Since childhood, singer-songwriter Sammy Rae has been writing songs with the intention of one day being in a band. Two EPs, over 650,000 Spotify listeners, a slew of singles, and over 66.5K Instagram followers later, Sammy can confidently say she is doing what she loves with her band, Sammy Rae & The Friends.
The vibrant sound of Sammy Rae & The Friends is unmistakable: the stories and narratives they explore are hard to not root for, their sheer positivity is infectious, and they are a treat to watch live. In advance of The Friends’ highly-anticipated concert in the Memorial Chapel on Tuesday, March 8, The Argus sat down with Sammy to talk about all things music and Connecticut.
The Argus: This is one of the craziest things ever. It’s such an honor to be talking to you and asking some questions. What brings you to Wesleyan?
SR: I grew up in Derby, Connecticut, which is not far from New Haven, and I went to the University of New Haven for a year, so I was always in the Connecticut area, and then our guitarist, Will [Leet], grew up in Madison, very close to Wesleyan. It’s nice to be in Connecticut and it’s nice to feel like you’re at home, and I have a couple of dear friends that graduated from Wesleyan, so it was a no-brainer to come play.
A: Obviously it’s hard to pick favorites, but what song do you enjoy performing most?
SR: I don’t know. It’s nice to play newer material, and that’s no shade to the older material, but when I wrote a lot of the songs on The Good Life EP, I was still in my early twenties and figuring things out, and not really sure who I was. Those are really coming of age stories and you can hear me figure out who I [was] and what I [wanted] to do with myself, which is special. But the Let’s Throw a Party songs and the singles that came after The Good Life were after I was a little bit more established as an adult in New York and I could understand that I had a place in the New York music scene. I was a little more confident with who I was and a little more authentic.
It’s always a joy to play [songs off] The Good Life, and those are always the fan favorites. I guess “Whatever We Feel” is a fun one to play, and I’ve really been enjoying “The Feeling.” “The Feeling” is a song that’s always been difficult to perform: it’s pretty high, pretty loud, and pretty bombastic. We’ve taken “The Feeling” and added some interesting elements to it and really changed it up from the way it is on the record. I hope that now, all these years after it was announced and people already know it from the record, that we’re giving them a fresh, new breath of life into that song.
A: My friend introduced me to “The Feeling” two years ago, which was the first song I heard, so it’s always held a special, symbolic spot. The two of us, with some other friends, went to see you at Brooklyn Steel last semester. How has it been going around to different areas and performing?
SR: It’s wild and it’s interesting to talk about in interviews because the answer is, “Oh my God, it’s a dream come true, I’m having the time of my life.” What makes this tour that we’re on right now, this month-long tour, different from previous tours is we’re actually in a tour bus this time, so it’s making travel a lot easier, and then we know where we’re sleeping every night or waking up in the next city. We have the luxury of being able to explore some of the cities that we’re seeing for the first time. It’s been very inspiring, obviously: it’s entirely different perspectives and ways of life across the country. It’s always nice to travel with your friends, and it’s also nice to travel and see that we have friends out in other places. When we went out to the West Coast, we really had no idea what to expect because we had never been, and we were blown away. Most of the shows were sold out when we were doing rooms as big as we do on the East Coast. It’s been really encouraging and really hard to believe, honestly, as we travel the country.
A: Where has been your favorite place to perform?
SR: Oh my God. I don’t even know, there are so many. It is always nice to perform in East Coast venues because when we first started touring, when we were first, like “Oh, maybe it’s time for us to leave town.” We were a New York band, so you build your first couple of years just playing New York City over and over and over and over again.
It’s always nice to hit an East Coast city that we know we’ve played before…but a totally opposite side of the country standout for me was we played The Showbox in Seattle a couple of weeks ago, which was one of my favorite shows. It was just an awesome sound experience, and we had no idea what to expect in Seattle, and the audience was right with us the whole time.
A: You briefly touched on this already, but how did you get involved in the life of the musician, especially as starting out in New York?
SR: Right. Well, I grew up in a really small town [in] Connecticut. I was just in my room writing songs from the time I was 12 and 13. I knew that I wanted to make a band, which obviously you can’t do when you’re a literal child. It’s also hard when you’re in a small town like that.
When I moved to New York, when I was 18, I was actually moving to study to be an educator. I was going to get my teaching degree. Quickly, within a semester, I was like, “Oh my God, now I’m on this road of New York City and there’s real music around, this is what I’m supposed to do with my life.” I didn’t know anybody. I had dropped out of college, which was an emotional moment for me and my family, [and I] was having a hard time dealing with that, but I was just forcing myself out for open mics and jam sessions, and anywhere that I could meet people. I literally didn’t know anybody on the scene. Then after a while you just start to see the same musicians at shows. Now you’re like ,“Okay, why don’t we get a coffee and let’s see if we vibe.” The next thing I knew I was pulling players together to work on my original material, and we went in and recorded The Good Life.
It was a really busy year and a half of me being like, “Get out there and see what you can do and meet people.” It was a really fun experience. It was a lot of fun. It was hectic. I did it because I was 19 years old and I didn’t know anybody, and that’s kind of what you’re supposed to do, and you just gotta get out and meet everybody, so I definitely learned, like, trial by fire. I met some good people. I came out of that kind of very uncertain period with some great band members.
A: I’ve actually always wanted to ask as a fan: something that I talk about with my friends a lot is how in The Good Life EP and then moving on, a lot of your songs are different but have very similar elements. I was wondering if you could weigh in about that and also the development of your sound.
SR: Sure. I always knew I wanted a band. I never wanted to do this thing solo, and I think what’s special about the sound of The Friends is we are seven individuals from very different studies within music. When I knew I wanted to start this project, I refused to conform and I was like, “This is who I’m going to be in front of an audience, these are the kinds of stories I want to tell.” I wanted the band to have permission to do that too. Some of us come from jazz studies, rock music, musical theater, and world and Latin rhythms. I think what’s special about The Friends is that everybody on the stage is doing what they do the best as hard as they can, and we’re all just rising to meet each other and make it make sense in a group dynamic. There really is something for everybody. It’s always family first.
A: I was wondering if you wanted to weigh in on the transition between The Good Life EP and things that you are doing now with The Friends. How has that shaped your trajectory?
SR: We’re the same band. The personnel has changed a little bit. I’m still at the front of the writing force, so you’re always going to get a song from us that is authentically who we are, and we’ll be telling stories that are about us. At no point did I go, “Okay, let me start making different music because I have an audience now.” When I made The Good Life, it’s like, “Here are these songs,” and I never even really thought about how they would translate live, which is my mistake.
Our bassist James always says that when we make a record in the studio, it’s just a portrait of what the song sounded like at that time, and he’s totally right. We’ve taken off this pressure of “Oh my God, make sure the record is absolutely amazing, and how do we translate it live?” Now that we have so many opportunities to play live, that pressure’s off and it’s kind of like, “Let’s make the most killing record we can and then figure out how to make it completely different to translate it live.” We’re confident that it’s going to be well received, so it’s very liberating to know that we can make records however we want and that we always have a chance to change them up and breathe new life into them so they don’t get stale.
A: What has your songwriting process been as you continue to record and release new music?
SR: I’m typically inspired by something lyrical and we’ll write those lyrics down, and just save them for later. The lyrics will inspire me and then I’ll get a melody at some point later down the line and save that. The melody works with the lyrics that I came up with and then kind of build off from there. I’m so deeply inspired by being on the road. There’s only so many things I can write about as somebody who lives in New York, so to be able to travel and see so many new things, it’s really done wonders for the songwriting process.
A: We’re living through this pandemic, and it’s affected so many different ways that we function in society. How has the pandemic impacted you or the band?
SR: Well, we have had a couple of shows that have been canceled, which is sad because we want to play for everybody, but we understand that our safety and the audience’s safety has to come first. We really had to adapt and figure out ways to keep the community strong in the digital space, which I’ll say I’m pretty proud of us [for]. I think that we’ve done a really good job of keeping communication open on our social platforms. The whole world has to learn how to be a little more private, a little more inward, so those are lessons I learned in the last couple of years, and we’ve all learned.
A: You mentioned the weight of identity in a previous answer. How has it been to be an openly queer femme in such a big industry that is the music industry?
SR: First of all, I’m very proud of how far we’ve come. From the very beginning, I didn’t have a complicated relationship to gender and I’m proud to be a woman. I don’t feel limited by that in any capacity, and I just refuse to ever be limited by that in any capacity. It’s a lot easier when you are a national touring band that can do 1500 tickets in any city, but it’s hard when you’re in the beginning and you walk into the space and everybody around you is male, and you’re trying to say, “None of this is what I want, this is my project.” There are not very many bands, large bands nowadays, especially in New York, I think we’re one of the largest really established bands. It’s been special and obviously, everybody in this band has such deep respect for me, and I mutual respect for them, so to be a band leader is an interesting challenge as a female and to be a queer person.
My understanding of queerness is to be unlimited, right. We can be “and” all these things, you don’t ever have to choose and be “or,” so it’s special and I hope that the ultimate goal is always in the music, there’s something for everybody. When I’m writing inherently queer stories, I’m doing my best to leave space and details so that it doesn’t exclude anyone. [I want to make] sure that there is enough space for queer folks to feel themselves seen in those stories, and I think queer people are everything and I want to hang out with queer people, and I’m very grateful to say that the audience that we’ve cultivated is pretty heavily queer. It’s not exclusively queer, and we see people from all different age groups and all different kinds of walks of life.
They’re wonderful. They’re just wonderful people and it sounds really cliche, but truly everybody in the audience, I just want to be friends with them so hard. I would say that if you are a queer young person, my hope is that we are a good example to you, of the fact that women can do anything and queer folk can do anything and queer stories and the stories of female empowerment deserves to take up space.
A: Wesleyan has a very open and active music and artistic scene, as I’m sure you know having known people at Wesleyan and growing up nearby. What words of advice or encouragement do you have for Wesleyan artists?
SR: You have to figure out who you are as early as you can, without rushing yourself, and you need to stick to that at all costs. This goes into the thing about being a queer femme in front of the music industry, and so consistently being under the straight male gaze. It’s not fun to pretend for a long period of time that you’re something that you’re not, it’s just not fun and it gets tiresome. Longevity is key. Sustainability is key. I want to do this forever, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to be myself and give myself permission to ebb and flow as I grow and I age.
If you want to be an artist, there’s a particular decorum and you need to be aware of. You’re going to be called on as somebody who’s visible, that people are gonna look at you, but the most important thing is you need to be yourself as hard and as loudly as possible. It’s what gives people permission to do the same, and it’s the only real thing that you can do that’s sustainable.
Have confidence in yourself and who you are, and go do that fearlessly because if you’re pretending to be somebody else and you’re well-received, do you want to be perceived and received well by those audiences anyway? Wouldn’t you rather be well received by an audience that understands who you are? And that audience is out there. That audience is out there for everybody, you know.
A: The last question that I had as a fan and a concert attendee and goer is where do you go from here? What’s down the pipeline?
SR: We’re always looking to the future and the new songs, and especially with touring, I’m constantly inspired by new material. We’re hoping that as soon as we get off the road, that we have an opportunity to record some new material and get some new singles out. We would love to get some music videos together if we have the time to do that. It’s difficult because the main priority for our project right now is touring, and we know that we’re not going to want a tour full time forever, I dunno, because [as] we get a little bit older, somebody wants to settle down, somebody wants to work on another project.
The hope is when we can slow down a little bit and get back to New York for an extended period of time, at some point in the future, obviously we would really love to make a full-length album. We want to make some more music videos, but right now what we’re focusing on is figuring out the best ways to tour safely due to COVID-19, and ideally leave the United States, we would like to get out to a European tour. We’re starting to work on that a little bit and touring is the big thing right now, but I can promise everyone listening that we will continue to release music, will continue to innovate, we will continue to listen to our audience on who they are and tell stories that serve them. We’re always figuring out better ways to make the live show more accessible and more fun for everybody in the room.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Oliver Cope can be reached at email@example.com.