by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for FolkAlley.com
Oklahoma’s Samantha Crain is a musical force to be reckoned with. As a singer, her phrasing and rhythms fail to follow traditional folk patterns. And, as a songwriter, her compositions prick and pry at our hearts and minds in the best possible ways. Her latest endeavor, ‘Under Branch & Thorn & Tree,’ puts those talents to work on a collection of songs that folds the political into the personal. From the easy swagger of “Big Rock” to the gentle folk of “Elk City,” the set finds Crain in fine form.
Kelly McCartney: You’re a live-to-tape, one-take kind of recording artist. Do you ever go back and fiddle with arrangements after the fact? Or do they stay true for their life cycles?
Samantha Crain: My live performances are rarely exactly like the recorded songs. I strongly believe in the fluidity of songs depending on what musicians you’re playing with or the mood of the audience. However, arrangements are very important to me. Just because we do analog recording and do few takes, doesn’t mean I don’t give thought to arrangement; I do. I’m very deliberate in everything I do. I just do a lot of pre-recording practice and talking with the other musicians. I want everyone to be on the same page, in the same headspace, but, at the same time, in the moment and surprising. Most songs, through their lifetimes, take several different forms regarding tempo or groove; it just happens organically after you haven’t listened to the recording for years.
A lot of singer/songwriters put more emphasis on the songwriting part of their craft. You weight them pretty evenly, though. Who are your influences as a singer? And how does the singing affect or inform the writing for you?
I’m really drawn to any singers who are overly emotional or do something different tonally or rhythmically. I’ve always been into pretty polarizing voices. I love Billie Holiday, Neil Young, Patti Smith, Roy Orbison, Marc Bolan, Lhasa de Sela, and Annie Lennox. I’ve been told I’m a very rhythmic singer. Its not something I’m particularly aware of, but I assume my natural inclinations to move words in certain ways affects the way I write. I don’t try to study how I create; I just do it.
In your songs, you use personal perspectives to make political points. Do you ever worry that the nuance softens the blow you’re landing too much? Or do you find that it’s the sugar that helps the medicine go down?
I feel a little of both. Part of me feels I’m being too gentle; the other part of me thinks its the best way to get the narratives into a public consciousness. I go back and forth with how I feel about it. I probably always will. I still do believe the only way to have intelligent and meaningful conversations about anything political or social is through empathy, though. And I know empathy only comes with understanding other people’s stories and lives. That is something I will always believe. So however hard or soft I’m being with my issue, the story will always be the base.
If you had to pick one song, from this album or another, that represented the heart of what you’re trying to do as an artist… which one and why?
I really feel like “Elk City” on this album was a breakthrough song for me — a song that represents the exact sort of song I’d like to keep writing for the rest of my life. Something that has humanity in the lyrics and, to me, that song is interesting musically without seeming difficult. I’m just really proud of that song. I feel like I’ll want to play that song for the rest of my life.
Cultural appropriation is a hot topic these days. And it’s something you’ve stood up to in the past, in terms of your Native American heritage. Some people argue that every culture is appropriated. Why do you think it’s such a hard thing for folks to grasp that even “all-in-good-fun” mockery is still mockery?
Racism is a learned thing. Its very hard to unlearn. Moving away from cultural appropriation starts in our education system… and it’s not being addressed at all really, considering the history in our history books is terribly skewed. These aren’t problems that are easy to address in an abrupt manner. These are solutions we start pumping into the framework of society now for a more positive, equal future.