In the summer of 2017, shortly after releasing her album You Had Me At Goodbye, singer-songwriter Samantha Crain had three car accidents in three months.
The third left her bedridden for a year and a half, with no feeling in her hands. She doubted she could hold a guitar again.
“The loss of my hands left me in a really dark, gloomy space,” Crain says. “I was really depressed and I had panic attacks”.
She likens the situation to a loss of identity. “Music is the way I treat the world, the way I treat the world, and I felt like it was all taken away from me.
“I didn’t know who I was apart from being a musician, and so there was this time around to get to know myself from scratch.
“It was like being like a kid again.”
Before the Accidents, Crain was an acclaimed musician known for her piercing, expressive voice and deeply personal lyrics.
A two-time Native American Music Award winner, singer Choctaw defied categorization, marrying folk music with the sounds of country rock and college indie, while touring with artists as diverse as Neutral Milk Hotel, Brandi Carlile and First Aid Kit.
She insists that she is not “a horrible driver who goes recklessly everywhere”. But even though she says she wasn’t to blame for her accidents, she was left “in dire financial straits” after having to pay for her medical treatment.
“So that put me in a kind of really debilitating situation that way too, which is kind of crazy. I think Americans are often tied to that – they’re in a car accident and then they’re in debt. for the rest of the world. their life. This is insane. “
As she began to rebuild her life mentally and physically, Crain’s therapist encouraged her to keep a journal of her recovery.
Unable to hold a pen, she recorded the entries as voice memos on her phone. Over time, they have become a complete diary of her attempts to determine her identity, apart from “Samantha Crain the Musician”.
“I had a lot of past trauma and from my childhood, then from my early childhood,” she says. But there was also a “dizziness” in discovering new sides of her personality and in shedding the anxieties that plagued her in her twenties.
“I don’t know if this is something that a lot of people do,” she said as an example, “but sometimes I’m on a train and all of a sudden something really embarrassing that I I did 10 years ago popped into my head.
“And my reaction is that I hum a little tune, ‘da d-da d-da da-daaa, ‘because I suddenly feel so uncomfortable. And that’s basically because I allowed myself to be vulnerable for a split second.
“Now that I’m 33, I hope I am less ashamed of myself, so that every time I have one of those embarrassing memories, I can just laugh.”
Eventually, with the help of therapy and medicine, Crain began to regain some sensation in his hands. She tentatively picked up her acoustic guitar and tried out some chords.
During the first two or three attempts, a song came out of her.
“I sat at my kitchen table and out of curiosity brought up one of those audio logs and listened to some of the words and that’s where this song was born. So it came out of nowhere. part, but it was also written for two and a half years, in a way. “
Called An Echo, it’s a sparse but urgent ballad that carries all the weight of the past three years, but ultimately conveys the freedom to start over.
Fittingly, the song was also a defining moment in Crain’s recovery. After writing An Echo, she decided to improve herself so that she could record it and put it on an album.
This album was released last week under the title A Small Death – an oxymoron representing Crain’s realization that “everything always starts over, all the time”.
The title was taken from a track called Joey, which taps into the album’s main theme – the impermanence of life and the tricks of memory.
“Has it ever been real? / I don’t even feel like that girl anymore,“sings Crain, as she remembers with an old friend.”Is it ever me? / I can’t even see through those eyes anymore.“
“There are a lot of times in your life when you don’t necessarily remember the event, but you do remember a photo or a video,” she explains.
“And that’s how I felt, thinking back to a lot of things I was writing about – I know I was the one who went through this, but I don’t really remember it innately, I only remember the memory.
The ability to detach memories from the feelings that accompany them is a kind of survival mechanism, she says.
“You can’t walk around in a constant state of anxiety. There’s that happy medium where you’re resilient enough, keep moving and being able to interact with the world in a normal way.
“I think if we fully felt the depth of our emotions for all the things that had happened in our life all the time, we wouldn’t be able to function.”
That’s why A Small Death sounds like “a fever dream,” she says. It is revisiting the past through the prism of a woman who has evolved and who can once again feel hope.
While the past few years have been characterized by inertia and hardship, Crain says her recovery has forced her to think differently about music.
“I had that kind of bonus round, that extra chance to make another record, so it deserved special attention.”
She was “never so attentive” to the writing and recording process, producing the entire album on her own and making sure every note and lyric deserved its place.
“I have always operated in a creative sphere where I put [music] go out and move on. With this album, I was really unpacking things like, “OK, if I say something in a song, what do I really mean by that? Or, from a production standpoint, ‘If this song is going to have a certain instrument, what does that achieve?’ “
This approach is evident on Pastime – one of the album’s most notable tracks – which describes Crain’s journey of self-discovery as a new romance.
“And with that feeling, you lose track of time – that’s why we did monk chants in the background. I wanted the song to almost sound like a trance. Like, ‘Did I listen to this song for 30 seconds or 30 minutes?’
“In the past, I don’t think I would have taken that extra step to think, ‘What’s the feeling behind the song? And how do I emphasize that in the production?'”
When we speak, in early July, Crain explains that his recovery is not complete. His “pain is definitely manageable right now”, but “I’m still pretty nervous about what touring will end up looking like to me.”
Zoom gigs and live broadcasts could be a solution, perhaps, but the singer says she craves interacting with a live audience.
“When you bring people into a room, either someone in the audience is going to do something weird or I could get drunk and say something crazy.”
A Small Death was originally slated for release on May 1 on Real Kind Records, a new label created by British singer-songwriter Lucy Rose.
Rose fell in love with the songs after Crain sent her a work in progress demo, and calls it “one of the best albums I’ve heard in years, maybe ever.”
The coronavirus prompted them to delay the release, in hopes Crain might be able to play a few gigs to promote the album when the lockdown eased.
“In the end, it really didn’t matter – but I’m definitely ready for the catharsis to be completely over,” she says.
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