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Human after all

Samantha Crain takes a breath

Samantha Crain has focused creative efforts on connecting with her Choctaw heritage, helping carve a space for other young Native artists to do the same.

Joanna Grace Babb

Fifteen years have passed since Oklahoma music mainstay Samantha Crain launched her career as a singer-songwriter—breaking hearts with her worn-in voice, gutting audiences with her live performances and spinning stories to make you ache. Crain has always been something of a foot solider in the local scene, but now with five acclaimed full-length records under her belt, the 33-year-old is operating under a new philosophy, prizing flow over hustle.  

Born and raised in Shawnee, the Choctaw artist emphasizes her Oklahoma roots in songs about working-class characters with radical empathy for the down-and-out. Her latest release, You Had Me at Goodbye (2017), eschewed critics’ expectations of her established acoustic folk sound with synth-pop stylings, electric drums and a horn section. The LP represents a deliberate effort to create, first and foremost, for herself.
“There’s so many times when I was younger that I would release a record I was really excited about and then it wouldn’t get the sort of reception that I wanted,” Crain said. “And I would mirror my worth based on that, not based on what I actually thought of it. I’ve gotten a lot better at not doing that now and just finding my worth within myself.” 

Lately, Crain has carved out some time and space to rest and be human, but she has also kept busy between projects—teaching songwriting, painting, self-releasing books of poetry and taking on noteworthy commissions. Most recently, she was approached to write music to accompany the Peabody Essex Museum’s T.C. Cannon exhibit.

“It was really a spiritual experience,” she said. Crain drew inspiration from Cannon’s work and wrote two songs for the nationally touring collection featuring the work of the Oklahoma native and Kiowa/Caddo artist.

Crain has focused her creative efforts on connecting with her own Choctaw heritage, helping generate a space for other young Native artists to do the same. 

“I think a lot of young Natives aren’t super in touch with their ancestry or their tribe or their traditions,” she said. “In order to give them the confidence to really start digging into that area, it’s important—and I say this to myself—it’s important to say, ‘Look, if you make something, if you write something and you are Choctaw then it’s a Choctaw song because you are Choctaw.’”

Crain’s creative placemaking philosophy has seen the artist writing more in Choctaw, consulting tribe elders and connecting with her traditions. It’s a simple act of resistance and creative autonomy that has served a larger community of young Native artists.

Crain wrote the lyrics to the stunning “Red Sky, Blue Mountain” from You Had Me at Goodbye in consultation with Choctaw elder Dora Wickson, who guided the songwriter in translation and pronunciation. The words translate roughly to: “A red sky, a blue mountain. The dream that is real. Born to change the world. And we did. But what have we done.”

“As I get more of a grasp on what I’m able to do within the language, I hope to just keep writing in it,” she said. 

For Crain, songwriting is a vehicle to dismantle white colonialism and reclaim new traditions for herself, mirroring her movement away from the harsh demands of the music business. Her new slow-burn philosophy gives time and space for creation and softens rather than commodifies. It’s a way of life that can’t be monetized.  

“I was just so unhappy with the music business in general and my inability to meet the expectations without giving up so much of myself,” Crain said about making her last record. “So I started taking a step back and getting more in touch with what I wanted and what I saw for myself.”
Crain’s artistic philosophy is an example of decolonization and disengagement from the cruelty of commodification, a second nature many of us have subconsciously adopted from the brutality of capitalism. 

“It’s really weird because we live in a society that’s obsessed with hard work, work ethic, and I think that’s really weird. I was raised with that,” she said. Plenty of small-town Okies can relate—but maybe there’s a softer, truer approach.

“Through my travels over the past 15 years around the world, I’m finding that the people [who] aren’t basing their worth … on how hard they work or how hard people think they work tend to just live a happier, more meaningful, more thoughtful life. And for me, keeping that in mind allows me to make better art I think, or at least enjoy it more.” 

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Samantha Crain w/ Ali Harter 
Mercury Lounge, 1747 S. Boston Ave. 
9 p.m., $10

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