by Bethany Davison
Confronting past traumas through the lens of a fever dream, Samantha Crain talks through letting go of darkness on new record, A Small Death
In the summer, following the release of her 2017 album, You Had Me At Goodbye, Samantha Crain suffered through a series of car accidents, and exacerbating pre-existing conditions, which led to a loss of feeling in her hands. Questioning her identity as a person out-with her musical identity through a forced period of inertia and introversion, Crain was left to look within, to self-reflect and work through the various traumas she has faced in her life – producing a record where the roots twist so deeply through self-confession, its conception unfolded as a therapy tool – never intending to become a record.
The album title itself poses a curious sentiment. The image of a small death becomes almost oxymoronic – the idea of everything ending completely, but only by a fraction. ‘Through that traumatic moment in my life where I had lost feeling in my hands, and was really grappling with my identity as a person outside of being a musician, it occurred to me that everything is sort of always starting over again at various points in our life,’ Crain explains on the album title. ‘It’s just trying to convey those points in your life where you are hitting the restart button.’ The title is taken from Joey, a song literally centered within the tracklisting, allowing Crain to almost hit this restart button again and again through the record’s lifespan.
In the height of the trauma, Crain has been living through her difficulties, both mental and physical, which left her unable to write music. Her relationship to music, from how she plays guitar to what she searches for through her lyrics, has had to evolve, to adapt from this period of emotional and physical upheaval forced upon her. ‘I feel like this particular time in my life forced a new way into writing,’ she tells us. ‘Since I was shutting down, and becoming a forced convalescence, I was keeping audio diaries, more as a therapy tool; I never thought they would become songs.’ An introspective therapy tool, these audio diaries informed the lyrics on the record. This period of inertia has also played a dictating role in the ways Crain can play music. Eventually regaining the strength in her hands to pick up her guitar, she has had to make concessions in musical complexity, for the sake of being able to make music. ‘I’ve had to veer more into open-tunings, because I still struggle with my hands,’ she explains. It is an interesting move away from how I would traditionally write songs.’ This change against the tide of tradition has not hampered the record though. Rather, the lyrical depth is thrust to the front, confronting the listener as intently as Crain confronts herself.
‘This record was really cathartic for me,’ she later explains. ‘I think different people create for different reasons. Some people create to process things while they’re happening, and some people create to move on from something after they’ve spent time processing it.’ Likening her cause to create to the latter, she seems grounded and reflective; ‘I’ve spent all this time processing these traumas, but now that I can create this record, I can move on from it.’ Developing these songs unknowingly, without the context of a record in the initial stages, has allowed Crain to beckon this sense of catharsis. ‘It freed me up to exist outside the normal context of what I would be comfortable including in songs in the past,’ she says. ‘It has let me dive into those deeper layers of the autobiographical, self-confessional aspects. I have always considered myself to write close to the heart, but because I didn’t have this [self-built] construct of how songs should be or how they have been in the past, it has lent itself to something that hits a little bit deeper.’
Not only is this depth of her self-confessional nuance present through her lyricism, it informs the record’s soundscape too, in its slow-moving climbs and sombre tones, at points creating a feeling akin to waking from slumber. Self-producing the record has allowed Crain to ensure this feeling is preserved throughout, likening it to the sense of being in a fever dream. ‘[It’s] like that feeling where you remember something, not innately, but you remember the memory of it. Like whenever there’s a story that’s been told in your family, for years and years, and it becomes part of the canon of your reality,’ she explains. ‘The reason why that was the feel I was trying to convey in the production of this record is because that’s how I feel about these two years in my life. I know I was the person who went through this heightened emotional and physical stress, but I don’t remember that innately, it feels very dream-like.’ This feeling is most clearly addressed on Pastime – created through a textured background vocals of chanting aums, creating for Crain the effect of this ‘trance-like, meditative feeling, where you can’t tell if you’ve been listening to a song for 30-seconds or 30-minutes. So that was the experiment – to bring that feeling into the record.’
‘The smell of pine through the air vents, I know it’s there through the day. But as the sun sets around me it strips the other scents away,’ Crain croons on Holding To The Edge Of Night – a song that hones in on the feeling of night-time loneliness. A droning bassline plays against the climbing pitch of her voice, building a sense of tension, a feeling of being present, yet disconnected. ‘I think everybody has certain things that make them feel this sense of loneliness – not a sad loneliness, but thoughtful,’ she explains. ‘For me, that is taking nightly walks around my town. Streets that I’ve walked down hundreds of times just suddenly become this most splendid experience. Even though I’ve seen these things hundreds of times, sometimes things just feel new all of a sudden.’ The earlier idea of evoking the sense of a fever dream is apparent here, as Crain’s lyrics relinquish in retrospect, edging around the pit of nostalgia. Instead of nostalgia though, Crain describes this sense as an ‘inward thoughtfulness’, returning to the depth of the self-confessional introspective. ‘I think it’s that feeling of being disconnected and alone, but aware enough to let your mind wander. And mine always tends to wander to the past.’
The penultimate track on the record sees Crain singing in Choctaw – her ancestral language. Written in the mode of protest song, We Shall Overcome, When We Remain bears great significance to Crain, from rewriting stolen tradition, to cultivating and celebrating her heritage. ‘Writing in the Choctaw language, over the last few years, is something that has become really important to me,’ she says. ‘Mainly because I believe it is the one way, the most important way to hold on to the survival for those indigenous cultures and tribes.’ Continuing, Crain explains the importance of surviving indigenous languages in light of responses she has had to previous records – highlighting a widespread ignorance towards indigenous peoples. ‘I even ran into [this ignorance] reading reviews of my record, where it mentions my heritage isn’t apparent in my music, which just is not true,’ she tells us. ‘What that is doing is playing into the stereotype of what little knowledge people actually have of Native Americans; of what they do and how they live. It makes me think if I’m not playing a hand-drum or a flute, then I’m not making indigenous art. Which is really belittling. I think it’s really important that people understand that if I make anything, if I make a little drawing right now on a piece of paper, if I write a poem, if I cook a meal, those are Choctaw because I am Choctaw.’ A tool for rebuilding indigenous identity and culture that has been wrecked by land removal and genocide, Crain further highlights the importance of continuing these languages through contemporary music. ‘I think it is a really useful tool to say, “It’s not possible for me to learn the songs of my ancestors, because I can’t find them anymore. They were taken from us. But I can write my own new songs in our language, and those can be new traditions to us.” That’s why it is so important to me. It can be quite a powerful thing to get young, indigenous people in the mindset of creating new traditions.’
A record so deeply rooted in retrospect – that confronting the past in its mode to move forwards, in order to allow Crain to move on from her traumas – she doesn’t view it as a dark album. ‘They’re a lot of songs which phrase this journey of reconstruction as giddy excitement,’ she tells us, ‘almost these audacious stages of a new romance. You’re finding new facets of yourself as you go through this [process].’ Instead then, A Small Death becomes a celebration of self-discovery and self-growth. Look to album closer, Little Bits for this sense at its most prevalent; Crain’s mood is entirely transformed from the beginning of the record – her voice lighter and up-beat. Underscoring the fact she has let go of little pieces of her darkness, reminding us to ‘dance the thought right out.’
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