She may only be in her early 20s, but folkie singer/songwriter Samantha Crain is very old-school in her approach to recording music. The way Crain sees it, a recording captures a moment in time, and she doesn’t like to devote a whole lot of time achieving the end result.
Crain spent a reported five days recording 2009’s Songs in the Night, her first full-length effort. For the recently released follow-up, You (Understood) (Ramseur), she took seven days at Spiderglass Studios in Wichita, Kansas, to record the album’s 11 songs.
Earlier this month between tour dates, Crain checked in to discuss her recording style, how she maintains a simple, balanced life on the road and other subjects.
Medleyville.us: Generally speaking, there are advantages and disadvantages to anyone in his or her late teens who picks up the guitar for the first time, which is what you did. There’s a greater ability at that age to understand what you’re trying to learn and play, but finding the time to practice can be a challenge. Talk about where you were in your life when you started playing guitar and some of the obstacles and discoveries that popped up during that time.
Samantha Crain: “It was a little easier for me; I think if I would have been in any other situation, I probably wouldn’t have had as much time to focus on learning how to play guitar and write songs. But at that point, I was living on Martha’s Vineyard in a musicians community, and that’s all I was expected to do was to teach myself [guitar] and write songs … for about four or five months.
“[At that time] I just wanted to get out of Oklahoma. I wasn’t going so I could learn how to play guitar. I just saw an opportunity to get out of where I was from and ended up at this musicians community sort of thing through an off-campus [college] study program. I wasn’t planning on becoming a musician or anything.”
A few press outlets have likened your sound and songwriting to Neil Young, but it’s really your preference to record quickly that’s the most Young-like element of what you do. Have you always recorded this way, and who or what influenced this approach?
Crain: “I think that’s a fairly important thing in what I’m doing: I like to record very quickly. I don’t know exactly where the initial influence came from. I think I decided at some point that the immediacy of a record, even if it didn’t sound perfect or if you weren’t as prepared for it as you’d like to be, captured some sort of character. It’s an actual record, a specific instance in time when the songs were recorded.
“I wasn’t around a lot of musicians or bands [growing up] … so it might have come from knowing that Neil Young and Crazy Horse recorded their albums in a whirlwind. It’s more important for it to be more of record of time instead of something that was labored over.”
Do all 16 people you’ve said in your press materials were the ones who had an impact on the writing and recording of You (Understood) know they played a role in some way?
Crain: “I don’t know. … I don’t think anybody who has been in my life over the past year is thinking to themselves, ‘I wonder if I’m one of those people?’ I think I do a good enough job of covering things up and making them vague.”
The sped-up part near the end of “Holdin’ That Wheel” seemingly comes out of nowhere. Who came up with that idea, and how was it executed?
Crain: “It was my idea. I just knew that the end part was this big chunk – two chords rocking out for a bit, so I had the idea that I wanted it sped up at the end. Originally I thought it would be a manual speedup – speeding it up manually through the playing. Then as we were recording it and it became more of a single-track recording [approach] rather than a live recording, [the decision became] to speed up the tape after everything was recorded.”
The appreciation for a slower-paced, simpler and quieter life helped inspire the songs “Santa Fe” and “Wichitalright.” As a touring musician, those qualities are hard to find on a day-to-day basis, so how do you find solitude while on the road?
Crain: “That’s been more of my concern this year than playing shows and writing songs. The best ideas that I’ve come up with that I [actually] can do is trying to take two-lane highways rather than interstates. That way you’re seeing different parts of the country: You’re not just seeing Wal-Marts and McDonald’s from coast to coast – that can get kind of depressing. And instead of stopping to eat at restaurants right off the highway I try to find grocery stores and make more of my own food.
“Keeping a lot of stuff with me – that was one thing that I never used to do. I packed really light – just a backpack and a sleeping bag, and that was about it. But I found that packing a lot of stuff — books and pictures and even stuff you know you won’t use – just knowing that it’s there creates more of a home atmosphere. I’m [also] just trying to time my day out better … and trying to make it more like if I had a real job.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Samantha Crain on tour (schedule subject to change):
* June 14: Middle East Upstairs – Cambridge, Mass.
* June 15: Bell House – Brooklyn, N.Y.
* June 16: Mercury Lounge – New York
* June 18: Castaways – Ithaca, N.Y.
* June 20: Iron Horse Music Hall – Northampton, Mass.
* June 22: Nightcat – Easton, Md.
* June 23: World Café Live – Philadelphia
* June 24: Iota Club & Café – Arlington, Va.
* June 26: Canal Club – Richmond, Va.
* June 27: Soapbox – Wilmington, N.C.
* June 28: Berkeley Café – Raleigh, N.C.
* June 29: Duke Gardens – Durham, N.C.
* June 30: Double Door Inn – Charlotte, N.C.
Photo by Todd Roeth