Samantha Crain rocks.
It's a self-evident description of an artist billed as a "folk-rocker" — but do not be distracted by that word folk. She really does rock. That she is Choctaw, that she is from Shawnee, Oklahoma, that she is a heckuva singer-songwriter (and that she recently sat with this Oklahoma-born Comanche in Austin for a half-hour-plus interview) are all illustrative of indigenous identity, space, aesthetic and generosity. These traits all coalesce in her current tour to send forth across Indian country Crain's sounds of strength, Oklahoma, and musical medicine that's good for the soul.
At her CD-release concert at the Scoot Inn (a venue frequented, by the way, by the Austin-based band Black Owl Society, which includes Lakota musician Pte, formerly of Indigenous), Crain performed a mix of songs from her new autobiographical album Kid Face, released in February, and older favorites. She and her five-piece band dazzled to visual and aural delight as they harmonized acoustic, electric, bass, and (homemade) box guitars with fiddle, drums, and a Wurlitzer piano to produce a highly charged and entertaining show in an intimate indoor space consisting all of one small bar, two tables, and a pair of out-of-order skeeball machines.
The 14-song set, plus a one-song encore, opened with “Never Going Back,” the new album’s first track and single also heard in the incredible video directed by LAMAR+NIK who hand-cut over 3,800 images of Crain singing with guitar and the über-talented Daniel Foulks on fiddle. "Never Going Back" becomes the album's thesis of sorts. As she reflects with rugged confidence and gritty determination, "I've stayed afloat in quicker sand, but now I have a place to stand and call my own." Reportedly about a relationship gone wrong and attuned to, Crain jokes, the frequency of Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," Crain's "Never Going Back" also suggests a migratory return to Crain's Oklahoma ("I made my way back home," she sings, "though I thought I'd never go back") and musical brand of Americana roots music (the fiddle, unheard on her 2010 album You (Understood), features prominently here).
"Never Going Back" sonically signals a move away from Crain's former immersion in the Portland rock scene, to which she attributes the rock influence on You (Understood), and Crain's geographical and musical homecoming to Oklahoma roots with Kid Face. Or as "Taught to Lie," both the concert's and new album's second song, sheds its lyrical insight, "So I’ve tried to move around, spent a while in Oregon / Then back to Oklahoma, ran around and had some fun."
"My relationship with music," Crain said, "is more of an emotional response to my surroundings" in which "the most defining characteristic is the space." That emotive expression of constructing her songs' soundscapes in tandem with the landscapes and other spaces was evident in her live set's new songs, as well as older selections like the Oklahoma-grounded "Scissor Tales" and the westward-reaching "Santa Fe" (for which the 2010 music video was directed by Seminole/Muscogee Creek director Sterlin Harjo whose video for Crain's "Taught to Lie" is forthcoming). In "Santa Fe," Crain finds herself "heading back to Santa Fe, I look back and then I look away / Way that that blue sky fades, feels like I'm running away."
Crain's melodies are migratory — they're a rolling soundtrack of her travels, whether in the U.S. or abroad. Yet with Kid Face, it seems to all point back toward her home in Oklahoma. Crain says that when she's writing songs from her back porch in Shawnee, "I'm very much a part of my environment," to the extent that she "would like to think that if you closed your eyes and you were traveling down roads around my house, in the passenger seat, the music would show you a little bit of where you're at even if you couldn't see it."
The new song "Somewhere All the Time," which Crain and her band performed near the end of their set, rings loudest in her self-recognition of constant migrations at the same time that she challenges the idea of always moving. "Everybody wants to go somewhere / Everybody wants to go all the time / Don’t you ever want to sit down some? / Take a little time?" She phonetically and lyrically drags out her pronounced singing of "time," seeming to suggest she can now afford to slow down. As she writes in the liner notes to "Somewhere," traveling is her "obsession and my method. I am on the go for the better part of the year even when I’m not playing shows and despite the clunky, high mileage vehicles breaking down every once in awhile. Once in a blue moon though, I do need the rest and familiarity of Oklahoma."
With Kid Face, Crain brings it back to Oklahoma even though she never completely left and even as her migration songs, fittingly amid the innumerable modern-day Choctaw and Oklahoma soundscapes, point simultaneously in multiple directions toward ambiguous destinations. As with her previous work, she continues to travel through mature sonic territory, especially for someone who just started writing songs at 19—she's now only 26. You hear at the same time a confident self-determination in her songwriting, open vulnerability in self-representation, and steady elusiveness in sonic and lyrical meaning. All the while, whether never going back, always going somewhere, or migrating to melodious spaces in-between and elsewhere (and perhaps coming to a venue near you) — Samantha Crain will continue to rock.
For more information, visit samanthacrain.com.