“We’re Like Rockstars Decaf”: A Conversation with Sammy Rae of Sammy Rae & The Friends

Writer Lily Goldberg talks to Sammy Rae of Sammy Rae & The Friends about frogs, Freddy Mercury, and recording a sophomore EP during a pandemic.

Art by Jamie Polancic

Story by Lily Goldberg

There are many things in this world that baffle me daily — such as how to pronounce “ouvre,” and the basics of long division — but recently I’m mostly puzzled by the fact that Sammy Rae & The Friends have not yet become famous beyond measure. Once the rising Brooklyn-based jazz pop band can get back to playing live shows for adoring audiences, however, I figure they will be. 

Sammy Rae & The Friends is an eight piece group led by Sammy Rae (born Samantha Bowers), who has the haircut I wish I could pull off, the clearest skin I think I’ve ever seen and vocal chops I could only dream of possessing. The band’s vibe is one of radical inclusion and camaraderie and their positive vibes come across effortlessly in their music —”The Good Life,” the band’s funky first EP, may well have injected serotonin directly into my brain when I heard it for the first time last winter. Their latest EP, “Let’s Throw a Party,” came out not a minute too soon this January — I had probably watched and re-watched all of Sammy Rae’s 30 second TikToks a billion times, so having a whole EP available on Spotify felt like a luxury too good to be true. The songs on “Let’s Throw A Party” range from feel good anthems (“Whatever We Feel”) to personal tales of crushes and idols (“Jackie Onassis”) to bilingual bangers (“Creo Lo Sientes”), but are tied together by the joy that radiates whenever the band of friends plays together. I had the immense privilege of speaking with Sammy Rae about how the band started, what they’ve been doing and where they’re going. (Note: Interview edited for clarity and length).

Lily Goldberg: Before we start out, could you introduce the band (and their group role) to everyone?

Sammy Rae: Oh for sure! I sometimes feel like Mother Goose. The way I remember everybody is: Kellon, Kaya, Max, Myra, Will, JQ, C-Bass and Sammy. That’s the eight of us. Kellon is our alto sax player and he’s the geek, he’s our tech guy. Kaya is the spiritual advisor to the band — she’s our alto vocal harmony and absolutely divine feminine, a very spiritual lady, so she grounds us and roots us. Myra, our soprano, is like the nature child. She’s the hippie. JQ, the music director for the band and our bassist, is “Papa Bear” for sure. He takes care of a lot of scheduling. Will — I’m biased because he’s my partner, but I think he’s the heartthrob. He can really play the damn guitar. All the folks who are attracted to men seem to scream louder for his solos than anyone else’s. C-Bass is also the heartthrob. He’s our drummer. I’d call him the life of the party. He doesn’t sleep. We’ll get offstage at midnight, he’ll go to the party, get back to the hotel at three and be ready to go by eight. Then Max is our tenor sax player — Max is the wild card, you never really know what you’re going to get. He’s building a pipe organ in his home. We almost got kicked out of Ithaca College because within five minutes of getting on campus Max had climbed onto the roof of the admissions building. And then I’m me!

LG: How did you guys meet and start playing together?

SR: We’re from all over the place — JQ’s from Miami, Kellon’s from Alabama, Will and I are from Connecticut, Myra and Kaya and born and raised in New York, C-Bass is from Virginia and Max is from Los Angeles. We come from several different races and nationalities, first languages and gender identities and socioeconomic upbringings, so we’ve got this really interesting gang of people who come from very different places but want the same things at heart. Everybody kind of just showed up in New York looking for work, looking for opportunities. For me, I knew I wanted a band and I knew I wanted a big band, so I was going to a lot of open mics and after a while you start to see the same people in the audience or onstage. C-Bass and I met in the Kids Music scene — we both did Kids Music for a while, which is a very lucrative field for musicians who have the temperament. I kind of met Will through the Kids Music scene too, and Myra and Kyra I met on Instagram. So we all kind of found each other on the scene through different avenues, and we’ve been the eight “Friends” now for two years.

LG: Wait, Kids Music? Can we go back to that for a second, please?

SR: I worked at a kids program for birth to three — oh my god, so cute. It was essentially a “music preschool,” so instead of being taught by a teacher, you’re taught by a three person band. So I’m playing keys in this band and C-Bass is on drums and I’m starting to think, “That’s ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ and he’s really getting in there, like digging in.” So we became really good friends, and he’d say to me, “Okay so today when we do the alphabet song, think about it in five.” So we were doing the most we possibly could in this little creative window, and through that class, I said “You should be my drummer forever!” 

The crazy thing is sometimes the nannies and young parents would catch wind that we were this thing exploding in Brooklyn and they would come to our shows. It was the craziest thing to see them on a night out, not in yoga pants and their husband’s college T-shirt. 

LG: That’s hilarious.

SR: Music for kids is still a huge part of my career goal! I have this vision — once I’ve been a rockstar for a decade or two, I want to be an iconic kids show host like Peewee Herman or Mister Rogers. When the band started to take off, that took up most of my focus, but making music for small people is still hugely important to me because they’re so cool. Their innocence and humility and openness to explore is something we all possess as bandmates too. We have this code — when I’m writing lyrics, it needs to be accessible to everybody, like you could listen along with your six year old and we wouldn’t say anything that offended you or them. You never know what people are coming into the room carrying. Nobody is going to bring their six year old into a bar, obviously, but if we perform as if everyone in the world is in the room it creates an unspoken standard to be conscious of our audience. 

LG: I’m curious about how you relate making inclusive music to your “rockstar” identity. I feel like rockstars are stereotyped as these raucous cis-het dudes, but this sounds different.

SR: When I started to consume music intelligently at around 13, I was obsessed with these male-fronted large groups — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Rolling Stones. I wasn’t necessarily living a queer lifestyle when I was twelve, so there was something I was really obsessed with about loose shoulders and slinking around and shaking down to the front row. As I got older, I started gravitating more towards how Freddy Mercury and Elton John and Joan Jett did it. I don’t know if anybody else considers me a rockstar, because a lot of what we make is closer to soul and jazz and world, but I think it’s pretty cool that I can tell a story about something and it reaches however many million people. Everybody wants to hang out with me, but I’m not like this douchey rockstar — I want to hang out with you too! I love meeting people, and you’re excited about meeting me. For the first time in my life, in the last couple of years — because it wasn’t the case in elementary or middle or high school — people want to be my friend. And that’s pretty rock star. Rock star doesn’t always come with the connotation that we’re struggling with drug problems, or this, that and the third. Sometimes that’s the case, but it’s not the case for us. We’re like rockstars decaf. 

LG: I like that. I’ve been thinking about how big bands like yours are kind of the opposite aesthetic from solitary, emo singer-songwriters. Big bands sort of epitomize inclusivity — I feel like it’s kind of queer and cool to be like, yeah, we have twenty people! 

SR: Seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on TV, there were so many people onstage and everyone seemed important. I thought it was really cool that everyone was this irreplaceable part of the project, and as someone who was struggling to make friendships, it seemed amazing that these people had so much fun onstage. The name “The Friends” kind of came about as a joke because I was seeing so many people where it was a solo artist with her group of people onstage — like “Jane Doe and friends.” “Jack Jones and friends.” But “friends” was always lowercase, at the bottom of the poster. So for my band, I was like, everybody’s going to be the same every time, and even though I’m standing in the middle and wrote the songs, I want everyone to have a chance to shine. So instead of “and friends,” I called it “The Friends,” and capitalized the F.

You said something about it being super inclusive and badass and queer and I think that’s true. I think my queerness was a huge part of me having a difficult time forming meaningful relationships when I was young. I didn’t know anybody queer — I didn’t see queer folks in media, I didn’t know that my favorite living human, Freddy Mercury, was queer. I had never heard the word before — I just wanted to be like Freddy, or Mika, or Elton John. When I became an adult, I was like, I’m gonna surround myself with people who understand and accept this about me but also who understand and accept this as a way of life in general. It is an important part of our brand, but it’s not the focal point. Real change and real inclusivity comes when it’s not performative. We don’t run around waving a giant “We’re a queer band” flag, but if you listen to my songs, you’re going to figure it out. Putting so many people onstage drives home this point that we’re all the goddamn same, and everyone wants to have a friend and a good time. If this group of people, from so many different socioeconomic backgrounds and upbringings and genders and sexualities and races and nationalities and languages and studies of music and schools of thought can come together to form a family and do this thing, then anyone can do that. If we can be a family, there’s no reason anyone in the audience who sees and appreciates us has an excuse to not break down those boundaries in their own lives.  

LG: Do you write most of the songs? I know C-BASS is featured on “Creo Lo Sientes” so I was curious if that song was maybe a more collaborative effort.

SR: “Creo Lo Sientes” was an exciting one because I’ve been learning Spanish over the past two years, and C-BASS has been a huge part of that — C-BASS is the most incredible teacher you can imagine, whether it’s drums or cooking or Spanish. When quarantine hit, I was like, I want to learn something! So I doubled down on the Spanish I was learning and C-BASS would FaceTime me for an hour every day and we’d just speak in Spanish. When it came time to start thinking about two new songs, I was like “I’m gonna write a song that’s partially in Spanish.” He was like “Aye que linda, I’m so excited, let me help.” So he became a huge part of that lyric writing process. When it came to C-BASS’s rap, it was so funny, because like he was on the phone with his mom making sure it was right, he was on the phone with his abuela making sure it was right. We talked to friends of his from Ecuador, we talked to a friend from Venezuela, we talked to friends from Mexico City — we were trying to figure out something that would make sense to a Spanish speaking fanbase because there’s dialect variations between geographical places, so it was an interesting project getting a lot of different brains to help us edit. 

LG: So you made music for kids, but did you also start out with music when you were really young too?

SR: I didn’t necessarily grow up in a musical household — we just listened to Top 40. I’m from a very small, sticks town in Connecticut, so it was a lot of random country music and Fleetwood Mac. I wanted to take piano lessons, so I did that from four to eight, but I didn’t love it because I didn’t like somebody telling me what to do (which is the point of a lesson). I also had resentment because my lessons overlapped with me watching Dragon Tales on Wednesdays. I didn’t really start writing songs until I was about thirteen. 

LG: Do you have any embarrassing early songs?

SR: I had a YouTube channel when I was young, and every now and then some person who has been around since I was a baby from middle of nowhere America will send me this video and be like “I still have this!” I’m like, “Why did you screen grab this eight years ago. Send it to me and then burn it.” In terms of originals… What does a thirteen year old even write about? I had a song about a robot who was in love and then who went crazy and killed his robot wife. 

LG: Would you consider yourself “prolific?”

SR: Are you kidding me? Absolutely not. It pisses me off man — some people just have it, record after record, album after album. I haven’t completed a song in almost a year — she said a year! So much of what inspires me to write is social encounters, and being deprived of that has been difficult for me. 

LG: Yeah, how has it been with COVID and everything?

SR: It’s like the worst thing ever. It has not been fun. We consider ourselves really lucky to be one of the bands that was able to have a couple of streamed events and we were still able to release the EP when we wanted. It’s tricky because we would normally play tunes live a couple of times before deciding what we wanted to release, but we were kind of just going out on a whim this time. I’m a little sad because we haven’t been able to perform Creo or Party or Jackie O. We’re glad to be getting all these messages of love that people really appreciate the songs and we want to get them to people as soon as possible. 

LG: Where can we catch Sammy Rae & the Friends next?

SR: We’re going to play a festival called Mooncrush Live in Florida in April, which might be a little out of reach for some of our friends — you have to like, buy a condo to go, so it’s the sort of thing our parents or the more blessed of our friends could attend. But that’s going to be fun, because we’re playing with Lake Street Dive and Sheryl Crow. We have a tour through May and into the summer, but we don’t know — so many of these venues don’t know if the show will be on, so they’re going to let us know in the weeks before. We’re going to be releasing a studio cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” as our next single. 

LG: Before we go, I had to ask about your frog. 

SR: So his name is Fruit, he’s a White’s Tree Frog, they’re native to Australia, I purchased him at a pet shop in Manhattan. I have loved Fruit longer than any man, woman, or band. He’s my guy. White’s Tree Frogs can live up to twenty years in captivity, and I knew that when I got Fruit, but now I’m like… in five years I’m going to start thinking about having kids, and when my kids are born there’s just gonna be a frog in the house. He’s the cutest thing in the whole world. I hardly know he exists, but sometimes at night he sings really loud.

LG: Does Fruit have a favorite song off of the new EP?

SR: I think Fruit would dig “Living Room Floor,” because during all those living room floors — the song is about my experience in three different apartments — Fruit was the only one around. So I think he’d probably like that one.