Sammy Rae on her music and ever-growing network of Friends
//Image courtesy of Sammy Rae & The Friends.
Catch up with Sammy Rae in conversation with WHRB. [Interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity]
Bridget O'Kelly: So obviously you and your band draw from so many different genres of music— you have rock, you have jazz, you have the blues, and everything in between. Were there any artists when you were starting off that were particularly integral to your artistic journey and finding your own unique sound?
Sammy Rae: Sure, I mean I think it all sort of taking shape when we started to meet each other and become a project which is very much collaborative in a lot of different ways. I grew up around a lot of classic rock and classic rock bands like Americana stuff so a lot of like Bruce Springsteen and the E street band and Fleetwood MAC and Rolling Stones and then also some more like pop-oriented rock like Queen and electric light Orchestra and the Beatles, so that's the stuff I was obsessed with when I was young. And then I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be a band, and I wanted to form a project that was large and I didn't want to do a thing solo/ I first got to New York City when I was 18. I had an interest in jazz music. I hadn't studied it but, I found that a lot of the work for a singular female in the music industry was singing jazz standards, so I kind of dove into that for maybe a year and I was doing a lot of standard gigs.
And then, as the time went on, I was meeting different people on the scene and saying “Hey I want to put my own material out, do you want to be part of this project?” and, as time went on, we made The Good Life with one band and then some players left and we found more players who are now you know we've been these eight friends for the last like two and a half years and as band members started to solidify because there's so much that goes into like who do I want to be in a band with and I was finding that there's some players who can really, really play, but like the hang is not there, or they don't share this common vision of like longevity and growth and they're here for like side gigs but I was looking for people who could like commit to this project and also, I worked really well with, and we could become friends that's what I wanted more than anything, was a community.
So you know JQ comes from world rhythms and some like math stuff and C-BASS comes from world rhythms and Latin grooves and Kellen comes from musical theater and Max comes from straight-ahead jazz and Will comes from punk rock and hard rock and Myron and Kyle come from Gospel and R&B so I knew I wanted a band full of a lot of different people, but with different talents and different backgrounds and influences, but I didn't know what we were going to sound like until we all started playing together, so I think what we get which is Sammy Rae & The Friends.
We joke sometimes that the only continuity is that there's no continuity. You can always tell it's one of our songs because there's certain things like first of all I’m singing lead. Second of all, there's lots of hand percussion. The thing that ties it all together is that people kind of step into the light more with different songs and let their genre shine you know. “Flesh and Bone” is very much like Will’s world to play the guitar really hard and “Good Life” is very much like C-BASS’s world to bring these Latin grooves in, and then “The Box” is very much folky and that's pretty much me. And then “Jackie Onassis” was we all kind of share this interest for funk and disco so it's a testament to everybody locking in with each other.
BOK: Yeah that's very clear from your music. I feel like music can't jive that well unless there's actually a connection with the band. And one of the things I think that sets your band apart is this kind of inclusivity and acceptance that you guys have not only as a band, but you know clearly comes through your music. I was wondering, has that message shaped your music, and was that a conscious choice that you made from the beginning, or did that just kind of happen naturally when you all came together?
SR: A little bit of both. I had kind of a hard time making friends when I was in middle school, in high school, and even the two years I was in college. I knew as soon as I got to New York, that I was going to find my people, and that we were going to have common interests and we were going to become a family. I didn't know who they were yet, but then we started to meet each other and that became true. And I came up with the name “The Friends”, because it was almost kind of like a joke because I was seeing so many people that were solo artists which is a great path to take and that's wonderful. But they were playing shows, and it was like you know, “Mary Jane”, and then in little text, it was like “and friends” with a lowercase F. And then I would go see the show, and there’s Mary Jane and she's amazing obviously it's her show, but then she had this quartet behind her, and they were really killing. And I was realizing I'm really here for this band energy. And I would congratulate her really quickly after the show, but then I wanted to talk to the bassist for so long. So I thought of this idea of, like, let's kind of immortalize and make as equally important as the first name the rest of the band. So we came to “Sammy Rae” and— capital T, capital F— “The Friends” like these are the people. They're not just friends, these are THE guys right. And as I felt comfortable, for the first time in my life as an adult, to start making these really revolutionary, self-expression, self-investigation songs with this supportive group. Those were the messages that really latched on. First, the crowds were small, but it was always the same people, and then the next show we could fill out a room that was twice the size because that person would bring a friend. So I started to realize that community was a really strong part of what our shows were. They were spaces for people to stand in the community and I thought that was awesome. I spend so much of my day responding to DMs and checking in with people and eventually people were like, “Yeah we flew from LA to come to the show because you're not in LA yet” and I was like wow, these people really love, not just the music, but what happens in the live space. So, as you start to get to know them and their interests and you make certain assumptions based on the way that people dress and the other people they follow and kind of the things they're talking about being passionate about online, I started to realize this demographic that was the front. So, why would I make songs that didn't serve them or were contradictory to what they stood for because the only reason we get to do this thing that we love so much every day is because of the people that are consuming our music and keeping it rolling. So it's a little bit of both. I knew that I wanted a community-oriented project, and then I didn't realize that community within the fanbase would become such an enormous factor until we started playing shows and getting to know the fan base started to inform the material we were putting out. And that's where we are now.
BOK: I follow you on Tik Tok and Instagram and I feel like you, in particular, form a bond with your fan base. It's also very clear that you're a genuine, loving, kind person which only draws us in more!
SR: I’m glad that that reads so well. We work really hard to make that. A lot of our fan base is younger than us, a lot of our fan base is that mid to late high school/early college/through college. I mean we have fans that are our age that are 26 and 27, but we also have fans that are 15, and we have fans that are 23. And I think that's a time period where everybody is looking for this sense of community and everybody wants to have friends. Sometimes I check in with myself and refocus and then jump back in because I spent so long wanting friends that now that I’ve got 40,000 friends, it's really cool! I want to make sure that they know that we appreciate them and also it's my job, you know. As far as I feel the income comes from appearances and merch and shows and streams, obviously. But none of that's a reality without those people that are behind their devices listening to the music and buying tickets. So today, if I don't have a show, if I don't have a lesson to give, you know if I’m not on a call with our merch site, there's no reason I shouldn't still wake up from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm and be present and engage with the fan base because we owe them that.
BOK: Well, thank you that’s much appreciated for sure.
SR: For sure!
BOK: This is just something I was curious about. Obviously, your music features everything from vocals to the keyboard to any instrument, you could ever imagine, but is there an instrument that you, in particular, love the sound of and love incorporating into your music?
SR: Yeah! I play the keys, not very well. There are key players out here, and there are piano players. I play piano, I’m not a key player. Because if you call yourself a key player in New York you're going to get gigs and their, like, devastating. So I play the piano. I have since I was young. And then I picked up the ukulele and started writing songs when I was like 15, and I picked up the banjo a couple of years ago. And the banjo kind of came about from me, realizing when I was first getting to know people, that you go to a collective of musicians, or like a musicians house and there's a jam or whatever, there's always an acoustic guitar but there's not always a keyboard. So I always felt like I’m the singer in the room and that's lame. I wanted to play my song. So I started throwing myself into trying to learn the guitar. And I was like “I'm not having fun, this is annoying” and I wasn't enjoying the process. At the time I had bought a banjo and I was enjoying that so much more, so I decided to just throw my energy into getting better at the banjo. It's the instrument that I can articulate chords best on. Surprisingly, I wrote “Saw It Coming,” “The Box,” and “Denim Jacket” on banjo and then brought them to the band. We haven't had the banjo make an appearance on any of our material yet because the vibe was right. But occasionally, I'll perform the band of the banjo “The Box” or “Saw It Coming” on banjo, but not “Denim Jacket”. That's my favorite. That's the one that's the most fun for me to play and I feel the least pressure.
BOK: Well, I look forward to when you slip the banjo into one of your songs! I’ll be listening.
SR: Yeah me too, me too.
BOK: So you and The Friends just released a new album in January of this year, Let's Throw a Party. I was curious what creating and releasing an album was like in a pandemic and how it was different.
SR: Yeah it was pretty wild! I mean we had had some of these songs already before the pandemic kind of went bananas. I'm using March 15 in my head as when it all went to hell, when New York started shutting down and masks were enforced. “Living Room Floor” I’ve been performing forever, we just hadn't recorded it yet. So we recorded that before the pandemic. We recorded “Whatever We Feel” well before. Then “Jackie Onassis,” “Let’s Throw a Party!,” and “Creo Lo Sientes” were tunes that were kicking in my head, but we hadn't recorded yet. Then for March and April, my partner and I ran away to their parents’ house in Connecticut. We were staying there because New York was really intense, and one of The Friends went back to California to check in with their parents for a couple of months. So it wasn't until May or June that we were all back in the city. And it was interesting because in real times when we're on the road, we're together constantly. We’re together for seven days at a time and that's the only people that we see. So it was really disorienting to not see each other for like five months, and then get together in a room and be like “Here are these new songs! Let's bring life to them, I miss you! I want to hug you! Can I hug you? Your dad's immunocompromised.”... it was really intense. But that family unit energy was obviously still there. Then I had been kicking on these things in Connecticut and then we brought it to the band. The three of them just kind of immediately made sense. Then we recorded “Jackie Onassis,” “Living Room Floor,” and “Let’s Throw a Party!” in maybe August, and even that was interesting. We have this great relationship with the studio that we work out of. Normally we're all behind the board, while I’m singing or so and so's tracking, we're all giving feedback. And it got pared down to only essential folks who were allowed in at the moment. So if the horns are tracking, it can't be the girls and the rhythm section with me giving feedback, it was just me. So that was kind of disorienting for me as well. And then they would leave and somebody else would come into the studio. But we were able to pull off, something that we thought was really impressive in terms of the project as a whole. These are, like any “Sammy Rae and The Friends” songs, their songs about embracing yourself and just like laughing through it. They're quirky and they don't take themselves too seriously. But when “Let’s Throw a Party!” came to being, such a monolith of a song, there's so much going on. It's just organized chaos. And we thought that that was the best way to end the EP and to title the EP. There's all this nonsense going on. So much chaos, so much pain. And we're all just sitting going through it together. We're all in the same spot. There's really nothing to do except throw a party.
BOK: Obviously you guys didn't expect the pandemic, but I feel like it's the perfect album for a pandemic. Because that's all you can really do is laugh through it until you can eventually throw a party and see your friends!
SR: You know it hit me really hard, the first month. There was this transition period of not even like “Oh I don't have to get out of my PJs tomorrow”, but like “Why would I bother getting out of my PJs?”. So it was tough. I don't get to see anyone. I don't get to do anything that makes me feel like me. I can't go to the gym. I can't even really go to the supermarket without feeling anxious. Why not just stay in my PJs on the couch all day? And we'd already done “Whatever We Feel” and it started to make more sense to me. And it was like, why not put on your earrings and sit on the couch with cool socks, but not shoes” because you're not going anywhere. So the songs that already existed like “Living Room Floor” and “Whatever We Feel” started to make more sense. And I'm sure that lyrics for the other three were in part informed by Covid experience.
BOK: No, exactly! So on that album you had “Creo Lo Sientes” featuring C-BASS, the only one of your mainstream discography that has a collaboration with another artist. Do you foresee yourself collaborating more in the future and, if so, do you have any artists, in particular, that you would want to do a collaboration with?
SR: We do! We have reached out to a few different folks and we're very excited about the prospects of collaborations with other artists that we feel we're kind of adjacent to, where we aspire to be connected to. In terms of “Creo Lo Sientes” with C-BASS, I had this little chorus in my head for a long time because I’ve been learning Spanish for the last three years. And one of my biggest teachers is my best buddy, C-BASS, whose native Spanish speaking. And during quarantine that was kind of the thing that I wanted to get better at. And people sort of cross stitching, and people started knitting, and people started doing whatever, but C-BASS would Facetime me for like an hour every day and we would just speak in Spanish. But it was in a very educational form. He would stop and correct me, and I was learning just by that. And I was like, “Why don't we have a song in Spanish?”. We have this Spanish-speaking fan base that we've noticed, so that was an exciting one. We were coming up with C-BASS lines, we were reaching out to good friends of ours in Mexico City and his Abuela was sitting there telling him how to say it better, so that was a fun collaborative experience. And C-BASS took a lot of quarantine to get better at production. He was learning how to produce his own material. He dropped his first single “Facetime” and he's working on an EP. And I figured why wouldn't we make C-BASS a lead voice on this, and why wouldn't we connect those two platforms? So it was also kind of a way to safely, within our own network, drop a collaboration. See how it reacted, get a look at the analytics, that sort of thing. But there are plenty of artists that we have you know contacted or had a brief conversation with that we're really excited about. And there are various stages of that conversation, but we really want to do something with Cory Wong. We have a couple of friends who have played form and are really close to, the Wolfpack guys, so looking at that. Theo Katzman would be a dream. At the end of April, we're playing a festival lineup in Miramar Beach, Florida, and we're going to be sharing the stage with Lake Street Dive, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Sheryl Crow, and The War and Treaty. So we're very excited about intentionally forging stronger relationships with those projects. I mean Lake Street Dive is our neighbors. We all live in the same neighborhood and we've just never had an opportunity to meet in a collaborative setting before. So we would love to do something with them. I'm also just a huge fan of St Paul & The Broken Bones and I don't think the rest of the band shares that with me, just because I think I’ve been hit to them for so long... I would die to have a song. But yeah you know there are a couple of different artists, mainly New York-based, that we're really interested in forging more stronger personal relationships and moving into a collaborative setting for sure.
BOK: I would be very into those collaborations if they ever happen! I’ll be sure to be the first listener! So you started off as an independent artist, and you are fronting all your music out of your own pocket. And now you have over 15 million streams on Spotify, I think I maybe account for a million of them, but there's a lot out there! So do you feel like your rise to stardom, if you will, happened overnight, or was it more of a slow burn, and then you looked up and all of a sudden you were verified on all platforms?
SR: There was this “all the sudden overnight” aspect, and then there was a “slow burn” aspect. To go back to The Good Life... I was in college, I did a year at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, which is very near to where I grew up. Then I had this moment of, “Music is too tough, I can't do it, it's not for me, I'm going to go be a teacher”. I went to study education at Manhattan College in the Bronx. But once I got to the city, I had all these opportunities around me. Some of the people I had gone to music school with in Connecticut had since graduated and were working in the city. They were “Hey! Come check out the studio, come do this, come do that”. There's this really tumultuous semester and a half at Manhattan [College] where I was splitting my time between babysitting because I lived off-campus, waiting tables, being a full-time student, and traveling down to the city. There weren't days and nights. It was sleeping when I could on the train and when the baby would nap. It was wild. I was kind of forced to look at my priorities, and I was like, I’m not enjoying school. This is what I want to do when these opportunities are being thrown at me. I have to give this a shot. My parents are both Italian and I was the first person with an opportunity in my family to go to college. So me being like, “I have to leave and try this” was really hard, especially for my mom in the beginning. I told her I was taking a break and I would figure it out, and then things started to happen. They trusted me with that time and I formed this relationship with the studio Flux in the lower Eastside. There's this term “studio rat” which is someone just there all the time listening in on sessions. I think that maybe some of the people who work there thought I was an intern because I was such good friends with all the interns. I would just be there with nothing to do and change the coffee out, do this and that, sweep, or whatever. I was around so often it came to the point where I’d found some players that I liked, and I said to the studio manager, listen, Daniel, I want to make an EP. I don't have very much money, let's figure it out, let's try it, let's take a chance. I’ll be all flux guys, we’ll keep it in the family.We’ll see what happens, and I will bring you my work for the rest of my career in New York, I swear to God, and I’ll bring you other people. He said “Okay”, and so we did that. This is one of the most premier studios in New York City, and I [produced the EP] for an unbelievable buddy rate. I made The Good Life with my money that I had, and I spent it all. We didn't know what was going to happen. It came out and obviously I have no fan base, so you're playing for like 10 people on a Wednesday night for tips. Then I went to bed one night and “The Feeling” which was under 1000 streams on Spotify. I woke up the next morning and I had 26,000. I realized that “Discover Weekly” was the key. “The Feeling” just started going bananas! It was like 50,000 by the end of the week, then 150,000 streams, and then the rest of the songs started to pick up. “Kick It to Me” got picked up by “Discover Weekly” and that had a great surge. So it really was just luck. The algorithm loved these two songs and all these people started digging into the rest of the discography and then we started playing shows. And people were really coming. Then we started to see everybody bringing a friend. I think the “looking up” moment was maybe six months after this happened with “The Feeling” and “Kick It to Me”. We played Rockwood, one of our favorite venues in New York, and we sold it out within a week. Then we just sat with that for like a month until the show came, then we went and it's a sold-out crowd and everybody knew every word. And it was almost this sense of like “Oh my God, I have to push through all these people to get to my Greenroom”. It was really overwhelming in a really rewarding way. That kicked off this run for us where every show that we played in New York after that every venue doubled in size and every single one was sold out. We played a 130 people venue, and then a 225, and then a 530, and then a 600, and then a 720, and they all sold out. So we were really excited by this “Discover Weekly” thing. Then we started actually taking shows seriously and playing shows and it kicked off this thing that was just growing exponentially. More than once in the last year we have canceled and rescheduled this show in Brooklyn at our dream venue, which is about 2000 people. We're very excited to finally be able to play that hometown show. We're really, really excited to play again because the fan base has grown so much in the last year that I don't think we have any idea what we're going to get when we start up again.
BOK: Well, I hope that comes soon for you guys.
SR: Yeah, me too! I mean we have the show with the festival next month in April, and then we have a couple of outdoor things throughout the summer, but we imagine it'll be a very busy fall for us.
BOK: I hope! I hope that sometime you come to play in Boston because we'd love to have you again!
SR: Yeah! We're supposed to play March 2022 at the Royale. But I think we may age out of that because we'd pretty much sold it out a year ago, but it was canceled. So I think in three years from now, we may very well have to play something even bigger. But we will come to Boston. Boston loves us.
BOK: It’s true!
SR: I appreciate it. We played one of the best shows of our lives at “The Sinclair” in Boston which I think was like seven hundred or so people, and that was wild. That’s the show that's all over the Internet. And a lot of the band went to Berklee so a lot of the band still has friends in Boston.
BOK: Yeah no, of course. I mean you're clearly very at ease on stage, probably one of the best stage presences I’ve ever seen, but do you have a pre-concert ritual, or do you just go out and you're ready to go?
SR: We have some stuff. None of us get nervous. All of us have wanted to be onstage our whole lives. I grew up in the theater, the girls came from theater, and the boys have been playing in different projects for however long. We tried to be really intentional about how we're going into this thing together. We spend that whole day together. When we're on the road there are a couple of hours in the morning, you go to get breakfast here, you go to eat breakfast there, somebody sleeps in, somebody goes to the pool, whatever. But when it's show day, we make sure that we have dinner, all together. We spend a lot of time in the green room together. We always do this huddle where I’ll say something, and then somebody else in the band— whoever's like compelled to say something— will say something and it's special. It's always somebody different. Nobody’s ever talking over each other. So we'll do this little huddle and then when the concert starts the band is on the other side of the stage and I come out first by myself. Then I play, then the band comes on. Somebody asked me if I need to be alone before I get on stage. Very much the opposite is true. I'm huddled with the band, and then they go to the other side of the stage and I will just strike up a conversation with the stagehand until the second they tell me to go on stage. Then I jump into being on stage and am having a conversation and being present with the whole audience. I feel like if I took even a second in that day from not being community-oriented before I went on stage, it would throw me off. So we always have a huddle, we always have a meal, and we always like to make friends with whoever's at the venue in terms of staff.
Then we just go out and do the thing. Then we'll take a second and wipe off the personality that we are on stage and we'll go out and meet the fans. We don't like to charge for meet and greets or anything like that. We're getting to a place where we may have to because we're playing really big rooms. But I think that you hear so many stories from music history buffs about the careers of musicians we love. And sometimes it's painful to hear, like “Oh, this guy's an icon, I love him, his career was amazing… now he's 85 and he's the greatest musician, you know he's my hero”. And then you hear all these terrible stories of how they were on the road and how unkind they were to fans and staff and crew. The same is to be said with band members. You can be so talented, the most talented person in the world, but if the gratitude isn't there, it doesn't mean as much. So I hope that stories of the way that we exist on the road trickle down at some point. We intend to maintain that open communication with everybody. We’re just people, you know?
BOK: Yeah I think that you're right. I think it's very hit or miss with musicians. Meeting fans is part of the craft, but obviously it gets overwhelming. I can see how you would get a little worn down.
SR: I get overwhelmed sometimes, but it's not because anybody's done anything wrong. There's only so much “I love you” you can hold. I feel I’m a very empathetic person, and I want to be present for everybody. Sometimes I’ll go out to meet people afterward and there are like five people who have waited for two and a half hours to meet us. Then, when they finally get a chance to tell me what the music means to them, they break down and they give me this really painful story. And I always carry it so deeply. That's what overwhelms me. When people really put into words how much it means to them, there's only a couple of those I can hold a night before like I'm weepy. So I do get overwhelmed. When we get back to the hotel it's like nobody can talk to me. Because I’m the one that receives all these stories at the end. So when we get back to the hotel, all those guys will party and rage and do their thing, and I have to go right to sleep. I won't talk about the show until breakfast the next morning because I want to process it all.
// Bridget O’Kelly ‘23 is a guest writer for The Darker Side.