Sammy Rae, frontwoman of the jazz-pop band Sammy Rae & The Friends, is known for her infectiously positive energy and joyful presence on stage. Following her March 27 show at the Royale, WRBB’s Chloe Cohen sat down with her to chat about her inspiration and influences.
Chloe Cohen: What originally drew you to making music?
Sammy Rae: Growing up, my parents played a lot of classic rock and rock in my house. I was introduced to Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band on VH1 Storytellers, where Bruce explained his writing process behind every line of some of his most iconic songs. From then, I understood the power of a song, combining music and lyrics, and took to songwriting to express myself. I had taken a few years of piano lessons as a young child and abandoned it, but I started back up to write my first songs. I mainly taught myself piano, and shortly after the ukulele, and posted my originals to YouTube. While it was where I started, there was always a loneliness to it and I always longed to work with a band.
When you’re in a songwriting slump, what do you do to get your creative juices flowing again?
I go find a body of water. I feel most inspired by water for some reason. If I’m in a particular slump and I can afford it, I like to run away to a lake somewhere for a few days and always emerge with a few songs, or at least solid starts.
If you were a type of cereal what would you be and why?
What an excellent question. I am a moderately healthy but also indulgent, crispy bowl of regular Special K rice flakes.
Who are your biggest musical inspirations?
I source inspiration from a lot of different artists. I think my goals as an artist fall in three buckets. I want to be a powerful and generous bandleader, and so I’ve always looked to Bruce Springsteen for that. I want to be an honest and convincing storyteller. For that I look to Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Billy Joel. I want to be a gifted and ever-evolving musician with my instrument; voice. To hone my craft and challenge myself I look to the great women of jazz, like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. I’m also endlessly impressed with the rock vocals and artistry of Paul McCartney and Freddie Mercury.
Which song of yours is your favorite and why?
“Saw It Coming” is an under-dog in our discography, I would say. I love that song. I think the arrangement is absolutely lovely, and the message is clear and honest. This is a song about getting what you deserve, whether that’s good or bad. Hard work and kindness pay off. Anger and selfishness come back around to you. I wrote this song with children in mind, and that was a fun prompt for me. It needed to be simple enough for a child to understand. I also wanted to address the ability that everyone has to change and improve themselves and the world around them. It’s never too late! If the clock’s still running, then the door’s still open!
I love your devotion to maintaining community, along with your mantra, mantra, “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 them.” How do you maintain this love and positivity during difficult times, especially as an artist during a pandemic?
It was definitely difficult to retain a community without the ability to play live and share space with them. When we transferred to a digital space, and spent a lot of time on our Instagram page, we were overwhelmed by the amount of support and engagement from our community. We released new music during the early half of 2020 and to feel the same appreciation and affirmation that we were used to when playing new songs live was very humbling. We’re extremely grateful for the Friends who stuck with us, from all over the world, from the release of The Good Life in 2018 through our music released in the last two years.
What is one piece of advice you would give to young queer people in the music industry?
The only choice you have other than to be authentically yourself, is to end up unhappy. I wish more than anything that I gave up on trying to fit a mold when I was younger. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I started to give myself permission to be my authentic self, in my music and in social environments. As soon as I stopped worrying about impressing others or ‘making sense’ to everyone, I started to attract the sort of people and opportunities that I had always admired from afar. I gained the relationships I had always longed for. It is incredibly taxing work to maintain a life where you are being less than your authentic self. To listen to, get to know, and decide to love yourself takes courage, but it is quite literally the easiest and most fulfilling way to live your life. I think very often about young queer people in my songwriting. I like to write the songs that I wish I had when I was younger. I think everyone in the music industry has a responsibility to advocate for the world they believe in. And I think it is the responsibility of queer artists to advocate for themselves, and carve out space for their community, with their work.
Your new album is absolutely fantastic! It sounds like it incorporates a number of different styles, including jazz. I love the incorporation of scatting into a few songs! How do you think jazz is making a comeback into modern music?
Thank you! As I mentioned, I’m deeply inspired as a vocalist by vocal jazz music. Jazz is the only uniquely American style of music. The pioneers of jazz music are Black and immigrant musicians who combined their cultures into a melting pot of a genre, as new American citizens. It has evolved as America has evolved, and I’m glad to hear more and more vocalists and musicians experimenting with it in their modern music. Jazz deserves a great deal of reverence and authenticity. ‘Jazz’ is an amalgamous and general word, but you know it when you hear it. It makes you think. I love it when a new artist is releasing work that makes their listeners think, in its words and music.
If you could collaborate with anyone right now, who would it be?
Jacob Collier. I’m very attracted to his chordal understanding and willingness to push the boundaries of genre and typical song form.