Art Talk with Samantha Crain
"I don't consider myself an innovator but I do consider myself a collector, a remixer, and a presenter."
Shawnee, Oklahoma native Samantha Crain has been described by no less than Rolling Stone magazine as having a voice that's "gorgeously odd---all fulsome, shape-shifting vowels that do indeed billow like fog." An intelligent and engaging lyricist, Crain has three albums to her credit, including her most recent offering You (Understood). Currently on tour in Europe, Crain shared with us via e-mail her favorite short stories, her childhood aspiration to be a Bronte sister, and what she worries about.
NEA: What’s your version of the artist’s life?
SAMANTHA CRAIN: My version of an artist's life is one of constant worrying and I am trying to change that. I find myself always worrying: worrying about having enough money, worrying about my productive output as an artist, worrying about the breakdown of relationships because of traveling so much, worrying about my responsibilities to my family, etc. I would like to get to a point where art doesn't exist in my stresses, but for now, and for the last five years, that's about where it stands.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience of/engagement with the arts?
CRAIN: I had a terrific art teacher from first through eighth grade named Mrs. Ward. (I went to a small school in Shawnee that housed all grades pre-high school.) She introduced us to so many different types of visual art and really encouraged creative behavior and curiosity. I started painting at an early age because of her. Also, my grandmother has, for as long as I can remember, always been making things out of junk: birdhouses out of license plates, bells and chimes out of oxygen tanks, giant flower statues out of tractor parts. She really was, from an early age for me, an inspiration for individuality and expression.
NEA: What’s been your most significant arts experience to date?
CRAIN: I think recording my first real releasable EP (The Confiscation) with my friend and producer, Joey Lemon, was the most significant experience in my life as an artist so far. It was a time where I had no pretenses about the art world or my vision as an artist. It was the pure, naive creativity of a 19 year old. Even though that album is nearly embarrassing for me in terms of lyrical content, it will forever be a true record of my beginnings as a career artist and I love it for that reason.
NEA: What decision has most impacted your arts career?
CRAIN: My decision to leave university and start touring and recording as a full-time musician was really the start down a new road for me. It was the decision that put me on an entirely new path.
NEA: What does it mean to you to be a Native-American artist?
CRAIN: I think for me it's important, as a sort of "half-breed," to make it clear to people that I am a product of American pop culture AND the Choctaw community. It would be dishonest for me to make completely traditional Native music and art because I was so heavily influenced by the secular world in which I grew up. However, I think its important to keep traditions alive and to respect the ways that our relatives and ancestors lived. I think an artist that spoke of this same vision was Fritz Scholder, who is a huge inspiration to me.
NEA: You started out your arts life as a fiction writer. Who are the literary authors who have influenced you as a songwriter, and in what way?
CRAIN: I wrote stories in journals as a little girl and they had a very "Bronte sisters" feel to them. I was a true escapist, in that sense, even as a child. My favorite books as a girl were the Boxcar Children series. As I got older, I stayed enamored with the dark and animalistic characters and really wrapped myself up in Breece D'J Pancake, Flannery O' Connor, Henry Miller, and Anais Nin. There are also two short stories that are, to me, the most perfect stories ever written: "The Rocking Horse Winner" by D.H. Lawrence and "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" by Mark Twain. In college, I started reading more poetry: Walt Whitman, John Keats, Dylan Thomas. This was me inching closer to writing poetry that would become song lyrics.
NEA: What’s the role of the artist in the community?
CRAIN: I think artists help in the continuing and inspiration of new ideas and perceptions. I also think, because art reflects culture and society, that artists provide a way of documenting life through the years.
NEA: Conversely, what’s the responsibility of the community toward the artist?
CRAIN: I don't know if we can say the artist or the community actually has a responsibility toward each other because I think there are times that they both go through lulls in their relationships with one another. This provides a tumultuous environment that encourages revivals and Renaissances. But if the artist is creating and the community appreciates it, the community should help support the artist, both in morale and in finances.
NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can…I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” What do you see as missing from the world of music? What should be part of the work musicians as a community are doing but isn’t?
CRAIN: Well, I believe there are artists that are creating the past, present, and future of our world. I don't think every artist has to be involved in creating "the next" or "the new" thing. Some artists help us remember and experience by focusing on familiarities. I would consider myself part of this world. I don't consider myself an innovator but I do consider myself a collector, a remixer, and a presenter. I don't really think there is anything missing from the world of music. There is so much music, so many different kinds, that it's impossible to sample it all. As for the latter part of the question, I know there are people in the music community that work really hard and try to create or present constantly, but I think there are more people in the same community that use their label as a "musician" or "artist" to become lazy and wait for inspiration. I know I struggle with this too---not on purpose---but it's hard sometimes to be responsible for your own productivity. I just think it's important that artists and musicians work even between the creative spurts, that they try to force inspiration even if they think nothing good will come of it. It's good to keep the mind and imagination active and ready to receive.
We first met Samantha Crain when we interviewed filmmaker Sterlin Harjo who directed her video for "Santa Fe." Meet Sterlin and check out the video here.