Shout4Music – Q&A
After unintentionally catching a live set from Samantha Crain some time ago, as part of Glasgow’s annual Celtic Connections celebrations, it was an equally pleasant surprise to receive an offer to pick the brain of this talented musician. Hailing from Oklahoma, Crain’s latest album ‘Under Branch & Thorn & Tree’ sees her reunite with producer John Vanderslice to create yet another endearing slice of singer-songwriter beauty.
Described in her own words below as an album for “the working class woman”, it aims to capture the struggle of society’s underdogs, and paint their stories in captivating musical canvases. You can decide for yourself whether that goal is met by listening the record when it released on July 17th through Full Time Hobby. With a release date so far away, this feature could be considered a little pre-emptive, but just consider it an early warning to get your ears switched onto Crain’s music. Read on now for some more information on the songstresses’ past and future, as well as some other bibs and bobs:
First of all, tell us how you first began writing and performing music?
I started writing short stories as a kid. I continued all through middle school and high school. When I was 17, I heard a Songs: Ohia album called ‘The Lioness’, and something really resonated with me about his writing. It was like I’d been speaking the wrong language this whole time and I wanted to speak his language. My Dad had bought me a guitar years before that I didn’t play much but after hearing that album, I went home and started trying to put my short stories to music and these were my first songs.
Tell us a little about your latest album, ‘Under Branch & Thorn & Tree’, focussing on its overall themes and meanings?
The main focus of this album is the working class woman. It does stray from that figure at times to point at underdogs from all walks of life, but the working class woman was my main inspiration. The first song I wrote for this album was ‘Elk City’. It tells the story of a woman in a busted oil town in Oklahoma and her struggle to lift herself up because of alcohol, abandonment, and, eventually, because of her own single motherhood. After writing this song, I realised the rarity of painting a woman like this in song. Most women in music are two-dimensional – manically happy or heartbreakingly depressed. This was a song about a multi-dimensional woman and I felt like I had a real opportunity to make a full album about women that could potentially lend itself to a wider conversation about really changing the framework of society when it comes to sexism and gender inequality. The album does touch upon the general underdog as well though, it is fitting for marginalized groups of all kinds.
How do you feel the latest album compares to the three which preceded it?
‘Kid Face’, my last album, and this one, ‘Under Branch & Thorn & Tree’, feel more focused to me than the first two. I set out with a purpose and a target idea and worked towards that. ‘Kid Face’ was so autobiographical that I really felt like I emptied my well of personal experiences for a while so I needed to look outward for the inspiration for ‘Under Branch…’. I did use aspects of my own life, but most of the stories on ‘Under Branch…’ are the stories of the people around me, my friends, family, peers, and people I’ve met in travel.
What has influenced any changes in your musical style and approach, if anything, over the years of your career, and what would you say the biggest changes are from your humble beginnings?
The biggest change for me over the years has been in my guitar playing. Beginning as a songwriter 11 years ago, my main concern was in writing the lyrics. After some time, I started becoming more interested in a solid melody, but my guitar playing was still not really a concern as long as the vocal melody was good to me. After some more time, I started realising the freedom and experimentation that can come vocally and lyrically with being a good guitar player. So I started using alternative tunings and using different chords and different strumming and picking styles and just trying to become a better guitar player. When the guitar is more dynamic, it’s a whole new bag of inspiration vocally and melodically.
You have described the latest album as a collection “understated protest songs”, how important do you think protest in modern music and society is, does it have an impact?
Music has a huge power to influence politically and socially. There is this famous saying “art imitates life” or something like that, but I think what is better is art actually creating the life it wants to see. Music has the power to change minds and to nudge humanity down a different path. There are bigger things going on, music and art needs to direct attention towards those injustices.
In terms of modern society, what would you highlight as the main issues, and how would you propose we tackle them?
The basic issues we need to work towards imparting is gender and race equality. I’m not talking about legally (although that is a huge first step), I mean really injecting those principles into the framework of society. Really get in on the ground floor with young people and helping them to understand the justice of basic human rights. Laws can only change when minds are changed.
This album was recorded swiftly and digital-free, was this an intentional approach, or something and happened naturally, do you prefer this method?
Yeah, it is completely intentional. John Vanderslice explains it really well by explaining that recording to tape, and recording quickly and efficiently creates an atmosphere where musicians only have a few chances to get their take before you start to lose sound quality. It makes the musicians perform better and you still maintain the realness of the time and place that you wouldn’t necessarily get by doing take after take on Pro Tools. It’s an approach I like because the album is so fresh still by the time you’ve finished. You don’t hate the songs because you’ve heard them a thousand times. You actually feel positive about the thing you’ve created. John realised that because he’s a musician too, and he knows that is an important feeling for musicians.
You worked again with John Vanderslice on this record, was this due simply to a previously positive working relationship or something else?
Yes. JV and I have done three projects together now and I just feel like we work really well together and he’s a genius. He’s really inspiring and I just want to keep learning from him.
How do you feel that your music is received in the UK?
Actually I feel like it’s received better in the UK than it is in North America. I don’t know why though. I don’t understand anything about people, haha.
What are the advantages of playing live solo versus playing with a band, and which would you say you prefer?
There are advantages to both. Solo, I feel more in tune with the audience. I feel like they are my partners in the experience of the night. Solo feels more interactive and personal to me. I actually prefer playing solo. Playing with a band, the advantage is that the music sounds more like how it is recorded on the album, accompanied. But then my experience is mainly with the musicians I’m playing with, at that point it’s more of a performance and more like entertainment, the audience almost disappears.
Why should people buy your new album and/or tickets to one of your upcoming tour dates?
They should buy it if they want to. I’m not a salesman by any means. Maybe if they need a pallet cleanser between first and second courses of EDM.
Which artists would you say have been the most influential in shaping the sound of your music, and in which different ways?
As far as guitar playing goes, Richard Thompson, Joni Mitchell and John Martyn (although I’m in no way even 1% as good as them). Lyrically I love Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon. All around vocally, lyrically, musically, I love Sparklehorse, Neil Young, Lhasa de Sela, Jason Molina and Elliott Smith.
Finally, what are your favourite releases (albums, movies, books, etc.) of 2015 so far, and which are you looking forward to in the second half of the year?
I really love the new Sufjan Stevens album and Tobias Jesso Jr.’s album. I’m looking forward to that Jeff Tweedy produced Richard Thompson album. ‘Wolf In White Van’ (which actually I think came out last year but I just read it this year) by John Darnielle was amazing, and ‘Colm Tóibín on Elizabeth Bishop’ was also an excellent non-fiction I just finished. I’m looking forward to that new Harper Lee novel when it comes out. I love movies but I just get really behind and I don’t ever know what’s coming out or anything. I don’t think I’ve seen any new movies from 2015. I’m still catching up with all the films that came out the past couple years. My friend, Sterlin Harjo, a filmmaker from Oklahoma, has a film he just finished called ‘Mekko’ and I’m really looking forward to seeing that.
Now that you’re a little more familiar with Ms Crain, here’s a musical taster of what’s to come with ‘Under Branch & Thorn & Tree’ in the form of first slice ‘Outside The Pale’. If you like what you see / hear, you can pre-order the album on iTunes now!