Photo courtesy of Samantha Crain.

After releasing music for more than 10 years,
Samantha Crain is moving in a distinctly different direction. With her new album, You Had Me at Goodbye, she’s embracing a pop-ier sound, which is a departure from the folky ballads she wrote in the past. Today we’re premiering her latest track, “Antiseptic Greeting.” The song’s opening chimes remind me of a dream sequence. While the lyrical content isn’t quite as sweet, the song offers a celebratory way of shaking off uncomfortable moments by embracing them instead:

Earlier this month, I spoke to Samantha about creative control, coming of age as a performer, and being labeled an “old soul.”

RACHEL DAVIES: Something I really appreciate about your work is that it all seems very careful. The visual aesthetic completely interlocks with your sound, and You Had Me at Goodbye was recorded entirely in analog. Is it important to you to have total control over your output?

SAMANTHA CRAIN: Yeah, it is. I can be pretty particular about the artwork, and the [music videos] we put out, and the photo shoots and everything. I want to make sure that I’m being perceived in the way that I want to be perceived. I’ve spent so much time in earlier releases maybe not being as careful about that stuff. People have just taken free rein on who I am or what my music means, so I just try to be as focused and deliberate with what I’m doing as possible to try to cut down on the miscommunications that can happen.

Is the art that accompanies your releases something you pick yourself, or is that more in collaboration with your label?

I’m always picking the artist myself. With the artwork for the albums, and any videos that I do, usually it’s me having an idea and looking around for artists that I already know, or don’t know, that can incorporate that style I’m looking for. Then we collaborate back and forth with correcting things and coming up with different images.

This album, beginning with “Antiseptic Greeting,” is taking a decidedly more pop-y turn. What was the inspiration for this?

Pop-y is right. I just wanted to have some fun. I spent a big part of my young adulthood taking myself really, really seriously. I think that’s partly because I started releasing albums at a pretty young age. The first reviews for those come out, and people call me an “old soul.” [Laughs] That’s a label that’s always so weird because when you’re so young and you don’t really know who you are yet, you try to live up to that expectation. I think I prematurely tried taking myself really seriously, and tried to act like whatever I thought an old soul was. That took charge in a lot of things, not only my demeanor and aesthetic, but in my songwriting, too. As I get older, I’ve realized a lot of the freedom that I’ve missed out on in just making art as a young person. I think I’ve just tried to inject myself a little more into my songs, and my art in general, to give people an idea behind me. I consider myself to have a good sense of humor, and I listen to a lot of pop music. I think a lot of people think pop music is common, or uneducated, but really it’s the exact opposite. A lot of pop music has really cool key changes, modulation, and weird instrumentations that people just aren’t really registering. Pop music is where you can grow as an artist. There are so many places you can move in that world, whereas a lot of the singer-songwriter or Americana world is kind of hard because you’re just writing about yourself all the time. Which is fine, but there’s not a whole lot of room to grow in those worlds.

This kind of relates to what you were saying about starting to put out music at a really young age. I read that you started touring at 19, and I was wondering what the experience is like putting yourself out there so soon. I mean, I’ve never performed on stage, but it seems like especially with performing, it’s an extremely vulnerable position. When you are a visual artist you can show your work to thousands but you don’t have to be present when they look at it.

Yeah, there’s a big dose of confidence that comes with just naiveté in general. Being 19, that’s kind of the age where you feel invincible, and that nothing bad can happen to you. In a lot of ways, I’m really lucky that I started at that point because I did kind of get a head start. I was in that age bracket where I felt invincible and I didn’t have a handle on real life yet. It was really good. I didn’t really feel nervous or anything. I just had confidence. A lot of that is sneaking up on me, the older I get, the more reserved I feel about that kind of stuff. I’ve just become a different kind of performer I think. I’m less wild, and more calculated.

Over the years you’ve toured with, from what I’ve read, over 20 different acts. What is the experience like working closely with so many varied musicians?

It was great. I was in some sort of weird school of learning from people who’d already been doing it for so long. The Avett Brothers was one of the first bands I ever did a lengthy tour with. They were complete pros playing big theaters by that point. I learned a lot from them in terms of professionalism and being able to keep it together emotionally and mentally when you feel like you’re being pulled in a million different directions. Same with First Aid Kit. Even though they’re quite a bit younger than me, we’ve become quite good friends. They’re so mature for how old they are, and a lot of that has to do with how young they started. I learned a lot from them on keeping it together. That’s always the lessons I take away—different people’s perspectives on how to keep creating art and not destroy yourself in the meantime. I mean, I’m not in this to be famous or anything. I’m in this to have a lifelong career in making art. As many stories and opinions I can get on keeping it together in the meantime is helpful. [Laughs]

Do you have any advice for people who are starting to put themselves out there musically?

I kind of keep coming back to this speech Patti Smith did a couple years ago. It was all about making a name for yourself. The basis of it was building a good name, and keeping your name clean, and not making compromises, and not worrying about making a bunch of money or being successful because those things just start to pull at you in so many different ways. She says you can’t expect to be embraced by the people. You just keep doing your work. Being concerned with doing your work, making good choices, and protecting your work is her whole thing, and that’s the basis of what I’ve gathered in terms of maintaining creative integrity and not compromising.

How has your music practice changed since you released your first EP in 2007? Has there been a shift in thinking about it as something intimate versus knowing it’ll go out to a public audience over the years?

Yeah, I guess you would think that I would approach making it differently. More people would hear what I put out now versus when I first started. Honestly, I try not to think about who’s going to be listening to whatever I’m making. It would impede the moments of creativity and inspiration as they come. It’s probably better to think that nobody cares about what you’re doing and nobody’s going to hear it at all, and then you have a bit more freedom. It could very well be the case that nobody cares about it, so at the end of the day the only thing that matters is that you’ve made the thing that you’ve set out to make. My approach to writing, and my approach to making records, is pretty much the same as when I started. I try to keep it pretty closed in my head space and release it whenever it’s finished.

My last question, and this might be more of an obvious answer, but on this album you have a recording of “Red Sky, Blue Mountain,” and I was wondering if you think growing up in the Choctaw Nation has influenced your style of music making?

You know, I get asked that question a lot, and I think my answer changes a lot. It’s hard to know how specific influences end up affecting you. I will say that the basis behind all of the traditional songs in the Choctaw language that I know. Anytime that I’ve seen or heard one of our tribal singers at a pow-wow or at a gathering, there is this connection with something that is old and beyond what I can really comprehend as a modern person, that I think I’ve always admired and really sought after, but I’ve also heard the same thing in like Billie Holiday’s voice. It’s this sort of abandon in somebody’s voice to reach something beyond themselves, and I don’t mean that in a religious way because I don’t really consider myself religious, but just in an existence way, I think. That’s the only thing I can really pinpoint. My main sort of relationship with where I am with my heritage and my tribe is to try to create new traditions just because so much has been lost through the years due to colonization. That’s my headspace now. Different people who I’ve grown up with in the tribe have pointed out different things, like rhythms that I do in certain songs, that might be similar to rhythms in traditional songs, or specific ways that my voice might move that is similar to maybe a traditional singers voice. It’s hard to pinpoint those yourself, but it’s neat when someone points it out. ♦