Samantha Crain only gives you 30 seconds to brace yourself, and beyond that, you are on her terms.
On her 2007 independent release, "The Confiscation EP," she waits half a minute into the first track, then depicts a murder by drowning. On track one, "Rising Sun," from 2009's "Songs in the Night," the full band kicks in with a pop melody that softens the blow of Crain's powerful voice. On the Shawnee songwriter's forthcoming "You (Understood)," full orchestration escalates her warning of bad dreams at 32 seconds into "Lions."
There's a startling, unrestrained quality in her " a perplexity that belies her age. Crain, 23, has a fascinating voice. She is at once vulnerable and commanding, poetic and domineering. She sings about life as if she were three times her age, and plays like a veteran of 10 times her experience. For every ounce of sensitivity revealed in her heartbroken lyrics, a throaty chorus reminds you that her sadness is overshadowed by her spirit.
Although she may have started her musical career relatively late — she didn't play music at all until she was 17 — she's spent the past several years stealthily catching up to her counterparts. As you read this, in fact, Crain is on the road, likely making the steady drive from last night's show to tonight's new audience. For her, touring has been a constant nearly since day one.
"I was in Oklahoma for four months two years ago, and I was in Grand Rapids for four months last winter," Crain said. "Four months is about the max I've been in one place since I started doing this."
Upon deciding to give music a go, she essentially left everything behind " a move that seems frivolous but was, at the time, decidedly calculated.
"When I first started doing this, I was really goal-driven and had certain ideas about what I wanted to accomplish," Crain said. "I was thinking that if I quit college to do this that it really had to work " that it would be a career."
Backed by a supportive local scene, it's seemingly easy for young musicians to give their bands a chance to make that elusive dream a reality, if only for a while. For Crain, however, her steady trajectory is made more remarkable by her detachment to her musical surroundings.
"The only view that I have of Oklahoma's music scene is what I've experienced recently," she said. "I didn't come up through that scene; I wasn't even involved. I was out in Shawnee, and I didn't come into the city very often, and I certainly didn't play music when I was growing up. I met the other bands and started playing in Oklahoma City after I had been touring elsewhere for a year."
The great irony here, of course, is that her roots-rock sound is, at first listen, the exact music one might expect to hear coming out of Oklahoma. However, she's well aware that, regarding the state's contribution to the national scene, she's the exception.
"A lot of the bands from Oklahoma mention that they're from Oklahoma because they grew up through the music scene here and want to be tied to that; it's an important part of their identity," Crain said. "I grew up on the opposite side of things " the nonmusical, redneck side of things. I never thought about it, really, but when people think of a band from Oklahoma, they automatically think of the Starlight Mints, Evangelicals and Flaming Lips.
"Recently, someone asked me if I was good friends with the Evangelicals, and I said, 'You know, I haven't known them that long.' I never really understood the impression people get when you say you're from Oklahoma, but I'm starting to get it more now. I just want to explain that I'm not trying to latch onto a scene that I don't really feel molded me, but I am grateful there are so many bands for me to get to know."
Crain will celebrate the release of "You (Understood)" on Saturday at Opolis, with two of those locals, Student Film and Brine Webb, as well as Portland folk act Zeb Dewar and the Fed. The record, like all things Crain does, is a brave step in a slightly different direction. This album finds her leaning more into heavier rock and abandoning much of the harmonica and twang that adorned her former releases.
"You (Understood)" is the third of Crain's releases on tiny North Carolina label Ramseur Records, owned and run by Crain's now-manager, Dolphus Ramseur. The label is also the original home of successful folk rock band The Avett Brothers, who are former tour mates of Crain's and, less directly, responsible for at least a portion of her success thus far.
"The Avett Brothers played in Tulsa a few years ago. I wasn't a fan of them; I hadn't listened to them at all. I just knew that they were coming through Cain's, and there wasn't an opener listed on the Cain's site," Crain said. "My band and I wanted to play at Cain's, and I'd been waiting for a show to come through that I thought might make sense for us to ask to open.
"I went to The Avett Brothers' website and sent an e-mail their management. Dolph said they had an opener already, but he had gone to my MySpace and listened to my songs. He asked me to send him a copy of 'The Confiscation EP,' and I did, and he really liked it and said he wanted to re-release it and start managing me. I really just got a hold of him at the right time, I guess. I don't know."
Thus far, things have gone pretty smoothly for Crain career-wise, and she seems to have few regrets about her musical course, despite the trouble it's given her.
"Music is so complicated to me. I hate it and love it so much at the same time," she said. "I have to let it take its own path, or I'm just going to go crazy. It drives me nuts to the point where I don't want to hear music or see a guitar for weeks and weeks. I don't want to hear myself sing, and I don't want to write a song. Then, all of a sudden, something just comes over me, and I have to do it. I realized about a year ago when I started writing songs for the new album that I can't expect certain things out of myself when it comes to music."
Crain asks for that same consideration from her fans, and this enforced dichotomy mirrors her career.
"I've had three albums that have all been in a slightly different direction. If right off the bat, I introduce myself as somebody who's going to be doing something different every time, then I think that makes it a little easier for people to come to the show and say, 'Well, that's not what the album that I have sounds like, but that's OK,'" she said. "If I would have marketed myself as a country artist, it'd probably be confusing to people, but I don't feel like I ever did that.
"It also helps that the company I try to keep " the bands that we tour with and the bands I'm friends with and collaborate with " are not always the best fit.It opens their minds a little more to just enjoying a performance for what it is and a record for what it is without trying to compare " just judging the experience for what it is and not what's around it." —Becky Carman