Diffuser – On Making a Protest Album: ‘Art Should Create the Life it Wants to See’
“You and I, we tell stories the TV won’t release,” Samantha Crain sings on “Outside of the Pale,” a song that appears on her upcoming full-length, Under Branch & Tree & Thorn. It’s a pretty profound and devastating commentary on the media’s select recognition of certain groups while systematically abandoning the voices of others. And it’s just a single example of Crain’s keen ability to craft narratives that disassemble the status quo.
When describing Under Branch — which is slated for a July 17 release following 2013’s Kid Face — Crain makes it clear that these are protest songs but not in any traditional sense. That’s not to say tradition isn’t lurking in each of the album’s 10 tracks. In fact, it’s a sense of history that drives Crain’s songwriting — or more acutely, a lost history. As she puts it during our recent conversation, “Folk music… it’s been taken away from the people.” Consequently, she feels it has lost its resolution, its convictions. Crain combats this by wearing hers on her sleeve on the fiercely honest and unafraid Under Branch & Tree & Thorn.
It’s been a couple of years since you released your last album, Kid Face. How did the recording process for Under Branch & Tree & Thorn compare?
It went much the same way that Kid Face did. We recorded it at the same studio, Tiny Telephone, which is out in San Francisco and is owned by John Vanderslice, who produced Kid Face and this one. It’s a completely analog studio, so that means we recorded to two-inch tape and then we mixed it to half-inch tape. With this album, we actually went a step further to make it a completely all-analog recording. This guy named Bernie Grundman mastered it and he’s a really old-school guy from L.A. He mastered Thriller by Michael Jackson and a bunch of Crosby, Stills and Nash albums. He can actually make the lacquers for the albums directly in his studio so by the time you’ve got an actual vinyl record, it’s never touched a computer.
It’s kind of an expansion off of my growing relationship with John Vanderslice. Our working relationship has gotten really good, and I just wanted to keep rolling with that. I think he works really quickly, which I like. We recorded everything in six days and mixed it in four days, which is what we did with Kid Face as well. I like working quick like that; I think it leads musicians to experiment a little bit right off the top of their heads and you get these really special moments that I think don’t necessarily happen when you nit pick at things and spend a lot of time poring over what sounds good and what doesn’t. You kind of get everybody’s first gut reaction to the song, and I just think it lends itself to a record. The word record — it’s a record in time, it’s something that happened during this specific time, so I just like the idea of things kind of happening spontaneously.
I brought in some people from Oklahoma up with me to play on it and some people out in San Francisco. We had the Magik*Magik Orchestra, which is an in-house string section at Tiny Telephone. We had them do a lot of work on it, which I was really excited about.
What attracts you to that all-analog approach to recording?
It is kind of the immediacy with tape. You can’t do a lot of takes. I mean you can, but it disintegrates the quality of the tape every time you record over it. I think it captures a real honesty and just something that sounds real. We live in an age of music with computers, and it’s fine. There’s actually a lot of great music that’s come out of that and there’s a lot of amazing inventions when it comes to digital music. But what gets lost in that a lot is music that doesn’t actually sound like a person anymore. You don’t get this connection with the musician, and I don’t think people realize that they’re missing that. There’s just something to whenever you put a real classic record on, like a Joni Mitchell record. You can just hear her like she could be sitting in your corner playing this song and you can have a connection with the artist, her voice and her brain, whereas even really intimate, acoustic music, a lot of that now is being recorded digitally and the track is just so squashed audibly that it loses all the dynamics. With tape, you’re really getting this whole range of sound and real-life experience. That’s why I like it. I’m sure everyone has their own reasons, mine’s from the more emotional standpoint. A lot of people do it because they like the actual buzz and hiss; mine’s more of this emotional connection.
You definitely achieve a sense of immediacy on the album. Was that an intention you walked into the studio with?
Yeah, I mean we don’t use tape or less takes to intentionally make something sound worse, actually it makes you a better musician. When you know you’ve only got a couple of takes to get something down, it makes you perform better. It’s definitely an intention when you go in knowing you’ll be using tape. You know that you have to be prepared and completely focused and confident in what you’re doing. I think it makes you a better musician and I think, in the end, leads to a better product.
You’ve described this album as a protest album but you also qualify that by saying you don’t think these are protest songs in the “traditional sense.” Could you expand on that?
It’s definitely not a traditional way of writing protest songs; it’s not literal. The point of writing more nuanced things is you can basically paint a picture of the way things are going in the world, and this album in particular was [intended] to paint a picture of women as multi-dimensional people. One of the biggest problems with overcoming sexism and gender inequality in this country is the hammered-into-our-brain [idea] that women are either manically happy or depressingly heartbroken. So to be able to paint them as people who are multi-dimensional, that’s one of the main things as far as getting people to really accept that.
But beyond that, I’m not trying to win arguments. I’m just trying to get people [involved] in the conversation. The more people involved in the conversation, the faster that change takes place. With this album, it’s a matter of bringing social issues back into the mainstream and into the conversation. The characters in these songs, they’re all people that are marginalized in some way whether that be by poverty, race, class [or] gender. These are all things that have marginalized them and to see the life that they live, then you get to make up your mind about that situation. That’s how I see how I write political songs. It’s a good practice, too, to write a song like that without literally saying something and people can still enjoy listening to it, and then maybe on the second or third listen, they say, ‘Man, why is this person in this situation?’ or ‘I can relate to that, that’s my life, too.’ That’s kind of how I view protest writing. I’m also not good enough to write topical songs. People like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, they wrote topical protest songs. I don’t have that talent and this is what I’m best at.
“Elk City” certainly sounds like the experience of a single, working mother. What makes you want to tell those stories?
With that story, that was actually the first song that I wrote on this album and it put all of these songs into motion. I felt like this was instantly relatable to me and all these other people I was around, and it was really important to tell her story. I thought a lot of people could relate to that.
I want to tell the stories of these people, because folk music in particular, it’s been taken away from the people. The people who are taking over folk music now are mainly white, rich men. It’s really strange. When you get down to the roots of folk music, the people who were instrumental in bringing that into the mainstream are people like Woody Guthrie, who was poor and itinerant. It’s just the idea of giving folk music back to the actual people, people who don’t have a voice because one-percent of the wealth of this privileged elite group, that’s what’s reaching our ears. Whatever their interests and experiences are, that’s what we’re hearing. Coarseness and affliction, that’s been the backdrop for the most moving art. The fading recognition of this passionate 99 percent in favor of a white, heterosexual, deep money pockets, it’s just made music and art pretty boring. I think those stories need to be told in order to make art more exciting.
As a woman in the music industry, do you feel like you’re using your songwriting to address injustices there as well?
There’s definitely sexism within the music world, and I think it took me a long time to realize that just because I’m kind of tough. My parents raised me to be really tough, so I’m not really sensitive to people treating me differently. But the more I started realizing how my peers were being treated within this community, not everybody has the same disposition as me, so it is a problem, because not everybody can just brush it off their shoulders. I feel like female artists feel like they need to pander to men in order to be successful. They’re always thinking, “What’s the thing that’s not going to piss off this guy at sound check?”
If I can tell the stories of women that are working toward imparting gender [and] race equality, when you can inject those principles into the framework of society, when you can really change the way people think about women, then you get to a place where artists feel free to create and not constantly worry about if you’re going to offend somebody.
It definitely happens in the music business. I’ve been treated really badly by sound guys just because I threw out some vaguely technical term about mixing and their manhood was harmed or [they] ask male members of my band what my setup is or what I need in my monitor instead of asking me, as a human, as the person who leads the band.
Alynda [Lee Segarra] from Hurray for the Riff Raff, she’s awesome and she did an [op-ed for The Bluegrass Situation] a while ago and she had this great quote. She [said] she really wanted folk musicians to fall in love with justice, and the more musicians that you can actually get talking about these issues within their songs, then you get more people talking about it. There’s that famous saying that art imitates life when, really, I think that art should create the life it wants to see. People are influenced by music, that’s just the way it works; it’s undeniable. The more you can start talking about these sorts of things, that’s what’s actually going to change the minds of people.
You’re about to pick up your tour in a few days. What do you have in the works for that?
I’m going to Alaska. I’m doing like a week and half of shows up there and then I’m coming back to Oklahoma. I’ve been doing a lot more producing myself for other bands and I’m going to be producing an album here for a local band called Annie Oakley at the end of June before the album comes out. Then I’m going back on tour, doing U.S. dates and then going over to the U.K. for a little bit. I’m assuming a little bit after the album comes out, I’m pretty much going to be on tour for the rest of the year, so I’m just kind of creeping into tour mode right now a little bit at a time.
Samantha Crain’s upcoming LP, Under Branch & Thorn & Tree, is set to hit the streets on July 17.