Samantha Crain thinks of her deeply personal new album A Small Death as the beginning of a second chance, a hard-won “bonus round” in life that came about through no small amount of physical and emotional upheaval.
Featuring 11 riveting new songs that are by turns anguished and redemptive, A Small Death finds the Oklahoma singer confronting decades of grief and trauma, dredged up by an incapacitating physical pain that often kept her home in bed. A string of car accidents the summer after she released her 2017 album You Had Me at Goodbye exacerbated a worsening tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome in her hands and arms, and the pain made it difficult to play an instrument. Crain was barely able to perform on a European tour, which created a huge amount of emotional stress that led to what she calls “a full-on breakdown.”
“My identity as a musician, that I had wrapped myself up in, was gone,” she says. “So then you’re faced with, OK, who are you as a person?”
She’s resilient, for starters. As she recovered the use of her hands and arms, Crain began writing songs that explored what she had been going through—but not just her recent experiences. “A lot of the stuff that I was writing about was me processing trauma through my whole life,” she says. The result is songs like “An Echo,” the haunting album opener, where Crain’s dusky voice reverberates through drifts of steel guitar and guttural bass over a bed of acoustic guitar and spare drums. She finds a pattern to a lifetime of destructive behavior on “Tough for You” (“a real therapy song,” she says), singing in hushed, sorrowful tones over acoustic guitar and chiming piano.
Though Crain wrestles with some heavy themes, the album isn’t all doom and darkness: “Pastime” is a song of self-discovery with a buoyant, propulsive backbeat and vocals that soar on the edge of joy when Crain gets to the sing-along chorus. There’s also a song in Choctaw, the language of her Native American ancestors. She wrote when “When We Remain” in the mode of the protest song “We Shall Overcome,” and it serves as a metaphor for her people’s perseverance, and her own.