Music festivals can be such grand events that their headliners are more important than, say, the current biggest band in the world: For instance, a Lollapalooza or a Coachella can bring bands long since broken-up back together, booking reunion shows that sell tickets and rake publicity.
That trickles down, of course, so that small- to mid-sized festivals like Signal and Shakori Hills depend on acts like Ralph Stanley and Kid Koala—stars in their respective fields—to sell tickets. But a good festival also maintains a curatorial role of sorts, circulating a wealth of fresh, on-the-brink talent just before it hits the really big stages. These relationships become paramount to the festival, which can develop a reputation for breaking talent, and for the artist, who can find bigger audiences here than in isolated club settings.
This year, the much-ballyhooed D.C. rapper Wale headlines the first night of Signal, even though he doesn't have a proper album to his name. That album's coming this summer, though, through the empire-launching Interscope, and don't expect Wale's brazen ideas to waste much time taking him to the top. He's already had an online hit with "Nike Boots," posed with Lindsay Lohan and worked with Lil Wayne, Lady Gaga and Freeway.
Samantha Crain & The Midnight Shivers is already capitalizing off of its debut LP, Songs in the Night, one of the year's most self-assured and striking songwriter efforts. Bigger tours and Rolling Stone reviews are in the queue for the 22-year-old Oklahoma singer.
Crain plays Thursday, April 16, at 10 p.m. and Friday, April 17, at 4:30 p.m., at Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival. She plays Duke Coffeehouse with Thao & the Get Down Stay Down and Sister Suvi Saturday, April 18, at 9 p.m. Wale plays Signal Electronic Music Festival at Cat's Cradle Thursday, April 16. Kooley High opens the 9:30 p.m. show.
As Crain left Chicago to pick up her Midnight Shivers, waiting in Missouri for another string of shows, she spoke plainly about the excitement (seeing Josh Ritter) and anxiety (getting compared to Joanna Newsom) of rising through the ranks.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: All of your touring and praise last year did build some expectation. This is your first LP, and people are actually waiting on it. Did that put any pressure on you in recording the album, or is that something you try to keep out of your mind?
SAMANTHA CRAIN: I put enough pressure on myself to make sure that I keep creating. To, on top of that, try to make something that I think people will like or that a certain type of person will like, to put that pressure on top would probably be overwhelming and overbearing. We are on the road so much, and I try to keep my mental health at a balance. That's one thing I feel like I have a little control over, saying, "You already put enough pressure on yourself to keep producing songs. When it's time to make a record, just make the record, and that's all you can do."
Do you read the press?
When the EP came out, I read a lot of the reviews just because I was curious and I was new. I'm still new at this, but at that point, I'd never been reviewed. I was reading all of them, and I tremendously let these reviews dictate how my days went or how I felt about music or the band. I realized I couldn't do that. If I was going to make this a long-term thing, I needed to keep myself balanced. People are going to say good things, and people are going to say bad things. I can't get overly confident [when they say something good], and I can't get down on myself when they say something bad. I just try to create and put out songs, and I try to stay as disconnected from the pressure. But I don't feel a lot of the pressure: I think that depends on a lot of the people around you, and with our label and with our band, they're pretty laidback about the creative process. They understand that people work at certain paces. For this new album, that's one of the reasons we recorded it so quickly. We recorded it in five days and mixed it in five days. I knew that if we just went in there and recorded it, we wouldn't have to sit there and nitpick ourselves and change our minds and beat ourselves up about what we've done. It was like, "These are the songs, and they're good, whether or not we think they are three weeks from now."
Finding a label can be difficult, especially for your first EP, but your fit with Ramseur Records seems comfortable, and owner Dolph Ramseur seems very passionate about what you do. How does that relationship work?
For us, it wasn't ever something that we were looking for. We were fully prepared to be a self-run band. That's how we were building ourselves up to be, very DIY. Everyone was getting very specialized in certain areas of operation of the band—booking or promoting. Everyone had different jobs in the band before we started working with Dolph. That's how we always saw ourselves running, you know, like a business, but not to take the magic out of music or the band. But we were very self-motivated and wanted to have control over what we were doing. When Dolph came along, it seemed like the perfect thing because Ramseur Records is more like a management thing. It's like an extra needed push, or a helping hand, for bands that still want to have a lot of interest in the goings-on of the band other than the music. But at the same time, touring keeps you busy and writing keeps you busy, so you need an extra hand to help. It was a good fit for the direction we were going. It was like DIY with ...
Your mom helping you with your homework?
Yeah, exactly, like on a science fair project.
Meanwhile, Wale awaits the night's show at Pennsylvania State University on his headlining Attention Deficit Tour of college towns and big cities. A native of Washington, D.C., Wale, 24, brought a piece of his city with him on tour: UCB—a D.C. go-go band Wale watched as a teenager—backs him each night. The adventure of these shows, he says, is maintaining the energy by allowing the band to explore the tunes and the setlist anew through a little improvisation. "We get rock sometimes, go-go sometimes, smooth, a funk sound sometimes," says Wale, mellow and soft-spoken in the afternoon, ostensibly saving his energy for tonight's new stage. "It's all things we like in music in one."
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Your mixtapes and singles and collaborations brought a lot of buzz for you, but now you're on Interscope, and they're expecting a full-length Wale LP. How's that gone so far?
WALE: It's a graduation, just a graduation. You graduate from mixtapes and move to albums. That's the process I'm at right now. I proved myself on the mixtapes, now I have to show everybody I can make an album. The album is amazing. It's incredible. Cool & Dre is on there. 9th Wonder. There's a lot of soul. There's a lot of messages. There's a lot of reality.
What was the big challenge of doing the album, especially with the eyes of a major label on you?
Just to get people to understand the sound that weren't really familiar with me. That's when I had to start realizing a lot of people aren't going to get it. I'm not going to be able to work with everybody I wanted to work with. I'm doing what I have to do now in being more proactive.
On The Mixtape About Nothing, you joke a lot about the problems of the record industry and the anonymous, idealess labels and managers asking you to work with them. Why go with a major label instead of another big label, or a large independent?
I think Interscope has a nice infrastructure, and they get the sound. They understand the sound, and it's always important to work with a group that understands your sound. I was always a fan of Interscope, and I never wanted to do the indie thing too much longer. All of them were pretty much the same until Interscope came along. Some numbers were good. Some numbers weren't. Interscope had the best team. I got it. I feel like [Interscope president] Jimmy Iovine is a genius—from what he does to what he did with Dr. Dre, Eminem, 50 Cent. He just gets it. He understands what it is to have a brand. It used to be song over all. Now it's more brand versus the record. "Stanky Leg" can be the No. 1 song in the country, but ain't nobody going out and trying to watch a movie featuring the "Stanky Leg Boys." It's more than a song now, and I think Interscope gets it, from Souljah Boy and myself to Eminem and all of those dudes.
What will Wale's brand be like?
From fashion consulting to the UCB project to being a figure for the kids in D.C. to look at and admire, those are the components that branch out.
Speaking of D.C., it's not an area generally known for its hip-hop. Did knowing that you were an artist working to make something in an area not associated with what you were doing frustrate you or make you more determined?
I got used to it. It wasn't even like a determination thing. I got used to it. I'm used to being stepped on and overlooked and things of that nature. See where we are now. It's all good.
All that combined—major label, critical kudos, repping the nation's capital—did you feel any pressure making this record, trying to meet so many expectations?
Nah, none at all. I just make music. It's always going to be at the level I want it to be, or it won't come out. I'm ready to submit my album to my label, so we're good. I recorded over 50 records for it, so I had to get it right. We had to put on what we had to put on. I put on what felt right.