By Jessye DeSilva, Contributing Writer
Sam Rae’s voice rings with the expansiveness of the Iowa prairie and the frankness of an old, trusted friend. Her latest release, “Ten Thousand Years,” represents a homecoming, not only in its melancholy tones of nostalgia and misty memories, but also in a stylistic sense. Having studied classical cello in college, and subsequently veering toward a more free, improvisational approach, Rae spent time on the road as part of Brandi Carlile’s touring band. It was on the road that she began to find a songwriting style that she says felt like a “landing point,” in which she can really say something and mean it each time. I sat down to chat with Sam about the importance of the past and its impact on her musical present, as well as self-care and the longing for community in a time of social isolation.
Jessye DeSilva: It seems like so much of this record is looking back from the present at past events. Even in the production, there’s the intimate core of your voice and guitar, but then there’s sort of this gauzy atmosphere around it that makes it feel like I’m remembering an intimate conversation with you. I’m just wondering how the themes of time and memory show up for you on this record?
Sam Rae: Yeah. Well, first of all, I appreciate that comment and that you notice that because I did spend a lot of energy trying to create that. What you called a gauzy kind of spacious atmosphere and very stripped down. It’s pretty much on point as you described it, it’s there. It’s kind of starting from my childhood working forward, and almost commemorating all the experiences that were passing by so quickly and that, maybe in my early 20s, I was kind of taking for granted – the value of community and getting together with family and friends and having potlucks. Just this spaciousness that exists from where I’m from in Iowa City, where there’s not a lot of things like mountains or oceans and all of that and we focus in – especially in times like the winter – we focus in on community. I guess maybe the desire to dig into that nostalgia of community in my past is maybe because I’m missing it in my present a little more as years pass, and times are changing. And I guess I’ve never really put that together until saying it just now, but I’m sure that the lyrics were inspired by the sense of wanting to return to that – the ease in which that came, you know, to get off my phone and get out of this pandemic and back into just being around people. So that sense of time is kind of linear on the album. It’s almost cyclical. It just circles around this center point, which is the present moment. And then life as it is and then death. And then there’s both ends of the human experience which is like, being young and naive and at the end of our life kind of commemorating all these memories that we’ve had. So that’s kind of how I see time in terms of the album.
JD: I actually think that my favorite track might be [the first track] “Ten Thousand Years.” I felt instantly a pretty literal sense of time in that song, but it just feels like such a great prologue to this epic album that then ends with us dealing with death [in the final track, “Dying Here”]. I know that you studied classical cello performance in college. And I wonder how your classical background has influenced this very different genre.
SR: Well as you can maybe imagine, classical music is its own can of worms in that it definitely has some restrictions. And honestly going into college, I was not going to study music. It was not on my mind at all, really. And my orchestra director basically set up a bunch of auditions for me at different universities around the Midwest and said, ‘You’re going to consider majoring in music.’ And so I started considering it. I started thinking about it, and I double majored eventually, because I guess I just felt pressured to have this cushion and that music wouldn’t be a career… all of that stuff.
In school it was this constant fight against structure internally for me because my soul in essence is the opposite of that. It’s very reminiscent of my first album [“Stories from the Marrow”], which is an improvised cello performance that I recorded. And so my experience in the university was just this constant push and pull and trying to maneuver my way through this labyrinth. I was trying to just do anything I could to get the degree but not really follow those structured rules. So I took a bunch of jazz classes and I ended up getting Bachelor of Arts instead of Music because it allowed me to be more flexible.
So coming out of that it was like I was being shot out of a cannon and I went the opposite direction, which is just improvising on the cello. And I’ve just been like, slowly pulling my way back to a little bit of structure, and longing for that. Just that feeling that you get from a song that has structure, that you can really grasp its content. I always loved that. And I missed that in my improvisational stuff tremendously because I couldn’t really express a certain message – it’s just very ambiguous.
And so I think after so many years studying classically and then exploring improvisational cello, and then doing this kind of eerie synth album, I think I finally landed in something that for the first time ever honestly feels right. And it feels like I can really say something. Like when you’re singing a song or playing something, and you can really feel like you mean it every time, which for me, and I think just music in general is kind of a rarity. And so I feel really excited about this landing point. That’s what this album represents.
JD: It’s really interesting because as I listen to this new album I hear imprints of all of those steps along the way. There’s a sense of musical space that in some ways reminds me of a cello concerto where the ensemble clears out of the way for your voice to just float in. And I think there’s even a hint of that freedom and space of improvisation on this record. I also hear you kind of playing with the form of a folk or pop song. And there’s something really fun about that. And really refreshing. There’s something familiar to latch on to, but there’s also something that surprises you.
SR: Yeah, that’s interesting, because I keep thinking that this album is so structured for me. But then I keep getting feedback that there are all of these elements that people are absorbing from my past, which is something that I guess I don’t always think about, because I feel like it’s so different. For me, it has so much structure.
JD: I read in another interview that you had considered taking the previous albums off of the streaming services, but I really love that you didn’t because I think it’s a really interesting journey. I think we’re so used to artists coming onto the scene pre-packaged and then then having to upkeep this image of what their music is. And I love to see the evolution
SR: Thank you. I appreciate that.
JD: In that same spirit I would love to hear a little bit about how your songwriting process has changed. I know that your style has changed and so I would think that the actual process of how you set out to write a song has changed. Could you talk a little bit about that?
SR: Honestly it’s kind of hard to pin down. It’s not this really specific formula where I wake up at 8am and drink a coffee and then sit down and write. I just got so much momentum from being on the road with Brandi [Carlile] and being around that level of songwriting, and hearing Tim Hanseroth fiddle around with some chord structures and new songs. So I took that momentum. I remember after every show every night I was having a hard time figuring out what to do with all the adrenaline I felt inside of my body. So I would go on the bus and I would just – I had this eagerness… I was like, ‘Oh man, I want to be singing!’ And I think that sense of eagerness fed into the songs just kind of coming out. And a lot of them came out initially with the majority already just there. And then I would go back and I would tweak little things here and there.
But it kind of surprised me because in the past I’ve had some insecurities around my songwriting, which is why I’ve always kind of hidden behind my comfort, which is the cello. And so I surprised myself with that momentum, but it really took that adrenaline and that absorbing my surroundings with Brandi Carlile and her band to push me in that space, that would just make me just sit down and write. I don’t know if it would have happened if I hadn’t been in that scenario. You know, I’m sure something else would have formed in another way. But I guess I just felt like, ‘I wonder if I can write songs that are this good. or possibly even even fairly close to this good.’
JD: Yeah, I can only imagine what it’s like to be on tour with those folks because I feel like every time I listen to the music [Brandi Carlile and the Hanseroth twins] make I have a very similar feeling. It’s just so tight and so well structured, but also emotionally impactful. I want to write like that when I grow up!
So this is a great segue into one of my other questions about collaboration. You have quite an illustrious list of musicians that you’ve built in terms of collaborators. And I’m wondering if there’s anyone on your bucket list that you’d like to collaborate with in the future.
SR: Dang, that’s a good one.
JD: I mean, now’s the time to manifest it, just put it out there!
SR: You know I have this urge and desire to co-write with a few of my mentors and people I really admire in the industry. One of them of course is Brandi, and another is someone I met recently who is very inspiring. Her general essence is really grounded. Her name is Kim Richey. I met her when Brandi was doing her residency at the Ryman. Kim opened one of those nights and mentioned she was headed to 30A Fest that weekend. I was going as well and we met there for lunch. It was a pleasure meeting and getting to know her a little that weekend. And I really admire her songwriting as well. And it would be so dreamy to sing with Cary Ann Hearst from Shovels and Rope! She is here in Charleston. I went to see her live at a local spot. Her presence and voice just blow me away every time! But I think moving forward, I just long for collaboration and interaction and building relationships among the music community
JD: I imagine that is a pretty timely feeling – just that longing for collaboration. I think, right now making art in the present feels like a very lonely thing. Have you had any experiences of collaboration during this time of social distancing and social isolation?
SR: Very minimally, to be honest, and I’ve been pretty absorbed in the details of this release and getting all my pre-orders out and mailed and I’ve kind of just like, become a little turtle. [laughs] You don’t have to put that in…
JD: [laughs] If you don’t want me to I won’t, but it’s a good quote though!
SR: I mean, you can if you want! [laughs] Of course we’re all experiencing this like huge spectrum of feelings and being human all at once, and it feels like we’re sucked into this vacuum. It’s been hard, to be honest. It’s been hard to reach out. It’s been hard to get out of the house and expand and especially feeling vulnerability around the release. Building up to this anticipation it’s like, almost palpable. It’s like getting sand in your mouth. It’s a little gritty, you know? And it’s something you’ve been working on… you’ve put so much of your energy and soul and your life into and it suddenly is gonna just be out. And in a way, it’s like this big letting go. And this is a long version of the answer just to say, I haven’t collaborated a lot in the quarantine. I’ve sent a lot of friends this one particular song called “My Friend” that I wrote. It’s the only song I’ve written during quarantine. And it’s somehow been very comforting to me to go back and listen to it. I also have been sending it to friends just because I want them to know that I’m still here.
JD: I think this record is a is a beautiful record for now. I think right now is a time when a lot of people find themselves sitting and reflecting, and to me the sonic palette of your album feels like listening to a guitar on a porch at dusk. And there’s a sort of melancholy to that, of course, but I think there’s also a comfort to it.
How have you been intentionally practicing self care right now?
SR: That’s a very good question. I have been nursing a knee injury, and it’s been a big reminder and a big challenge, to be honest. To come back to self care and remind myself that I need my limbs and they’re important! It’s just a reminder to value my body and be aware of what it needs and check in with myself every now and then. And that’s not to say that I’m the queen at that because honestly, I’m the opposite! I am. I struggle with that, you know? My mind is always so busy, it has all these things happening all at once. And I like to juggle a lot of things and keep myself busy. So it’s a big challenge for me and something I hope to keep improving on. And my partner Cat is really good at reminding me, especially regarding this knee thing, how important it is to take care of myself.
JD: I’m so glad you have someone in your life to remind the intellectual artist in you to take care of yourself!
SR: I’m pretty stubborn. So when she says, ‘Well, you know…” No, I don’t! I don’t need to do that. And then, of course, I think about it later. I’m like, oh, man, she’s right!
JD: So getting back to the record – two of the songs that really stuck with me were “Delaine” and “Dying Here.” One comes at the midpoint of the record, and the other is the final track. Can you share a little bit about what these songs mean to you?
SR: I wrote “Delaine” in the backyard of my friend’s house in Oregon at the end of a little solo run up the West Coast. “Delaine” is kind of the epitome of the album topic, which is nostalgia from my past and where I’m from. And I kind of played around with the idea of not revealing this piece of information and letting people read into it themselves. But in the end, I decided to just let it fly…
“Delaine” is actually about Iowa and I decided to shift that and give this place a name because it kind of gave it a different edge when I was writing about it, because I was writing to a person rather than a place, and it just made it feel that much more personal. So essentially Delaine is Iowa and it’s just this deep dive into the mixed feelings that I had growing up there. And then, once I’d left, reminiscing on all of the space that it offered to me while I did live there.
The chorus “prairie fields of rural love,” it’s a very simple chorus obviously, but it just exemplifies that spaciousness of open fields. When I was little, every now and then my mom would take me out to a field and tell me to get out and just scream. And so I would do it and then she’d be like, ‘Alright was that all you got?’ because of course I’m containing it at first and I’m worried that someone’s gonna hear me, so I’d scream again even louder… and that chorus kind of reminds me of that for some reason. There is this angst in that song that’s kind of underlying which is the angst I felt in my early 20s coming out as gay in Iowa. There was this place called Studio 13 in a dark alleyway, and I started going to these drag shows and you know, that was my only outlet. And I was like I have to get out of here… Anyway, that chorus feels like it’s a very good example of that angst that I felt, but it’s also paired with this appreciation.
JD: I think that very much comes through in the song. There’s definitely a love there, but it seems like a love that didn’t always treat you so well.
SR: Right. “Dying Here” was initially written in response to the actions of ICE and their inhumane tactics used on immigrants. The lyrics in the chorus emphasize the idea of ‘home.’ That home shouldn’t be a place that expels you for who you are or where you are from. I address my privilege as a white person – even to be saying these words right now I feel that privilege. I will never understand what another person has experienced in their lifetime, especially those who suffer so immensely from the underbelly of this country, as if to deserve love and acceptance was a form with check boxes. In the context of 2020, more is being realized and the content of this song has taken on a much more expansive meaning.
With that said, part of making this record was maybe a process of letting go. As a reminder to myself and others not to grasp too tightly to those melancholy memories of the past. And to accept the current state of the world around us. Our current reality is so hard to accept and involves letting everything we thought we knew expand and change. But we need to do it. I wanted to leave people with the feeling that it’s about more than just educating ourselves, we have to go farther… I admittedly need to do better. The final lyric that ends the song and the record is this, ‘The fire’s not in the rich, it’s in the fire that lights the ditch.’
In the letting go there is grief, and from the grief comes room for positive and forward minded change.
JD: Wow. It’s really amazing to end a record like this with a sort of call to action, rather than wrapping everything up with a pretty bow. Well, it’s been really awesome talking to you. I just love talking to songwriters about their craft and what they do. I’m wondering if there’s anything else that you might want people to know about this record or where you’re at right now.
SR: I guess when I think about this record coming out during a pandemic at first thought it’s a little alarming and not what I expected at all. And on second thought – you know how sometimes in hard times you grab onto certain music and you really just dive in? And then later down the road, you recall that hard time when you hear the songs as this time of learning and growth – at least sometimes that’s how I experience music when it’s kind of glued to these specific experiences in my life. I just hope that this album brings that to some people and then it would be a success in my mind.
JD: I think that a lot of people are doing that now with music from their past. But I think this record is something for the present and for this moment, and it’s a really beautiful gift that you’re giving to your listeners.
SR: Thank you. I appreciate that.
“Ten Thousand Years” is available now at https://www.samraemusic.com/music