Interview: Samantha Crain

With her fourth album due out next week, Oklahoma-based Samantha Crain certainly stands out from your typical singer-songwriter. Alongside her distinctive, striking vocals and beautiful, folky guitar melodies, Crain draws inspiration from her Native American heritage and Feminist values, opening our eyes to a number of social issues through her wonderful skill for lyrical storytelling.

Fresh from appearing on both Marc Riley’s 6Music show, and Radio 4’s ‘Loose Ends’, Samantha made some time to have a chat to Gigslutz on a sunny Friday afternoon. We discuss our mutual love for Mr Riley before delving deep into the world of analogue recording, inspirations, Neil Young and Alaska…

So, your new album – Under Branch And Thorn And Tree – is out later this month and already seems to have received some great feedback; for example, The Guardian newspaper have said “It rings with poetic candour”… 
Ah, wow – I haven’t actually seen any of these reviews yet. That’s good!

Yeah, people have said some really lovely things. And I love it too! 
So, what was the process of recording it like? Was it very different from recording your previous albums? 
It was very similar to my last album: same studio, same producer and all completely analogue. We recorded it to 2 inch tape, then mixed it down to half inch tape. We had to work really quickly and efficiently as once you start doing too many takes, the tape starts to disintegrate and you lose quality. So, we did everything in 1,2 or 3 takes which really speeds up the recording process. It’s pretty nice because when you sit down to listen to the record, you’re not already bored of it because you haven’t had to do each take over and over.

So, it was pretty much the same sort of schedule as the last record – we recorded in six days and mixed in four days. I had the same producer, and same band, as the last record and really feel like we have a good working pattern. So, because it worked so well last time, I wanted to keep going with that set up.

And would you say you prefer working with analogue, rather than digital? 
I do. Mainly because I do like to work quickly; with digital recording it’s so easy to get caught up with trying everything and doing a bunch of takes – you can get too caught up in making everything perfect. It almost takes away the initial creativity, like when you go with an initial gut feeling.

And I just like the sound [of analogue], the humaness that it brings out – with analogue recording, if you close your eyes when listening to it, you can almost picture the musicians sitting there with you. There is a certain way that the sounds are separated because of the way the tape works; each track has a band within the tape, so it’s like everything is separate, which is how sounds sound in the world. So, I think that really brings out the humanity of a recording, whereas with digital the sounds start to sound too perfect and so compressed that you lose the image that an actual person is making the music. That’s why I prefer analogue. Obviously a lot of great records are made digitally, it’s not like it has to be one or the other, but I personally like doing it like that [analogue].

To what extent did your heritage and values inspire the writing of the album? Being of Native American heritage and a feminist, how would you say this fed into the making of the album? 
Well, the album really started with a song called ‘Elk City’, which is the third track on the album. It’s a story of a single, working mother – she portrays a sort of person in America who has everything going against her, and the way our government is set up, it doesn’t offer a lot of help to those kinds of people. So, because the album started with that song, it was the catalyst for how the other songs got written; I basically set up to tell stories of marginalised groups of people, whether they’re marginalised because of race, sex or whatever. Each song is telling the story of someone who is the underdog. They’re not in the 1% of people who are controlling everything.

So, my values and heritage – the fact that Native American communities have been completely wiped out through genocide throughout the years – did trigger a lot of the writing. Coming from that background has definitely given me a sensitivity towards downtrodden groups of people.

As far as Feminism goes, that always gives me a view of what’s the best way to get the conversation started whenever it involves sexism and issues around it. And that kind of feeds into the album. People have been labelling it a ‘protest album’, but it isn’t like a literal protest album; it’s more telling the stories of people that are affected by a lot of these social issues, and then hopefully people hearing those stories will be able to empathise with them and get involved, and want to learn more about it all. With literal kinds of protest songs, it’s just like opinion vs opinion – yelling at people, telling them that they’re wrong. But I think the only way that people are really able to listen to a different viewpoint is if they can empathise, so it made more sense to me to draw in the listener through a person’s story, and then show the issues as to why they’re in that position and what can be done about it. Really the only way that society is going to change is if you can change the actual framework of how people think, and this doesn’t happen by telling people they’re wrong; it happens by talking to each other and being able to empathise.

Yeah, definitely. I agree. And, from listening to the album, as well as it sounding absolutely lovely, it’s really emotive and immersive – you can really get involved in the stories you’re telling. So, aside from the values and social issues feeding into the album, I just wondered who or what your main musical and lyrical inspirations might be?
 Neil Young is always a huge influence. Musically, his songs always have a really nice, groovy feel to them, and I always really liked that about them. And his voice may not be, like, technically perfect, but there’s something about it that’s just very honest and emotive, in his own way. I also just think it’s great how he uses his position and iconic status to really talk about so many different political issues, although he really doesn’t have to; and it probably hurts his record sales a lot, but he just really doesn’t care. He just does his thing. I just love how he’s never worried about fitting into a box: he’s made rockabilly records, folk records, heavy metal and grungy records. He does whatever’s inspiring to him, and I think that’s great.

And then Joni Mitchell is really inspiring; her guitar playing and lyrically. I’m a bit more rock influenced than her, but her stream of consciousness lyrics – the way they just keep going – I really like that. And she’s such a fantastic guitar player.

And Jason Molina, of course, too. He’s really the reason I started playing music. He just had such an honest and minimalist approach, there was no smoke and mirrors, it was just purely him, and I find that really inspiring. Like how he could just block everything else out. To not be derivative of anything these days seems almost impossible, but he somehow did it.

Wow, I’m ashamed to say, I haven’t actually heard of him – will have to check him out! 
Yeah, you should. He had a band called Magnolia Electric Company and ‘Songs: Ohia’ was another project of his. Yeah, he was really amazing.

Well, I think you sound wonderfully unique and unlike anything else that’s around at the moment. Though, when I recently played your song ‘Kathleen’ on a local radio show I co-host, my colleague said that you reminded her of the English duo, Turin Brakes. Have you ever heard of them? 
I keep hearing that, but I’ve actually never heard of them! They must have been something that was very British because I never heard anything about them over in America…

Yeah, guess they probably didn’t make it over there! They were a kind of folky-indie duo, popular in the early noughties. Think there’s just something about their sound that’s slightly reminiscent of you… 
Yeah, people keep saying that! I’ve heard that several times since I started coming over here.

Ah, well glad it’s not just us! You should have a listen! 
So, as well making great music yourself, I’ve heard you’ve been producing some other artists lately – what’s that like? Are there any new artists you’ve been working with that we should be listening out for? 
Yeah, I just finished producing an album by a band called Annie Oakley – an all girl, sort of folky, bluegrassy sort of group. They’re really young – still at high school – but really cool and really sure of themselves. They’re just really great, I didn’t have any confidence at that age, but they’re just really confident and cool, and write really good songs too. So, I’ve just finished producing their album. And then there’s Kirsten Wyatt – another singer-songwriter. She’s sort of quite country, a bit reminiscent of Lucinda Williams. I finished her record last year. So, those are the main two that are out, or will be out soon.

This is something I’ve just started doing, besides self producing a lot of my b-sides and stuff that I’ve put out. The reason I started it is that I kept hearing all of these people, all these bands I really love, talking about bad experiences they were having in the studio. Producers that weren’t doing anything that suited them and producers that were just wasting time because they didn’t really understand the musicians; they just had a computer and they kind of knew the idea, but didn’t really understand the way to make a record that really captures the full creativeness of a band or artist. There’s a way you can make a record that just sucks all the creativity out of it and just kind of makes everyone miserable, or there’s a way you can do it that keeps the energy high and keeps the creative juices flowing. I’ve been really lucky to have producers that have known how to do that, so I’ve learnt a lot from them. So, I was just like ‘I should just start doing this’ with local bands because recording is so much fun and I want others to have positive experiences. So, I’m hoping it’s going to be more of a common occurrence as I really enjoy it.

So, you say local – is that Oklahoma? 
Yeah, so mainly just local bands right now. I could probably pick up a Texas band, but for the moment it makes sense to build up a discography around that area and then expand from there.

So, is the music scene in Oklahoma thriving at the moment? 
Yeah, it is actually. There’s a lot of really great stuff. There’s a great singer-songwriter, sort of rootsy scene – like my friend John Morland, whose record has been doing really well in the States, John Fullbright who has had some success both over here and back home. Then there’s the sort of psychedelic, indie-rock scene – The Flaming Lips are from there. And there’s a really cool Hip Hop scene that’s really starting to grow. And the band Broncho are from Oklahoma, and the bass player also plays in my band back in the States – they just live down the road from me actually.

I think musicians can really thrive in Oklahoma actually. Because it’s so cheap to live there, you’re not worrying all the time about paying rent and stuff, and so it’s better for your head-space when you can really just focus on creating.

Ah, not like London then?! 
No, I can’t even imagine that. And New York is crazy – I guess people there just do it by like shoving 5 or 6 people in a tiny apartment!

So, you’ve been travelling a lot lately – I’ve heard you’ve just been to Alaska. How was that? 
Yeah, I’ve been wanting to get over there for a while but it’s been hard because of the weather. So, Summer’s the only real time to get there, though Summer’s also prime festival season so it’s hard to give that up to go somewhere where you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But this Summer I didn’t really have many festivals, so it worked out, and I went up there! I played a couple of festivals and some regular shows too; it was really nice, there are a lot of people who really love live music and are kind of just waiting for somebody new to come up because it’s pretty out the way. And I played on a few Native American radio stations up there – there’s been a growing fan base for the past few of my records because those stations have been playing them. So, it was really nice.

Huge thanks to Samantha for taking the time to have such an interesting and insightful chat! 


Samantha Crain’s new album, Under Branch And Thorn And Tree, is out 17 July via Full Time Hobby. And you can catch her live when she returns to the UK next month:

31 July- 1 August – Southern Fried Roots Festival, Perth
2 August – Broadcast, Glasgow
3 August – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
4 August – Gullivers, Manchester
5 August – The Louisiana, Bristol
6 August – Sebright Arms, London
7 August – The Latest Music Bar, Brighton

(Photo Credit: David McClister)

Mari Lane

Mari Lane

Editor, London. Likes: Kathleen Hanna, 6Music, live music in the sunshine. Dislikes: Sexism, pineapples, the misuse of apostrophes.