If an artist's obligation is to adapt, evolve and survive, than Shawnee-born songwriter Samantha Crain does all of the above impressively well.
The truest linear connection between her releases, from 2007's The Confiscation EP to 2009's Songs in the Night, to the upcoming June release You (Understood), is her equivocal yet beautiful voice and her casual rhythm guitar playing. Otherwise, her catalog is subject to the variability of how she approached songwriting at the time, what she wanted to write about and her supporting cast of talented musicians to achieve that vision.
"I'm getting comfortable changing it up," she said. "I didn't get into this to have a life that was the same all the time."
And it reflects roundly in her catalog.
I first encountered Crain in 2007 when she was touring on The Confiscation EP. She performed at an Irish pub in the West Village in New York City backed solely by accomplice Beth Bombara. The duo of ladies harmonized, while Crain played acoustic guitar and stomped out a steady rhythm on a bass drum, and Bombara switched between any instruments necessary to fill out the sound.
The earthy vocals of Crain and the desperate and dynamic setup of the duo quickly caught the patron's attention. And it's no surprise considering the material from The Confiscation EP they were performing.
The EP is a short largely dark 20-minute journey where all the tracks are connected by, what the cinema industry refers to as "sound bridges," that is tones and sounds that overlap between tracks. It gives the short work a cohesive heavy undertone enforced by titles like "Beloved, We Have Expired" and "The Last Stanchion Goes Belly Up."
The EP was recorded by friend Joey Lemon in his home studio in Illinois. Although the fidelity is at times lacking, the then 20-year-old Crain offers up some amazing and honest lyrical gems: "You can't live with an obsession so I have an idea/ Let's make love till it's true or becomes hatred/ Well I don't really care if you call me another name/ Truth is I like it about the same."
Crain said that at the time she was influenced by the folk history of Oklahoma and artists like Woody Guthrie. She categorized the style on the EP as folk ballads and story songs. But those sound tones and influences were not meant to stay.
I saw Crain perform the following year in the Lower East Side backed by her then-new supporting band The Midnight Shivers including Andrew Tanz on bass, Stephen Sebastian on guitar and Jacob Edwards on drums. The darkness of her previous material was alleviated by three men happy to play her songs and spread her talent to new audiences. The quartet became a vehicle for Crain to elevate her songwriting, dynamics and intimacy in ways she could not before.
The result of this optimism and momentum was the full-length Songs in the Night, a more polished and slightly country-ish affair. Crain said that at the time she was writing in a more pop structure with verse-chorus arrangements, and it remains her catchiest release to date.
The album was recorded at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, N.C. -- a professional environment with a producer, which contrasted with the casualness of The Confiscation Ep.
Although Crain's folk sway and often-somber subject matter remained, the album features a quartet of personalities adding vitality and diversity to her songwriting.
The urgency and effervescence of a song like "Get the Fever Out" or the steady storytelling of "Scissor Tales" could not have been realized without the Midnight Shivers.
But that too was not meant to stay. That particular incarnation of the Midnight Shivers left Crain in the fall of 2009.
Armed with a handful of songs in December of last year, Crain found herself again in the recording company of Lemon this time in Wichita, Kan. The duo set to work in Lemon's unnamed studio, dubbed Spider Glass Studios by Crain for the project. The laid-back approach of The Confiscation EP returned, supported by Eric Nauni of Student Film on drums, Ben Wigler, Frontier Ruckus and Sherree Chamberlain.
There was a sense of hazy unsureness hanging over the album's creation. The stable backing band of many tours was no longer there to reinforce and encourage her. Crain's songwriting had shifted from the structured material of Songs in the Night to more abstract, inverted or repetitive formulas.
"It feels like we walked into a room -- we didn't have good equipment or even the right equipment," Crain said. "And I felt like some songs didn't fit the album."
Crain said the newer songs were composed of "close-up shots of situations" and the album involved "various events instead of just one story" or theme.
"Now I think I'm writing based on words and sounds instead of stories," she said.
One of those sounds Crain hastened to mention was a little five-watt Kustom brand amplifier her father bought her when she was 10 before she even played guitar.
Although the amp is far from fancy, they recorded many guitars through it because of its unique fuzzy rough-around-the-edges sound. It seems Crain wanted to capture the sound of her songs warts and all.
The first video for You (Understood), "Sante Fe," symbolically sums up Crain's musical and creative journey to date. The first images of the video are religious: Catholic crosses and statues of saints.
Speaking about her lyrics and upbringing Crain said, "I find the imagery of fire and brimstone powerful. I grew up around church."
The video quickly switches to Crain laughing and performing in a store surrounded by cowboy boots before transitioning to moving shots from a car window; images of restlessness and travel.
On first listen to the track, she has never felt so at home in her own singing and songwriting as in "Sante Fe." There is a sense of assuredness there; whatever comes her way as an artist, she will adapt evolve and survive.
The video continues with band hijinks, performance shots and New Mexico street markets before returning to her singing in the Western store, while oblivious shoppers peruse around her, and she continues to perform unfazed.
Perhaps that is the biggest truth here. No matter who or what pays attention, who supports or who defects, Crain continues to sing her songs. Now if only we knew how many people, places and things are "Sante Fe" to her as she sings, "I heading out of Sante Fe/ I look back then I look away/ Way back that blue sky fades/ Feels like I'm burning away."
Samantha Crain performs at Cain's Ballroom, 423 N. Main St., Friday, May 28. Turnpike Troubadours, Ali Harter and Zeb Dewar and the Half Breeds are also scheduled to perform.
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