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Samantha Crain

A Working Class Voice from Under the Tree

Samantha Crain - 2015

Words by Teeka Ballas
First published in Anchorage Press – June 11, 2015


Delicate but firm, like the stomp of a thick treaded boot, 28-year old Okie born Choctaw singer Samantha Crain is inarguably a folk song writer. Her voice, a vibrant rose petal actively wilting and sighing, produces imagery, promise and a call to action through lyrical compositions that are refreshingly new, poetically invigorating and astoundingly spot-on about working class woes. In simplified terms, Crain is an astounding songwriter. She began touring at 19, has four albums under her belt (Under Branch & Thorn & Tree was released in May), just finished a tour opening for Buffy Sainte-Marie, and is about to make her first appearance in the great state of Alaska, starting off with a performance at Tap Root on June 13.

Press: In the past you’ve self described your music as “frontier folk rock.” In what way does it stand apart from the standard folk rock that still rules the airwaves?

Samantha: I consider my music pretty straightforward folk rock – it’s really the same sort of traditional sound, but because of where I’m from and my upbringing, there is a little more blue collar bent to what I’m singing.

Press: Your last album, Kid Face was an achy, raw and honest autobiographical sketch. Under Branch changes direction and delivers a haunting collection of institutionalized sorrow and redemptive reverie. How did this diversion come about in your songwriting?

Samantha: I think I exhausted the well of my own stories on the last album. This time I looked outward to the people around me; I wanted to tell their story – largely from the working class woman perspective, just because that’s a large part of my world. My friends are all working class, the women in my family are. I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m bold enough to write a literal protest song, so my way of trying to write a protest song was to do it through telling the stories of these women and hoping the social aspect came through.

In the dark nights of war
Dots of silent guns, and what’s more
A virtual game of sorts, the killer of sons
The killer of girls, the killer of self
Turned the Garden of Eden into a fiery hell
Struck the rock too many times, now no water comes out
They say the worst is over, the lowest reached
But it’s such a long road, Keep Marching!

Samantha: Killer is kind of a nod to the classic Woody Guthrie style that called to union organizers. It’s a call to the middle class to realize they are such a large portion of the population in this country and actually do have a voice and power to change a lot of things. We’ve been socialized to accept things the way they are and feel powerless, which is the goal of the oligarchy controlling this country.

Press: Fifty percent of the 99 percent are women, and essentially, they are the backbone of this working class’ album. Were you aware of that when you first started writing?

He told me we’d be rich
get on at the GHK company…
We pitched a tent in the park
It’s all we could do
Weren’t no rooms anywhere
I hoped that job would come through…

Samantha – The first song I wrote for this album was Elk City – which is based off this woman I met. It was her story about having this rough life in this oil boomtown that went bust and how she couldn’t get out. She was a multidimensional woman, and that’s how I sang about her. But it made me realize how often women are generally painted as only one or two dimensional characters – I realized I had the opportunity to create in my songs multidimensional women who weren’t just obsessively happy or chronically heartbroken.

Press: What is your personal experience as a multidimensional woman being a blue collar worker?

Samantha: I’ve been making music for 10 years – but I’m not on a major label. I don’t get money to make records. I don’t get money to tour. In order to do this, I work the rest of the year. Since I was 16, I’ve had to work a minimum wage job: waiting tables, movie theaters, libraries, welding, farmwork, babysitting… Stuff like anyone who is just trying to make rent. I’m very lucky because a third of the year I get to make music and tour, but I couldn’t do that if I didn’t come back home and work my butt off at whatever shit job I can get at the time. I really love making records and I will take any job I can get for the rest of the year in order to record the next album.

Press: Your last two albums were recorded at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. Does it feel like joining the privileged class to get to record in such a dynamic analog studio?

Samantha: The guys at Tiny Telephone are really just normal guys. That studio, for how amazing it is, is really affordable. They’ve never raised their rates and don’t plan on ever raising them.

We recorded directly to 2-inch tape on both albums, but for Under Branch the really exciting part was that Bernie Grundman in Los Angeles mastered it. He’s super old school analog. So this album, by the time it came out on vinyl, a computer hadn’t touched it at all. I’m an audiophile nerd that.

Press: You’re of Choctaw descent. How does your heritage play into your music? Into your lifestyle?

Samantha: Obviously my music does not use the elements of the traditional music of my tribe, but there’s an element of wildness about it – a very intrinsic, guttural response. In traditional songs, it’s almost animalistic the voices that are coming out and I feel like having grown up around that made me much more comfortable with singing when I began making my own music. It’s never been a problem for me to elicit an emotional response when it comes to singing and performing live. I think that’s the biggest correlation between my music and the music coming out of my tribe.

People started calling me a Native American musician because I’m Choctaw. I think a lot of people who are half breeds feel guilty claiming that [title]. It feels like we’re stealing it. It took a lot of Native artists nudging me to not feel bad about it, to claim it, reclaim it and be ok with being a half breed. I’ve always been really open about how I grew up, but I don’t feel like anyone has ever judged me, like fellow Native Americans who come to the show, those who did grow up on a reservation. A lot of times growing up on a res doesn’t mean you were getting more culture of your tribe. Sometimes it’s the opposite of that, just because of the state of a lot of reservations.

“Outside the Pale”
I bet you want a bargain, I hear you want to take cover
Running like a yawn from one mouth to another
You and I, we’re blacktop rough, common as the dirt
Sniveling into the phone, trying to help our sister’s hurt

Samantha: “Outside the pale” is like the phrase “beyond the pale” – basically this phrase from [14th century Ireland under English rule] that refers to the literal putting up of pale fence posts – physical boundaries – to keep a marginalized people outside of where they thought the “good people” should live. It’s still happening. A small elite group of people are still making up the definitions of what is moral and what is right and what is wrong and what is ok to look like and believe – why is this still going on?

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