Backseat Mixtape Vol III- Sammy Rae and the importance of Friends

Design by Jared Dobro

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently on the healing nature of live performance.

Whether that means being part of a performance or a member of the audience, there’s something truly magical about gathering in a large group of people to appreciate art. And when art is elevated to its highest level, it’s simply transformative.

I’ve been to many captivating and moving theatrical performances in my life, many of which have brought me to tears or caused me to laugh my way right out of my seat, but nothing matches the range of raw emotion I experience when attending a concert. The first concert I ever attended was the Clearwater Festival, where I got to see the one and only Pete Seeger perform. I only remember bits and pieces of the performance, but I will never forget seeing 90-year-old Pete Seeger sing “If I Had a Hammer.” It was an incredibly beautiful day for an outdoor festival. I sat on a towel with my family, eating the sandwich my mom packed me and learning how to juggle. I was 10 years old. I remember being surrounded by adults, all of whom seemed to be wearing bandanas like my parents always did, collectively mesmerized by an aging folk icon.

“If I Had a Hammer” was first performed by Seeger’s group, The Weavers, in 1949, and it served as an anthem for the emerging progressive movement at the time. Clearly, good meaningful music will always stand the test of time. Seeger’s willingness to challenge authority and stand up for what he believed was right, all while inspiring people across the world to make a difference, is why he is often referred to as the greatest American folk singer of all time.

Since my time at the Clearwater Festival, I’ve had more experiences to see some of my favorite artists perform live. Some notables include Kaleo, Jack Johnson, Allen Stone (twice), Lake Street Dive (also twice), Ray LaMontagne, Lawrence, Hozier, and most recently, I saw Melt the Band open for Sammy Rae & The Friends.

I first heard of Sammy Rae sometime at the beginning of my Sophomore year at Ithaca College, at a friend’s off-campus apartment. We played her EP “The Good Life” on repeat for what seemed like hours, and before I left to go home, I had already texted the EP to a bunch of my friends. A couple days after that first time being shown her music, I was listening to my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist while walking to class and sure enough, there was Sammy Rae again. Her voice was so distinguishable and her style so recognizable.

Almost overnight, Sammy Rae became one of my favorite artists, and soon after, it seemed like the whole Ithaca College music scene was obsessed. Sammy Rae truly spread like wildfire. It was honestly pretty unreal to see a smaller-time artist’s music get popular so quickly in such a niche way. At every a cappella party, you were sure to hear at least two songs off of “The Good Life” EP. We felt like our very own Sammy Rae fan club. A couple of my friends even covered one of the songs at a vocal recital, and I shared it on my Instagram story and tagged Sammy. I quickly got a response from her saying that she needed the video. It was such a good feeling to have even a small amount of contact with an artist who I looked up to and appreciated so much.

At the beginning of second semester Sophomore year I broke my ankle and needed to get surgery, effectively ending my time on campus at Ithaca for the year. I was bored as could be on the couch and decided I would start a creative project. I created a playlist entitled “25 Great Songs You’ve Never Heard Before” with each of the songs having less than 250,000 streams at the time I began writing. My goal was to reach out and interview all of the artists whose songs I had included and make a coinciding article to the playlist. The very first song on the playlist was “Flesh & Bone” off of Sammy Rae’s “The Good Life” EP. At the date of creation, April 1st, 2019, “Flesh & Bone” had 77,790 streams. As of the day I’m writing this piece December 12th, 2020, it currently sits right around 1 million streams, with other songs reaching as many as 3.6 million streams. It’s safe to say that Sammy Rae is no longer a small-time artist. As life would have it, I eventually began to be able to walk again and I never finished the article I started. But it still brings me joy to look back on and see a number of artists who, at the time were still largely unheard of and are now easily recognizable names. Other than Sammy Rae, that original article included the likes of Brandon, Allen Stone, The Brook and the Bluff, Deva Mahal, Clark Beckham, Lawrence, and Suzy Jones.

Fast forward to fall of 2019 and Sammy Rae is coming to Ithaca College to perform a concert at the pub. It was a day I was waiting for since a year before, but I wasn’t going to be able to go. I was across the ocean, still living in London, and I was SO jealous watching all of the Snapchat videos and Instagram stories that my friends were posting and sending me. It was obvious, even just from the videos, how natural and compelling of a performer Sammy Rae truly was. Everyone went on and on telling me how incredible and how exciting the concert was, with a strong emphasis on how wonderful Sammy Rae the person is.

Fast forward another few months to February of 2020, and I had a ticket to go see Melt the Band and Sammy Rae & The Friends perform at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts, with my mom and my sister. The concert was on Friday, February 7th, and my plan was to go to my morning classes and then skip my afternoon classes and drive the 4 hours to Northampton to meet my mom and sister for dinner before going to the concert. I woke up that morning to the rarest of rarities at Ithaca: a snow day. There was easily a foot of snow on the ground but there was no way I was going to miss this concert. So, I spent an hour digging my car out of the snow, stopped to get gas, and hit the road. Should I have driven 4 hours in a snowstorm? Absolutely not. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Melt was an incredible opener and Sammy Rae & The Friends brought a smile to my face that would stay with me for the whole weekend I was home.

I stood right up against the stage at the middlemost point and looked straight up at Sammy Rae & The Friends, and they were mesmerizing. The second they started performing, the whole crowd was moving, seemingly together. The Iron Horse is a really small and cozy venue, and Sammy Rae & The Friends are perfect in that exact kind of space. In a way I’ve never experienced at a concert before, the performers fostered a community with the audience. In front of us was of course Sammy Rae & The Friends but looking back at them were their new friends. We all felt it.

After the show I got the chance to speak with Sammy, and I was blown away by her genuine appreciation for the crowd and for people listening to and appreciating her music. She even offered up some of her post show m&m’s (and there was no way I could refuse).

I think it’s easy to get lost in good artists music and think one dimensionally about it because of how good it is. We often overlook who the artist that is making this music is. It’s a familiar argument when discussing the likes of Chris Brown, or Kanye West, or even John Lennon (it's heartbreaking, but look it up). Can we separate the artist from their art, or are they too intertwined? With Sammy Rae, you can easily throw this question out the door because her art is so inherently connected to who she is as a person. Her music is an accurate reflection of the genuine person that she is. It’s honest. It’s emotional. It’s beautiful.

For all of these reasons, I decided to reach out to Sammy Rae via Instagram and ask her if she would be interested in doing an interview. I wanted to know about who she is, what her musical community means to her, and how it all combines to create the joyous, reflective, and meaningful music that we so easily recognize as hers. She called in via Zoom with all of her succulents behind her, and her cat Winslow walking right over her lap, with an honest, appreciative smile across her face.

Click the link for the full interview:

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