Not many opening acts get standing ovations, let alone return to the stage for an encore. But singer-songwriter Samantha Crain did when she opened for William Elliott Whitmore at The Grey Eagle last September. That night, she also played a couple of new songs: “Paint,” with the wrenching line, “I’m almost young this year, now that I’m older” and the bouncy “Somewhere All the Time.” Both of those songs appear on Kid Face, released earlier this year on North Carolina-based Ramseur Records.
Crain says that she doesn’t consciously road-test her material. But, “I write a lot on the road and it makes sense for me to be able to hash the songs out in a live setting,” she explains. That hashing-out process is not her way of auditioning potential songs for an upcoming album, as some bands do.
“I’m not one of those people who writes a ton of songs,” she says. “I don’t ditch songs a lot.” Instead, her albums compile the breadth of her writing over a concentrated span.
“If I become more prolific, I may become more choosey,” she laughs. But Crain’s current process seems to be serving her well. Kid Face is the Oklahoma-based musician’s third full-length and was produced by songwriter and engineer John Vanderslice.
Crain had visited Vanderslice’s studio and was familiar with the work he’d done with Spoon. (He’s also produced The Mountain Goats.) “He’s a special producer because he’s a musician, and he knows how selfish musicians can be with songs,” says Crain. “He has a way of getting you to try something different with a song, even when you don’t want to. And then he makes it sound like it was your idea. He’s magic in that way.”
Vanderslice also produced Crain’s 2012 7-inch, A Simple Jungle. Her previous LPs both have Asheville links: You (Understood) from 2010 featured former WNC-based musician Ben Wigler, of now-defunct Arizona, on vocals and electric guitar; Crain’s ’09 full-length debut, Songs in the Night, was produced by Danny Kadar at Echo Mountain Studios.
“The bulk of the connections I’ve made to North Carolina over the years are because of Ramseur Records,” says Crain. It was label founder Dolph Ramseur who suggested working at Echo Mountain. He also booked shows for Crain and her then-band The Midnight Shivers around N.C., and introduced her to the members of Arizona.
Crain says that she had self-pressed The Confiscation EP, her first effort, and “was doing the things everyone tells you not to do, which is sending unsolicited copies of your demo to record labels.” She says she mailed out upward of 100 “weird press kits” when she was 18. One found its way onto Ramseur’s desk, and the label head actually took a listen.
The songwriter says she’s been to Ramseur Records headquarters and has seen the size of the demo stack. That hers was selected from that slush pile was “definitely by chance.”
But Crain is not your average artist. First, there’s her voice. Warm and low, nuanced, slightly twangy and wholly authentic, she commands attention. Not really demands attention; she’s not strident or shrill. But both Crain’s vocal style and thoughtful lyrics draw the listener in. And then there’s her song writing. The Confiscation EP was subtitled “A Musical Novella” and was based on five short stories. While Crain says the Kid Face is more autobiographical — a direction she’s been moving in over the past three albums — there’s still a nod to both a storytelling tradition and to the lineage of songwriting greats like Townes Van Zandt. On “Churchill,” she sings, “Teaspoon in the morning, tablespoon at night. My fortune’s never made sense, so I assumed neither did I.”
Her singing is all odd phrasing and round tones, both unusual and comfortable. And the instrumentation of the songs is dexterous, rhythmic and full of tasteful flourishes. It’s an orchestrated album. But it’s also, Crain says, pretty sparse.
Which is why she morphs easily between full band and solo performances (she’ll do the latter at the upcoming Asheville show). “I’d like to travel with a full band all the time, but it’s just not feasible,” she says. “I don’t think that anybody who sees me solo is going to be caught off guard. I don’t think the songs have trouble translating.”
Samantha Crain plays Isis Restaurant & Music Hall Lounge (with Dulci Ellenberger) on Tuesday, June 25 (7 p.m., $10. http://isisasheville.com).
Photo by Todd Roeth