Since her first EP in 2008, Shawnee-born Choctaw singer-songwriter Samantha Crain has taken listeners through the light and shadows of everyday life with a voice that clutches at the heart, then sends it soaring. (“I think my whole vibe, my whole focus whenever I’m producing a song is I want it to feel very human, very intimate,” she told American Songwriter earlier this year. “But at the same time, I want it to feel very cinematic. That’s the only guideline that I’m really going for…. But then maintaining this organic human quality of intimacy.”) Her album A Small Death—written after a series of personal crises had her wondering if she’d ever play again—was named one of NPR’s 25 best of 2020 and saw more than a few of us through our own dark times that year. In the leadup to her show at the Mercury Lounge this week, Crain talked with Root about her recent and in-progress work, her creative process, and how her song “Joey” found its way onto Reservation Dogs.
How is everything feeling for you right now, as you navigate Covid times as a working musician?
SC: I just have to consistently remind myself to be flexible and roll with how things are right now, which is not, you know, ideal for a lot of things. You can't do a ton of tour planning right now, because of how up in the air so much is. It doesn't make sense financially to make the normal big plans to do big tours. This would definitely be the time that I would need to be playing shows, having released a record and an EP in the past two years, but I've had to skip a lot of that, take that as it comes, and move right into to writing mode again—which is fine, because I love that. I love writing and I love recording. So that's what I'm trying to do right now. As far as dealing with Covid stuff, you know, I deal with it as well or as badly as everyone else: you've got good days and bad days. I try to keep things in perspective and not let it take me over. I'm just trying to write new songs and focus on what I can make next.
That's a great way to get through these or any hard times, I feel: just keep creating. Have things changed in your process? In what you’re writing now, are you exploring things you weren't expecting to explore?
SC: I think I Guess We Live Here Now was a bridge between what the writing was like on A Small Death—which is very self-reflective and based on sorting through a lot of personal trauma—and where I am now, which I think weirdly is a bit more universal, touching more on universal themes than on just your basic run-of-the-mill emotions. I've always been a really personal story writer, writing from my experiences and turning those into songs. Whereas I’m in a spot right now where I’m writing more about subject matters. I'm not really sure why it moved into that. I think it's just where my brain is right now. I like thinking about ideas rather than specific stories right now. It's more about exploring ideas and emotions rather than diving into specific instances. The past four or five songs I've written, that's where they've been hanging out. I'm not saying that maybe it's not going to take a turn and the rest of the record will end up being something really personal. I'm not sure, but that's the world it's existing in right now.
When you go through something really difficult in your life, you learn things from it. And you can't help but see the world through this new set of eyes. I think it's going to be a loop like this for my whole life: records where I'm digging through, trying to figure out what's happening in my life, and then I learn something from that and then I'm seeing the world through new eyes, so I'm going to write about it like that, and then something's going to happen and I'm going to write about myself again. And then I'm going to see the world differently. And then I'm going to want to write about it from that new set of eyes. I think it’s a never-ending cycle, but it is sort of reassuring that I'll never run out of things to write about because I can always just write about the same things and it will always be different because I will always be different.
Samantha Crain (photo by Lainey Conant) and the cover of "I Guess We Live Here Now"
Tell me about I Guess We Live Here Now. Have you gotten out with it at all? What’s been the reaction to it?
SC: I attempted to do some touring on it. I went over to the UK in the fall, whenever COVID was on a lull for a minute and the travel restrictions were a bit easier and I was vaccinated. There's a song on the EP called “Bloomsday” that was doing quite well on British radio, and there were people at the shows wanting to hear that song because they had heard it on the radio. That was a really nice moment that I don't think I've ever experienced in my, you know, 14 years of doing this.
But yeah, stuff has started to shut down a little bit more now, so I'm not sure how much more I'll be able to do in terms of touring these records. In terms of the songs, I think people connected to them more than anything I've put out before. It might just be because the world slowed down a little bit and people were able to pay more attention to something, or it could be that these were better songs than I've written. I'm not sure, but that's not for me to dive into too much.
I do think “Bloomsday” has really struck a chord with people, just in terms of feeling like they need something like a rational amount of hope. It's hard to listen to a song that's too over-the-top hopeful because it feels a bit eye-rolly. You're like, “Okay. Yeah. If we could all just, you know, see sunshine and rainbows right now, wouldn't that be great.” So you can't really dive into to that, but it also feels a bit self-destructive to let yourself wallow in self-pity too much. I think “Bloomsday” for whatever reason is, like, just the right amount of hope for people.
I love the moment in that song where the melodic line sinks down and down as you sing “everybody’s wondering where their little light is”—and that diminishing scale is followed by the sort of internal pep talk of “this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.” It's a beautiful piece of composition.
SC: Yeah. I mean, the fact that you said “internal pep talk”—that is kind of what the song is meant to do. That's actually what it started out as. I wrote the song because I was literally stocking groceries at a grocery store and was just so mad that I was having to work in a pandemic. This was at the beginning of the pandemic, and I was just feeling like I wished there was something I could do to keep myself going, keep myself on track here. And the “This Little Light of Mine” song came into my head and I was literally like, very slumped [Crain slouches and mutters]: “this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine.” Like, maybe this will work, if I just keep saying it enough, you know?
If I'm going to be honest, a lot of what I'm writing is like a mantra for myself. It helps me just as much as I hope it does anyone else. So it’s a song that’s like a rational amount of hope we can have for ourselves, in terms of worrying about what you can control and trying not to worry too much about things that are out of your control. And also just how it is important to have little bits of hope—even if it's just “next week, I'm gonna have a beer with some friends. Won't that be great?” That's why I like to refer to it as a rational amount of hope: just enough to keep things going in a positive way, but not so much that it's not relatable.
Any idea when the new songs will head into the recording process?
SC: I have my own sort of “mind goals,” but it's just so in the baby stage right now that I don't really have a clear idea. That kind of stuff tends to go from zero to 60 with no real view of when that happens. It feels like a record doesn't exist at all. And then all of a sudden it's like, okay, we've got three months! I don't know how time happens during [this process]. I would imagine it won't be until fall or something. That's if I continue writing at the pace that I'm writing now. There's also a billion more things to take into account now, with many strains of COVID. You always want to try to put a record out that you can actually tour, but also, it's sort of a weird world to be trying to put music out in right now.
Meanwhile, we’re eager to hear you at the Mercury Lounge. Have you played there often?
SC: I actually think I've only played there once! I don’t really know why that is. I've had sort of a weird up and down with where I play in Tulsa. I don't know the last time I played with the band here, so that's really exciting for me. I think it'll be something that, you know, a lot of us miss about being around people and experiencing music with each other and that sort of thing. And I always like going to see music at the Mercury.
The show is also going to be filmed for the Six Moons Indigenous Concert Series. Elisa Harkins, who started that series, got funding through the Mid-America Arts Alliance, so she’s going to film it and it will be streaming as well. She had gotten a hold of me about doing a concert for the series sometime around the end of January or February. And I said, well, I'm already playing a show at Mercury Lounge, we're already going to be there set up, so maybe we could just do that. It ended up working out really well, and I'm excited that that's going to end up happening.
It was so special to hear your song “Joey” come up in Reservation Dogs, during the memorial for Daniel in the first episode. How did that come about?
SC: I've been friends with Sterlin [Harjo] since I was a teenager and we've worked together in various ways through different periods in our life. He used to go down to South by Southwest with us and film us playing when we were really young, and then he had a film called Barking Water that I had some songs in. I traveled around with him to film festivals for that movie a lot just to talk about the music and the movie. So we got to spend a lot of time together during that. And I remember when A Small Death came out—well, I probably sent him the record a while before it came out—he just really responded to that song.
He actually wanted to do a music video for it, but it wasn't one of the singles we were going to use, so we didn't have a budget for a music video. So we didn't end up doing that, though we might at some point down the road, but that was just a song that resonated with him. And so whenever he was putting together music for Reservation Dogs, he told me he wanted to use that song. I didn't know the scene that it was going to be used in or anything, so seeing it was really touching for me because it really does encapsulate what the song is about.
Within the song, what I'm dealing with is, like, this one specific friend that has seen you through all of these different periods of your life. They know you on an intrinsic level; you don't have to give context to who you are, even though maybe a good amount of time has passed since you've seen them. In that scene, these kids are remembering their friend—a person they potentially would've had a relationship like that with, and probably the sort of relationship they'll continue to have with each other throughout their lives. Even if they don't stay in the same place together physically, they'll have this intrinsic connection with each other. And I thought it was such a great use of that song because it fits so well with the idea behind that scene, what those kids are experiencing in that scene. He did a good job figuring out where to put it. It was a beautiful moment.
And the way that show blew up—how great is it to see so much new awareness around Native creators who’ve been making amazing work for so long?
SC: Even beyond that, beyond the awareness of great Native artists, is that there are Native American people. I think you'd be surprised to know how many people think that Native American people are a thing of the past or that they’re not a currently living, breathing set of tribes and cultures. I think that in itself is probably a wake up call.
If you go
Samantha Crain with special guest Chloe Beth
January 26 at 8pm
1747 S. Boston