Blending folk and indie rock, Crain's music is made for taking on the road. I caught up with her as she was preparing for a state-side and international tour. We talked about her new John Vanderslice-produced release "A Simple Jungle," vinyl records, her penchant for name dropping towns and other topics.
Matt Stuttler: What are you looking forward to on your upcoming international tour?
Samantha Crain: I'm only going to be over [in Europe] for about a week. I'm revisiting a lot of cities I went to back in November, but I am looking forward to playing in Paris. I've never played in Paris before. Also, I'm opening for a band that I've toured with before called First Aid Kit. They're good friends of mine, so it'll be priceless to spend some time with them, kind of hang out with them.
You're playing at Off Broadway next week. Have you played there in the past?
Yeah, probably five or six times I think. We usually play at Off Broadway when we come through St. Louis. It's a great venue. We've always been treated really well. It's a nice size and a good sound. I like playing there.
What's been your favorite St. Louis show you've played?
One of the most unique ones I can think of is last winter. We opened for Langhorne Slim and Bobby Bare Jr. It was such a cloudy night because our car had broken down on the way in, actually. We were trying to get towed into St. Louis. We had someone come pick us up, and we literally rushed into the venue and straight on to the stage and started playing. The night was really crazy, but it ended up being a really fun show. We couldn't even get the whole band up on stage because we got there so late, but it was me and this guy that plays fiddle with me. Everyone seemed to like it and was really generous that we were kind of doing things different because of the circumstances.
You just released a 7 inch called "A Simple Jungle" a little over a week ago produced by John Vanderslice. What was it like working with him?
It was really great. He's actually probably the nicest person on the planet. (Laughs) If you can't get along with John, something's probably wrong with you. I can't imagine anyone not being able to get along with him. He really is kind of a genius as far as like analogue recording goes. There's not a computer [for recording] in his studio. Everything is done analogue tape and he really knows what he's doing with that. He's got a studio out in San Francisco called Tiny Telephone. A lot of really great bands have recorded there. He's like a complete joy to work with. We're actually going to do the next full length with him producing. We're kind of in talks about when we're going to do that so it'll probably be recorded this summer. We liked the project so much we just wanted to work with him again so he'll be producing the full length too.
So you released "A Simple Jungle" online and as a 7". Why did you decide to release it on vinyl?
I really wanted to do a 7". That was the whole point of doing it. That was the point of the two songs, I wanted them to be released on a 7" vinyl.
On the topic of vinyl, what's your own personal favorite record?
I probably have kind of a tie. The two that get played the most at my house are "Déjà Vu" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Paul Simon self-titled record.
Why did you name the release "A Simple Jungle"?
It's a combination of the two names of the songs that are on the 7". A lot of times when a single comes out, the name of the single is just the name of the side-A song. When I was doing the 7", I didn't necessarily think one song was more important than the other. We liked both of them a lot so instead of naming it the song that was side-A we just named it a combination of the two songs. Side A is a song called "It's Simple" and then side-B is a song called "Cadwell Jungle."
You've been playing in Europe recently. What's your experience as a musician from America playing abroad over there and playing with Europe's folk bands?
There's been times in the past few years that folk music and singer-songwriter and Americana stuff has really well accepted over here [in America]. I think it's kind of gone away from that in the past five six or seven years to kind of more of a show experience type music. Louder, more of an entertainment band. Which is fine, I don't have any problem with that. I go see those shows too. For somebody who relies on people to come to a show and kind of post up and be there for the night, to devote their time, energy and attention to the show, that's something that I think is happening in Europe and the UK a lot more.
There's a lot of folk music fans, people that will go to a show and be very attentive and post up for the night. That's something that is rare over here anymore. It's even got to the point where I play with a rock band behind me, in order to bring the volume over a bar noise. There's definitely that atmosphere in Europe and the UK as well, but I just feel the places we've played [over there] I can get up on stage with an acoustic guitar and people will listen. They won't talk over me, because that'd be rude. So that's really nice.
The other thing that is really cool about touring [in Europe] is I've been taking the train everywhere instead of driving. That's been really nice, just kind of allows me to actually get things done during the day instead of just like sitting behind the steering wheel waiting to get to the next city. I can actually work or read or try to work on some songs or something.
Your sound to me seems to draw from your landscape of your Oklahoma home with tumbling guitar picking, and the wide, very big vocals. How do you feel like the landscape of Oklahoma affects your music?
I think there is the aspect of what you said, the big vocal thing is a lot kind of the open space. Feeling like you need to fill up more room with what little you have out of a guitar and a voice. I've never really thought much about it but I guess it would be silly of me to think I'd be making the same music if I were from somewhere else.
When you sit down to work on a song, what's your ideal environment? What puts you into the mood to work some stuff out?
Definitely a place where there's not access to the Internet (laughs). The Internet is like my arch nemesis when it comes to creativity, I think. Because I use it so much in the work part of what I do with promoting, booking and things like that. It's become part of the routine in order to do the business stuff. When it comes to writing, it's also a hindrance to getting things done for me. I need to be away from that and also just need a cup of coffee, a guitar or a banjo or something. Just quiet. A window is always nice.
I'm looking at a copy of your last full length "You (Understood)." I feel like with the song titles alone, with "Santa Fe and "Wichitalright," they're about different towns. It seems apparent that traveling has an effect on your songwriting. Does each town have its own voice?
It definitely has become a bigger part of my writing. Even though I'm from Oklahoma, I spend more time in every other place. We're just touring so much, and even if I'm not touring, I could be recording for someone else's album or doing meetings. There's so many other things regarding what I do now that requires travel, which is the reason I started doing all of this in the first place -- so I can travel. It's just kind of something that I've always innately felt was part of me.
I think rather than each town having its own voice, which I know it does, it's more like me putting towns into songs. It's more likely that I feel sort of different everywhere I go. It's more like my voice interjected into different places. I expect that place names and stories about different places are going to continue to pop up in my songs just because I need to be able to explain where something happened. It's not just understood any more that "Oh well, this must have happened in Oklahoma" because it's not the understood place anymore for me. It can be any number of places. I think that's why I tend to use place names a lot.
You seem to be participating in the old country tradition of town naming.
Well, yeah it's a country tradition because people that were involved in that genre toured a lot. It didn't happen that much with blues musicians, or jazz musicians, they were for the most part just in a city. They played one city a lot. Country musicians and folk musicians, they toured and traveled, and that's how they made their living, going to different towns. I'm not really sure why that is; it's just kind of the way it is.
You'll be playing with Old Lights on your tour date here.
I'm excited. I really like Old Lights. We've never played a show with them before. I don't know why, we just haven't. I like both of their albums that I have a lot. They're all good friends of mine, so I'm excited. Should be good.
Samantha Crain and Old Lights perform at Off Broadway on January 25.