Interview: Samantha Crain

Stephen M. Deusner

By Stephen M. Deusner

on 02.21.13 in Interviews

Samantha Crain doesn’t mess around in the studio. The Shawnee, Oklahoma, native recorded her previous album, 2010′s breakout You (Understood), in just six days. For her latest, Kid Face, she spent a whopping seven days working with producer John Vanderslice at San Francisco’s famed Tiny Telephone studio. That quick approach allows her to capture a particular moment — songs as journal entries, tied to specific dates and events — but it also means her songs never sound overthought. “I really like albums that sound like people went in there, did a couple of takes, and it ended up sounding good,” she explains. “They caught some good moments and they caught some bad moments. I feel like we got that with this album.”

Kid Face is arguably Crain’s most sophisticated album to date, and certainly her most revealing. Featuring spare arrangements that highlight her voice and words, it’s a collection of conversations with herself, songs full of accusations and ruminations on past transgressions and present regrets. Her lyrics are evocative yet evasive, often obscuring as much as they reveal; her vocals bend words into unexpected shapes and sounds, as though each syllable holds endless musical possibilities. In some respect, perhaps her breakneck recording process allows Crain to get her ideas and emotions down on tape while they’re at their rawest and their most exposed.

As she prepares to hit the road to tour behind Kid Face, Crain spoke with eMusic’s Stephen Deusner about being mistaken for a teenager, working with Vanderslice, talking to herself, and writing a song about burying something mysterious behind the old Conoco sign on Anderson Road.

Is there a story behind the album title? Why did that phrase resonate with you?

On a frequent basis most people think I am a teenager, probably because I’m short and I’ve got a round face and I’m generally not that put-together in my appearance. So I get this sneak peek into how people would treat me when they think I’m 17 or 18, and whenever they do find out how old I am, they treat me in a different way. It’s not that they’re treating me bad, but there’s a distinct difference in the way people talk to me before they know how old I am. It’s given me a very interesting second look into people, which is interesting for a songwriter who observes society and writes about it. I thought it was a really good descriptive moniker for myself. I did not give it to myself. My bass player Penny [Hill] and I were joking around one day and giving each other rapper names, and that was what she bestowed upon me. I just got attached to it. As for the song “Kid Face,” it was the first song that I started for the album, but it actually took me the longest. It took me until I was completely done with the whole album to finish the song. I thought it was a good beginning and end point to everything that I had written in between.

What made that song so difficult to write?

Usually I have a very focused subject for a song, but “Kid Face” was all over the place. I had been thinking about a trip I had taken to Mexico a couple of years ago, and I was constantly noticing the differences between the country I was in and the country I was from. At the same time, I was thinking about these differences between the age I look, the age I am and the age I feel. It was a whole lot of thoughts that didn’t have a whole lot to do with each other. I took me a long time to hammer out all those ideas into something that would actually make sense for someone to listen to. It had to seem like it was a cohesive thought process even though there were a lot of thoughts going on.

Compared to your last album, You (Understood), which you’ve described as being about very specific moments with very specific people, Kid Face sounds like it’s more about you.

This is the first album that I’ve written that is completely autobiographical. There’s no fiction dust sprinkled on any of the songs, and that’s something that has taken me a while to get to. Before I was writing songs, I was a fiction writer. I was writing short stories and things like that. I’ve always erred on the side of fiction, because I was a very fanciful kid. I was not super happy with how normal my life was. I always used fiction to cover that up. It’s just taken me getting older and becoming more comfortable with myself to get to the point where I feel like my own life is worth attaching poetics to and turning into songs. I don’t think I wasn’t really doing it on purpose, but the first couple of songs I wrote for the album were autobiographical and very personal, and I got really excited about them, because I hadn’t really been able to access that. It was exciting, like I had entered a new area as a songwriter. That became my focus for the album — staying in that area and making something that would be completely autobiographical.

Several of these new songs sound like conversations with yourself, almost like you’re addressing them to some future version of you.

You’re right. I’m one of those people who talks to myself a lot, to the point of being the crazy person on the bench talking to themselves. That is something that has developed over the past couple of years. I think it might have a lot to do with traveling alone more than I ever have. I used to always travel with a band, but I’ve been doing a lot more solo stuff and traveling alone, so you get to be a little in your own headspace. And you do end up talking to yourself a lot and working things out in your head — figuring out what you believe about certain things and hammering out different ideas. So yeah, I think the shape the songs ended up taking was these solitary conversations with myself. They say you don’t really know what you believe until you’ve said it out loud, and you don’t really know how you feel about what you believe until you’ve said it out loud. I always feel like if you say it out loud, it makes it more comprehensible. So I end up doing that a lot.

Songs like “Ax” and “Taught to Lie” almost sound like you’re trying to persuade yourself of something, or maybe hold yourself accountable.

When you’re traveling to a different town every day for a number of years, when you’re around the same people all the time, you don’t have the basic accountability or the rules that you abide by with the rest of the world. You can choose to take that and use it as a get-out-of-jail-free card, like I did for a while. I did a real disservice to the people around me. I got away with a lot of things, and acted in ways that I’m not proud of. So after a while, you have to create some moral accountability for yourself. You have to create some rules of integrity. If nobody else is around to do it for you — if you don’t have a community to do that — you have to become that community for yourself. And I feel like that’s what “Taught to Lie” is about. It’s about me wanting to be that accountability for myself through singing that song. “Ax” is in that vein as well. It’s really just trying to find out my own way to become a decent human being.

Does that make performing these new songs more intense or emotional for you?

I can’t speak too much to that because I haven’t performed a lot of them too much yet. But there are songs that I have written in the past that have been very personal — there was a song off my album Songs in the Night called “The Dam Song” — that I can sing night after night for years, and it’s still a very affecting experience, just like the first time. So I’m going to go out on a limb and say that with a lot of these songs, I think I’m going to be realizing new things every time I sing them. The meanings are going to change. It’ll be like looking back on an old diary.

Did that change the way you recorded these songs?

I think I was pretty comfortable with these songs. I didn’t feel like I had to cover anything up or everything had to sound perfect or there had to be a cool element to everything. So that helped. Whenever you can get yourself out of that mindset and just focus on making a good record, it creates a mood that I can’t quite explain. Sometimes you can hear the tensions and attitudes on a record, but everything was easygoing and comfortable during the recording process. I think the mood of the album picks up on that.

Did John Vanderslice help set that tone in the studio? How did you end up working with him?

I had sent him a couple of demos and asked him to help with a 7-inch single I did last year. I wanted to record at Chinese Telephone. We really clicked, and at one point I just said, “You’re producing my next record.” He’s a musician in his own right, and I think that’s what makes him such a good producer. He knows how protective and selfish musicians can be with their work, such that by the time you get into the studio and are ready to record a song, you’ve spent so much time with it and you think you know exactly how you want it to sound. John has a good way of working you out of that headspace without making you feel like you’re compromising your vision. He’s really good at making you focus on the album as a whole and not make each song sound so labored over. Because of that, this album has ended up sounding…it’s a very easy album. We recorded it in a week, and I feel like it’s a very natural and easy-sounding album.

That sound seems to reinforce one of the album’s major themes: this compulsion to travel, to always be on the move. It’s most obvious on “Somewhere All the Time,” but seems to inform every song.

I’m asked a lot if traveling so much and being away from home is hard, and I think for many musicians it is. A lot of bands love to write and record, and traveling is the part they have to accept as part of the whole thing. They have to tour. For me, it’s not like that. I’m obsessed with moving around and traveling. It’s just as much an important to me as writing and recording. I’m not sure why that is. It’s just my element. I do think it’s helped me to appreciate where I am from a little more. It gives me a better bird’s-eye view of what’s going on here. I can write my state and my people a little better when I do get back here, because I’ve been so removed from it for a while. It’s like an anthropologist’s point of view. It’s a lot easier to write about things that you aren’t in the middle of all the time. It’s easier to see patterns of human interaction when you are looking at it from the outside.

There’s one place in particular that plays a crucial role on the album — the old Conoco sign on Anderson Road. Did you really bury something there, as you describe on “Taught to Lie”?

Ha. There used to be a box, but I have since moved it. The point of it being there was for someone to find it, and then I didn’t want them to find it anymore. So I moved it.

I imagine there will be some fans digging around that area trying to find it.

Anderson Road is a long-ass road, so it would take anybody a long time to figure out where I was talking about.