Sammy Rae is easily one of the most captivating live performers around, and she’ll be taking the stage this Friday (November 15th) at Le Poisson Rouge w/ her bandmates, The Friends, for what’s sure to be an incredible time. (They’ll also be popping down to DC for a night a Gypsy Sally’s this Sunday, November 17th!) Their tunes are a tough-to-pin-down swirl of jazz, blues, rock, world and disco vibes, but don’t get too caught up in trying to wrap your head around any sort of concrete Pitchfork definition – just go and see for yourself what the magic’s all about. (‘Cause the magic factor is concrete.)
I was recently able to hop on the phone to Sammy Rae herself to talk about everything from banjos to pizza (trigger warning: Connecticut pizza IS DEFINITIVELY BETTER than NYC pizza), so while you’re counting down the hours and minutes to the gigs, go ahead and internet eavesdrop on our full conversation:
Alright, you seem SO comfortable on stage! Is that an inherent trait? Or do you ever get nervous? Because it doesn’t show at all if you do! So charismatic!
Well first of all, thank you! I’ve never really gotten nervous, which is cool. Every now and then we play a gig of like, a particular size, or…I mean, Brooklyn Bowl was by far the largest one we’ve ever played, and it was in a huge room, and we were just so excited for it. I get crazy excited for certain gigs. It’s definitely not nerves, it’s just, “Okay, sound check is at four, and we don’t play until nine…” and then it’s just me going crazy for five hours because I really, really want to play. I really don’t get nervous, and I think it comes from the time I was seven, even before I was writing music or performing any of my own material, because I was doing theater professionally. So I’ve been on stage since I was little-little, and I always just felt like it was the best place for me to go and be myself, even though I was portraying different characters. And then I started gigging from the time I was fifteen, so I’ve kind of been out there for a decade now. I think it’s more of just a crazy eagerness and excitement to get up there; it really doesn’t translate into nerves ever. And I’m lucky, because I have friends that play even bigger shows, and they really get nervous beforehand.
Totally. You’ve also mentioned that you don’t come from a particularly musical family, and least performance-wise. So how do they feel about you doing this?
They love it! I mean, when I say we weren’t a particularly musical household, it was like…we kind of always had the radio on, and my parents had me sort of young, and the CDs and records in the house were what they listened to. It was actually a lot of hard rock and metal, KISS and Whitesnake and ACDC and all that kind of stuff. And then somehow we ended up with a Bruce Springsteen record and a Fleetwood Mac record and a Garth Brooks record, and I started listening to songs for songs. And my dad always played guitar, not professionally, but in high school and college, and there was always a guitar in the house even though he didn’t play it very often. I’m actually thrilled, because later in his life he’s picked it up again and is very diligent about it. I love that for him.
But it was definitely something different, because they came from such a small, small town in Connecticut where you kind of marry someone from town and you stay there, and you maybe become a teacher or you work at the hospital. I was like, “I need to move to New York City and do this impossible thing, which is be a band leader and make music!” So it wasn’t met with resentment, but there was certainly a lot of, “Oh, god. I hope she’s making the right call, and I hope that New York City is safe and I hope that she figures all this out.” But my parents are wildly supportive of my band, and wildly supportive of what I’m doing now. They really have been the whole time; I mean, there was a little bit of anxiety when I decided to leave college to pursue this, but since then, they really see the way that it’s growing organically. The way that my parents put it, it’s undeniable, like, “Obviously nobody could offer you this in this small town, and we’re glad you left and miss you, but we really were worried that this was going to just be one of those impossible dreams that everybody who moves to New York has.” They’re incredibly supportive, which is great, and they’re learning about the industry as I’m learning about it, too.
What’s been the toughest thing you’ve learned about the industry so far?
That’s such a good question. Let me think. Well, it is very much about talent; you do have to have something that’s really undeniable that people can catch onto and go, “Wow, the songs are really good, this is really great, her band is really great.” But there’s also an aspect of who you know, and sort of who you’re seen with and who you’re associated with, like, “Oh, she’s friends with this person and that person does well, so maybe I should listen to her.”
And there is an aspect of finances to it; I can’t just jump out and put on a really awesome show right out of the gate if I can’t pay really talented players what they’re worth. It did take a long time for the first year or so to really be playing gigs that were big enough for me to be able to recoup what was been spent on just getting the players on stage, rehearsal time, studio time to track the recordings. But we’re in a place now where we’re making enough money through streaming and shows that it’s really sustainable, which is exciting.
That was a long-winded answer, but I think what I’m getting at is that one of the most interesting and difficult things I’ve learned is that finances are a factor and your network is a factor, but I’ve found that if you’re a genuine person and you really make it about the music more-so than anything else, then people will catch onto that and will want to join your network and jump on board, get behind your project.
And with having a multi-piece experience, how did you arrive at the conclusion that that’s what you needed and/or wanted in order to bring your music to life? A lot of people obviously tend to go the solo route, or up to like, a four-piece, just to keep things practical.
Well (and I tell this story all the time), the first time I really recognized songwriting as a craft and a sort of art form was when I was listening to Bruce Springsteen on a VH1 special, and he was talking about his songwriting process. I was twelve, and I think that was the first time that I was like, “Oh, wow. Lyrics and music have to work together to tell this story, and that’s what a song is. It’s not just lyrics and it’s not just music.” So I started thinking about those two things together, and started thinking about songs as stories. I just became obsessed with what Bruce Springsteen was doing, having this enormous band, and I started to focus more (and this is when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen) on bands, more than solo artists.
I think that that comes from me loving the energy of me being part of a company in the theater, but I really never wanted to get on stage by myself, because it’s such a special experience; it just felt from the very beginning like something that ought to be shared, and it’s more fun to turn around and your best buddies are up there sharing it with you. Also, I guess from the very beginning of when I started to write, all I really had was piano, and I was okay, I wasn’t great. But I started to throw my love into that and I got better, and I started learning different instruments, but I was always writing especially for horns, because I’m a very melodic writer. And I envisioned horns, I envisioned guitars, I envisioned really groovy bass and drums and background vocalists. I was always kind of in a band mindset, and those are things that I can’t provide with a duo or a trio or if I’m solo. From the very beginning it was like, “I need an enormous band.”
Most of the time when we’re in New York, it’s myself and eight other people. So we’re a nine-person band (sometimes eight), unless we’re on the road, and then it might be six or seven. And that even breaks my heart! If I could have my way and I could afford to take everybody on the road, we’d always be an eight-piece or nine-piece outfit. But yeah, I think from the very beginning I was fascinated with the band mentality, and the large sound that a band can bring when there are so many players. Which wasn’t easy in the beginning, because we’d been told every step of the way that we need to scale down because it’s not financially feasible to take all those people out on the road or pay them for every gig, which is why I think maybe our climb was a little slower than most. But all the more worth it, if that makes sense.
Absolutely. And when people describe your sound, you do hear words like “bluesy”, “jazzy”; I was recently talking with someone about how I think hearing those kinds of genre words (“blues”, “jazz”) can be intimidating to some people in weirdly the same way that wine can be intimidating to some people. How do you feel about that?
I think that’s a really good point. Well, a lot of my players come from jazz; they’re Berklee Jazz Studies guys, and a lot of them I met on the jazz scene. I started really getting into jazz and singing standards when I was seventeen or eighteen, and then I came to the city when I was freshly nineteen.
Some of my first musical gigs were just jazz standard cover gigs, and I met a lot of the guys on that scene. I noticed that I always wanted to be a band leader and had this vision for this band, but jazz is a very kind of competitive environment, especially in a city like New York, because people worry that it’s dated and it’s dying. Which I don’t think it is. I don’t think that’s true.
So I kind of just want to take that love that I have for jazz, and then this also sort of very earthy thing of just saying what you’re feeling blues element, and then coming from my fascination with so many rock bands, I wanted to throw it all into one thing. And it is really difficult to give us one or two genres, because we do so much, and that’s accredited to (again) that a lot of our players come from jazz, some of them come from world, and there are all kinds of influences in that.
But I do agree, I think it’s a little intimidating when somebody hears “a jazz band” or “a blues band”, or even “a rock band”, because they’re expecting one thing. I think we’re a rock band which gives kind of rock song performances with influences of blues, jazz and disco. And that’s really broad; that doesn’t give you a fine-tuned idea of what you’re going to expect, but I don’t think anybody really knows what to expect before they listen to The Friends and come see us live. We have a very unique show which I’m very proud of.
Yeah! Alright, let’s also talk about instruments. You play a bunch, I’ve seen Instagram posts where you’re playing the banjo, even…how did you get into that? I’ve heard that’s difficult to play!
I will immediately disagree! I think the banjo is a hell of a lot easier to play than the guitar. Well, I also have a deep love for folk music, and folk singer-songwriters. First I think I’m a band leader, and I think I’m a better band leader than anything else; that’s kind of my identity when people ask what I do in music. But I am a songwriter, and all songs that I write really start from just stories on one instrument, and then I pass it along to the band, and the band helps me flesh it out and arrange it. It’s very much a collaborative process in that regard.
But these are my stories in my songs that I’m writing, and I listen to a lot of soul songwriters like Joni Mitchell and the folky sort of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt, and even songwriters like Elton John and Billy Joel who have a lot of folk aspects in their sound. I was in a folk band for a while, a straight-ahead folk band almost leaning towards bluegrass, and we had a banjo in the band. I really loved the sound, and that was at a time where I was like, “I can no longer be a self-proclaimed songwriter who doesn’t play guitar. I need to learn how to play the guitar,” because I was going to all these songwriter sessions, and there was a guitar being passed around. Nobody had a keyboard that I could sit and play, so I was like, “I really need to learn how to play the guitar.” So my dad helped me get a guitar for my birthday like two years ago, and I threw a lot of time and energy into trying to learn the guitar, and I just wasn’t having fun, just wasn’t grasping it in the way that I loved to play the piano or I enjoyed learning how to play the ukulele. My roommate said, “When you’re playing the guitar, it looks like it’s playing you. It’s just so big, and you seem so uncomfortable.”
So I got myself a banjo, which was just smaller and kind of fit in my lap, and there are a lot more bar chords, so it’s a lot easier to learn quickly and make it sound pretty quickly. I just always loved the sound, the timbre of the banjo, so it just stuck. It immediately made more sense to me than the guitar, and I enjoyed learning it more than I enjoyed learning the guitar, so I just stuck with that. Some of the songs from The Friends, actually, have been written entirely on the banjo.
That’s amazing! Okay, so we are going to majorly shift gears for the final question, because we need to talk about pizza. You grew up in Connecticut, a pizza mecca, and now you live in New York, also a pizza mecca. Do you have a stance on what the superior style is?
I cannot believe you just asked me this. There are people in the world who like beer, or they like coffee, or they like wine, and they know about these things. I know about pizza. And I love pizza. A lot. My friends often make fun of me, because it’s like two in the morning and there’s only one pizza place open, and I just won’t eat it. I also come from an Italian-American family, and so growing up, instead of just having sandwiches for lunch, my mother would make these really delicious homemade pizzas in the Connecticut style, but also in the Italian tradition that’s been passed down from all the women in her family. She’d make the dough and everything, and she’d send me to school with that. And so I grew up with really delicious, thoughtfully-prepared pizza in my house, and then I went to school for a year in New Haven, so Frank Pepe’s, Sally’s…the best pizza on the East Coast, I think, is in West Haven and East Haven and New Haven.
Then I came to New York, and there’s some good pizza here, like Speedy Romeo’s is great, Fornino’s is great, both from the Italian brick oven tradition, but I’m not crazy for Roberta’s, I’m not crazy for Artichoke. I just think there are better pizzas to be found in Connecticut. Thank you for letting me speak my piece. That was a really powerful thing for me just now. But that’s just kind of like our claim to fame. Like, we have Yale (cool, great), but what does Connecticut have to offer? We have really good pizza. There’s an especially high concentration of Italian-Americans in that East Haven/West Haven/New Haven area, and so the pizza’s been around there forever, and it’s just made with love like nonna used to make. That really is a Connecticut claim to fame, and I’m really proud about it. We have much better pizza than Brooklyn, sorry ‘bout it!