Samantha Crain has just landed back in Oklahoma City following a long flight home from Alaska. She’s returning from her first string of tour dates performing in The Last Frontier since she began traveling about six years ago to promote her breakout album with the Midnight Shivers, Songs in the Night.
“I don’t get to be a first-timer in many places anymore, so it’s exciting if you can find a place you haven’t played yet,” reports a jet-lagged Crain via phone.
Reaching new ears seems an inherent layer to Crain’s songwriting oeuvre; her fourth album, Under Branch & Thorn & Tree, was penned from a standpoint of protest. Protest music, historically, acts as a rallying point for the voiceless to coalesce and verbalize in unison social injustices, hardships and economic inequalities (amongst other global underbelly talking points). Iconized as it is within the fascist-killing machines of Oklahoma royalty like Woody Guthrie, and later Bob Dylan, protest songs are not to be taken lightly by their scribes or their audience. Crain’s own activism indirectly informed her song “Elk City,” in what would become the cornerstone of Under Branch & Thorn & Tree.
The song gives new life to a real-life encounter Crain had with a woman at a lonely bar in Elk City, Oklahoma. The woman told Crain that she’d come to the town as the young girlfriend of a boy who was looking for oil field work during the oil boom of the ‘70s in West Oklahoma. She’d been stuck in the town ever since.
“As I was writing that song I felt like I was painting this woman who was very multi-dimensional,” Crain says. “I think that’s a huge step toward combatting sexism in our current society, just getting it into really the framework of people’s thoughts. That’s where the focus of the album began.”
The evolution of Crain’s defiance and observational lyricism began from heartbreak. Her 2013 solo LP, Kid Face, unveiled a vulnerable, autobiographical account of loneliness in Americana anthems that left her wide open for catharsis. That it would appear she’s stumbled upon that thanks to the writing process of Under Branch is fortunate.
“I feel like I kind of drained my well of completely personal experiences,” Crain admits. “I needed to look around me. I wait tables, I’m a woman, I’m Native American. I feel like there were lots of voices around me of similar people begging to be heard.”
For the first half of Under Branch & Thorn & Tree, Crain side-steps the traditionally literal foci of the protest song to instead relate stories of the impoverished, the marginalized, the downtrodden and hungry through a series of stories. Crain knew she couldn’t write like the Guthries and the Dylans. Those bars were set high long ago. The fact that that didn’t stop her is itself a bit of a protest.
“It’s not that I’ve necessarily become better at writing protest songs; it’s kind of the opposite,” she explains. “I just decided that not every protest song has to be this literal, subjective song. It doesn’t have to be one thing. You can tell a story about a character or person and let the social injustices shine through just by shining light on situations that need to be changed. I felt like there were a lot of stories that hadn’t been told in a while. Folk music has really gotten away from being what it used to be, which was music that was written by and for the salt of the earth sort of people. It’s become more of this thing that upper-middle-class white men have been making for themselves, and they make what that person would like to hear. They’re talking about things that exist in that world or if they aren’t talking about that it’s convoluted because they actually don’t know anything about a world of marginalization, even though they might think it’s cool to try to write about it.”
Under Branch is most certainly a new step in the evolution of a reasonably experimental folk artist in Crain. Both Kid Face and Under Branch were engineered and produced by John Vanderslice at his revered analog studio, Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. Vanderslice’s subtle imprints can be heard throughout the new album, highlighted most by the sonic adhesive of pedal steel tape loops that have been manipulated in various ways. This approach provided an aural thematic weave even when a lyrical one was less clear.
It must be noted that the vagueness of Crain’s protest tune blueprints can invite an overly analytical vivisection of songs on Under Branch that are not in the slightest protest songs at all, by Crain’s own admission. “Big Rock” is the liveliest song on the LP, positioned as the second track, and recounts, literally, a kayak trip down the Illinois River near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where Crain ended up getting stuck on?you guessed it?a big rock.
Still, Crain’s burgeoning mastery of lyrical craft is hard to ignore, even on less-in-your-face tunes like “Moving Day,” “When You Come Back” or “If I Had a Dollar”?all songs Crain acknowledges as being respites from the overarching theme of the record.
“You’ve gotta put some of those on there, too,” she says. “You’ve got people who are constantly worried about their position in life, with equality or poverty. But at the same time, they experience everyday feelings, as well—heartbreak, love. Those songs were more geared toward another dimension of personal experience, which I think is important because we can’t always be yelling at each other all the time about change. The way that change actually happens is when we become empathetic toward each other’s situations. The way that you become empathetic toward people’s situations is you realize similarities in your life with people who you really don’t have anything in common with otherwise.
“Overall, though, I’m trying to make the statement for musicians to fall back in love with justice and trying to really give the working class and marginalized people their voice back.”