PLAYBACK:stl-Samantha Crain | Translating the Untranslatable
Samantha Crain | Translating the Untranslatable | PLAYBACK:stl | Writer: Janet Rhoads | 02.11.13
I’m definitely not one of those people who thinks out music; it’s more of an emotional response for me.”
Samantha Crain’s new album Kid Face is a must listen for anyone with a penchant for modern folk/Americana music. Produced by John Vanderslice and recorded strictly on analog tape with no computers involved, the LP has a warmth and intimacy that compliments more personal and autobiographical songs from Crain. Perhaps she has the face of a kid, but she strikes me as an old soul. It was a pleasure chatting with her about her travels, influences, and songwriting.
You’ve played with a lot of great artists: Rachael Yamagata, Langhorne Slim, Justin Townes Earle to name a few. Is there anybody else you’d really love to tour with or collaborate with on a project?
I suppose my hero is Neil Young. I kind of just want to be him. [Laughs] He’s like on a whole other level. I got to open for Jeff Tweedy once and so that would make it a little less intimidating if I ever actually got to play with Neil Young. Probably one of my favorite live bands right now is a band out of Philadelphia called Dr. Dog. I’d love to do some sort of touring or something with them. They’re really awesome.
I’m not that familiar with them. Are they kind of in the same Americana/folk wheelhouse as you?
There’s definitely a tinge of Americana to them but they kind of do a sort of rock-tinged, Revolver-era, Beatles-type stuff.
That probably would be a good fit. I mean, obviously a lot of stuff fits into Americana and you have that folk element, but I really like that there’s a little heaviness underneath what you do—it has that kind of rock/bluesy edge to it
Yeah, I think that Neil Young would probably be a good example of that, actually. He’s definitely known to be in the folk rock world but there’s just something underlying about what he does—like this groove that I’ve always really understood and connected with and I’ve tried to do that in my own music, too. I think that would be the part where soul music enters into it. There’s this underlying rhythm to it that I really like.
In the past, I know you’ve done more of the traditional folk style of telling stories about current times or other people’s lives, but on this record you are going a little more personal.
I started off as a fiction writer; before I even wrote songs, I was writing short stories. It’s been a gradual pull away from that. Not that I’m trying to leave that behind or anything—fiction was something that I sort of hid behind because I really wasn’t comfortable enough telling my own story, or I just couldn’t really get myself away from spicing things up a little bit. It’s hard to want to just right about what’s actually happening without putting a little smoke and mirrors on it. Over the years, I’ve gotten more comfortable with myself and how sort of normal I am, and try to add the poetry to the normalcy. I just haven’t really been ready to do something as personal as a completely autobiographical album up until now.
It is exposing, and I can see why you’d be tempted to hide behind someone else and be like, “Oh no, that’s not about me. That’s about someone else.” But from what I’ve read and heard of you, you seem like a pretty forthright person. Do you feel like you are a tell-it-like-it-is kind of person usually?
Yeah, very much so. [Laughs] But it’s a lot easier to comment on other people or something that’s happening at that moment than it is to delve into your personal thoughts and tell that how it is. It’s easy to be matter of fact from the surface, but I think it’s hard for anybody to be really honest about their innermost thoughts and feelings.
Was there something in your life, maybe traveling and being on the road so much, that got you to that place where you’re more comfortable about sharing more personal things?
I can’t think of a specific instance. I really think it just has a lot to do with getting older. A lot of people get more comfortable with themselves the older they get; they’re not trying to paint themselves in a certain picture anymore. For the first time in my life, over the past year, I’ve been doing a little more solo touring. So there’s a lot of time where it’s just quiet and there’s not people around; you are just by yourself. It lends to a lot of self-reflection. It lends to you having to be comfortable moving around the globe by yourself without someone else’s help. I think that probably got me to the point of finding comfort a little bit quicker.
Do you like traveling and being on the road?
Oh yeah, definitely! I mean, if for some reason I lost my voice tomorrow, I would still figure out some sort profession where I could travel as much as I do now. One of the main driving forces in what I’m doing, is my love for that.
Are there any places you’ve been that you feel a special connection with or just places you really loved?
Strangely enough, I spent five weeks in the U.K. touring with a guy named Adrian Edmondson who’s kind of like, the best way I can describe him is, who Steve Martin is to people in America, like the classic comedian gone musician. Over there, he’s a really famous comedian who turned into a folk musician. I spent five weeks opening for him and I kind of carved out a home for myself over there, almost. I felt very much at home in England and southern Scotland. It fits pretty good with me. I don’t think I’ve ever really been to a place where I felt homesick for it after I was home. But back home in Oklahoma, I get homesick for England every once in awhile.
So what other kinds of music do you listen to and enjoy?
It’s really hard for me to keep up with albums that are coming out, so it takes me awhile to get around to albums that have been out for a few years. I’m actually really into listening to different world music right now. I’ve been listening to some folk music from Zimbabwe and bossa nova from Brazil. As far as current people doing their thing, a band we’ve toured with a couple of times, First Aid Kit—I think they are really awesome. I’m kind of the type of person who gets into ruts and listens to the same thing all the time. Like, Jason Molina is a favorite songwriter, so I listen to a lot of him and Magnolia Electric Co.
You are of Choctaw heritage. How that has influenced your songwriting?
I think more than influencing the actual writing of the songs, it’s kind of being exposed to drum circles and drum music at an early age. The initial reaction to that kind of music, that stuff, is very emotional. There’s a very steady rhythm with the rattles and drums to keep steady for the singers. The singers are using a lot of native—depending on the tribe—Choctaw words, but then there’s a lot of non-lexical vocables, nonsense syllables. It’s very emotional, almost chanting, almost like speaking in tongues. You kind of end up singing what’s untranslatable. I think the reaction to seeing that at an early age has allowed me to have a very strong emotional connection to music. I’m definitely not one of those people who thinks out music; it’s more of an emotional response for me.
How was it working with John Vanderslice as producer on this album?
It was really awesome. John is a musician himself, a well-known musician, and so I think he’s got a real understanding of how protective and selfish musicians are with their work. Sometimes there ends up being a friction between producer and musician because the producer is always trying to push the musician in a certain way. If they aren’t totally into it, it shows up in the final recording: It seems very disjointed and unfocused. John, even though he has a clear vision as a producer, because he knows that by the time you get into the studio—at that point I’ve spent a year with some of these songs, and I’ve got in my head how I hope it to sound. A lot of times we need to be separated from that because we become a little bit disenchanted, with it and it’s not the best for the song. You want a fresh perspective on a song. A good producer knows that. John has this way about him that he knows that musicians don’t want to change their minds with their songs. He has some sort of way of making it feel alright and that you’re not doing a disservice to the song; you’re actually doing it right. If it doesn’t work the way he wants to try, you can always go back to your way. He’s just got a way about him that makes you feel really comfortable about trying new things.
It helps earn respect to have that kind of attitude.
Yeah, exactly. You can definitely hear it in the end result, I think. It feels very clear and unforced. As opposed to some of the records I’ve done in the past, this one feels very even.
I wanted to ask you about the video for “Never Going Back.” I saw both the actual video and the time-lapse video of how it was made. That was something else! How did that all come about?
So, Lamar + Nik—I saw a video they did for a rapper named Lush Life. Then I started looking at some of their other videos. They try to make really low-budget videos that are so cool you don’t even realize they are low budget, because the ideas are so out there and labor intensive. So when we started thinking about the video for this song, my original idea was—you know, those like old thing you could look into and you spin the wheel and it makes a picture show?
Like a view master?
Yeah. So I kind of like thought about that in passing and they took that idea and turned it into, “Well, let’s do sort of like a flip-book thing. We’ll film the whole video, we’ll film you singing the songs, and then we’ll cut it out into frames, cut the pictures out and make it into a flip-book of sorts.” And I was like, “That sounds like a really rad idea!” and so that’s what they ended up doing.
It’s super fun! I loved it.
I think it took them a really long time, though. [Laughs] Thumbs up for them for their dedication! | Janet Rhoads
It seems there was some confusion in attribution for the original idea of the video for “Never Going Back” which Samantha Crain and I discussed in this interview. In trying to explain where the idea of the video came from, Crain was trying to convey that when she saw Lamar + Nik’s original idea, she thought it was cool because it reminded her of a viewfinder and NOT that the viewfinder idea was hers. The complete creative vision for the video was Lamar + Nik’s and it is very important to both Crain and all of us at PLAYBACK:stl that the proper folks receive credit/attribution for their work. We all get a little tongue-tied sometimes in trying to convey our excitement about things we love and in no way did anyone intend to slight them or not give credit where credit is due.