Ever since her debut EP, The Confiscation, Samantha Crain has been revered within her genre as an old soul. For most listeners, the smoky vocals and acoustic chords of "If I Had a Dollar" and "For the Miner" are inseparable from the Oklahoma landscape that she calls home. Often compared to greats like Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez, Samantha makes pop and indie ballads that are equally as gripping as her folk and protest songs. On her fifth studio album, You Had Me at Goodbye, set to be released this March, the now-30-year-old performer rejects and restructures the narrative applied to her songs by critics and listeners. "When you're young and you don't know who you are yet, you just grab onto any label that people throw at you," she explains. Samantha describes her new album as a self-portrait comprising dark humor, vulnerability, and earnest humanity.
I spoke with Samantha across two time zones the day before New Year's Eve about the limitations of being pigeonholed, her complicated relationship with Oklahoma, and how her desire to be a better friend led to "Oh Dear Louis."
Dianca Potts: You Had Me at Goodbye is your fifth studio album. When you started working on this project, was there anything new that you wanted to explore stylistically or in terms of theme?
Samantha Crain: With all of the albums that I've made in the past, I've always had something I was going for or some sort of story that I was trying to get at, but on this album I just wanted to have fun. I've spent the majority of my adulthood taking myself pretty seriously and because I've been making music since I was young, people have always called me an old soul. When you're young and you don't know who you are yet, you just grab onto any label that people throw at you, and now that I'm older, I kind of realized that I missed out on a lot of freedom that comes along with making art as a young person, so on this album I really just wanted to paint a portrait of myself.
DP: In the past, critics have focused heavily on how your home state of Oklahoma has shaped your sound. Do you feel like putting so much emphasis on your roots is reductive?
SC: A lot of people, especially people who don't know much about Oklahoma or haven't been there, picture me playing folk music. They picture Oklahoma as being this "cowboys and Indians, wagon trail" sort of thing — and I guess in a way it is — but people have taken the liberty of painting me in that scenery, and it's been a bit of a weird thing to shake. There's a lot of cool things here that people don't know about. There's an underground punk scene, and there's a lot of artists doing really cool things. It's not all just prairies and windmills and bison.
DP: Has making music changed your relationship to home?
SC: I have a very complicated relationship with this place. I've lived other places, but I've always ended up coming back. I've always stuck out like a sore thumb, and I think [that's] the reason why I make music and art, because I had to have some form of expression being from here. I've always kind of been the weirdo — which doesn't take much here — but it's my home, it's where my family and friends are, but it's also really stifling and overly conservative and religious.
DP: My hometown is super-conservative and religious as well, so I totally understand what you mean about the necessity of creative expression while living in spaces like that. Do you think that creativity can also help heal the political divides that exist in communities like that?
SC: I'm still working it out for myself. It's been a really insane year, and honestly I'm really scared. Me and a lot of my friends are trying to figure out what our purpose is now, what sort of action we should be taking. A lot of us are just in this grieving stage of loss and shock, and I'm still trying to figure out what art and music are going to be able to do. I think that I'm definitely going to keep creating throughout whatever the next few years hold, but I'm not sure if the answer is to make things that are overly honest and political in order to keep people uplifted and moving and connected with each other, or if the answer is to make things that are lighthearted and fun to listen to in order to keep people entertained to give them a break from their complicated lives. I'm sure there can be a mix of both, I'm just not sure what my role will be.
DP: I was really taken with "Betty's Eulogy" from your forthcoming record and the way its lyricism embodies the experience of loss. What's the story behind it?
SC: My friend Beau Jennings made a documentary a few years back about Will Rogers, a famous comedian and writer from Oklahoma, and he wrote an album to go along with it. He asked me to write my own Will Rogers song to sing at the release, so I listened to the album and read his biography and realized that there weren't any songs from the perspective of his wife, Betty, on it, which was weird because in his biography she seemed like the most important person in his life. She was his biggest supporter, and they were so connected to each other, so I wanted to write a song that was her eulogy for him. I wanted to put myself into her shoes, to picture how she coped with losing him.
DP: I really admire your ability to channel the emotional truth of others on the songs on your new album. "When the Roses Bloom Again" feels like a dispatch from another time, there's something very pastoral about it. Is there a historical anecdote behind this song?
SC: This is the first cover I've ever done on an album. It's a cover of a song that the first time I heard it was on Mermaid Avenue, which is a collection of Woody Guthrie songs recorded by Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. They got permission to dig through his journals and finish a bunch of his unwritten songs. When I heard this song on there, it stuck out because Woody didn't write the words to it, a man named Will Cobb did back in 1901. I've always thought that it was just a really beautiful song, so I wanted to do my own version of it. It's one of those songs that's so well written lyrically that you can just put yourself right into it.
DP: I felt that way about "Oh Dear Louis," like I could fit myself into the story of the song. It has a very cinematic quality to it. Is this song inspired by fiction, by your personal life, or a little of both?
SC: "Oh Dear Louis" is about my really bad attempts to be a good friend to people in my life that have had some sort of mental illness or depression. I've had a lot of people in my life over the years who I've cared about deeply but felt ill-equipped at helping them through their worst times. I always find myself paralyzed when talking to them about those sort of things, and I've always felt I've never said the right thing or I didn't know how to find out what I should be doing, so I put all those feelings into a dark but catchy pop song to encapsulate how eye-rolling my behavior has been in those situations.
DP: In a past interview you mentioned that one of the biggest challenges you've faced as a creative is being able to gain respect from your peers and audience while also being able to cover the bills. Looking back, has this struggle become more manageable?
SC: Things haven't become more manageable, and I don't know if I would want them to be. I still have to wait tables between albums, but it doesn't bother me at all. I think it keeps me in a very healthy space. It makes the creative side of things easier to indulge in. I'm very happy with the cycle that my life has taken. I think that there's a lot of good in it, and I'm pretty OK with it.
DP: This is probably super-cheesy to ask, but I'm going to ask anyway. What are your hopes for 2017?
SC: I have so many hopes, but I also don't know how they're going to play out. I think that being in Oklahoma, most of my hopes should be centered around the community that I live in here, and around here I just hope that people are thinking more of the people around them in their community and their neighbors more than themselves. That's such a big humanity-filled hope, but that's the only thing I think of when it comes to elections and legislation. I can't go to the Women's March in DC, but there's one going on here in the capital, so I'm going to that. I'm just hoping that a lot of people show up and have a connection where they can give each other some sort of encouragement to help them through the year. I just hope that people think about other people more than themselves.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny Letter.