SPOTLIGHT: With ‘A Small Death,’ Samantha Crain Makes ‘A Moving-On Record’
Photo by Joanna Grace Babb
EDITOR’S NOTE: Samantha Crain is No Depression‘s Spotlight artist for July 2020. Read more about Crain and her new album, A Small Death, out July 17, all month long.
Finding a comfortable role in which to exist in this world is tough enough for anyone. Doing it through a career as a steadily working musician? Well, the degree of difficulty on that is high.
But let’s say you find that space for yourself; you’ve found a way to make it work. What happens if it’s suddenly taken away?
You’d have the last three years of Samantha Crain’s life.
In March 2017, the Choctaw-American singer-songwriter released her fifth LP, You Had Me at Goodbye, to rave reviews. But as Crain was readying to go on tour to promote it, disaster struck.
“I had three car wrecks in the period of one summer,” Crain says. “I feel like people think I’m a really bad driver when I say that, but I was run into all three times. But it led to this weird barrage of problems.
“I always struggled with tendonitis and carpal tunnel, but the accidents exacerbated that,” she adds. “My health as an entity — financial, emotional, physical — just broke down because my hands literally stopped working. I had to cancel my entire my entire US tour, and I never had to cancel before.”
As a consequence of her injuries, it would take over an hour each morning for Crain just to regain feeling in her hands. She was demoralized and homebound, she says, existing in a “state of mental and physical breakdown.” Many days, just getting out of bed was a challenge.
Crain was in a bad place. But she learned she wasn’t in it alone. The friends and support network she’s built up over the years in her Norman, Oklahoma, neighborhood was there for her.
“Community is what brought me out of this crazy time in my life,” she says. “It’s so hard to imagine where I’d be if people weren’t there to bring me food, check on me, give me a ride when I didn’t have a car or send me letters.”
But it wasn’t just the people. It was the town itself, its layout and its openness, that helped foster her recovery.
“It’s a really special city, it’s a walkable town. You don’t get that a lot in the Midwest,” Crain explained. “It was a huge lifesaver. I could leave the house, go on a walk, and talk to people I knew and have conversations I didn’t plan on having. It added an air of spontaneity for me.”
As her psyche repaired itself, so did her body. Various therapeutic exercises enabled Crain to regain the use of her hands. By switching her technique to rely more on open tuning, she was able to play guitar again. It “was definitely not as comfortable as it used to be,” she says, but it was enough.
By the end of the year and into 2018, Crain was beginning to write and tinker creatively. A turn of phrase recorded as a voice memo here, an idea jotted down there, the creative juices were flowing. What she was going to do with this work wasn’t quite clear yet, but it was the beginning of something.
“I started writing — not songs, just writing, with no intention of doing anything,” Crain says. “I would take walks and have ideas, and as I started getting the use of my hands back I really dug in.”
It’s from these notes and musical strands that Crain’s new LP, A Small Death, began. With five prior critically acclaimed records to her name before this one, Crain wasn’t in need of creative prompting or resurgence. The skills were there. But in overcoming the adversity and chaos of the prior few years, Crain’s creative instincts were rejuvenated.
The 11 tracks on A Small Death, out July 17 on Ramseur Records/Thirty Tigers, came together fast and with minimal struggle. From a creative standpoint, the approach Crain took to writing allowed her to tap into the energy and passions that first inspired her to pick up a guitar, sing, and play over 15 years ago.
“This album came together really quickly. From the time I first picked up my guitar to when the last song was written was about three months,” Crain says. “Things were flowing in a really good, organic way. It was me at my kitchen table with a guitar.
“I hadn’t really written like that in a while. This was old-school, teenage Samantha, alone, with a cup of coffee, notepad, and thesaurus,” she continues. “I wanted to just go back and find that initial spark of what was special about songwriting to me. I had spent that time away from it; it became special to me again.”
New Ways Forward
Over the years, Crain has developed a reputation as an honest composer and performer, someone who uses song to really delve into her emotions and make sense of her life. With A Small Death, she takes that even further, tackling production responsibilities for the first time in her career.
John Vanderslice (Spoon, Mountain Goats, Death Cab for Cutie) produced her prior three albums. Even though his guiding hand wasn’t utilized this time, Crain found herself adopting the techniques and strategies gleaned from their multi-year collaboration to bring her songs to life.
“I needed to do this myself to make it sound how I envisioned,” she affirms. “I learned a lot about production working with John Vanderslice for my past three records, four if you count my EP. I felt confident to be able to do this myself, and if I didn’t, I could at least pretend to be John Vanderslice.”
In addition to switching up the producing, Crain changed her recording style for A Small Death. In the past, she’d book a studio out of state and knock out an album in one shot. This time, to give herself the space and time necessary to figure out exactly what she wanted to do in the studio, she recorded locally at a longtime friend’s studio in Oklahoma City. Sessions took place for two or three days at a clip, with a week off at home in between to “emotionally decompress” from the intensity of the work.
“It was interesting, knowing what a control freak I am with everything else in my life,” Crain says. “But I had spent so much time alone with these songs in my house. I knew everything about every song, from beginning to end.”
A Small Death was originally slated for release on May 1, but was pushed back in the hopes that the coronavirus pandemic would subside, the curve would be flattened, and Crain would be able to tour in its support. Obviously, that hasn’t happened, but Crain is staying creatively and intellectually stimulated during this time.
She’s been working on some new tunes, possibly for a new EP next spring. Some songs she plans on producing herself, while others she feels could use the approach of a different producer. But in addition to the act of creating new material, Crain has used the time at home to delve into the reasons why she makes music.
This brings us back to the reason A Small Death exists. Some artists write to make sense of their lives and sort through their emotions. But for Crain it’s different. Songwriting occurs after she’s rationalized her feelings and is able to articulate them. Instead of discovering where she’s at emotionally and mentally through composition, she uses it to put internal and external turmoil behind her and move on to her next chapter.
On A Small Death, Crain is closing the door on some of the most difficult experiences of her life.
“Only recently did I become emotionally intelligent enough to know what I was thinking or feeling,” she says. “After two months of literally just going on walks and eating dinner, creating art in general was a cathartic thing. For me, I didn’t really realize I do a lot of sitting, thinking, looking at birds and process. I create as a way to move on.
“This record is a huge example of that,” Crain says. “I had a super hard time in my life, but this isn’t a super sad record. It’s a moving-on record.”