A Conversation with Sammy Rae

Design by Brontë Cook

Sammy Rae: I want to start really quick by just telling you, you know that we played Ithaca College a little while ago, right? So, I don’t know why, but when we were done we were just in the green room and somebody was singing this little song that was like “Oh my God, we just played at Ithaca College!” and we sing that ALL the time, whenever something wonderful happens. I’m not even kidding. The eight of us will be like “oh my God, guys you’re not gonna believe it! We just booked this amazing festival and it pays really well, and we get to go to Florida!” And everyone will be all “Oh my God, we just played at Ithaca College!” It’s our joy song! I told a couple of the other members [who live with me] that we were gonna do this [interview] and they looked at me and went “Ohhh my God, we just played at Ithaca College!”

Aaron Bogin: I love that! That’s so nice! I didn’t get to see you at Ithaca, but I did get to see you in Northampton at the Iron Horse when Melt opened for you and it was my last concert that I went to before everything happened.

SR: That was just about my last concert before everything happened.

AB: So, what’ve you been up to? How has it been not getting to perform?

SR: Ugh. It’s hard. It’s really hard. I mean, it goes so deep, right? I love having an Instagram and a Facebook where I can communicate with people, and in the last couple of months, people have really formed a communication system. And I see that the family unit, like the community of the friends, is really strong and I love being a part of that. Even more so because I’m not performing and constantly telling people to come to shows. So, I’m kind of just another member of this community, which is really fun and exciting, so I get support that way… but it was hard. We had about six weeks of touring that was cancelled due to COVID. It was our first national tour, and we were very excited, so when that was cancelled I kind of realized that I was going to have to shift my identity a little bit to... internet personality? Which is not a bad thing, but I was grasping at straws figuring out how to stay connected with everybody. I found a way to do that, just being present online and more Instagram vlogs and stuff. But I kind of felt like I had been busting my ass since I was 15 to get to 2020 because we had this national tour and all these crazy festivals and collaborations with artists that we really admired. When that got cancelled, it was kind of a blow to my sense of identity. It’s been interesting to find ways to source that sense of identity in the last year.

We finished two new songs which we’ll be putting on an EP at the end of January which includes “Living Room Floor,” “Jackie Onassis,” and “Whatever We Feel,” and then two new songs, which is really exciting. But that live energy? It’s impossible to replicate, so it’s been tough. The short answer to your question is — it’s been difficult. It’s been an identity crisis. But we’re finding ways to work around it. It’s going to be okay. I have hope! The vaccine is coming, and we’re going to have a cozy winter where maybe we get locked down again. Then when it gets warmer, we have a whole lot of festivals lined up. I’m excited. We’ll figure it out.

AB: That’s so exciting! I’m sure for all artists it’s a really difficult thing. Even for a lot of my friends who are performance majors. Small scale, large scale — it's all performing. Performing is a craft, but for most performers, it's such a large part of who they are. So it's dealing with, as you said, an identity crisis. But I get that, especially for you. You are, in every essence, a performer. You are captivating on stage and the second you step on the stage you create such a community. Would you want to talk a little bit about the creation of “Sammy Rae and the Friends” band, as well as how you decided to make everyone your friends?

SR: Ahhhhh! Yeah absolutely!

AB: Cause we are, by the way. We all are your friends!

SR: I mean, thank God that people finally get it. I’ve been trying to do this for years… Let me step back.

I grew up in this really small town in Connecticut, and there were really no arts outlets for me. I did theater when I was young in a town that was like 25 minutes away, but I still had to travel to do that. I had those friends, but they all lived in Shelton, and when I’d go back to my hometown, I didn’t have a lot of friends and didn’t have a lot of creative outlets.

I was a weird kid. In middle school and high school, I didn’t have a lot of friends and then I got to college. I did one year at this one university for music, where I think I had a good little environment of people and friends around me. Then I left, because I had this idea of “music is too hard for me, I have to be a teacher, I’ll never make it.” So I left and went to school for childhood education for a year. I was so out of place at that university and I had so few friends, but at the time I was realizing that I really had to drop everything and form this band or I wasn’t going to be happy. And I knew, from the time I was young, that I didn’t want to do a solo thing — I wanted to lead a band.

Not coming up in a super musical household, all of the projects I did listen to were bands with several people that were all their own superheroes with unique talents. It's not “John and those three guys,” you know? It’s The Beatles. You know those four names. You know the members of The Rolling Stones; Fleetwood Mac; the E Street Band. So when I started to write these songs after I left college and got ready to start making the EP and performing, I really wanted this “lunch table” that I didn’t have when I was little. I wanted to create this little tight knit community and found family.

I had a couple songs, and was working three jobs trying to figure out — “How do I get a gig?” Right? Like, on a Wednesday for twenty people. How do I make an EP? I was spending a lot of time going to open mics and going to jam [sessions] just to meet people. So at first, I hired the drummer I knew, the bassist I knew and the guitarist I knew. And then, after I made the EP and started to meet new people, I got to pick my favorite drummer, my favorite guitarist, my favorite bassist — it just worked out really well. Everyone was talented enough to bring their own magic, and nail what I was envisioning. But there was also this energy of family and a mutual goal for success.

We have this really special thing, which we call “The Friends.” That name came from seeing a lot of individuals like myself playing, and it was like “John Doe and friends'' in little tiny lowercase letters and I’d be like “yeah John Doe is great, but his bassist is devastating!” I want to know his name. So, I had this idea — “Let me form a band called Sammy Rae and THE Friends.” Not just any friends. These are THE Friends, with a capital F, cause you better BELIEVE.

We’ve just got a really good thing going. The only way we were able to bring something so large with so many people to such a good place where we feel that sense of support is if I worked very hard to make the fanbase feel like part of the project. ‘Cause it's true! If these friends don’t come and don’t buy tickets, then The Friends don’t eat and don’t get to play shows. We literally are a family, and when we come together, it’s a special thing — and things are only really special when they’re special and extend that to everybody. It's like, “please come to this room and to this concert and my goal is to have you immediately feel like, even though we’re on stage, we’re just eight faces of this wider community.” Online, it's been special to see that community solidify itself and grow. When you treat people like that…not to use the term ‘cult’ or… ‘pyramid scheme’ … but when people feel very seen and appreciated, it inspires me to make music for y'all. And you want your friends to feel that energy.

AB: To use your pyramid scheme analysis, you’re the perfect person to be right at the top, because you are so friendly and so captivating both as a person and as an artist. Everyone who I know that listens to you feels some sort of connection to you — not just your music, but because they’ve either seen you in concert or you’ve responded to something of theirs on Instagram. Especially at your concerts, when you have the audience sing with you, there is that friend group of people who are at your concerts, and you feel comfortable talking to the people next to you. Everyone there has the same sort of…I don’t want to say ideals, but your music is very precise in what your messaging is and how you present it and I think that has a lot to do with it.

SR: That means a lot! I think there is an aspect of that, too, with what you talked about. It started with: “I have these couple of songs, and I’m going to make them,” and people caught on. I started to see the same faces at all the concerts, and started to follow all these people back on Instagram and really get to know this fanbase. I truly felt like they were good friends of mine. Now, I understand what their ideals are and what their personalities are. I only exist because of this group, so I’m not going to create music that is contradictory to who they are. I’ve seen them all coming to shows over and over again. They’re fun, they’re queer, they’re artistic, they’re young, they’re happy, they want to be friends with people. They’re politically and environmentally engaged, so I’m going to continue to make music for them. And it's not for everybody! If you’re not down, you’re not going to come to the concert, so we can devise that everyone at the concert is down. You know?

AB: I’d love it if you could talk a little more about any or all of those adjectives you used to describe the fanbase, because in your music there is so much of that. I think of, most recently, with “The Box” or “Jackie Onassis,” you push that envelope and you’re not hesitant to say: ‘This is who I am’ and ‘this is what I care about,’ and your listeners feel it. Like with “Jackie Onassis,” my friend Maddy said: “That’s my gay anthem!”

Sammy Rae: Heard!!!

AB: And with “The Box” — every time I listen to it, you know, as a straight white man, I’m like…YES. Absolutely. Everyone needs to listen to this song as a piece of social commentary, let alone good music.

SR: Thanks. Wow. Wow. I’ll say this: I left school and I was waitressing at one place, nannying for two families, and canvassing and handing out flyers for Sponsor Children’s International all at the same time. I was working 60 hours a week. And the weekend would come, or a night would come, and I’d be forcing myself to go to these open mics to do as many shows as possible. I had just dropped out of college, and I didn’t even know if I was good enough, or better than the majority — I didn’t know anybody. I was going to all these shows, and I found that the shows I enjoyed were people who were very much themselves. Authentic. And if I got a chance to talk to them offstage, I already felt like I knew them. I already understood their personality onstage. I saw some people who would get up there with the earrings, the hair, the boots, the everything. And they’re that on Instagram too but like, what do you look like when you’re going to bed? What do you look like when you’re depressed and you’re crying and you’re eating goldfish or ice cream or whatever? I felt like it wasn’t sustainable in the long-term presentation of my career. And it's wonderful when some artists step into a character like that, but I made a decision that the best way for me to sustain this career for a long time was to be fully and 100% myself. Authentically me. Which I think is easier to maintain. Cheaper!

In any case, it goes back to this — not everybody’s going to be down. Not everybody wants to listen to a white, small-town, working class, queer girl who is into jazz but also rock and roll. Not everybody’s going to be into that. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s the only thing I can do authentically without sacrificing who I am. “The Box” I wrote in a place where I was falling in love with a man who I really appreciated and I felt was making me a better version of myself, but that relationship was forcing me to navigate and dissemble what I knew of the gender binary and gender roles. Like, men are not just “this thing” and women are not just “this thing,” we can be both things and it works really great. And I think there’s something for everybody in that song.

And then there was one day where I was like ‘you should tell that really painful story about that girl from high school’ and I was like ‘okay, me, let’s do it.’ Now it’s time for me to sing about this queer experience I had, because I know that a good chunk of my audience will absorb that as well. It felt like I had made so much music that was for everybody, it was time for me to tell a story that spoke to one portion of the audience in a really authentic and vulnerable way. And that’s been really well received. It all just goes back to focusing on building real connections with the people in the audience. I should make music for y’all because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for y’all and also, we’re almost the same person. If I make the stuff that I like and the stuff that’s true to me, it’ll ring true to you, which is exciting. The greater “friends” community is the giant lunch table that I always wanted. It’s okay to be a late bloomer. It took me leaving that small town and coming to New York, where there were so many more options for who I wanted to be as a person, to really stand in who I am. And here we are.

AB: That’s so nice to hear. I’m a huge Frank Ocean fan and…

SR: OH. OHHHH! I love him!

AB: That reminds me a lot of this Frank Ocean quote, where he’s responding to a question about including gender in some songs but not others and he says, “What does sexual preference have to do with feeling? Feelings are universal and great art evokes feeling. To categorize feeling is to reduce its universality.” And I feel like you do that, but you also allow people to acknowledge who those feelings are to. So, you’re creating these emotions where, even though I’m not a queer woman, I can still totally relate to everything you’re singing about in “Jackie Onassis” because of the universality of emotion and love and feeling and passion and confusion, and I think that’s really special.

SR: Hell yeah. Thanks, that really means a lot. And that’s something I keep in mind as well. I want this to be available for everybody. I tend to lead more towards story songs versus like “you did this” and “you did that.” In songs like “Jackie O” or “Talk it Up,” I do use genders when talking about characters, but I want to leave enough space where you can insert who best helps you access this song. Accessibility is huge too.

I just gave a lecture series at Syracuse University about writing songs, and my approach was talking about songs as stories. There’s this fine line you have to walk in making a song which is accessible to the audience. An anti-example is Paul Simon, who’s a brilliant songwriter, but sometimes he writes songs that are so hyper detailed. Like, I get that that’s clear to you, but I’m having a hard time inserting myself into that room. You’ve already told me the color of the drapes, the color of her dress, the color of the floor, what the temperature is, and I can transport myself to that place the best I can. But, it’s difficult for me to fully absorb the tune unless I leave enough vagueness for people to insert the characters that help them best access it. That’s always been a huge goal of mine when writing songs. I’m a story kind of person.

AB: So, who are some artists that you’re listening to right now or who you look to for inspiration, whether past, current…Who’s on your playlist? Let’s hear it!

SR: You just said something which was gorgeous. I was talking to Kellon, who lives downstairs from me, and is the alto sax player for The Friends. He was saying that when he was in jazz school, his teachers taught him that when somebody says “what’re you listening to,” you ought to be able to tell them one older iconic project that has influenced your corner of your industry, one more modern project which is changing the course of your industry, and then something that your peers are working on. Which I thought was a brilliant way to answer that question, and also a brilliant way to check yourself to make sure you’re consuming enough of what you do. If you’re just making music and you’re not listening or influenced, you have no scale about whether or not your work is going to be iconic or recognizable. In any case:

I’ve been listening to a lot of Wings in the last year. Like Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney’s Wings. I’ve been consuming that like crazy. I’ve been revisiting ELO and Queen. The three of those projects are all very multi part, journey kind of songs, where you’re going to a bunch of different places. That’s a direction I'm trying to move in. A more orchestral approach, which you’ll hear on our new song coming out in January called “Let’s Throw a Party.” It’s kind of all over the map. I also recently got hip to this wonderful super powerful black, queer, female singer songwriter and guitarist called Joan Armatrading, who was really popular in the late 70’s and 80’s. I didn’t know about her until this year, and I was like: “Oh my God, you’re amazing.” And I am in love with Jaime, the new solo record by Brittany Howard, who’s the front lady of Alabama Shakes. That record is so good. I listen to music all day long.

AB: I totally see you listening to music all over the map, because when I think about your music, it’s sort of genre defying in a weird way. It’s so easy to place it in a bunch of different genres. It’s like jazz or rock jazz or a little bluesy, but I try to think first of your voice. You have such a folky voice, but you also have this beautiful jazz voice and this power rock style. Because you have this beautiful instrument that you use so well, you’re able to do all these different styles. What do you think Sammy Rae is as an artist? Who do you think you are, and where do you think you’re going?

SR: Oh my god, I have no idea. We have this running joke in the band where I identify as a folk singer, but my band is just too killing. There was a time where I was in a folk quartet and I loved that time.

AB: And the music is gorgeous.

SR: Wait, do you know that project?

AB: Is it Newcomers Club?


AB: Yes! “David” is gorgeous. It’s always on repeat.

SR: I love that record. We made a really good record. The boys on that project are very dear to me, but they were moving in a direction and The Friends were suddenly blowing up, so I had to prioritize The Friends. But I feel safest and truest when I’m listening to folk music and Americana rock music because it reminds me of home and small town, quiet New England life. It’s in my songwriting and storytelling nature to want to adopt some of those characteristics of early Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, and all the way back to John Prine and Paul Simon.

There’s almost too many syllables per line. I have so many things I want to tell you, and it's difficult to do that if you’re belting way up high like a rock star or trying to be really dexterous like a jazz singer. I consider myself a folk singer, and folk music is music for and of the people, which I would hope is what we are. World music is also an aspect of folk music. And The Friends come from so many different backgrounds. Some of us are South African, some of us are Venezuelan, some of us are Ecuadorian, some of us are white people from the United States, so we’re all coming from different schools of musical thought and upbringings. I appreciate that The Friends is an environment for everybody to let those individual things shine, which would be a train wreck in another project where there wasn’t this understanding of openness and vulnerability to contribution when we were in the rehearsal room or studio together. Therefore, I think we’ve really nailed it.

I didn’t find jazz until I was 17/18, and I fell in love with it because I was recognizing how the great female singers of jazz were using voice as instruments. At the time, I didn’t have any other instruments. I was like, let me be super dexterous and acrobatic in what I’m doing. So, when I had a big rock band like I always wanted, I was able to bring that rockstar energy to life and performances. But when it’s just me writing a song on my keys or my banjo, I feel like a folk singer.

AB: Rock-Folk band, jazz roots.

SR: Exactly, that’s probably it.

We finished up our conversation talking about her new holiday release “Last Christmas” and her new friendship with Captain America’s Chris Evans. She spoke so well of him as a person, and talked about how wonderful it was for her to meet someone she admires so much and have him be such a genuinely kind human being. I felt the exact same feeling when we finished the call. Sammy Rae is an incredible musician, but most importantly, she is an incredible human being, in every sense. At the end of the interview she said something that was really special to me.

SR: I just want to say thanks. This was really special, and what I was talking about earlier with this moment of like an occasional lapse of identity, it’s very special when somebody is interested in what I’m doing and wants to hear more about what I’m doing and why. It’s very encouraging and uplifting and I feel that support very strongly. I’m grateful for that. I really appreciate you spending the bulk of today talking about my career in the present tense. I know that sounds dumb, but I’ve had a couple of interviews in the last couple of moths that were like “so what were some of your favorite shows,” “what was…” I’m like, it's not over! It’s stalemated and that’s really sad, but I don’t need to be reminded of that. Or “when all this is over, what do you intend to do?” There’s a lot I intend to do when this is over and we get back to life as it was for live music. But there’s a lot that I’m processing and working on and want to share at the moment. Building that community is a huge part of what I’m focusing on in the moment and for you to be so interested and talk about the greater friend’s community in the present tense was really special for me today, so thank you.

I left the interview feeling so grateful to have spent an hour talking with an incredibly well thought, genuine, insightful human being. It made me feel hopeful on the future of music, let alone the future of live music. Hearing her describe what performing means to her reminded me of the Spanish metaphor of a Querencia, a metaphysical concept of the place in the ring where a fighting bull goes to rest; a place where it feels strong, and safe. Sammy Rae, like so many other performers, finds her querencia in performing, where she is the fullest and most empowered version of herself. In this version of the metaphor, daily life is the bull-ring, and there hasn't been that place to rest. For many of us, finding a place where we feel safe and strong is an eternal challenge: one where we may seem to have reached our destination only for it to move again. As consumers of music, we are so lucky that Sammy Rae finds her querencia in performing. And as people, we are so lucky that Sammy Rae is always striving to be the strongest, most authentic, genuine version of herself. Sammy Rae and The Friends might not necessarily be a folk band, but it definitely is, as Sammy says, “music for the people, of the people” — like so many awe-inspiring folk musicians before her.

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