On The String: Samantha Crain Finds The Light With An “Epilogue” To A Dark Album
By the time 2020’s pandemic shroud covered the land and stilled its musicians, Oklahoma songwriter Samantha Crain knew all too well about incapacitation. In 2017, touring behind her album You Had Me At Goodbye, she was involved in three car accidents in three months, leaving her hands nerve damaged and debilitated, threatning her career. So the brisk and bright tone of her new EP is reassuring. Her shapely, idiosyncratic voice is still very much with us.
“I’m feeling good,” she says at the outset of Episode 168 of The String. “I feel like I catalogued a lot of tricks of survival, due to dealing with the various physical and mental health struggles that I had gone through in 2018.”
While she’s anxious to see if her hands hold up well under the rigors of driving and touring in the months to come, she says her quality of life is much better and that her two recent releases express that strife and renewal. In 2020, it was A Small Death, an album written in part from bed into a voice recorder, whose main idea was “to sort of unpack a lot of a lot of the feelings that I was dealing with, when I was sort of in this time of solitude and sickness. I sort of think of this EP as the the epilogue of that record. There's sort of an expression of myself increasingly at at peace with uncertainties...I think it's sort of like the part after (a) worst case scenario where a breath is taken, and you sort of have a sigh of relief, and then that thought enters your mind that, okay, I'm still alive. It seems to be that there is no unbearable burden.”
This existential EP, called I Guess We Live Here Now, released in early April, brims with hope and color. Its opening song “Bloomsday” is built around the refrain from the old children’s spiritual song “This Little Light Of Mine.” With its cascade-like vocal mix and warm, propulsive tonality, it seems to spotlight all the insightful and melodic qualities that have made Crain one of the most compelling and admired songwriter/artists of the past 15 years. Working initially out of her hometown of Shawnee and more recently from nearby Norman (hometown of the Flaming Lips), she’s proven that Oklahoma Americana is about more than the honky tonk rhapsody and Leon Russell legacy of Tulsa. She emphasized to me the importance of staying independent and authoritative in a way that sets her apart from many artists who take comfort (and risk complacency) in the cohesion of their scene.
In the hour, I asked Samantha to reflect on the epiphanies that led her to take to the road as an independent songwriter at age 19 and rapidly into the embrace of North Carolina's Ramseur Records, where she still releases music. She’d discovered a few records that were particularly precious to her and simple in their execution. She identified with the bands she saw rolling into town in vans to play shows:
“Just the accessibility of me realizing like, oh, all I need to do this is a guitar and some songs. And I was just sort of sold from there, man. I went home and kind of started piecing together different parts (of) mainly like poems or short stories that I had written, because I wrote a lot as a kid. It was a little bit of finagling to get them into songs. And once I had four or five songs, I started putting them up on MySpace.”
Crain also talks about her recent embrace of her Choctaw heritage, something she didn’t foreground in her early years:
“Now that I've gotten older, I do understand it a bit deeper, in that it's not so much based on what I know of my ancestors. Although I did grow up going to powwows. I have put in the work to learn the language, and I do feel very connected and active within my tribe. But that's not the thing that makes me indigenous, because some people do not have that access. What's important for people to understand is that if I make a painting, if I write a poem, if I make a meal, if I do anything, then that is Choctaw because I am Choctaw. So it's more about looking to the future. It's more about focusing on making new traditions and thinking about yourself as a living, breathing indigenous person.”
Crain uses the word “unpacking” several times in our talk as one of the strategies behind her reflective, slow-burn approach to songwriting. I’ll be unpacking this thoughtful and deliberate conversation for quite some time.