Interview: Samantha Crain on Singing in Choctaw, and Self-Reflection


Oklahoma-based singer-songwriter Samantha Crain releases her sixth album this week. Titled A Small Death, the record reflects a period of time in Crain’s life when physical pain and exhaustion (brought about in large part by carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis) led her to question her future in music. Eventually, she was able to return to playing and writing, and the new album brings a different sound to Crain’s songs. We recently chatted via email about that seemingly more expansive sound, singing in Choctaw, and what life is like for a musician in the middle of a pandemic.

Americana Highways: A number of the songs (“Reunion,” “Pastime,” “Joey”) on your new album seem to have you looking back at your past and assessing how it’s affected your present. After a half-dozen albums, what led to such intense self-reflection?

Samantha Crain: I couldn’t use my hands. I think any sort of check in with mortality will cause self-reflection. As I was in a time of reconstruction following these traumas in my life, I began to search for and learn about who I was as a person outside of my self-appointment and identification as the musician, Samantha Crain. Without the physical ability to play instruments at the time, I spent time talk-writing poetry into a voice recorder, reading, walking, talking to people, living a quiet life. I felt like I was getting to know myself from scratch, peeling off a costume that I was put in as a child and allowing myself, for the first time, to dress myself and fully lean into my curiosities and sensitivities.

AH: “When We Remain” is written and sung in Choctaw. How important is it to you to be able to sing a song of such perseverance in the language of your ancestors?

SC: For many indigenous Americans, the traditions and connections to our ancestors were stripped from us, generations of abuse and genocide and dislocation created a huge chasm for us to truely know the ways of our passed elders. Therefore, it is imperative that we as indigenous Americans can create our own traditions and become empowered in the fact that “if I make something–if i write a song, if i write a poem, if i paint a picture, if i cook a meal–it is Choctaw, because I am Choctaw…no matter if it matches the colonial idea and stereotype of what would be considered indigenous art or creation.” The language remembers, the language connects us over that chasm that was forced.

AH: Before recording A Small Death, you suffered through some pretty significant physical ailments, You weren’t able to play music, which you’ve described as a sort of loss of identity. Now, with not being able to tour or play shows due to COVID-19, are you experiencing anything similar, or is this different?

SC: It is very different. It wasn’t the loss of being able to tour or play shows that distressed me, it was the inability to have use of my hands, for basic things too, not just for playing music. That is a very different circumstance. As an artist, I am used to pivoting, I’m used to feast and famine, I’m used to having to get creative in order to pay my bills….the pandemic is uncomfortable and hard, yes, but it isn’t a loss of identity.

AH: Your previous albums, for the most part, seem to have been more singer-songwriter-ish – that is, a little quieter, with simpler arrangements, etc. A Small Death has, overall, a bigger, more expansive sound. Was it a change that you had in mind while writing the songs, or did it develop more in the studio?

SC: I never think about a project I’m working on in reference to another one of my records while I’m making it. All production and arrangement are simply in service to the song and I try to follow that gut feeling. Looking back, I actually feel like A Small Death is quite reserved in its production and arrangements compared to some of my other records. So I just feel like we’re on different pages on how we view these albums.  I feel like my last album You Had Me At Goodbye was a very expansive and out there record and then my first record Songs In the Night was a full rock band on every song. So it’s possible you’re referring to one particular album that is quieter but I’m not sure which one you’re referring to, probably Kid Face or Under Branch and Thorn and Tree.

AH: The album release was delayed by a couple of months – what’s it like promoting a new record during a global pandemic?

SC: It is new territory that I wish never to revisit!

AH: What will make you, personally, feel safe to start touring and performing live again?

SC: I don’t know. This is one area of my life I feel perfectly fine with not being ahead of the curve, so to speak. I won’t be the first one sticking my neck out to test the waters of public safety. I don’t feel like I have enough information to make a decision yet.

You can order A Small Death here:

When concerts return, be sure to catch Crain on tour. I’ve seen her twice in Denver, and she’s amazing live.

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