Sammy Rae is a singer-songwriter who has made her mark as a YouTube sensation with her cover videos and unique use of a range of musical instruments. Sammy is fun and creative with her videos, and has attracted attention, allowing her to share her talents in live performances, as well. Sammy describes her music as “light pop” and cites influence from greats such as Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Billy Joel.
Sammy is currently a student at the University of New Haven studying special education and music. She has already released one album, Hopeless, and has a new album, Celebrate My Heart, coming out soon as well.
We got the opportunity to chat with Sammy Rae, learning about her YouTube career, her unique instrument repertoire, and just what it means to record your own music. Check out what she had to say below!
Three years ago, you created your YouTube channel. What made you decide to start one and how long had you been performing prior to making it?
I’m not sure what exactly inspired me to start the channel. I remember at the time I had three original songs, “Happy July,” “Awkward,” and “Love to Love You,” and I had written them when I was about 13 or 14. They weren’t any good obviously. Anyway, someone had told me I should let people hear what I was doing on piano, so I made a video or two and started the channel! I didn’t think it would get me anywhere, and a few years later I got almost 300,000 hits and people were calling me to play local benefits and gigs. Before the channel I had never played out live, and I still don’t do a lot of that. I had been doing musical theatre and other stage productions since I was 7, so I guess that helped me feel comfortable in front of people, and made me love sharing music on a grand scale.
Who are your inspirations and how did they inspire you to start making music?
When I started my music it was a lot of The Beatles. And Rufus Wainwright. Simple chord structures and lyrics that didn’t have to make sense to anyone but me. As I got older and kind of found my own musical taste, around where I am now, it’s great musicians/songwriters. I’d say mainly Billy Joel, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen. Especially Bruce. He’s my hero. Joel and Springsteen have this way of writing lyrics that are so powerful and so poignant. They are emotional outlets for the writers, but they are also highly relatable and so they read so well. Elton John, and even modern pop artists I listen to like Train and FUN., while they have a much more produced sound than I do, I love how they write these hook melodies that just stick with you. Like when you hear that main theme of “Toni-i-ight, we are young!” by FUN. It sticks with you. The melody line from the chorus of my song “Loved” sticks with you. I try to incorporate memorable melodies and relatable, yet personal lyrics when I write.
In a lot of your videos you play various instruments, such as the guitar, piano, and ukulele, as well as more creative instruments like pitched glasses (“Somebody That I Used To Know”). How did you come up with the idea of using such unique instruments and when did you learn to play them? What’s the most fun to play?
Goodness, I have no idea! I came up with the idea of multiple instruments when I did “Somebody That I Used to Know,” and I think the inspiration came from that glockenspiel sound on the original track. I thought “wouldn’t that be cool to play that too?” I didn’t have a glockenspiel so I just came up with the wine glasses. The song also needed percussion, so I found an old kids drum in my closet. I thought, “go all out” so I learned some of the song on guitar, ukulele, piano, and some harmonies. When I did “Little Boxes” I realized that everyone loved the plethora of weird stuff in “Somebody…” so I just kind of thought “what would sound cool here? Castanets! Don’t have those, I’ll use spoons. A washboard! Don’t have that, I’ll use a baking rack!” I guess I just listen for a sound that would fit and then improvise.
In terms of what is most fun to play other than piano, I’d say the wine glasses. I fill them all up with water and then stick a straw in them and sip out the water to tune the glass. I keep hitting it with the chopstick and as I sip out water the pitch goes up. I’m sure I look quite ridiculous. Many a time has my mother come home to me on the kitchen floor with a microphone and pots and pans, or all of her wine glasses everywhere. It’s crazy fun though!
You also create a lot of multi-tracked and looped covers. You seem to have a lot of fun making these; would you say this style is one of your favorites to perform?
Absolutely! It takes a lot of trial and error. But it’s similar to the multi-instrument covers. I just listen for a sound I want to add, and then improvise. My “Ho Hey” cover took a lot of trial and error in figuring out how to do all the percussion on the uke. “Pumped Up Kicks” is still one of my favorite covers to perform, ever! I can have all these instruments just how I want them and not have to worry about any other performers. Wait, that sounded kind of selfish. I guess I just like seeing everything come together and surround my voice. Gives it more life than just piano, which is the only instrument I’m actually half good at!
Your debut album, Hopeless, was released in 2011. What was the process like writing and recording it? What was the fan response to the album?
Hopeless was a bunch of songs from years of writing. Some of them when I was only 14, and some written for the album’s release. It was recorded over the period of about a year. “Loved” and “Hopeless” featured some guest musicians and was recorded at a local studio. After that I realized, “Whoa, this takes way too long and is way too expensive. I’m doing this my way.” So I recorded a lot of other stuff in my un-sound proofed room on a $30 Logitech mic I got a Wal-Mart. I’m terribly embarrassed of the quality of Hopeless looking back! However, the fans I had seemed to love it, and now and then people will stop me and let me know they recognize me from YouTube, or that they love the album, which always makes my entire day!
I think Hopeless was more of a “learning how to write and put together music” type of learning process. It was a process that introduced me to tracking music together, finding and working with other musicians, how the studio, copyright laws, and releases work. The new album was done professionally, and I think it really shows in the quality. I’m glad I had Hopeless to teach me what I did, and it will always be fun to look back on it and remember those first few years of high school, seeing where I was composing- and writing-wise, as well as emotionally in my lyrics.
You’ve announced that your sophomore album, Celebrate My Heart, will be released this year. What can your current fans and new listeners expect from this album, and where can they purchase it?
The thought of this album coming out makes me so excited! Like I said, this one was done professionally. I had even more guest musicians, tried to do more interesting things with the music itself and step outside the common-chord-structure-box. A lot of harmonies too. Lyric-wise, I have to admit it’s a bit more laid back and solemn. Not necessarily all sad, but solemn. There are a few that are quite jazzy and bluesy, and a character song or two, kind of like “Homewrecker” from the first album. I’m very proud of these lyrics, and in the future they will always remind me of a very important place in my young adulthood, that transition from being a high schooler to an independent person you can be proud of. I am really blessed to live in a community of all music major college students, and so we help each other out a lot with projects. For example, if someone has got free studio time booked and knows that I’ve got something I want to record, maybe he’ll call me up to come into the studio and the dude down the hall will volunteer to play drums for the track. It’s amazing, and we all help each other out. A good friend of mine, who I will never be able to thank enough for all of his help, had a connection to a huge top of the line studio in New York City, so we packed his car and drove there for a few days to finish up recording. He’s working on mixing it all and putting the final touches on everything now, so that’s where the album is production-wise. All recorded, just in post-production.
What’s your favorite song off Celebrate My Heart and why?
That’s a tough pick! I really love performing “Million Dollars” which is just me and my friend who is a SUPER talented jazz guitarist. All in all, I’d have to say that “Brand New City” is my favorite. It’s got really simple piano, and lyrics about making the choice to get yourself in a mindset where you are content with yourself. It’s about deciding that you are enough, and being proud of not only who you are, but where you fit into wherever you are. The chorus is “I’m gunna grow out of new roots, let my soul write its own truth. They’re gunna celebrate my heart.” I love this line because it says “I will define what happiness is for myself. I will succeed, I will be strong, I will make myself proud. And everything else will fall into play. I will celebrate my own heart, and surround myself with people and places who will do the same.” As I recorded it I was on the gazillionth floor of a building New York City, recording in a big studio, sitting at a full sized grand piano that probably cost more than a semester at college. The studio was all windows, and I had the city skyline behind me at about midnight. It was one of the most empowering and yet humbling moments of my life. I think the emotion I felt doing all that, realizing that I had so many opportunities to seize, so much potential in the ordinary to take hold of, all of that only made the song mean so much more to me. That’s why I chose that line as the album title. I wanted the whole album to encompass that. Sometimes people you trust go away, lovers let you down, you let yourself down (all big themes on the album) but you have the power to decide how you will respond. You have so much potential within you. You have the power to say “I’m going to come out on top, move on, be happy with who I am, and celebrate my heart!”
You have already accomplished a lot in your music career and you’ve only just started. What are your future goals and plans? Can fans expect to see you at a few shows?
I wouldn’t say I’ve accomplished much more than making a few bucks, and sharing my emotions with people, but thank you all the same! I spent a year as a music production and sound recording student, and am now pursuing a career in special education and music. In an ideal world, I’ll be working as an educator in the special needs community and still always be a part of the arts community. I will never stop writing and producing music, I don’t think I would know how to function without that outlet! I guess I will continue to release the stuff I’m most proud of, and hope that it helps someone articulate their emotions as well! I would love to continue to perform at whatever venues will have me, I love to perform live. I can’t wait to see what attention Celebrate My Heart brings to my channel and career, and how the fans connect to it. Thank you to everyone for letting me share those special parts of my life with them!