Singer-Songwriter Samantha Crain Talks Music, Poetry and Neil Young
Samantha Crain, Choctaw, has been writing and playing her own original brand of folk-rock since she was in her teens. Now 26, with an EP and two full-length albums under her belt, she's an acclaimed artist who's won praise from the likes of the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Spin magazine and NPR. Crain spoke with ICTMN from Canada, where she is currently on tour, about how she got started in the music business, her love of Neil Young's music, and the importance of her newest album, the highly autobiographical Kid Face, which is due out in 2013. What would you consider your musical genre? I kind of like the label Americana. It encompasses all of the things I kind of tap into, which is folk, soul and roots music, and country. I like Americana because it is an overarching thing for my music. You live in Oklahoma—how do you like touring in Canada? We do a lot of stuff in Canada, especially in Winnipeg. It is a whole different ballgame up here—there is such support for native artists up here. It is such a community and it is so supportive. Even the government of here is so supportive of aboriginal artists and musicians. Unfortunately it hasn't really reached that sort of entity down in the states. When did you get started in music? I started playing music as a means to travel, actually. I started this as an afterthought that I grew to love tremendously and found an identity. I started touring and writing when I was about 18 or 19. I didn't take any time to hone it, I wasn't one of those people who started playing really young and then it eventually turned into this. I naïvely jumped into it all at once. I wrote six or seven songs and then I said I can go play these in a coffee shop wherever I want to go. that's kind of how I started, I just started booking shows for myself all over the place or wherever I thought I might want to go spend some time and then I realized, "Well I should probably make a record so I have something to sell to the people while I'm playing there." I said, "Well I guess you should probably write some more songs..." I learned about it as I was in the business. I grew to love and appreciate the art of songwriting—that has become my main focus of it now. I still do a ton of touring, but songwriting is something that is super special to me and I love meeting other songwriters and hearing about the other ways that they write songs. When I was in college, I was a creative writing major. I studied poets and how there were all of these different movements and poetry. I feel like there is that same sort of thing and songwriting, it's just not so cut and dry and talked about as much. I find the same thing in studying different songwriters in different areas of songwriting. I think there can be the same thing said about the movements there were for poetry and art. What have been some of your influences from musical artists and poets? John Keats Is a huge influence in poetry and I love Walt Whitman. I also read a lot of short stories; I love Flannery O'Connor, and there was a writer named Breece Dexter Pancake who only released one collection of stories, but they are tremendous. I also like Henry Miller—I could go on about literature forever. What about your family or heritage influences growing up? My dad plays guitar, and he always listened to cool music. I grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Simon and Garfunkel. My mom would buy me these blank hardcover books and writing was what I would do for fun. As a kid I would write stories and I have piles of those in the attic. My parents and my family were always urging me to be a curious person. My grandmother lives near the Council House of the Choctaw nation, in Clayton, and the library down there got rid of a lot of books in the 60s—my grandmother bought probably half the library. Going to her house was just like sitting in a library. I found a lot of books with Choctaw hymns and different tribal stories, picture books, encyclopedias—any time I was there at her house, I was just immersed in information. That has been a constant in my life, to take in as much information as I can. What did you have to overcome to do what you're doing? As much as I was brought up to be my own person and be creative, it wasn't exactly my parents dream for me to take all of my knowledge, go-get-it-ness and gumption, and to turn it into hopping into a rusty van and play for zero dollars. Even though my family is super supportive now, it did take a couple of years for what I was doing to make sense in their minds. What I was doing did not make sense all the time; I just knew that it was something I felt I had to do. In addition, the music business is also a sort of money pit, and you're always playing catch-up financially. I look at that though as everybody is in this type of situation. There is also that idea of being your own support system. You have to keep your head up and be resilient. The music business is such a fickle and changing being. You have to have it somewhere in your head, that though they may not like you today, they will turn their head at you tomorrow. It’s tough but at some point you just tell yourself, those types of people will always be there. It’s like that for anybody, not just the music industry. if I can keep comparing what I do and the troubles that I go through to everybody else's it makes it that much more bearable to me this no matter what I would be doing, everybody has their job, as a cog in some functioning society - whether mine was writing songs and writing music or whether mine was waiting tables - and I do that sometimes too - I'd be facing the same sort of troubles, just in a different light. The same sort of character problems and struggles go with everybody. They just come in different vehicles, I think. What were some of your musical influences? I think all I ever wanted - is... I just want to be Neil Young. There is something about him I've always felt this strange sort of feeling that he is my spirit animal or something. I have had a weird connection with him. I love his voice I love his rhythm - and whatever tempo he was playing his songs at - is whatever tempo I feel that I would be writing a song. He always phrased lyrics the way that I naturally would phrase sentences—I really love Neil Young. There is also a lesser-known songwriter named Jason Molina—the Magnolia Electric Company—who is based out of Indiana. I've always had this imaginary, camaraderie with him. I've never met him but I always felt this need to respond after I hear a song of his. For years I have been secretly responding to him and writing to him in my songs. There is a song on my new album that is completely written to him in light of some personal problems I had read that he had been having. He had written on a blog on his website, I wrote a song directly to him on my new album. I've been talking in these little secretive nuances written to him throughout the years—I can't put my finger on it there is just something about his songs that make me want to reply. It’s kind of like that feeling you have whenever you go to church or powwow and there is a responsive singing going on—the leader says or seeing something and then the audience says something back. That is the same sort of feeling I get whenever Jason Molina sings something or writes something. When you're composing a song, do you have to strike a balance between poetry and music? It has moved in a different direction. When my first EP came out I would say 80% of what I was doing was the poetry of it. Because that is what I was most familiar with, the lyrics and the words—I wasn't comfortable enough with the guitar or writing music yet to delve into different types of music or different chords or rhythms. But now the longer I've been doing this, I would say it's moved more into a 50-50 thing where I do think more about the music and the sound of a song—for the specific genre that it is going to fall into or the influence of the chord structure. The poetry is always there, lyrics are so important—that is what people are singing back if they get into a song—and that is what they are singing in their kitchen, they're focused on the lyrics. I think it is really important to think about the music—that is the vessel for the lyrics. If they don't like the way the music is sounding, then the lyrics won't ever get implanted into people's ears. How much of your music is guided by your ancestry? Some of the first singing I ever heard was going to powwows or hearing drum groups. I think there is something that has always stayed with me when I started singing. There was some sort of natural and emotive property that I really held onto. I write music that does not necessarily fall into traditionally native sounding music - but that emotive property and rhythm to my songs are the only place that I can trace this back to—which are those drum groups that I grew up listening to. There is something very primal about that. I cry almost every time I hear, listen to or see a drum group play. That tone of where their voice is coming from—most people seem from the head—their sound comes from this weird guttural back of the throat place. It really tugs on your heartstrings. It is such an emotive animal sounding thing. I have always tried to sing that way. I try to take it out of the headspace and really be able to tap into something primal in your singing. I can say that that is probably the most that I get from my ancestors as far as music goes—is the emotion of it and the power that comes with that. It is something that is transformative; you become a different person. It is therapeutic and there are so many different feelings about it are almost—it's hard to even describe unless you actually done it it's otherworldly. What is your favorite song that you have written? There is a song on my first album call "The Dam Song"; the reason that that song is so meaningful to me is because it was my step away from fictionalized songwriting into more autobiographical songwriting. I had to grow into most of my songs when I first started because they were very fictional and story-based. They were ideas I would get from talking to other people or they were just based in telling a story. It was more fiction than anything that had happened to me. It is hard to get into that personal area of sharing yourself with people that you don't know. "The Dam Song" was my first foray into an autobiographical writing style and getting really personal. There were a few songs on my second album that were very personal—but there were still those fictional story songs. My new album that will be coming out in February is completely autobiographical. Everything on it is stuff that has happened to me to include my experiences and my feelings—"The Dam Song" is the leader of all of that. It was the thing that got me comfortable with writing that way. What is your advice to a young person wanting to get into the business? This is so cliché but it is so important to learn who you are and be yourself. Learn your influences and apply that to who you are as a person. People can tell when you're trying to be somebody else, and it doesn't resonate, because people have to deal with that every day. People want someone who is unashamed and unabashedly him- or herself and are comfortable with that. When it comes down to art and creating, everybody has that within themselves to create something original. You have to not be afraid to create what is you. It is such a cliché thing but it is so true and I've had to learn this over and over and over again. Especially in the music business when everyone is trying to fit you in a little cookie-cutter shape or genre. You have to constantly push away from that—continue to learn who you are; don't be afraid to turn things down if someone is trying to make you something you're not. Keep a good head on your shoulders—don't change who you are as a person. For more information on Samantha Crain, visit samanthacrain.com.