’s where my writing has come from in the past, but getting older and becoming more comfortable with leaving the smoke and mirrors behind...that’s what this record came from. [I was] trying to do something purely autobiographical.
KR: My first impression was that your music in the past has flirted with sadness and dark things in a curious way, but this album just goes there honestly. Maybe that’s the difference between telling your own story and adding color to other people’s stories?
SC: Yeah, definitely. On my other albums, I’ve dabbled in autobiographical writing. There are some songs on my past albums that have definitely gone there, but I think this was the most…it wasn’t hard but it definitely took me a long time to get to the point where I was comfortable enough to do it. It wasn’t hard when it came about, but if I had tried to write this album two or three years ago, it would have been harder for me.
KR: Did you sit down and decide – “I’m going to write an autobiographical album!” Or were you just going along, writing, and then realized you’d accumulated an album’s worth of material?
SC: It worked both ways. I had a few songs I’d written that I was wanting to use for a new album. I started realizing I’d gotten to a point where I was comfortable writing this way, then it became a purpose. I realized I’d written four songs like this and it was working. Then it became a conscious thing I was going for.
KR: Do you think you’ll go back to writing fictional stuff?
SC: I don’t know. Now that I know that I can write in this way, it’s kind of a breakthrough for me as a writer. I think it depends on – I don’t know where I’m going to be in a year or two, what I’ll be doing as far as what I want to write. I could come up with some grandiose ideas. But I think this was the time for me to write an album that was personal.
KR: What was the significance of “Kid Face”? Did you just like that song best?
SC: I thought it had a nice ring to it. There’s a song called “Kid Face” on the album. [My] album titles have always have turned out to be…welll, on Songs in the Night there’s a song called “Songs in the Night” and it sounded like a nice album title. With You (Understood), I went into that album with a definitive idea behind the album, and I wanted that to be the name of the album. With this album, I had all these songs and I was trying to think of an album name. It’s not that I thought “Kid Face” is the best song on the album; it’s just that I thought it would be a good album title. It’s also [a phrase that's] descriptive of me.
KR: What did John Vanderslice bring to this?
SC: He’s really good at understanding the connection musicians feel to their songs by the time they bring it into a recording studio. By the time you get a song into a recording studio, you’ve thought it over a million times and you have ideas about the instrumental arrangements. You have your own ideas about the production element of what you want to do on the song. It’s hard to get a fresh perspective on the songs when you’ve spent so much time with them and have a clear vision for them. That’s not always what’s best for the song. John does a really good job of tearing you apart from your ideas long enough to get something else out. I think it’s because he’s so kind. You don’t feel like someone’s trying to do something to hurt you; you feel like he’s trying to help you make the song the best that it can be. He says, “Just try this. If it doesn’t work, we’ll completely scratch it and do it the original way.” Most of the time it ends up that he was right. I think,with him being a musician, he can relate to the attachment you feel to your songs, and he can work with you in a way that’s kind and soft.
KR: Are you still living in Oklahoma?
KR: I’ve been writing a lot about John Fullbright and now you have this new record coming out. Oklahoma seems to be a place that, when people write about its musicians, they focus on the Oklahoma-ness of the music a lot. You don’t get that when the artist is from Atlanta or Asheville, or somewhere else. I wonder what you think of that - how much of Oklahoma is in your work? Do you feel an allegiance to Oklahoma music when you write?
SC: Actually, I was just having a conversation with Fullbright about this the other night. We were talking about how, when you’re living in Oklahoma – Fullbright lives right down the road in Bearden, Oklah., which is about 40 minutes from here – when you live here, the scenery you’re around, the people you’re around…inspire you to a certain genre. If we were living in Colorado or New York City or something, there would be so many other influences as far as music or people, it would just be different. Here it’s set in stone. People here are very Oklahoma-type people. The music you’re around is country, folk, that sort of thing. Those are just the initial [influences], it's just where your head is. That’s what comes up. Being on the road a lot more, your songs start to sound a little different because you’re around different people and listening to different scenery. Your brain has more to work with. When you’re writing songs in Oklahoma, it starts to makes sense why Gene Autry or Woody Guthrie and people like that were writing stuff like cowboy songs. You can’t help but write what’s around you. That’s what’s around here.
KR: I guess you don’t get a lot of musicians moving to Shawnee, Oklahoma, to make it.
SC: [laughs] Yeah. There’s definitely…this is not a place where people are moving. It’s not a place of an ever-changing culture. People don’t move here. It’s pretty steady. What’s been going on here is what’s been going on here for a while. There’s not a lot to draw your attention away.
KR: Well, and then people like me presume that once someone like you has had a little bit of a career, you move elsewhere. Makes me wonder if there's a well of great singer-songwriters in Oklahoma that we need to know about...
SC: You know, there is. I wouldn’t say that’s what keeps people around here, though. It’s cheap to live in Oklahoma; that’s why I’m here [laughs]. But there’s John Fullbright, who put out that amazing album and has a Grammy nomination. Then there’s Parker Millsap, who’s 19. He blows my mind when I see him. I think Fullbright is a pretty big fan of him as well. Then there’s...John Calvin. There’s plenty of other amazing songwriters here. It’s nice because there seems to not be that sense of competition – people are just happy that others are getting noticed. This is not a music town, it’s not a music state. People are just happy for each other when they manage to get noticed.
KR: When did you realize you should pursue a career in music?
SC: I think it was a gradual thing. It wasn’t like a decision all of a sudden. I decided to book some shows for myself so I could play these songs I’d written. That turned into a tour, then another tour, then a bigger tour. I never had in my mind that it would turn into a career or even go on this long. It was just…I wanted to take a break from college and then it turned into my lifestyle. It was something I felt at home doing. It was a gradual thing. I got so far involved in it, I figured, well, I’m this far into it, there’s no point in turning back now.
KR: Well, those are all my questions, but I usually post to my Twitter followers to see if anyone has any burning questions. Someone asked if you’d gotten your guitars back.
SC: No, I didn’t. I didn’t and I kind of got scammed thinking I was getting them back, too. Someone called me and said they had them, described them, all that stuff. I sent them money to have them ship them to me and then I never heard back from them. On top of getting the guitars stolen, I got scammed. I replaced them, but I haven’t gotten them back. I look on the internet all the time to see if they’ve shown up, but nope.
Kid Face drops on Feb 17 but can be pre-ordered at SamanthaCrain.com. Here's a sample: