sammy rae
Rae's idiosyncratic sound pulls from a number of genres and benefits from her energetic performances. (Illustration by Hannah Delmore, Kent State University)

Jazz-Rock Mashup Sammy Rae Is Amy Winehouse’s Punchier Young Sister

Metaphorically, of course.

Connecticut-born singer/songwriter and band leader Samantha Bowers grew up surrounded by music. Influenced by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Freddie Mercury, Bowers began to write songs and play the piano at the age of 12. At 16 she started to come into her own as a musician, performing original work at local venues in her home state and nearby New Jersey.

It was during her time as a burgeoning artist that she began to look to great female vocalists, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James and Sarah Vaughn, for inspiration. Her admiration for these women nourished a growing love for jazz and blues, the influence of which is still noticeable in her current work, under the moniker Sammy Rae.

At 19, Bowers moved to New York to pursue music, taking up a six-month residency at the Cotton Club jazz lounge in Harlem. Afterward, Bowers entered a period of uncertainty in her life. Throughout her first year in Brooklyn, which she described in an interview as the most difficult time of her life, she continued to write, compose and perform as much as possible. Through this process, she formed a solid creative community and sharpened her craft.

Out of those years of fine-tuning, Sammy Rae was born. Under the alias, Rae has taken her years of experience and poured them into her newest release, “The Good Life,” which she made public in 2018. The extended play defies categorization, lying somewhere between jazz and singer-songwriter pop, the newest addition to an emerging genre within the indie music world.

The incorporation of traditional jazz and blues into modern-day music has risen to popularity over the past few years, a shift within the indie sphere pushed forward by the rise of do-it-yourself artists. Such musicians often adapt the genre to fit their individual needs, sometimes mixing traditional tracks into their songs. Thanks to these innovators, the sound of brass and bluesy rhythms is becoming increasingly common.

The trend has been gaining traction since the early 2000s, beginning with the rise of cross-pollinators: a movement fronted by alt-rock bands who began experimenting with fusing jazz into their soundscapes.

Nothing contrast with rock like jazz, but a number of musicians have taken to this fusion and managed to match the energies of the two. The subset lends itself to experimentation, with no one artist interpreting it the same way. Bands such as Snarky Puppy have successfully incorporated the unlikely fusion, creating incredibly impactful and innovative pieces of work.

That said, it is rare to find a musician who has taken as strongly to this musical aesthetic as Rae, who doesn’t simply fuse it into her work, but fully incorporates it as her signature style. Unintimidated by the format’s complexity, her newest EP is a celebration of the complicated union between impactful lyrics and stand-alone instruments.

Rae doesn’t simply make room for these elements in her work; she embraces them. Each horn line is carefully matched to the rest of the elements in each song, the result not only of the mindfulness Rae puts into creating her art, but also a direct reflection of the collaborative nature of her creative process.

While she may be the face of her music, Rae works in close collaboration with her eight-person band, known as The Friends, which is made up of core and rotating members. Together they compose and perform the music to perfection, ensuring the funky, active nature of the pieces translates to their audience.

Each song on “The Good Life” packs a punch, with energetic, mayor key changes that will keep you engaged throughout the entire listening experience and leave you wanting more when it ends. Through harmonies that perfectly compliment the string ensemble and Rae’s insane vocal range that often outdoes the power of her brass lines, the EP is beyond impressive.

On top of it all, the lyrics connect themes of self-discovery and coming of age to a broader perspective, addressing what it means to grow into yourself during the intense and often confusing contemporary world. The incorporation of these themes is subtle, woven throughout her works, forcing the listener to really stop and take note of what is going on.

“Flesh and Bone” most exemplifies these core themes, beginning with the lines, “Today would have been the perfect day to go to the beach / I’m on the sofa trying to get over the hate speech,” a reference to the countless debates over free speech that have taken place in recent years. The song then delves further into the impact of the free speech debate on personal identity as it reaches its climactic chorus, and Rae belts, “I need to know / I am flesh and bone / and am I still growing, or full grown?”

The irreverent, profound nature of Rae’s music is the driving force behind its appeal. It is music that speaks to a broader experience, exemplifying the many frustrations that accompany existence while simultaneously de-dramatizing them.

Her relevant themes — coupled with skillfully written, feel-good instrumentals and the overall wholesome vibe she has attached to her personal identity — make Rae one to watch. She is an artist exemplary of our era, and through her art, she may just bring a whole new brand of music into the spotlight.

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