Interview of Sammy Rae by Jessie Li
Sammy Rae is the leader of a nine-piece band based in New York, ‘Sammy Rae and the Friends.’ The band has stolen and warmed the hearts of many since the release of their EP, “The Good Life” in 2018.
Hello Sammy! How are you? What have you been up to? Do you have any projects in the works that you’d like to talk about?
I am so well! We’re in a bit of a busy period for the band right now. We’re in the thrills of production for a larger scale video with a couple different locations and lots of costumes and extras. We’re getting ready to go on tour in September and then again in November. We’ve got a lot of projects and exciting gigs coming up, so I’m good, but I’m very busy!
How did you discover and cultivate your love of music? Can you talk about how you got to where you are today?
It’s interesting. I didn’t really come from an exceptionally musical family. There was kinda just whatever my dad was listening to going on in the background. It was a lot of classic rock and, as I got a little older, I found my love for jazz and my love for folk music. I started writing when I was about 12 or 13. The first time I was playing live was around 15. Then I moved to the city when I was 19 to start doing this thing full-time. I formed the band within maybe a year and a half of that, and we’ve just been doing that since. Growing up, I played keyboard a little bit; I played piano. Then, as I got older, I found the banjo and the guitar and my love for really writing good tunes with lyrics. There wasn’t always music playing in my house. I found that on my own.
What was the most difficult thing about trying to grow your music career?
I was still in college; I was studying to be a teacher and then I realized that that wasn’t really what I was supposed to do with my life. I had to get my parents down with the fact that I needed to leave school for a little while. When I did leave, I had all these great ideas and these songs, but I didn’t have any musical connections. I really had to start putting myself out there and going to lots of open mics and other gigs and meeting people and connecting with them. I really had no guidance on how to lead a band or how to make music with a group of people. It just happened from going to shows and meeting people.
What advice would you give young musicians looking to start their career?
Be patient with yourself. Don’t give up. Work hard. Review what you’ve done and always strive to get better with every show. And lean on the people around you, especially if you’re starting a band. Don’t be afraid to ask for support.
You and The Friends have grown so much in such a short amount of time. How did you deal with the sudden change?
I was very pleasantly surprised. It really was pretty bizarre. I mean, we had been playing this small stage in New York pretty frequently and whoever would come would come. Then we put the EP out and a couple of tunes got picked up on discover weekly, and, suddenly, our fanbase had really grown. We went back to that small venue and we had packed it to capacity. People were watching the show from outside the glass. So we started booking bigger venues and, at this point, we’d sold out every show–with the exception of one–that we’ve played this whole year. It’s exciting! I said from the beginning that I didn’t really want to be famous. I just wanted to get a platform and a place of visibility so I could speak out on the things that were important to me and say the things that mattered and be a loud voice for the people that didn’t have as loud a voice. It did happen fast. It was a good fast, though.
How do you hope to impact the people who listen to your music?
We open up all of our shows and let everybody know that they’re seen and heard and welcome. The energy that we try to cultivate with every tune and every show is “let’s just be friendlier–friendlier to the environment, friendlier to each other, friendlier to our co-workers and our bandmates.” I hope that people come out of our shows feeling really seen and loved and like they have brand new friends from the audience and that they’re friends with everybody on stage. Then I hope they go out and they pass that along.
You end each show with the words of love: “Go put a smile on somebody’s face. Go tell somebody they’ve got a place in this world. Go tell somebody you wanna be friends with ‘em!” How and why did you make this choice?
We played this larger stage, which was the room attached to the small room we grew up in. We had put out a song the night before, and people already knew all the words! The place was totally packed, and it had sold out almost a week beforehand! The energy was really high! I climbed up as we were saying goodbye to everyone, and I just sang that out. It came out of nowhere. Then I watched that show back and I was like, “That’s it!” So I’ve been doing it every show since. It just came out of nowhere at one show because the energy was so high, and I really felt that love, and I just wanted everyone to go out and do those three things.
Music has so much power, and–by extension–you do too. How do you manage to wield this power and make the biggest, most positive impact you can?
When I go into writing a song, I always want to go into it thinking about how it’s going to impact the listener. I’ve never written a song directed at one person. I don’t write love songs. I don’t write “I’m mad at you” songs. I try to write in a more general tone, so that every tune that I put out makes sense for the general audience so they get something out of it too. They’re not just listening to me sing about my love life or my experiences. They’re listening to a song in which the language is both vague and specific enough that they can insert themselves into it and get some empowerment from it. We want people to feel like they’re coming out on top at the end of every song.
We’re Sammy Rae and the Friends; I’m Sammy Rae and there’s eight specific friends, but everybody who’s a part of this in that they buy merch or they listen to the music or they come to the shows or they believe in these messages and want to promote them–all those people are part of the Friends too. We don’t have fans, we have friends.
Can you please describe your writing process?
I always get lyrics first. I always hear an interesting turn of phrase or catchphrase. One line strikes me, and I just go with that. I’ll write three songs in a week, then I won’t write again for six months. It’s weird, but that’s always the way it works out. It’s always lyrics first, then I’ll find the music. I usually write it on piano. Then I write it on banjo. Then I make a demo. I send it to the band so they can hear it. Then I write the horn parts and tell the girls what they’re going to sing. Then we go into rehearsal, and I give everybody charts with the chords, and we all discover it together. It always starts with lyrics, and then music, and then a couple of demos, and then I write what I’m capable of writing, and then I bring it to the band.
How did you develop your wonderfully unique sound? How would you describe your sound?
I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock, so I got into the classic song structure that everybody knows. I just got into the heart of songs and how you write songs. I always loved Bruce Springstein so I bring a lot of that pastoral vibe to my music. Then, as I turned 17 or 18, I started to get really heavy into jazz music. That’s when I started to adopt that jazz approach and that jazz schooling to the way that I was singing. Just a couple years ago, when I was 22 or 23, I started getting really into folk music and bluegrass music and down-home Appalachian music. I bring a little bit of that in my vocal performance; I do a bit of yodels and flips. I think my music is a combination of classic rock song structure and high energy rock performances, and I bring that jazz and that folk element to it too.
What would you say are your priorities in your career and music making in general?
I want us to be a whole package. I want us to have great merchandise that appeals to people, great music videos that compel people visually, songs that connect to people, and I want to be able to really fine-tune our live show and make it more bizarre, engaging, and fun every single time.
What is the best thing about performing?
Watching the audience is a natural answer! Also, the band members that I have up there are my best friends in real life. We’re all BFF’s! Being able to spend time preparing for these shows with my best people and then getting up there and sharing that high energy with them and growing with them, we get tighter and we become better musicians every single time. I also just like to be up there, because I’m one of those weird musicians who is obsessed with listening to myself. I want to get on stage and then get off and listen to myself a hundred times so I can get better and better. I love the sensation of improvement.
What has been the best on-stage moment for you?
We played Dram club in New York City, which was 350 people, so that was the biggest one that we played to date, and it was sold out. I stage-dived for the first time! I just turned around and fell into the crowd and they loved it. They caught me and they carried me, which was a really special experience. Then we played Brooklyn Bowl, which was the biggest one that we played–550. There, what was special to me was we were on this huge stage; all the sudden, I had room to run back and forth. Instead of just communicating with the background singers and the horns right next to me, I had space to run back and talk to the drummer, run back and hang out with the bassist, run back and mess with the guitarist’s hair. Also, our key player had a full sized hammond organ! It was crazy to look over and see this big piece of furniture that I know so many music legends have played on that stage before. It was a solidifying, confirming moment to me and the whole band that we were a group and we had each other’s backs and we were going places! We were on the biggest stage we’d ever been on, had the biggest crowd we’d ever seen, and it felt natural–just as natural as that small room.
You are an inspiration to so many. Who inspires you?
The big band leaders that have come before me really inspire me. I always go back to Bruce Springstein. I’m also really inspired by a lot of the female jazz legends like Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald. I’m also a huge Freddy Mercury fan, because he’s another incredible band leader and just a devastating force of nature! His energy is unlimited! He’s also such a fabulous queer icon. My dad also inspires me. He’s a great family man. He loves me and my brother and my mom a lot. He always had a great job so we could have a great life. He works in accounting and numbers, but he loves playing guitar. Since he turned 50, he’s been really digging into guitar again. It’s awesome to see him keeping his hobbies and his passions and his artistic side alive for his whole life in whatever way he is capable of.