JPR Live Session: Samantha Crain

Feb 5, 2016

Samantha Crain’s songs are full of expansive melodies that veer off in unpredictable directions, with lyrics that explore conflicting emotions with uncommon insight and compassion. She has a jazz singer’s phrasing, often breaking words into rhythmic fragments that land before and after the beat, stretching syllables or adding grace notes to uncover hidden nuances in her lyrics.

Under Branch & Thorn & Tree was recorded at Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco, with John Vanderslice (The Mountain Goats, Spoon), who also helmed last year’s Kid Face. “We both like spontaneous creation and analog sound,” Crain says. “We recorded straight to two-inch tape on a Studer 24-track machine and mixed down to 1/2-inch tape on an Ampex machine. The pre-amps were tube and we never used a computer. Our effects were done manually through tape looping and manipulation. Most of the arrangements happened in the moment, as we recorded. My guitar and vocals are all first or second takes.” These intimate vignettes are marked by Crain’s careful attention to the tiny details that often escape us, supported by the subtle musical settings she crafted with Vanderslice and the backing musicians.

The album’s overall tone may be somber, but Crain’s vocals and the sensitive, striking arrangements bring unexpected flashes of light to even the darkest scenarios. “This album is definitely social on many levels,” Crain explains. “Much of it is about the plight of the working class woman. We are multi-dimensional individuals, not silly emotional creatures who depend on men. And it baffles me that I feel the need to bring light to that in 2015 but I feel strongly that the truth of that message is still hushed.

A Choctaw Indian, Crain grew up in the small town of Shawnee, OK listening to her father’s Dylan and Neil Young records, and trying her hand at writing short stories. Crain didn’t get serious about songwriting until after high school when she picked up the guitar her father had given her when she was 12 and reworked a series of stories into her first songs.