In 2017, Samantha Crain had three car wrecks in three months. But she insists that they weren’t the cause of her physical and emotional shutdown that year. They were merely the final nudge that pushed her over the edge.
“It wasn’t really the car wrecks that were the problem,” Crain confesses; “they merely exacerbated the problems I already had: my tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, my family issues, my relationships, my overall health. The car wrecks were just the nail in the coffin for a life that was already falling apart. So the songs deal with the underlying causes, the things I actually had to face in my life.”
Those songs can be heard on her new album, A Small Death. But the lyrics are not descriptions of the car wrecks nor of the physical problems that resulted. Instead, they describe that “small death,” that time when you come close enough to death to smell it without succumbing, that time when you’ve lost so much you’ve got nothing left to protect, that time when you finally come to terms with all the issues you’ve been avoiding, because that’s the only way to unblock the road back to life.
“There was a good five or six months of really dark, really bottom-of-the-barrel depression and panic attacks,” she acknowledges. “I was avoiding things; maybe I wasn’t emotionally intelligent enough to recognize what was going on. But I got to the point where I realized, ‘Hey, I’m a relatively young person, and I don’t want to live like this. Even if my hands don’t come back, I want to have a better life.’ This record is just the beginning of that journey.”
The first accident was the worst: someone ran into her touring van and totaled it. Eventually, she lost the feeling in her hands to the point that she could no longer play music. All she could do was hole up in her home in Norman, Oklahoma, take walks and attend her physical and talk therapy appointments.
It was painful to grasp a pen or a guitar pick, so she took her therapist’s advice and started recording audio diaries. For 5-to-15 minutes a day, she would talk into her recorder, sometimes spouting nonsense, sometimes revealing secrets, always putting into words the confusion that was haunting her as much as the numbness in her fingers.
“It was a way of writing,” explains Crain, now 33, “and I have to write about something to move past it. It’s the way I’ve always made sense of the world. Different artists deal with the world in different ways. Some people use their fantasy or magic realism. I confront my own reality by diving deeper into it. It’s more stressful that way, but that’s how I’ve always done it. If you do that, there’s always a pivot point, where you can start going in another direction.”
Eventually, there came a week when her hands felt better and she could play a few simple guitar chords. She listened to a bunch of her audio diaries and a few phrases jumped out at her. One recording described how her pride had evaporated, and she turned that into the wonderful musical metaphor—“My pride evaporated like the water in a skillet, and you softened like butter”—for her first post-small-death song, “An Echo.”
Another phrase, “You can’t even look me in the eyes,” became the refrain for that song, It was the perfect catchphrase for people who practice avoidance by glancing away to a vending machine during a conversation or by letting voices bounce off their foreheads like an echo. Once she got started, the slow and sober song poured out of her in 15 minutes, as if she had opened the floodgates for all the thoughts and feelings that had been trapped for months behind a dam.
“A lot of times it’s an easy survival tactic to push emotions to the side so you can keep going,” she points out. “Once we learn that we can do that and move on faster with less distraction, we get better and better at it, for it’s a learned behavior. I would have had to deal with this eventually because I was already drinking pretty heavily. This time off gave me a chance to self-reflect and look at myself, rather than do my easy thing of ‘This is who I am and this is how I deal with the world.’”
“An Echo” led to similar songs. Soon she had enough to go into the Lunar Manor Studio in Oklahoma City, a room where she’d often worked before. She felt comfortable with engineer Brine Webb and with musicians such as pianist John Calvin Abney and clarinetist Trevor Calvin. She could go in and work on a few songs, then rebuild her strength before she returned. She produced everything herself.
“When I got to the point where I had these songs,” she says, “I’d already done the hard part: transforming my feelings into songs. Even though I wasn’t committed to releasing a record. I just really love recording; that’s my favorite part of the process. It’s the fun part, where I get to feel like a film director.”
“An Echo” is not only the first track on the album, but it also sets the tone for the record. It begins with her acoustic guitar and confidential vocal, then one by one Paddy Ryan’s drums, David Leach’s bass and Kyle Reid’s pedal steel add muscle and color to the personal lament. The heavy echo and sustaining tones conjure up what Crain calls the “fever dream of a person going through a traumatic time.” It’s also an unusual modern-rock record that doesn’t use any electric guitar.
“I am a pretty strong believer in setting up limitations for myself when I’m recording,” Crain explains, “an idea I got from my old producer, John Vanderslice. It’s about being forced to think in ways outside the box. I wanted to pick something to do without, and electric guitars made sense.
“They’re too easy to plug into different effects and make whatever sound you want. We were forced to use other instruments to do what an electric guitar would do, like the trumpet on ‘Pastime,” and that made it more creative. Plus, as a woman in this industry, my whole career has been proving myself to dudes with electric guitars, and I’m tired of it.”
In the second verse of “An Echo,” Crain sings, “We drive up 35 in dark to go visit my mother at the prison in Topeka. She is asking, ‘What’s the matter?’ As we stare into the vending machine, I can’t say the things I need to.” It’s the first time Crain has ever spoken in public about her mother’s long confinement.
“A lot of the ways people are is the result of not dealing with feelings,” Crain says. “My mother being in prison is such a huge point of betrayal in my life that it’s taken me a long time to even say it out loud. That was one of the underlying issues in my life. Sometimes you can’t even admit something till you’re ready to believe it yourself.”
The catchiest song on the album is “Pastime,” a bouncy celebration of new love climaxing in a propulsive chorus: “I feel like, I feel like, I feel like you were always there.” Nearly as hooky is “Garden Dove,” which uses acoustic-guitar power chords to tell the beloved, “Your skin is so delicate and wild.”
The album takes its title from “Joey,” an accordion-fueled slow waltz addressed to an ex-lover, assuring him that “I don’t even feel like that girl anymore…. I don’t even see through those eyes anymore. A hundred small deaths, a hundred before. I am a revolving door.”
“Whenever you run into something on this record about relationships,” she cautions, “it’s usually me dealing with myself. ‘Pastime’ is about the giddiness of the beginning of a romance, but it’s also about getting to know myself. It’s about that amazing, audacious feeling where you finally get to know all the aspects of yourself and fall in love with yourself. ‘Garden Dove’ is sort of like that. You say, ‘You make me want to be a better person,’ like you’re looking in the mirror.”
Crain grew up as a member of Oklahoma’s Choctaw tribe, though she had to learn the tribal language through an online course. The new album, like its 2017 predecessor <I>You Had Me at Goodbye,</i> includes one song in Choctaw: “When We Remain.” The music is not the kind of pow-wow chanting one hears on folkloric documentation of American Indian music, however. It sounds like the rest of Crain’s songs. And that’s the point.
“If I write a song or write a poem or cook a meal,” Crain insists, “that’s Choctaw, because I’m Choctaw, not because it measures up to a colonizer’s view of what traditional culture is. The survival of traditional languages is an important tool for young indigenous people if they’re to survive as indigenous people. To use that language not only keeps old traditions alive but also creates new traditions.”
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