Samantha Crain is a 29 year old singer/songwriter from Shawnee, Oklahoma who has released four albums on Ramseur Records since her debut in 2009. Her autobiographical album Kid Face in 2013 gained widespread critical acclaim. Earlier this year she released Under Branch& Thorn & Tree, a superbly written album containing her strongest work to date. Samantha was in Ireland recently for gigs in Dublin and Kilkenny and an appearance on The Late Late Show, which was nearly abandoned due to two cancelled and three rescheduled flights on her journey from Oklahoma to Dublin. To further complicate matters, her luggage did not arrive with her in Dublin. A dash to RTE and some heroic work by the wardrobe staff resulted in a jet lagged and travel weary Crain barely making her slot. ‘I was so exhausted that I did not expect to be able to remember the words of the song’, she joked the next morning. ‘Muscle memory got me through it I guess’.
Lonesome Highway accompanied the charming and perceptive Crain from Dublin to Kilkenny (a part of the Full Time Hobby tour which continues in Europe) where she spoke of her musical history, influences and her love of the late Jason Molina.
I believe you were studying English Literature in college before deciding to switch to music.
Well that’s a weird bit of information, because I was only in college for about five months so I can’t really say that I was studying English Literature as such. But through college I found out about a musician’s commune, I’d say you could call it that, and they found a way of transferring it to college credits and that was why I got involved. The main reason was that I wanted to get out of Oklahoma. I hadn’t written many songs at that stage, maybe just a couple, but was more trying to find ways to write poems. It was more like a colony than a commune, a writers retreat so to speak I guess.
Was the story telling ambition there before the music?
Yes, I wrote stories for a long time when I was growing up. My mom would buy me sort of Blake books when I was young and I liked writing short stories in the Blake books. The first EP that I put out was in fact five short stories that I ended up turning into songs. Music wasn’t a huge interest to me then, I didn’t grow up playing instruments or anything like that. I didn’t start playing guitar until I decided I wanted to write songs and I taught myself guitar, I was about seventeen then.
You have incredible phrasing and discipline in your vocal, is that also self-taught?
Yes. I never took any singing lessons. When I started writing songs I would find vocalists that I liked and imitate them and eventually I stopped imitating and it became its own style. I don’t actually know how I developed my vocal style, it just ended up that way
What vocalists influenced you?
Well, when I started writing and singing, I looked for people that I thought had a cool way of singing. I actually liked Marc Bolan from T Rex a lot and Billy Holiday. There’s a singer called Lhasa de Sela, she died quite young, only about thirty five when she died. She was mainly a Spanish language singer, even though she did an American English speaking album. She (is) very much a lesser known artist but I was always into her voice, she had such a rhythmic voice and Paul Simon, I liked his phrasing and his tone.
My first introduction to you was your 2010 album You (Understood) and from there to your 2013 album Kid Face. Was Kid Face your autobiographical album?
Yes, that was the first album that I made an effort to make it completely autobiographical. As I’ve said, when I started song writing, all the songs started as short stories based on other characters, character-driven narratives, that sort of thing. I would always inject my own stories into them. On Kid Face, for the first time the whole focus of the album was completely based on my own personal experiences. I’m not sure if it was to get it out of my system, I could have gone my whole life without making an album like that. It wasn’t something that I thought I had to do or planned, it was just what I felt like doing at the time.
Your latest album Under Branch & Thorn & Tree is, for me, one of the most outstanding albums of 2015. Rightly or wrongly I feel that all the songs on the album are connected. I see characters in certain songs that seem to reappear in other songs. Was that the intention?
Well most of the stories and songs on the album are based on my friends, family or peers that I work with, so in a lot of ways the people that are in one song are in another song because they were a real part of my life at the time. Kathleen would be an example, she shows up in Oak City and also the song Kathleen. A lot of times though, they are kind of personifications of a certain type of person so I guess Kathleen may not be an actual person, but a way of describing a certain type of woman, so in a lot of ways the name is a way of referring to a type of individual. So a lot of the characters do show up more than once as they are based on people in my life, they are interconnected, they know each other and therefore are in each other’s songs.
I wonder do they recognise themselves in the songs?
Some of them have ideas that they are in the songs, but the way that I form characters a lot are taking certain characteristics from certain people and combine them so it’s not like a friend is listening to a particular song and saying that everything Samantha is saying about that person is exactly me. Bits and pieces of them might be, but I always inject my own experiences in to characters just to have that empathetic connection in singing and writing about them.
The track You or Mystery; is that based on a true story?
When I lived in Oklahoma city there was a man that lived next door to us that I had some weird obsession about, spying on him I guess, so that is a true literal story.
There is a phrase in that song that is very Irish. The saying ‘he never asked for sugar’ suggesting he kept to himself.
That’s a very middle of the United States saying too.
One of my favourite tracks on the album is Outside the Pale. Are you aware of the significance of this in an Irish context?
The first time I heard that phrase, my grandma use to use it a lot, she said beyond the pale though. For some reason I had written it down in a notebook some time ago and when I was writing this album I was going through this old notebook to see if there was anything I could use in the album. I saw the phrase, remembered my grandma using it but did not realise the significance of it. So I looked it up and started reading about it and learned the significance of it in terms of Irish history and I thought it would fit really well with the way that the songs on the album were going, so I decided to write something revolving around that phrase because the album was taking this journey into songs of the working man and working class and the underdog. I thought it would fit really well in the context of where the writing was going.
Do you consider yourself in your writing as a champion for the underdog and under privileged?
(Laughs) I’m not sure if champion is the right word but I’m still very much part of that world. At the end of this tour I will be at home waiting tables until the next tour so it’s just a matter of writing what I know, I guess. I also think that it’s important the way music has been going lately. The vast majority of music making it into people’s ears is kind of upper middle class white demographic, whereas all the music that we base our history on as a civilisation used to all come from the grit and the struggle of ninety percent of the population, whether it be blues music or folk music. This was music coming out of people having to struggle through life. I think we are missing that now as most of the popular music is vaguely about things that people hardly understand or don’t need to connect with anyway. So I think it’s important for artists not to shy away from writing actual folk music that is written for the people and about the people.
I’m aware from a song that you wrote that you are a lover of the music of Jason Molina. I spoke with MC Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger) a few years back, he is also a lover of Jason Molina’s work. He mentioned how he loved your song about Molina, For the Miner.
Wow, MC Taylor mentioned me? I didn’t know he even knew who I was! For me it’s a very specific story I guess. A lot of people can relate to this feeling of being young and coming across a band that they love in that misunderstood and melancholy time of their lives and they find an artist or album that is expressing everything that they feel at that young age before your brain is fully developed and you don’t really know what’s going on. Most people, if they listened to the band now, it might not mean a lot to them but at that certain point in time it was very influential and important. I was sixteen years old, from a small town in Oklahoma called Shawnee. It’s about forty five minutes’ drive from Oklahoma City and as soon as I learned to drive and got a car and I would drive to Oklahoma City all the time just to get out of the house, it was the only place to get to see rock shows. I would go to this all ages venue called the Conservatory, which was not a very nice place despite the name, it was a rundown crappy bar. There was a record store beside it that I would go into and have a look around before the shows and I was in there this time and saw this album in the sales rack for under five dollars. It was a black album with this weird purple landscape and it was called The Lioness and it was a Songs: Ohia album. I had never heard of the band and never seen the album but it was just one of these moments, I had to go to the bathroom so had to leave but wanted to buy something so I just grabbed that album for no reason other than I liked the cover, a hurried purchase. I listened to the album in the car on the way home and it was just one of those moments, the windows were down, it was dark, I was driving and thinking this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. What he was saying seemed to be exactly what I wanted to say without knowing how to say it. I thought that I need to learn exactly how to say these things and figure out how to write songs because I felt it would be something that would be very precious for me. He became the first real musical influence for me that make me realise that I have to learn how to communicate in that language. I got obsessed with Jason Molina and bought all his albums
Did you get the chance to see him live?
I’ve seen him a couple of times but never met him. We had a lot of friends in common and I played in Bloomington a lot where he was based, but I didn’t really want to meet him. He was so important and so influential for me, yet I felt that I just hadn’t anything I wanted to say to him and that it would end up being a mess by me making it all about myself. The only time I felt that I might make myself known to him is when I wrote For The Miner; he hadn’t passed away yet and I had written the song when I heard he wasn’t doing well and was really sick. So I was recording the song and contacted his label in Bloomington who said they would send it to him but before we got the record finished he had passed away.
You have recorded all your albums over the past seven years on The Ramseur Record Label. How supportive have they been for you?
This label, which is essentially Dolphus Ramseur, who is also my manager, I couldn’t imagine putting out a record with anyone else. We’re talking about a guy who heard something I had written when I was nineteen years old and for some forsaken reason found value in that even though it was the first thing I had ever put down, and (he) has stuck by me one hundred per cent even though as sure as hell I haven’t made him any money. He is so supportive of what I do and only wants me to make records the way I do. There is never ‘why don’t you make it sound a little more like this’ or ‘why don’t we try and make something a little more commercial’. I’ve never heard anything like that from him. Ramseur is a small label and he only works with artists that he really believes in completely and I have so much respect for him, he’s a complete music lover. I have half the material already written for my next album which will be released next summer on Ramseur.
How difficult is it to survive at your level given the difficulty getting radio play to promote your work?
I won’t say it’s easy. All the touring I have to pay for myself and the recordings are all out of my pocket. I have it down to a schedule, once I have a record out I can tour it for six or seven months and while touring I can write the next one. I also have times when I have to get job and work seventy hours a week and save money to get in the studio and make the next record. I have it down to a fine art but there is no room for the unexpected, this year I had some medical issues that put a serious wrench in the gears. There is never a spare dime but nobody is making me do any of this, I’m doing it because I want to and love making records. There may be a time down the line that I have to take a few years out and start saving up again.
Is the gap between Americana, folk and mainstream country narrowing? The recent successes of Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson might suggest that the major record labels start looking at the less obvious artists
Possibly so but the three artists you mentioned are coming more from a rock and (a) country place, talented artists no doubt, rather than where I’m coming from. There is no doubt there is room for a much wider audience for the Americana artists. I’m just not sure that our music hits that audience a lot of the time. I would and could write a little differently if I wanted to target that market but that gets into dangerous territory if I have to sit down to write a song that a lot of people are going to like. That would completely mess with my brain very quickly (laughs).
I just hope you keep writing to the quality that you have for the past eight years as every album seems to be even better than your last
Well thank you. I’ll keep trying!
Interview by Declan Culliton Photography by Catriona Dowling