Don’t worry, Samantha Crain says reassuringly — she hasn’t really flipped her post-pandemic lid like the nuthouse-bound protagonist of the old Napoleon XIV novelty hit “They’re Coming to Take Me Away.” But she has taken up the once-institution-sanctioned hobby of basket weaving while sheltering in place in Norman, Oklahoma, over the past few months, her only companion being a scruffy smooth-haired terrier named Marty.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” she says of the remarkably meticulous craft. “But I just recently had the time to sit down and really get into it, so I’ve been doing a lot of basket weaving lately. But I hop around—I’m kind of ADD when it comes to projects. I get really, really obsessed with something for a while and just dive into it, and then I get sick of it and move on to the next thing. So music is the one creative project that’s been consistent in my life.”
The coronavirus didn’t make her a candidate for the butterfly nets, she adds with a laugh. It was just every traumatic event in the past two years of her turbulent existence leading up to it that nearly did. All of which found its way into her deceptively tranquil, self-produced new album, A Small Death, her sixth overall. And the cabin fever she’s enduring now is child’s play compared to the living hell she’s just staggered through, gracefully—but obliquely—covered on the disc, from the lonesome funeral strummer “An Echo” through a spider-filigreed “Holding to the Edge of Night,” the skeletal processional “High Horse,” the dark Neo-psychedelic strummer “Reunion” and a decidedly Poco-ish “Tough For You.’ The set closes with the penultimate shoegazer “When We Remain,” sung in Crain’s native Choctaw language, adding even more warmth to her already hickory-smoked, reverb-rich singing voice, one of the most memorable in modern folk-rock. The finger-popping, almost Wanda Jackson-ribald “Little Bits,” reveals the artist’s latent love of more modern devices, like punchy punk riffs and a playfully tinny syndrum rhythm.
Born in tiny Shawnee, Oklahoma, Crain, 33, has expanded her aesthetic horizons recently, after the adverse effects of three consecutive car crashes nearly robbed her of the ability to write and record tunes; In 2018, she self-published her first poetry book, En Masse: A Collection of 30 Sonnets, and that same year she was able to compose more cerebral music to accompany a Salem museum exhibit by the late T.C. Cannon, a great Native American artist from the Kiowa tribe who died in 1978 at the age of only 31.
“Everything else I’ve done, I get on these little kicks and just do it,” she says. “But it’s probably, in a way, all in service to the music. It’s all just processing for that.”
She spoke to Paste in a year of incremental advances for Native American culture, including the retiring of outdated racist stereotypes like the feather-head-dressed Land O Lakes butter girl, passe logos and names for sports team like the Washington Redskins, last week’s closure of an umpteenth Trump folly, the Dakota AccessPipeline, and a stunning Supreme Court ruling in the case of Girt v. Oklahoma, stating that over half of said state, including Tulsa, is actually tribal land, belonging to the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Muscogee (Creek) nations.
Paste: Did you take to this pandemic lockdown like a fish to water?
Samantha Crain: Well, I would say that when I’m off the road, my life is pretty much like it is now, which is like me just puttering around the house and doing creative projects and mainly keeping to myself. I wouldn’t say that it was super different from the way I was already living. But the main change in it was that I’m not getting any sort of the flip side of the coin, which is touring and that sort of thing, and I’ve been realizing that I tend to thrive off of the dichotomy of the insanity and full-throttle energy of being around people, 24/7, while I’m touring, and then getting to go and just check out on it all after that. So I’m realizing that I’m kind of missing the flip side of that isolation coin right now.
Paste: Even though you’re the first artist on Lucy Rose’s new personal imprint Real Kind Records, signed by Lucy herself, you’ve had —if I may borrow a Lemony Snicket phrase—a series of unfortunate events just prior to this, some really scary stuff.
Crain: Yeah. The timeline of events is a little cloudy, so just to clarify that, I’ve always had issues with tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, and it’s gotten progressively worse over the years. And it’s basically because I’m a self-taught guitar player that didn’t learn any of the right ways to do things—I use full hands and played on a guitar with a very high action for a very long time, and I knew that that was not helpful for me. And also, just sitting in a van for hours and hours, just normal beat-your-body-up-and-not-take-care-of-it sort of things. So I’ve always had issues with that. But around the time that my last album came out in 2017 [You Had Me at Goodbye], I was in three car wrecks in a period of three months. I was at the wheel for two of them, but I do like to preface that with the fact that I am not a bad driver—I was hit all three times. So the first one was the one that was the worst, and it just totaled my touring van and really started to exaggerate the pain that I was already having in my arms and hands and wrists. So it got to a point where I was just losing feeling in them—it would take an hour in the morning for me to even start to move them in a productive way. And at the same time, of course, because everything has to fall apart at once, I was having a lot of issues in my personal life with relationships, with family, and I was using alcohol to self-medicate that. So my health was in pretty big decline on top of that. So it was this psychological fusion of my brain just exaggerating all of my visceral illness, of sorts. I think people who have been through any sort of intense, traumatic thing like that understand how a physical ailment can quickly start to get worse and worse, if your brain is also taking a nosedive. So that’s kind of where I was for a couple of years, and at the tail end of that I started working back to a state of recovery, just through therapies, both mental and physical.So at the tail end of that came this record, I guess.
Paste: But—oddly enough—it doesn’t feel like any demons are being exorcised on it.
Crain: No, I don’t think that it’s necessarily a dark record. I think a lot of the themes that I was working through were really heavy. But really, what this record represents—and how I feel towards it—is that it really is sort of a bonus-round, new-lease-on-life, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel sort of record, as cliche as that sounds. It really does encapsulate the hopefulness that I had coming out of that period in my life. So there’s a lot of dark things that I was battling and dealing with, but I’ve found that I’m more of a cathartic writer, rather than a writer that uses creating to process things. I tend to process things and then create, and then just let things go. So that gives it a bit lighter of a feel than it would have if I was using it as an actual processing tool.
Watch Samantha Crain perform “The River” live at Paste in 2008.
Paste: In “Reunion,” you sing, “I’ll try to be the life of the party,” and then actually manage to work in the phrase “TV dinners.” You don’t hear TV dinners mentioned that often in popular songs.
Crain: No, I guess not. I dunno. I’m sure that anybody who’s been to a high-school reunion understands how weird it is, because everybody has their stereotypical roles that you had back in high school, but you’re all adults now, with complex, layered personalities, and your lives have gone in really bizarre ways. And you can just see the general malaise on everyone’s faces, like we’re all talking to each other telepathically, going, “Hey — I know this is not what I told everyone I was going to end up like, so just gimme a break.” And that’s kind of how I felt at mine, and I thought that was funny. Not in a ‘funny-ha-ha’ way, but more in a “Well, isn’t that just life” kind of way. Maybe that’s why TV dinners ended up being a lighter sort of lyric in there, I guess.
Paste: Was there a point where the floodgates opened, and the songs started coming again?
Crain: Yeah. “An Echo” was the first one that really started coming through. While I was in this state of convalescence, I was at home, not really being a person. I mean, I was having massive panic attacks and getting really depressed and not being able to exist in this world. And that was mainly just because my cynical self was unraveling—I had never been faced with a moment where I had to figure out who I was as a person, outside of my self-appointed identification as ‘The musician Samantha Crain.’ So I was faced with this situation, where I was like, “Okay, if you can’t be a musician, then who are you?”: And I did not know what the answer to that was, so that was really what was wearing on me. And during that time, because I couldn’t really play instruments and I couldn’t write, I was keeping these audio diaries on a digital recorder, just recording thoughts every day. And it was actually more of a therapy tool. I wasn’t even in the mindset of using it for creative purposes. But toward the end of that time, when I was in therapy and starting to recover, I started to feel good enough to where I could pick up the guitar again.
So within the first couple of times I started to strum again, I kind of pulled out some of these audio diaries and started writing down some of the thoughts words that I found were recurring, and “An Echo” was the first one that came from that. It was kind of looking back on those two previous years, and drawing a clear picture of myself and the people that were in my life. So I started to learn about who I was as a person, outside of that previous self-image that I had of myself, and in the song “”Pastime,” I was phrasing it as a journey of excitement, like the beginning of a new relationship or a new romance. Because that’s what it felt like. It felt like I was getting to know myself from scratch, and allowing myself for the first time to finally lean in to different curiosities and sensitivities. So in that way, it felt like those audacious stages of a new romance, just finding these new facets of myself.
And with the production of that song, I actually used a trumpet, processed through a tape loop, and then with the background vocals — these chant-y kind of “Om—s. The reason I put those on there was because I basically wanted the song to sound trance-like, in a way. And I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough that, even though this is the first record that I’ve produced by myself, I feel like I know enough about myself as a musician that I could make those decisions pretty easily, based on my past records.
Paste: Given your Choctaw heritage, you’d have to agree that it’s been a good year for Native Americans, all told, all the way down to the retirement of racist food and sports logos.
Crain: And a lot of those decisions are taking so long to happen because people have a stereotypical idea of who Native Americans are, and who they are as people. And if it doesn’t match their stereotype of what is Native American or what is indigenous, then they assume that indigenous tribes and cultures aren’t even around, or aren’t surviving. A lot of people think that, say, there is a young Native American artist making paintings, but if they don’t look like anything they have in their minds like what a Native American painter would paint — a wolf, maybe — then they don’t label that or appreciate that as that person’s art, coming from a true place.
So for me, writing in the Choctaw language has become something that — over the past few years — has become something that’s really important to me. I have a song in Choctaw on this record, “When We Remain,” and I had a song on my last record that was in Choctaw, too. So basically, I have a really strong belief that the survival of indigenous languages is the most important foothold in the continuation of indigenous cultures and tribes. And that’s mainly because that with the way that Native people are situated in this country right now, we’re basically existing as a people in a world where we’re separated by generations of genocide and land removal. So there’s this big chasm between who we are right now and how our ancestors lived. So a lot of younger indigenous people, with the negative self-image that they’ve had just through existing in this country, they find themselves in a situation where they don’t feel Indian enough, because they don’t really know the traditions of their ancestors.
But the thing is, that’s not their fault — that was done to them, so I believe that the languages—our Indigenous languages—if those can be furthered and used right now in modern times, then it’s a real tool of empowerment for those younger people who just don’t feel Indian enough, so that they can make their own new traditions. For instance, if I draw something , if I write a poem, if I make dinner or even if I write a song, then that song is Choctaw, because I’m Choctaw. It doesn’t have to be seen through this small colonizer lens, as what they think a Choctaw song should sound like. And I think understanding that is what’s going to lead to more victories like this, and give people the empowerment of reclaiming those things and fighting for those things.
And that’s something that Native Americans in this country are finally starting to realize for themselves — that they don’t have to live up to a standard of something that they don’t have access to because it was taken from them. My friend Sterlin Harjo—who is a director and filmmaker, and he’s also indigenous and from here in Oklahoma—he said something really interesting to me once. He said, “Native Americans were supposed to be obliterated. So anything they do is activism, just because they’re living. They’re making a radical statement, just by surviving.” And I thought that was a really interesting way of looking at things.
Paste: Choctaw culture is fascinating. In its mythos, mankind was born of the Earth, and clambered out of a giant sacred mound Nanih Waiya, which still exists today. And then there’s the Seventh Generation concept, intrinsic to tribes like the Iroquois, wherein tribal elders don’t make a decision until they’re certain how it will affect everyone seven generations down the pike.
Crain: Yeah, That Nanih Waiya Mound is in central Mississippi, and I’ve actually been there. And the Seventh Generation idea? Of course, it’s just common sense. But a lot of the things about learning the Choctaw language—and I’m sure it’s like this in a lot of other indigenous languages—is that you absolutely have to adjust your way of thinking, because the languages just don’t support the way we think in Western culture. Choctaw itself is super verb-heavy, because things are moving, things are fluid, things can always change. And that’s not how we view things in Western civilization. We view things as static, as having a time and a place, and having clear boundaries. And I think that actually leads to a lot of problems that we find ourselves in right now, like not being able to hold each other accountable in any way of love and respect, because we’re constantly radicalizing and militarizing against each other. And those sorts of attitudes weren’t in most indigenous languages.
Paste: I have yet to see anything more horrifying than the Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone.” This guy is almost singlehandedly responsible for every disgusting political upheaval that’s happened in this country in the last 40 years, and he’s proud of it. Every undecided voter should watch it and realize how wickedly they got played. He and all his manipulative minions have got to go if our species can ever avoid looming extinction, a la Daniel Quinn’s prescient parable “Ishmael.”
Crain: I forgot about that book! I should go back and re-read it. But all of this goes against how I view myself and humanity. But I also know that things swing on pendulums, and a lot of the stuff that’s happening now is happening in direct correlation to people like him gaining traction. And I also realize that there’s a lot about this world that I will never understand or be able to wrap my brain around unless I spent 13, 14 hours a day in the deepest corners of the Internet. And there’s so much about the Internet that I’m only recently understanding, like the way that things have become so polarized, and I don’t know anything about it because I’m really just not online. But that’s the spot we got into with the 2016 election—it felt so clear-cut that no one would vote for [Trump], but what a lot of people didn’t realize is that there’s a whole other population of the world that exists only on the Internet, and they’re saying something that’s completely different than what’s in the mainstream.
Paste: Have you ever thought of becoming a teacher of some kind?
Crain: Oh, I would be an awful teacher. I don’t think I could do it — I don’t have any patience, and I also don’t really know how to teach because I, myself, am not a teachable person. I’m very much an autodidact — I prefer to teach myself things and learn through my own curiosity. So I don’t think I would be a good teacher for that very reason. I would start every class with, “Okay —pick whatever subject you’re into and then go read some books about it!” I never really had great teachers growing up, so I don’t know what a good one would be like, other than seeing them in fuzzy feel-good movies.
Paste: Hopefully, there have been no other unfortunate events jolting your life lately.
Crain: Well, other than having to put out a record that I just spent all of my savings on, during a global pandemic where I probably make any money back on it? There was just that one little thing! But that’s happening to everybody, so I can’t say I’,m special in that regard. But I also feel like this barrage of events, in general, gave me a better perspective on how things are going to work from here on out. Everything is always starting over, all of the time, and you just have to roll with it. And whenever that ‘Restart’ button gets pressed, whether you have control over it or not, you just have to close your eyes, then open them back up and start again. That’s just the way it is.