Some protest songs are straightforward. Neil Young’s “Let’s Impeach The President” doesn’t make use of much in the way of nuance.
Some tell famous stories in a new way that can change how a listener felt about the original story completely. Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” comes to mind.
But some protest songs are more subtle, more nuanced. Some sneak up on you, to the point where you could listen to the song a hundred times before you realize the true depth and meaning of it. Samantha Crain’s newest album Under Branch & Thorn & Tree (out July 17) is full of protest songs in that mold.
“The best way that I can draw attention to the issues and put my own political and social voice out there is to write about characters that are affected by the way the world is right now,” Crain says. “Hopefully people understand their situations and can read between the lines and see what the actual message is.”
Blue Collar Working Woman
Crain says that her new album has an overall theme focusing on the blue collar working woman. It’s full of stories of people she has come across in her decade of traveling around the country playing music. But Crain herself fits the bill of many of the stories she tells. When she isn’t touring she waits tables at a restaurant in Oklahoma City.
“I’ve been waiting tables as long as I’ve been playing music. I have a real drive and focus to keep putting records out and if I want to be doing that as often as I want, I have to work another job,” Crain says. “I don’t mind waiting tables. If half of the year I get to do a job that I love a lot then I feel like I’m a lot luckier than most people.”
The Shawnee, OK native started her troubadour lifestyle when she dropped out of college at the age of 19 to play music. She’s been traveling and singing for the better part of the last decade now. It’s become as much a part of her as her Choctaw heritage.
She wrote quite a bit about herself and her rambling lifestyle in her previous album Kid Face(2013) that received wide critical acclaim. But Crain felt she had run out of things to say about herself. For Under Branch & Thorn & Tree she needed to tell the stories of others.
“It just depends on where you are in life. It’s going to take me a few years to build up some more autobiographical songs. Now it’s easier to write character songs,” Crain says. “When you have a lot to say about whatever is going on in your own life that’s a lot easier. I think of songwriting like a well that you empty out and then you have to wait for it to fill up again.”
In telling these stories Crain began to see the theme of the everyday working woman emerge. When she went to San Francisco to record this new album, she knew that it would be an album focused on women. Crain wanted to focus on women as more than people who are just in love or broken hearted.
“Because artists tend to only write when they are broken-hearted or in love, there’s a tendency to see female artists as two-dimensional people: Giddy or losing it,” Crain says. “So I thought it was a good chance to show the multi-dimensional aspects of female personality.”
John Vanderslice, who has worked with The Mountain Goats, Spoon, and St. Vincent, produced Kid Face and Under Branch & Thorn & Tree. Crain and Vanderslice are kindred spirits when it comes to a dedication to quality sound and old school production methods. They recorded Kid Face to tape, but they took it a step further for Under Branch & Thorn & Tree. They kept the entire process analog, including using tape manipulations for effects on the album and finding one of the few people left who can cut albums straight to vinyl lacquer in the studio.
The vinyl pressing of Under Branch & Thorn & Tree should be an audiophile’s dream.
“This is why I like working with John Vanderslice. When you record analog it makes musicians play differently. When you don’t have 30 takes, but instead have 3 or 4 it really adds a sense of urgency,” Crain says. “It captures a moment in time, which is what a record should be.”
Moments In Time and Life
It’s appropriate that Crain wants her records to capture moments in time, because often her songs capture moments in life. Her narrative songs like “Elk City” tell the stories of people that you might pass by on a daily basis without thinking twice. As she says in her song “Outside the Pale”: You and I, we tell the stories the TV won’t release.
Crain may be a small-in-stature, Choctaw waitress from small-town Oklahoma. But she’s also a wildly talented musician, songwriter, and singer using her voice to tell the stories of so many other women who are like her in every way except their musical talents.
And sure, Dylan, or Young, or Springsteen can write a great working-class song. They can tell the stories of people from small town USA as well as anyone. But when these stories come from someone actually living and working everyday around the people in these songs, it’s all the more powerful. With Under Branch & Thorn & Tree Samantha Crain has created a work of art to tell the stories of the hard-working blue collar woman, which is exactly what she is.