Interview in American Songwriter
These days, Samantha Crain may well be Oklahoma’s third famous musical export, after Woody Guthrie and the Flaming Lips. A singer-songwriter of Choctaw heritage with a distinctive vocal delivery and a deep affinity for literature (her debut EP was a novella and she’s written songs inspired by J.D. Salinger and Flannery O’Connor stories), she has three compelling releases and going on a half-decade of touring under her belt at all of 24 years old. For most of that time, Crain’s had an alt-country band called the Midnight Shivers behind her. But on her latest album, You (Understood), she goes it alone, pushing into indie rock territory and experimenting with different kinds of storytelling.
How are you and where are you?
I’m good. I’m in Kansas City Missouri right now. We’re playing in Lawrence, Kansas tonight. But we stayed with a friend in Kansas City last night.
I personally like the sharper-edged rock feel to the new album, but I gather you were unsure of how it would be received because of its different sonic direction.
Yeah. Before we did the record, I had been kind of messing around with electric guitar stuff at shows and just trying to get a feel for what people’s response to that was. I think most people would tell me after shows ‘I don’t get the electric guitar thing. Why are you playing electric guitar?’ I got a lot of comments. And so I knew in making this album people were either gonna really like it or they were just gonna like turn their backs and not like it at all.
If you got that kind of reaction when you tested out the electric guitar stuff what made you decide to still take the leap?
I think it was whenever the Midnight Shivers and I parted ways. I wasn’t ready for that to happen. It was really heartbreaking for me when all of that went down. I think for me it was either like I could do some electric guitar stuff, but more or less make another alt-country album, or I could completely kind of scare myself into something different. And I felt like that was the way to go, for me to start the healing process and getting on with a new phase in my music and in my life, too. Just ‘cause those guys were my bandmates and my best friends for three years. I knew that if I made this alt-country album that I would forever be trying to compare it with the album I would’ve made with them.
I hear a song like “Equinox” and it makes me wonder if you wrote it on electric guitar. The melody during the chorus parallels the electric guitar lick. It has this staccato rhythm that’s a little more rock than it is folk or country.
I wouldn’t say half of the songs, but at least four or five of the songs on the album I wrote on electric guitar. I think it influenced a lot of how the songs ended up coming out, just because you automatically do different things rhythmically on an electric guitar.
“Up On the Table” is your first ever co-write, right?
Right. It wasn’t like two people sit down and write a song together co-write, either. My friend Becky just said, ‘I’ve got some words; I’ve got a melody idea for part of the song. Do you wanna finish it out?’ We didn’t talk about what her part of the song meant at all. I just tried to interpret it the best that I could. That’s why it’s the one song that I have that I feel like has no real cohesive meaning behind it. Because it’s really like two people trying to interpret each other’s stuff without really talking about it. That song’s really strange in that way, that it means probably four or five different things.
If there’s a traditional way of going about co-writing, it would probably involve more explaining to each other what you’re intending. Why co-write at all?
Writing is sort of a personal escape thing for me. I’ve never really been comfortable doing it in a group. It just kind of snuck up on me. I think she was curious to see what I would do with it and I was bored at the time or something.
The way you prefer writing alone makes me think of the literary parallels in your songwriting. Fiction authors don’t co-write. Do you feel like you have as strong an identification with people who write fiction as you do fellow songwriters?
Yeah, because that’s kind of how I started writing. I guess that could be part of it. I didn’t start creating in front of other people. It was always a solitude thing. A good example of it is a lot of people, when they get started in music they sit around and they, you know, jam with other musicians. That’s how a lot of kids get started in high school. They sit around in a basement with their friends and they jam. I never did that. I never had that experience where you were completely vulnerable and creating things in front of people right off the bat; just off the top of your head, you were making art in front of somebody else, without being able to edit it or think about it. The reason I got into songwriting came out of the fact that I was already writing fiction. In high school and college I was writing short stories. That was something that you did alone.
Were you pursuing a degree in creative writing? Had that been the plan?
Yeah, sort of. When I was in college, I was in college for a total of three semesters and I think I changed my major every semester. I was always taking English classes and always in creative writing clubs and whatnot. But who knows what I would have really ended up doing? I mean that was kind of the idea; I think I wanted to be a writer. I wrote a lot and was always entering into publication contests and stuff like that. It’s weird for me to think what degree I would’ve actually ended up with if I would’ve stayed in for the whole thing.
Well it’s kind of a moot point now.
It’s funny when people ask me about dropping out of college I like to say that I quit, because I quit and then went and did something else. It wasn’t like I dropped out and then sat around. I found something else that appealed to me more at the time.
As far as your literary sensibility, you’ve said you wrote the songs on your new album each about a different person or encounter. But instead of it turning out like a concept album, the result reminds me more of modern fiction—it’s not so much about characters or action as the significance of small moments.
Right. It’s not a concept album. In all the press releases it says the thing about writing each song about a specific person. So people in general just think that I had this idea, this concept and made the album around that. But I think each song is a different sort of narrative. Some of them are really vague, some of them are really specific. It’s not about any sort of cohesiveness. It’s just about the idea that I felt like I needed to learn how to focus my attention on one specific moment or a specific image or a picture rather than looking at things as a whole. And that’s kind of how these songs came about. I went to the Georgia O’Keefe museum at some point, and all of her paintings are just these intense, close-ups of a specific thing. And you’re kind of left going ‘Well what is that? I don’t know.’ And I just became obsessed with trying to do that, but with words, with songs.
Congratulations on your Native American Music Award nomination.
Thanks! I really want to try to go to that this year. I didn’t get to go to the awards ceremony last year because we were on tour up in Oregon. I really hope that I get to go. I think it would be a really interesting experience. I wouldn’t even know what to expect.
So this isn’t the first year that your music has been nominated.
Right. I got nominated for, I think, two categories last year, and I ended up winning Songwriter of the Year last year. Actually, the Native American community has just been super inviting and welcoming, which I was not expecting at all just because, I mean, I didn’t grow up really in a practicing Native American cultural family. Also, I don’t play traditional music, as far as traditional indigenous music. They, I think, have really grabbed into it because it’s not traditional music.
I looked at the list of nominees and a lot of the other artists seem to make music from an explicitly Native American perspective. That’s not the first thing that I would associate with your writing.
Well, I think what I’m doing is probably part of what a lot of people my age can relate to in the fact that they are of Native American heritage and they do want to be in touch with their tribe and be involved with those activities. They don’t want to lose touch with where they came from and their history. But at the same time they grew up watching Saved By the Bell and listening to TLC. That’s me. I mean, I’m totally a product of American pop culture more so than I am of a purely Choctaw upbringing. Sometimes I do use language that’s probably spiritual-sounding on a more indigenous level. And it’s just because there are certain aspects of what I do that are influenced by where I came from. But at the same time, more so I grew up on American pop culture. I’m making music as informed by my relationship with being Indian just as much as everyone else is. It’s just different because I have a different relationship than a lot of the musicians that are involved in that community.