Singer-songwriter Samantha Crain has built devoted followings across the globe, from her home base in Oklahoma to points across the United States and especially in the United Kingdom. She’s the quintessential songwriter, a master at merging memorable melodies with evocative lyrics, but a series of setbacks nearly derailed her career just as it was gaining strength. Ahead of her stop this week at Old Quarter Acoustic Café in Galveston, we asked Crain about returning to the spotlight that is burning brighter than ever for her.
Crain’s just returned from touring the U.K., where her poetic indie-folk music has developed a solid audience. She showcased songs from her stellar 2020 album A Small Death on those shows.
“The trip was good. It seems like things are starting to get maybe a little more relaxed and feel a bit more normal. The last time I did a tour overseas there were quite a bit of additional hoops to jump through as far as quarantining and testing,” she said. “A lot of that stuff has sort of let up which makes it a bit easier. The shows were really good, it seems like people are really excited to be listening to music and being around other people again. It felt nice.”
It must have been particularly nice for Crain who stopped playing for crowds even before the pandemic. In 2017, she was the victim of a series of car accidents, the last of which left her with no feeling in her hands. She’d been gaining momentum on the strength of albums she’d released every couple of years over a nearly 20-year career, but the accidents sidelined her for nearly two years. In addition to the physical challenge of playing guitar, she had to overcome the emotional difficulties of those events.
“A hundred percent, I wouldn’t have been able to get through that and move into a headspace of moving on and trying to recover from that if it weren’t for people in my life. My best friend, McKenzie,” she said, for example. “I can’t imagine how patient she would have been with me just because, when something like that happens and you’re really struggling with any amount of confidence because your identity more or less has been stripped from you, you’re not the most pleasant person to be around.
"And she was just very, very patient and understanding of that and just allowed me to kind of work through that and also being supportive whenever I did try to start getting back into playing. Supportive but not pushing me too much, making it very aware that life was worth living and I was a person beyond whether I ever played music again.
“That was a really important thing to understand, I think, in order to get on any sort of path of recovery. You have to understand that even if you don’t get back to where you were, it’s still worth moving forward.”
She began writing and recording A Small Death during her recovery and said, “around that time is when I started working with Lucy Rose, who owns the record label that I’m on now, which is called Real Kind Records. She’s a songwriter as well and was just really understanding of my situation and also really patient and wanting to give me opportunities but also not wanting to push me to a point of not being able to continue to recover. So, she took me out on tour with her to open for her and helped me put this record out in a way that was sort of at my pace and not pushing me to play more than I physically could.
“I think her understanding and her support was also huge to get me back into working to where I am now,” she said and reported, “I have relatively no issues playing guitar, playing shows and touring again."
Getting back to work was important because Crain is Native American, of Choctaw heritage, and part of a generation of indigenous artists creating a new model for their roles in the arts. She sings in Choctaw on "When We Remain," the closing track on A Small Death, a song that's been described as "anthemic." We asked whether growing interest in indigenous cultures, buoyed by efforts like hers and mainstream successes like Hulu’s Reservation Dogs, will help bridge any gaps between indigenous cultures and culture at-large. She said that’s not really the point.
“I think really the idea behind getting indigenous voices more opportunities in the arts and in creative fields isn’t so much about bringing awareness to the white population,” she said. “So, for instance, Sterlin Harjo who wrote Reservation Dogs, I’ve known him since I was 18 years old, we’ve been friends for a long time. For him, I know, the point of that show doing good is not so the white populations of the world can look at the indigenous populations of the world and gain some sort of empathy or sympathy or understanding. To him it’s more about getting indigenous people and Native artists in positions of power and decision making so that way they can change it for themselves.
“He understands it’s not about hopping into some fad of the mainstream celebrating indigenous cultures for a moment. From a very real point of view it’s about getting opportunities for indigenous people and Native people to actually have jobs and actually be in a position where they can affect change themselves and change their situations themselves. It’s not about asking other people to recognize them and help them,” she said.
“That’s how it sort of worked for me as well,” she shared. “The only reason I got music on that TV show is because Sterlin is my friend and he wants to involve Native musicians and Native artists in that show, and that expands my world as well. I get jobs and work from that because that TV show did well and that allows me to keep putting my perspective and my story out into the world.”
The world seems eager for her story, particularly overseas in the U.K. She tours there quite a bit and she’s been teamed with English acts like The Staves for tours here in the States. We asked if she’s become a bit of an Anglophile at this point, noting she’s even gone Shakespeare and written a book of sonnets. That evokes a chuckle from Crain, who is quick to share a laugh throughout our chat.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an Anglophile by any means but I do enjoy going over there,” she said, adding she enjoys long walks in the scenic English countryside. “I do tour quite a bit in the U.K. just because my record label’s over there and I just for some reason tend to have a good connection with audiences over there, so I do spend a lot of time touring over there."
A place she hasn’t played much is Texas, which she admits seems odd given her proximity to the state. We note she is performing at a venue tailor-fit for artists like her whose crowds hang on every note and word of a song.
“This is my first time to play Old Quarter. I met the owners at a bar in Little Rock called White Water Tavern, which is a venue that I’ve been playing at since I was like 20 years old. Every year they have a Christmas sort of festival where they get a lot of the bands that have been playing there a long time to come and play shows, so I think that’s where I met the owners of Old Quarter and they invited me down to play,” she said. “I think, weirdly, even though I’m in Oklahoma and have been touring in the States for a really long time, and Texas seems like a logical place to play shows a lot because it’s just right there, for some reason I haven’t really gotten down there as much as probably a lot of people that play music in Oklahoma would have.
"You have to understand that even if you don’t get back to where you were, it’s still worth moving forward.”
Photo by Lainey Conant, courtesy of Samantha Crain
“I think a lot of that is because I tend to play on tours, I’m sort of a perpetual opening artist,” she reasoned and over the years she has supported acts like Avett Brothers, First Aid Kit and Neutral Milk Hotel. “I like supporting bigger artists’ tours, I do a lot of that so those tours tend to be a bit more spread out over the U.S. If it does go down to Texas it sort of hits Austin and then hits Dallas and then moves along. So, because I do a lot of tours like that, I just haven’t made it around the state as much as I would like to. That’s sort of the reasoning for this little jaunt, is just to hit up some towns like San Antonio and Houston and Galveston that I don’t get to play as often.”
The hardships she endured and lessons learned over the past few years have given Crain a new perspective on her career. She recently wrote and directed a video for her song “Pick Apart,” and she’s looking forward to taking on diverse projects, bolstered by the strength she’s developed and the opportunities she’s laid out for herself.
“With the music video directing stuff, I would have never probably attempted that, but I think coming out of that challenge of making a record and an EP again after something like that happened, I think it sort of gave me this feeling of why not? If it seems like something that I’d want to do, if I fail - not the end of the world, you know?” she said. “It sort of gave me a new outlook on creating, maybe to not be so precious with it, to just be a bit more risk-taking and to just understand it’s an exciting thing to try new things.”
Samantha Crain, Sunday, April 24, 2022, Old Quarter Acoustic Café, 413 20th Street, Galveston. With Grace Pettis. Doors at 7:30 p.m. $15-$20.
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