Okie songwriter Samantha Crain flexes creative freedom on new record
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
Norman-based songwriter Samantha Crain has long been lauded for her dramatic, character-driven songs. Much was made in the media about her effusive musical storytelling, the tiny woman with a very big voice and an acoustic guitar, and Crain latched onto this public persona for upward of a decade.
“I got described as this girl who sits in a cornfield and writes songs,” Crain said in her media material. “And I went with it, because I didn’t really know who I was. I realize now that I missed out on a lot of creative freedom by treating my songwriting so preciously.”
There’s less acoustic guitar, more technicolor and an abundance of unpretentious humor on her fifth offering, “You Had Me at Goodbye,” out Friday via Ramseur Records. Turning the lens inward has been fruitful, as “YHMAG” paints a more complete picture of Crain as she exists outside of music journalism: a loud talker, both confident and self-effacing, sweet with sharp edges and startlingly funny.
Q: Is allowing yourself to be kind of poppy and funny in your songs something you’ve wanted to do before but stayed away from?
Samantha Crain: It’s not like I was holding myself back. I was maybe not aware enough of myself or tuned-in enough to realize that was part of my personality I could inject into the songs I was writing. This album would’ve been the first time I would’ve been able to pull that out of myself.
Q: Did you study any pop records for this while to get into a particular head space for this kind of writing?
Crain: Not a whole lot of modern pop music, but I did kind of deconstruct and look a little closer at David Bowie or Beatles songs. Because we know those as pop songs, we automatically align that with meaning they’re common or simple, but actually the reason they’re so magnetic is there’s something unique about them, key changes and weird half bars. That’s what makes them catchy, I think. Those and “Toxic” by Britney Spears.
Q: You chose to work with John Vanderslice again for this album. How did he react after hearing the new songs for the first time, since they’re so different?
Crain: John’s always excited to get people out of their comfort zones. He likes it when people feel like they’ve maybe jumped in a pool that’s a little too deep. And he’s right; he has some sort of emotion to work with. When you feel completely confident and safe with a group of songs, it’s really easy to not capture any dangerous moments because you’re so locked-in. It’ll sound good, but it won’t necessarily be that exciting. I also kind of gave him free reign, like, ”If you have an idea that maybe you think I wouldn’t have been OK with in the past, but you think it could be something really cool, then let’s just go for it. Let’s try it.”
Q: It was crazy to me that the first few seconds of the record are like “Mr. Sandman,” that kind of happy 1950s pop, and then it becomes modern really quickly. Are the finished songs anything like you imagined them going into the studio?
Crain: Some of them went completely different directions. “Antiseptic Greeting” is pretty spot-on. I wanted that to be like a “Mr. Sandman” but maybe if somebody took some psychedelics before they wrote that song. “Dear Louis,” I knew the feel of that song was going to be pretty upbeat and punky, power pop. “Smile When” was a big surprise. I wrote that song to sound like a Bruce Springsteen ’80s arena rock song, and it got turned into a Talking Heads thing. Drums, bass and vocals. All of the instruments are me doing vocals. That was JV. He said, “This is going to make you feel uncomfortable.”
Q: You have such a long relationship with him now, it is OK for him to say that now.
Crain: We’ve definitely built up a rapport at this point. He’s never been one to walk on eggshells, but since we’ve known each other for five years now, he knows that if something turns out weird and I get mad at him for a second, it’s not a big deal.
Q: The promotional photos for this album are super cool. You picked a local photographer, and then Jarod Evans, of Blackwatch Studios, directed the video for “Dear Louis.” How much of this is you having an idea and pulling people close to you into it, and how much of it is you putting your trust in people because they know you personally?
Crain: In the past I was hands-off when it came to the visual aspect, and it’s always been a little bit unfulfilling once I got the finished product. I tried to really take the time, this time around, to have a clear vision of what I wanted for photos and the music video and to relay that. Dakota (Lewallen) is a great photographer to work with because he’s really young, and he’s still learning and excited about different kinds of photography. I caught him in this stage where he was really into doing studio photography. He was making scenes.
Q: This record is your “autobiographical” record, is what people are saying. Being from Oklahoma sort of inserts this context for artists, and in the past I feel like you’ve rejected that a bit. But there are all these things very Oklahoma references — a song from Woody Guthrie’s journals and a song about Will Rogers and a response song to a Jimmy Webb song, and he’s from Elk City. Was any of that an intentional way to provide a sense of place?
Crain: Those are just things that seep out of me. I never go into any sort of project thinking I need to represent Oklahoma in any way. If anything, I would prefer people get a different view of the state. It’s not just the Oklahoma postcard that you’re getting. There are other things going on, a ton of great visual artists, an underground hip-hop scene. I would like people to get a little bit confused about what’s going on in Oklahoma.
Q: “Red Sky, Blue Mountain” is sung in Choctaw, but to make a new traditional song is sort of touchy territory for a lot of people. How careful do you feel you have to be putting a traditional Choctaw song on your album, surrounded by American pop songs?
Crain: The reason I can put this song on the album because I’m kind of done thinking about what everyone else thinks traditional Native American culture should be. I’ve talked about this with Sterlin Harjo and Ryan Redcorn and other Native artists. You can stand by and watch a culture try to hold onto the little bits of uncolonized traditional stuff and eventually die out because the new people don’t feel like they can be involved because they’re not brown enough, or they don’t speak the language fluently. Or you can be proactive and get younger Native artists feeling comfortable creating art, because technically, if a Choctaw person makes art, it’s Choctaw art. I’m trying to be proactive. I’ve captured all that I can. In order to get people excited about keeping the language alive, I think songs can keep traditions going by making them growing and thriving culture rather than one that people are forgetting.
Q: How connected are the recorded versions of these songs versus the live performances of them? This record seems extremely difficult to re-create live.
Crain: We are trying to re-create the album pretty much the way it was recorded, and it has proven a challenge. This is the most stressed-out I’ve ever been about band practices. We’re using tracks. I’m still not sure how it’s going to work. I’m not doing any solo shows on these tours. I didn’t even write half of these songs on the acoustic guitar, so I wouldn’t even know how to do it.
Because I did spend so long having a very direct and clear idea about the visual and sonic aspects of the album, I want to be able to control that in a live setting. In the past that maybe wasn’t the most important thing. I just had songs, and the songs were what I was really invested in. With these songs, it’s more about the whole package of the album rather than the songs individually. I want to try to be able to re-create that. And … we will see how it goes.