Keeping it Colorful and Communal With Sammy Rae
Singer-Songwriter Sammy Rae opens up about storytelling, impressing herself with improvement and doing the things you have to do so you can do the things you want to do.
Sam Bowers (Sammy Rae)
Occupations, affiliations, and projects.
I work in children’s media and entertainment. I also front and manage my band Sammy Rae & The Friends. I’m a member of the folk-rock band Newcomers Club, and I sing for hire around New York in a few different settings and local bands.
I’m a vegetarian, I’m a member at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, I’m a Spotify Premium user. I very much dislike our president and his friends. Those count as affiliations, right?
PEOPLE WHO DO FOCUSES ON THOSE WHO TAKE ACTION TO PURSUE MEANINGFUL LIFE PASSIONS. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU TO “DO”?
When I ‘do’, I sing my songs. I have stories that I feel like deserve to be told. And I think I have a knack for telling stories that we all know, but may not all know how to tell. It’s important for me to sing, it’s the best way I know to effectively communicate.
When did you know you wanted to be a musician?
I was 12. My dad told me to come watch Bruce Springsteen on VH1 Storytellers, a program where artists would play their tunes acoustic and talk about their songwriting process. He started with ‘Blinded By The Light’, which he wrote when he was younger than I am now. At first listen the song is sort of a bunch of run on sentences and wordplay, but in his explanations everything had a place. Riddles and code-cracking. I started listening to well written rock and pop songs more intently, and I noticed more of that—lyrics and music that complemented each other to convey emotion, transport, tell stories. That ability seemed really powerful to me as a kid. The challenge became to write ‘good’ songs that were specific and close to me, but just accessible and general enough that everyone could hear a little bit of their story in mine. Get funky with rhyme schemes, play with vowel sounds. You can communicate things on a much more elevated level with songs than you can with just words.
To date, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
I moved to New York with nobody at 19. I was paying my own rent, working a job, going to school full time, and making a record. The record fell through, I ended up in some legal trouble trying to separate from the producer. I released the album, left school, moved to Brooklyn, got extremely sad. I was in debt, I had no friends, all I knew was that I wanted to make music but I had no real career prospects. I worked all the odd jobs, I started going to open mics and hanging around venues until I had established a creative community around me. I formed my band, Sammy Rae & The Friends, and started from scratch with new material. In July of 2018 we released my self-produced EP. Visually, sonically it’s something I’m very proud of, I hired some of my dearest friends and favorite musicians in New York to help me make it. I feel like our EP (‘The Good Life’) was really the debut of the Sammy Rae I knew I would arrive at with the next release. I guess making it through the first year in Brooklyn, and then creating such an important project really gave me back my confidence and sense of ownership over my work.
When you have a really good show, day of recording or just practice, can you describe how you feel?
I like to impress myself with improvement, and I don’t give it to myself often. When I have a gig or rehearsal where the band is totally honed in and were all there for each other, when I listen back to the day’s recording and I sound better than the demo, I feel encouraged to keep going. Because I set out to do this thing, and it’s working, and growth is exponential. We’re not getting worse with time.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve learned so far this year?
How to be a better friend. It got busy wrapping up the EP, I did too much delegating responsibilities to my close people and not enough saying thank you. A lot more talking than listening. I saw the way that affected some of those relationships, so I started to be more attentive. I took notice of the people in my life I considered wonderful friends and how/why they made me feel loved. I’ve been trying to be better about these things, maybe ‘be good to your people without expectation’ is my favorite thing I’ve learned this year.
#1 motivating mantra to get through tough moments.
I’ve got two. One is ‘If it’s not in your bag, you don’t need it” For the last two summers, I’ve taken a month with no residence and lived out of a pack. I stay with friends, I travel the world, I rely on public transportation and all that, it’s a real special learning experience. There comes a point about halfway through where I realize there’s some convenience I left at home and I’d really like to have with me. Then I remind myself that I’ve already lasted this long without it. If it’s not in my bag, I don’t need it. I let the same apply to life, I may not be as established or visible as some other artists, I may be lacking in the lifestyle I envision for myself. I may feel a little awkward or anxious in a social setting. But if it’s not in my bag, (my skill set, my talent, my personality, my world) I don’t need it. If I haven’t got it yet, I wasn’t meant to pick it up yet. It’s a good reminder that I am working my hardest and the things I want will come. Until then, I can be simple, resourceful, and grateful. I’m doing fine in my own lane. My second mantra is ‘I can handle this because I made it through that first year in Brooklyn’.
What’s your favorite lesson you’ve ever learned?
My mom always said ‘do the thing you have to do so you can do the thing you want to do.’ This rings more true the older I get.
What's your go-to song to put you in a better mood?
What’s the best piece of advice that you can give someone pursuing a career in music?
Be patient with yourself, you’ll get better at all of it. When I first started writing and recording in New York I thought that I would be fine at sustaining this career, because I really believed that I could sing. And I knew that historically, I got better with time and practice so I wasn’t too intimidated by the future. Then I started to learn about what it takes to promote and release a record, and realized how much control I wanted to have in every step of the process. It suddenly wasn’t enough to be a great singer. I felt very overwhelmed and incompetent for a long time, it was dark. I started working on projects other than my own and spending time in a lot of different studio and rehearsal environments. I sat in with lots of bands. I learned a great deal from watching my peers and listening back to critique recordings. Overtime, I became more comfortable in the role of bandleader and absorbed a lot of the responsibilities in the production process. My point is that this industry, by nature of what it is, takes time. You have to pay your dues at small venues, you have to make connections by working, you have to practice the parts or you wont get any tighter. It’s coming, just be patient with yourself and don’t quit, ya heard?
By "do-ing", you create your own unique legacy. How do you want your legacy to look?
I want it to be colorful. And communal. And generally friendly. Brand is very important when you’re trying to grow a band or for that matter, any small business or team. Sure, we have a color palette and general verbiage we try to stick to etc. but my grander vision is that our community becomes our brand. The people that come to my shows regularly become friends of mine and friends of my musicians, because they understand that we are here for the music, but more so here for each other. The Friends isn’t just my band, it’s everybody who moves the band forward with their talents and their finances and their words of support. I look out and I see a lot of queer folk and Latinx folk and generally wacky folk in their boldest weekend outfits. I love that I see more diversity in our crowd than I do most other work or social environments in my life. I feel them encourage me to fully be myself out there, so that they can share that same freedom. In the venue and when they leave and jam to our Spotify page. I have a lot of opinions that I think are important, and shared by a lot of young people. About our political climate, about the music industry, about commerce, about the environment. I’m excited for the day that my visibility provides me with a platform to say those things loudly enough to make an impact. With a bunch of lovely, activated young people behind me. With some killer horn lines and a tight rhythm section and long-winded lyrics I wrote. With the communal voice of everybody in The Friends.
Favorite method for logging any kind of inspiration.
Voice memo, for sure. I’m thinking of new music constantly, and realistically I’d say I record three to five song-starts a week that never get finished. Sometimes they sit on the back burner for months until it’s time to finish them up or loop them into another tune. I finish songs in spurts, maybe two or three good ones in a two week period, then no more for several months. My voice memo app is essential so I can quickly run back to those scattered ideas when I have missing pieces of mostly written songs.
What’s the next goal?
Out of state gigs. Better merchandise. More money so I can pay everybody in my band the way they deserve. Finish up the few songs in the pipeline, teach them to the band, release them as singles. A sustainable lifestyle focusing full-time on Sammy Rae & The Friends.