Think about the origins of writing songs.
So many popular genres found their roots in rebellion or escapism, in social commentary and activism, in broad messages of peace or war or love. Folk music in particular is dear to Oklahoma right now, with Woody Guthrie, during the 75th anniversary of his iconic “This Land Is Your Land,” experiencing a popular culture resurgence, and a handful of notable area musicians associated with the genre finding their places in the national spectrum.
With tragedies and celebrations of race, class and religion happening with alarming frequency around the world, the complex mirror of music fandom reflects as meaningfully as ever, with listeners searching for their own directives in the art of other people, and with those artists often becoming unwitting spokespeople for their beliefs.
It’s fair to say there’s a bit of Guthrie’s endearment to the common man in Shawnee songwriter Samantha Crain, though she’s not quite a folk singer. And much of the recent press she’s received has discussed activism as an overlying theme in her life — Crain is very open with everyone about her stances on things dear to her, such as women’s and American Indian issues — as well as her music. She led a peaceful protest last year that garnered international attention, and on a smaller scale, she’s been spotted outright telling a stranger why his clothing was disrespectful to Native American people.
But she didn’t mean to write any protest songs. Those were sort of an accident.
“Under Branch and Thorn and Tree,” out July 17, does its part by telling stories of working-class women and oppressed minority groups, all under the veil of narrative fiction, and there are also several love songs. All the lyrics were informed by the lives of and conversations with other people, a partial departure from 2013’s deeply personal “Kid Face” and a nod back to her earlier work, much of which was based on short stories and fictional characters.
“My last three records have been so personal, I didn’t have any more life to talk about,” Crain said. “It seemed like the easiest thing to do, framing the songs from other people’s points of view.”
Counted among her character influences are her roommate, songwriter Kierston White — “She actually may not know that…” — patrons at the restaurants where Crain has waited tables, bar conversations with strangers and visiting with Occupy protestors across the country while on a recent tour.
She aimed to tell their stories through her songs. Still, the initial interpretation of the record came as a surprise.
“The way you wrap your head around what kind of album you’ve made is just to talk about it. You tell someone everything that went through your head during the process. It’s like going to a shrink,” Crain said. “And then they decide what you’ve made.”
Crain accepts the label, however nontraditional a protest record it may be.
“With a lot of literal protest songs, it’s a shouting match, and people are just trying to win arguments. I don’t feel like it’s super effective in songs, and in real life, it’s not effective at all,” Crain said. “Because this is so specific to a certain group of people’s stories, you’re kind of forced to feel empathetic. Even if you’re not a working-class woman, you’ll get their stories.”