As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 20 – Summer 2022
Samantha Crain is a thirty-five-year-old Choctaw Nation musician from Shawnee, Oklahoma. Releasing music since 2008, she has won multiple NAMMYs (Native American Music Awards) and an Indigenous Music Award for Best Rock Album in 2019. Her music has been featured as some of the best at The Rolling Stone and NPR. Her most recent release, an EP titled I Guess We Live Here Now, came out in 2021.
Crain’s journey with music has been lengthy and — quite literally — storied. Her very first album, The Confiscation, was released when she was just 21. The inspiration for that album was drawn largely from a set of five short stories written by Crain. “When you first start writing, you’re just like trying things out, seeing how words go together with music. That was just a really early experiment for me. It was kind of like trying to figure out how to take these short stories that I had written and sort of condensed them into a song.”
This was Samantha’s hard and fast introduction to song structure, teaching her how to “take a big, massive idea and condense it down to like three, four or five minutes.” Since then, she has stuck to more traditional songwriting and released six full-length albums before A Small Death, which was released in 2020. This album came following a car accident — the third of three in less than six months — that left Crain without the use of her hands and in need of physical therapy.
“I had about a year and a half where I couldn’t tour, and I had to do a lot of physical therapy and resting. It was the most depressing time of my life because I didn’t know if I was gonna be able to use my hands again.”
When asked what got her through such a dark time, Crain tells us that it was largely about re-evaluating what it meant to be Samantha Crain. “I mean, it’s a huge thing to unfold. I think [what helped was] just being able to separate my identity — my overwhelming identity as a career musician — from myself as a person, um, and kind of get to know myself outside of my sort of self-imposed definition. I think going down that rabbit hole was the only thing that really got me to a place of like mental and physical wellness enough to where I could start doing it again.”
“It’s like a cat,” she continued, “cats will love you if you give them space. So, it’s kind of how this was for me, with my ability to play music and write . . . I had to just completely let it go and come to terms with who I would be without it in order for it to find its way back to me.”
Unfortunately, COVID-19 came calling around the release of A Small Death, leading to a difficult two-plus years for all of us. Crain tells GuitarGirl she used the 2020 lockdown to take the downtime she needed and deserved without feeling pressure to keep working in a crisis. “I wouldn’t say that my creativity was flowing during COVID. I was in survival mode, like everyone else. My record came out in 2020, and I usually get pretty depleted after putting a record out. I usually take a small minute to refill my well of what’s going on. There was not really a part of me that felt like I needed to be producing something while the world was falling apart.”
Aside from producing her own work, Crain has also produced for other artists. On how the two things compare, she says, “You have to take your ego completely out of it. When I’m producing my own albums, my ego is welcome because that’s the voice that I’m trying to perfect. When you’re producing someone else’s record, you have to think about who they are as an artist and what it is that they’re trying to accomplish. You can’t really let your own vision for who you think they should be, or something get in the way because that’s a bit manipulative, I think. Unless you’ve been hired to do that, I guess, but I usually work with artists that are already in their own lane, and already have their own vision of what they’re doing and the kind of music that they’re making. It’s more like [being] the manager of a business as opposed to like the CEO. If I’m producing my own record, it’s like I’m the CEO. If I’m producing someone else’s, I’m just managing a restaurant, basically.”
We asked Crain about what got her into music in the first place. She picked up a guitar at the age of 16 and is completely self-taught. “I’ve always learned instruments for the sake of songwriting. The writing part of it was the thing that I think interested me and kept me motivated as I was first starting to learn. Then I picked up other instruments to get better at songwriting, I guess, or further my ability to write more songs.”
Today, Crain says she wouldn’t consider herself “proficient” on any instrument besides guitar, but she often picks up and plays other instruments by ear when recording her albums. For guitars, she notes that she sticks to the same one she’s had for 15 years — a Martin 00-15M. She has removed all of the electronics from it to make it the easiest possible to set up for shows and look after. She’s recently gotten a custom 00-14 spruce-top from Martin, which she hasn’t gotten to play live yet.
When asked about her musical inspirations, she noted that an artist’s accessibility is really what set them apart for her growing up.
“There was this all-ages rock venue in Oklahoma City that I used to drive up to, to go to shows, and there was a record store next to it. I was waiting around in the record store before the show started next door [once] and I bought this record from the bargain bin purely based on the cover art. It was called The Lioness, by Songs: Ohia (Jason Molina). I remember listening to that record on my way home and just being struck by how accessible it seemed to somebody my age.”
“I think a lot of times it can be really intimidating, as a kid or a teenager, you hear Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Neil Young or Stevie Wonder, and you’re like, well, this is obviously great, but I could never do that. . . for some reason, even though Jason Molina I think is one of the great songwriters, that particular record just felt really accessible . . .that was the real catalyst for me to go home and try to figure out how to write songs.”
When asked what makes a good song, Crain ties it to authenticity. “Whenever you can tell that someone was existing in a state of fearlessness or real honesty when they were writing something — that they weren’t letting themselves be filtered. To me, that’s successful because that’s like the purest form of creativity. When you can sort of create something without context of how other people are going to receive it.”
Finally, we asked Crain what advice she would offer an aspiring musician. “It’s hard to know because I don’t even remember what it was like to be 16, really. But I would say doing things because you enjoy them should always be the main catalyst. Like you’re not gonna make money being a musician. It’s a really alienating lifestyle. A hundred percent if you’re trying to get started with being a career musician, it has to be based on, would you do it even if you weren’t? Even if it wasn’t your job?”
“That would be my only thing that I could think of because, for me, that was always the answer. I always had jobs. Only recently has music been my job — I’ve always waited tables. I’m 35 years old, and I started touring when I was 19. So, from 19 until 32 or 33, I’ve always had a full-time second job.”