Congratulations on the new album, Samantha. How are you feeling about it right now? Are you able to listen back to your own music?
Yeah, I definitely am. I work so fast in the studio that by the time we’re done with the record, it’s all still pretty new to me. So this album is really exciting and fresh to me. Usually the getting tired of it part comes with touring when you’re playing the songs over and over and over. But yeah, I definitely can look on this album fondly.
What was the starting point for Under Branch & Thorn & Tree?
My last album, Kid Face, was really autobiographical, and I feel like I exhausted my well of personal experiences with that record. Because I didn’t have things to sing about that were happening to me personally, I had to switch gears.
So the first song that I wrote off of this album was ‘Elk City’. It’s a song about this woman I met who was living in this busted oil town, and she was just having a rough ride. I ended up writing her whole life story in the song. It was then that I realised that, most of the time in music, women are painted as either manically happy or just really depressed, and I felt like I had an opportunity to write about women as multi-dimensional people – which they are. Really, the basis of sexism in most of the world is that women are seen as one-dimensional and two-dimensional people. So that’s what the focus I started with for the album.
So once you’d decided that you wanted to tell other people’s stories, what next? Was it a case of seeking them out?
Well, ‘Elk City’ was really the only song that I wrote on the album that was the story of someone that I don’t know personally. The rest of the songs are very much based on my friends, my family, social issues in the world and bits of myself; basically, the world that I’m surrounded by all the time. So it was just a matter of me observing what the people around me were going through and then turning them into the songs.
On ‘Outside The Pale’, you sing, “You and I tell the stories the TV won’t release.” What inspired that line?
So ‘Outside The Pale’ really has to do with this elite minority of rich, powerful people who are controlling the definitions of morality in our society, even though the remaining 99% is so much more capable and passionate. It just baffles my mind that this small group of people still control what it is that we do.
In particular, I think that that line was a nod to modern media news forces who decide what’s reported, and also to this book called Howard Zinn called ‘A People’s History of the United States’. It’s a history of the United States, but of how it actually happened, without somebody curating what’s reported or manipulating what actually happened. So that line is really about us understanding that the reality that we’re fed by the media isn’t actually reality.
Historically, folk music has always been a vehicle for small communities to pass on their stories. Thanks to the success of acts like Mumford & Sons, those traditional “folk” sounds are entering the mainstream, but at the same time those artists are stripping that art form of any political meaning. Would you agree?
Yeah, I’ve spoken about this before. Folk music has been taken away from ordinary people and is now the domain of white, middle class, heterosexual men, who are basically pandering to a small group of elite people, playing what those people with money want to hear – which is basically nothing.
I think that if you go back into the history of folk music – and I use the term “folk music” loosely because each region of the world has its own definition, and it doesn’t have to sound like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie – the basis of that was suffering and fortitude and getting through life while being suppressed and marginalised. When you take those experiences out of the equation, you get left with boring, tepid, bland, generalised pop music, played with banjos or something.
I think there are a lot of bands now that are trying to bring back the stories of the working class, it’s just not being done as much in an acoustic guitar sort of way. Most people have decided, “Well, this has been taken from us, so we’re just going to have to find another way.” And that’s where punk music came from, right? We just have to find another way to get our messages and stories through.
One of our main impressions of Under Branch & Thorn & Tree is how strong a sense of empathy you show for your subjects. What do you hope that listeners take away from the record?
It goes back to how I sort of consider this a protest album, just not in the literal sense. It’s more me telling stories of people’s lives and the hardships that they’re going through. I think the main reason why I decided to move in that direction with this album is because when it comes to making a change in the world, the only way that people actually accept new ideas is if they can empathise with people that are living differently from them. Otherwise it’s usually just a yelling match, and people don’t have much stomach for that; they just get defensive and nothing actually ever gets done.
As with Kid Face, you worked with producer John Vanderslice. What it is about his approach that you like?
He just works really efficiently and quickly, which I like. Also, his studio is completely analogue and he’s a genius when it comes to analogue recording, and I really like that medium. I like that hi-fi analogue sound, and I also like the way that you have to record everything either first, second or third take, because if you do any more than that then the sound quality detoriates because the tape starts to disintegrate. So you really have to be on your game and completely inspired from the beginning. Because of that, I think [analogue recording] makes musicians do things that they wouldn’t normally do if they had the option of using cut and paste and delete on a computer.
Also, he’s really easy to create with. I feel like we can finish each other’s sentences and thoughts once we’re in that studio environment, which makes for an enjoyable, fun time because you’re not sitting there trying to explain ideas to someone else – they just understand intuitively. So yeah, I feel like the working relationship with him is going really well already, and those sort of things can only get better the more time you spend on them.
Were there any musical reference points for Under Branch & Thorn & Tree?
Yeah. I was played this solo record by Daniel Lanois – the producer who worked with U2 and Bob Dylan – and it had pedal steel guitars, either looped on tape or manipulated through tape loops, and I thought it was really, really beautiful and really interesting. So that was the kind of thing we were going for, in terms of general ambience.
We recorded a lot of pedal steel guitar sounds and then we just cut them up to make tape loops and played them through the background of the songs, manipulating them as we were going, by speeding them up or slowing them down or poking them with a pencil – that sort of thing. A lot of it is not stuff you actually register at first; it’s more of this general atmosphere that you might catch after a few listens.
Is there anything you’ve learned about yourself in the making of this record?
I don’t know... I just always fear that I’m somebody who writes these sad, very serious songs, and I think a lot of people must think that I’m sad or something. (Laughs) But I feel like probably 95% of musicians are writing sad, serious songs. I think artists just create well in that sort of environment, even if that’s not how they are most of the time. I’m a pretty normal person: I’m not a “glass half-full” type nor “glass half-empty” one either. And I think most people are the same, especially about day-to-day things.
Do you have a current favourite track on the album?
‘Moving Day’, which is the last track on the album. I just think the arrangement of that song turned out so well, with the string section. And the pacing is really nice. Also. I haven’t played that one much, other than when we were recording it in the studio, so it’s still new to me and I’m discovering things about it that I forgot. I don’t know if it’s one of those songs that will end up getting ignored because it’s the last song on the album; sometimes I wonder if people even make it to the end of an album. (Laughs) But I really like that song right now.
Finally, what’s the plan for the rest of 2015?
Well I’m actually working in the studio today. I’m producing a record for a band here in Oklahoma, called Annie Oakley. They’re an all-girl bluegrass/folk band. And then I’ll be doing a string of UK dates at the end of July and in August for a couple of weeks, and then I’ll probably end up back in European again in the fall. So yeah, the rest of the year is really going to be about playing shows, and trying to get the album out there.