AXS-Interview: Samantha Crain talks art, analog and ‘Under Branch & Thorn & Tree’
Interview: Samantha Crain talks art, analog and ‘Under Branch & Thorn & Tree’ | AXS | Writer: Laurie Fanelli | 6.4.15
Samantha Crain is an old soul with a powerful voice and unstoppable ambition. The 28-year old singer-songwriter writes engaging songs in the vein of modern protest music and aims to produce art that creates a better life for the 99 percent, AKA all of us. Her new album, Under Branch & Thorn & Tree is coming out on July 17 and Crain will be touring incessantly throughout the rest of the year.AXS got a chance to converse with Crain about her new album, the sweet sounds of analog recordings and her thoughts on music as a catalyst for change.
AXS: Thanks so much for taking the time out to talk today. You just wrapped up your tour over this past weekend, how did the shows go?
Samantha Crain: They were good. I’ve got a couple weeks off and then getting back on the road again.
AXS: I saw that you were going to be heading to Alaska. Have you ever played there before?
Crain: No, I haven’t played up there yet, so I’m excited about that.
AXS: On your recent tour dates, You shared the stage with Buffy Sainte-Marie for a few of the performances. What was that like?
Crain: She’s absolutely incredible. It’s really inspiring to be able to watch such a seasoned professional and somebody who is so passionate and involved after all these years. That was amazing to get to see her play every night and talk with her. It was just really great.
AXS: In playing songs off of Under Branch & Thorn & Tree on tour, have any of them evolved for you now that they are being heard by audiences?
Crain: They haven’t really evolved much because I already recorded them, so they’re kind of set. I do a lot of testing on audiences before I record songs, but once I get them on a recording, they really don’t evolve much after that. I have been playing some songs off the new album – I try not to make that the whole set because the album isn’t released yet. I want people to be able to connect with the songs at the show and then be able to – if they want – get the album. I’ve been playing “Elk City,” which is one of the new ones, and “Outside the Pale” and “When You Come Back.” I’ve definitely been playing those.
AXS: I love the album. I’ve been listening to it non-stop. I understand that you recorded this album completely analog, no computers. What was your primary motivation for going this route?
Crain: A lot of it has to do with my working relationship with my producer, John Vanderslice. He operates a fully analog studio out of California and I guess that’s where my interest in that started. I did a 7-inch with him before I did my album Kid Face with him, just to kind of test the waters to see how we worked together. We worked together so well and the product that I got out of that studio was so perfect for my ears. It sounded like the kind of music that I grew up listening to, which were my dad’s vinyls like Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash. It just had this really warm sound to it, almost like a glue binding everything together.
I decided to do Kid Face with him and, going through that whole process, I learned a lot as far as analog recording, but at a hi-fi level – not just using it to make it sound crappy (laughs). You can hear that 8-track tapes don’t sound great. You can definitely do analog on a not great sounding level, but he really used analog recording at a hi-fi level and because that’s how he records, that got me really interested in it.
What we did with Kid Face is we recorded it all analog, but with this new album, Under Branch, we took that a step further. We recorded it to 2-inch tape, mixed it to ½-inch tape and then, taking it a step further than Kid Face, we got Bernie Grundman to master it. He can cut the plates for the vinyl in his studio where he’s mastering so we took it a step further and went analog all the way through the mastering process. Which means, when we get these vinyls out, they will never have touched a computer. There’s just something really focused and deliberate about that, which I like.
AXS: That is really exciting! Now I’m itching to stop by the record store to pick-up a copy on July 17 (laughs).
Crain: It’s coming out on like 200 gram vinyl, which is so thick you can probably surf on it and it won’t break.
AXS: I’m always interested about the songwriting process. When you are writing a song, what comes first the lyrics or the music?
Crain: It really depends. On a lot of these songs the lyrics came first because the way that I have had to write the last couple of my albums is on tour, because I’ve been touring so much. A lot of these songs come from writing words during the day. The majority of both of these past two albums I wrote when I was on tour in Europe. Over there, I travel a lot on trains, so I’ve got during the day, during the journey, to write words down. Then whenever I get to the venue and have some time before the show or when I’m in my hotel room at night, then I can take out the words that I wrote and try to start pairing them up with melodies. It’s become more of a trend with me that the lyrics are coming first and then I’m creating the melody, but there are a lot of times when I think of a melody and put it down on my voice recorder and later try to find some words to go with the melody. They’re both equally important to me – the words and the music – it just so happens now that the way I write, on tour, I’ve been doing words first mainly.
AXS: One of the things that I was struck most with on Under Branch was your voice. It’s strong, yet vulnerable and your tone is just gorgeous. What do you think about while your singing?
Crain: I actually am visualizing things. I’m a very visual person, so a lot of times when I sing a song, especially during a recording process, but also live, as well, I’ll put myself back in that story or in that situation that I was thinking about whenever I wrote the song. There’s lots of images going through my head whenever I’m singing. Even after the meaning of the songs start to change for me, after I’ve been singing them for a long time, I’m still visualizing and it’s almost like pretending. I was a very imaginative kid and I still am. It’s really easy for me to make believe and put myself back into that story, that situation. So, I am doing that a lot of the time whenever I’m singing.
AXS: A lot of your new songs touch on universal experiences of struggle, but they also sound very true to you, personally. When you write songs do you come from an autobiographical place or do you place yourself outside of your own being to address social issues?
Crain: With Kid Face, my last album, it was so autobiographical that I feel like I kind of emptied out my well of personal experiences for awhile. So, when I started writing this album, I had to reach outside myself and look around for inspiration. Much of this album is my friends, my family, my peers, people that I’ve met, it’s their stories, even if I tend to put in details of my own life or sing in the first person, it really is, for the most part, outside myself.
I think that’s just kind of how I have to do it. I can’t always have so much going on in my life that I can write every song about that. And I think it’s important to look outside yourself or else everything else disappears. Much of this album was based on really making sure that the working class, the 99 percent, especially women in art are painted as these multi-dimensional people with their own voices. And making something that is social and political, but instead of making it a literal protest album, it’s more about painting the details of these people’s lives and letting that speak for itself as to the circumstances that a lot of people are living in and experiencing. This album is not so much autobiographical, it’s more descriptive of the world that I live in which is that middle America, 99 percent, working-class existence.
AXS: I love that and I love the kind of protest feel to the album. What do you think is the role of musicians in affecting positive change today? Back in the ’60s it seemed like everybody was using music as a tool for protest, but there doesn’t seem to be as much of that anymore. Would you like to see more of that happening?
Crain: Yes, definitely. I think music still has the power to influence politically and socially, it’s just a matter of bringing it back into the popular mainstream. This manifested before in the ’60s folk scene, punk in the ’70s, reggae, I could go on. There’s that saying, “Art imitates life,” and I’d like to actually see it where art doesn’t just imitate life, but art creates the kind of life that it imagines and wants. I think music has the power to change minds, but for the most part, I feel like right now, music just wants to follow the masses around and ask what they like and what they want.
There are bigger things going on, and music and art need to direct attention to those injustices. It’s a good challenge, too, for artists to try to do that in a creative way and not a blatant, literal way. I really would like to see that again. There are definitely musicians who are doing that, but it’s just a matter of it becoming more popular again. You can kind of see it happening, but there’s a lot more going on now then there was 30 or 40 years ago and I don’t mean just events. I mean with media. There is a lot more to pull people’s attention away from what’s actually going on in the world. I think it definitely could happen again, it’s just going to be a hard road to get back to that spot.
AXS: Another thing that really interests me on Under Branch is that you incorporate elements from a wide variety of genres in your music. Folk, country, jazz and so on, who are some of your biggest influences as a songwriter?
Crain: My influences are kind of all over the place. Neil Young is kind of my all time favorite and Jason Molina of the Magnolia Electric Co. is my other perfect influence. I love Aimee Mann on more of the pop side of things. I love Kathleen Edwards, which is more of that alt-country kind of thing. You’ve got Joni Mitchell, which is the quintessential folk. I love a lot of classical music which is why I’m so interested in lush arrangements and why we did so much with strings. I love a lot of classical music like Stravinsky, Chopin and Erik Satie. I even like hip-hop, really I like everything. That is why I think my sound is [undefinable] and I’m fine with that. I know that it’s hard to sell to people and I’ve realized that and experienced that, but I wouldn’t be doing what I want to do if we held back in some way because people would think, “That doesn’t sound like you.” So I kind of let myself do whatever (laughs).
AXS: Under Branch & Thorn & Tree comes out this July. What’s next? I know that you have some tour dates scheduled and are you focusing on writing new music, as well?
Crain: Yeah, I will be touring pretty much through the rest of the year, a lot of Europe touring is in store. Other than that, I’ve already started writing for the new album whenever I might have time to record it.
Under Branch & Thorn & Tree by Samantha Crain, which is currently available for pre-order, will be released on July 17 via Ramseur Records. Click here to pick-up tickets to see Crain on tour and keep reading AXS for more music news, reviews and exclusive interviews.