Text and Interview: Monica Uszerowicz
Photos Courtesy of the Artist
If you watch “Improvisational Cello Loop by Sam Rae-Whisper Words,” a video musician Sam Rae uploaded three years ago, you’ll lull yourself into a meditative state. Part of Rae’s former Kickstarter project to fund her upcoming album, it’s a relatively straightforward video – but as she loops her cello into undulating layers of deeply melancholic and flitting, celestial tones, you become entranced. Notice the unmoving Christmas lights behind her, Rae – eyes shut tight – swaying as if she might become unmoored from her chair: it’s a tableau vivant depicting both the classic romanticism of the cello and her ability to make the instrument transcend its own depth.
Her forthcoming album, Bring Us to New Islands (scheduled for an April 21st release) features that same singing, looping cello, Rae’s delicate vocals telling a profoundly personal narrative. Co-produced with Mark Venezia and featuring collaborations with Rae’s friends John Grigsby and Natalie Tate, Rae reflects on her relationship, her travels, and the personal geography of her heart. We spoke to her about the leaps she took to make it happen and finding solace in her body – as both a queer gender-fluid person and a sensitive, observant creator – in a time of political upheaval.
I have this idea that anyone who plays a classical instrument probably started learning at an early age.
Yeah, in my experience that’s generally true, although I’ve known older folks that got inspired and started in their adult era. I started playing the cello in 4th grade. My mom and I walked into the music rental store and I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to play. She looked down at me and asked the big question.
I remember this moment vividly: I paused and used my 8-year-old deductive reasoning skills; violins are too squeaky, basses are too big, violas are just violas. So I chose the cello! After that, I really owe my mom a lot of thanks for making me practice fifteen to thirty minutes a day, even through those days where I just sat there and cried over my cello because at the time, practicing was just another chore to add to the list. I am grateful for my mom’s help establishing that ritual.
Of course, I am also forever grateful to my cello teacher, Carey Bostian. He was so patient with my busy, crazy-minded-kid’s short attention span. I think he saw something in me as a growing musician, and really pushed me to step up to the plate – just the right amount.
How did you begin exploring and utilizing more experimental techniques, building on top of your classical background?
I was graduating from the University of Iowa with my degree in Cello Performance, and I remember being intrigued by my professor’s electric cello. I can’t quite recall how the loop pedal came into the mix, but during my senior year, I was really done with all of the rules, structure, and sometimes even robotic feel in the classical performance world. I bought a looper/effects pedal and an amplifier. It sat in the corner of my room for almost the entire year because I was intimidated by terms like “input” and “output.”
One day, a family friend offered me an opportunity to play behind his poetry and told me I could perform my own song. At that point, I was very ready to take my classical skills and move on to some fresh-feeling dimensions. I learned how to plug everything in that afternoon, showed up at the venue, and then came a life-changing moment. I remember being really nervous and almost resorting to my comfort zone at the time – some movements from a Bach cello suite.
At the last minute, I decided to throw down and use the loop pedal. I plugged it in and surprisingly, a sound came out. I sat down and started composing layers on the spot and could feel something happen, a feeling I had really never felt before. During the song, I felt the air between myself and the audience totally shift. I felt like I had tapped into that void that is so often present in society between most strangers. After I finished, there was a long pause –I remember taking a big sigh – and the audience stood up for a standing ovation.
That was one of the most pivotal moments in my music career that I still carry with me today: the magic of that moment, jumping into something completely unknown accompanied by unknown material.
There is a raw vulnerability to this album. In what sense is songwriting cathartic or healing? I’m interested in learning about your songwriting process, how the words make their way through.
After my tour with Brandi Carlile and family, I came home with a burning fire in my chest. She has such a powerful voice and I felt a strong desire to explore my own voice. I started to write more lyrics that allowed me to express a vivid, vulnerable state, different from what I relay on the cello. The voice can express so much, and I’ve learned that writing lyrics is damn hard. Often I feel like they’re stuck in me like gooey glue. It’s always a breakthrough when something finally comes out that feels right.
The cello is harder to write with, so I started writing with the guitar. Mostly I would journal and write stream-of-consciousness thoughts, then find a progression on the guitar and pull words from my writing to combine them into a more structured song. When I feel an idea come on that I want to remember, I’ll put myself in a relevant memory so I can have a real story to pull from. In that way, I think this album took a lot of momentum from the concept of nostalgia, memories of living out in the country in Iowa on Sugarbottom Lane, flailing around as an only child with my make-believe friends. The nostalgia dances with my current place as this “adult” person, trying to navigate the waves and phases that life brings.
Tell me about the title, Bring Us to New Islands. It’s very hopeful. Does the album contain any sort of personal narrative? When did you start writing the material?
Yes, the album absolutely contains a personal narrative. In retrospect, I break down the album content into one larger arc and some smaller little arcs. The larger one encompasses the passing history from child to adult, and the constant letting go that is required in this life.
The smaller arcs are those pivotal moments that affect me and the world around me in that lifetime, like learning how to love, learning how to exist in my own body while also existing alongside so many others. Specifically, there are a few songs that are about my current partner, Catherine, and I taking a break from our relationship. At the time, we didn’t know we would rekindle with new perspectives, so the time apart was painful and there was a big upheaval of letting go before we came back together.
On the other end of that arc is the simple fact that everything will be alright, which I highlight in the song “It’s Alright, It’s Ok.” I would say that the musical identity crisis I went through making this album was another arc: striking a balance between that feeling I share with an audience when I improvise and this new, arranged structure has been quite the hamster wheel for my creative mind. I feel like there are still two separate parts of my brain, and the improvisational part could benefit from inviting the structured part in for tea.
I feel like there are still two separate parts of my brain, and the improvisational part could benefit from inviting the structured part in for tea.
I’ve been asking everyone this question lately: in a time of such upheaval, in what ways are you taking care of yourself? How do you make sure you’re nurtured in this time, through your art or other practices?
Reading this question just gave me chills. That is one of the hardest things. My Midwest roots have instilled in me the idea that we help prop each other up. I always want to make sure everyone I love or even a random stranger feels okay and loved, and too often I go without caring for myself first. I know that there’s some fallacy to that; not everyone may need or want that attention.
Honestly, the election shattered my heart. I have felt sad and dark and often lonely since that day. I identify as a queer human with a fluid gender, and it’s really heart-wrenching to avoid identifying myself for who I am, because I don’t feel safe. I lost some trust in the everyday stranger after the recent shootings, and I feel it so intensely for everyone in the queer community, as well as the entire community of marginalized humans in this country and world, all with our varying experiences. That’s often an overwhelming feeling to carry around.
How do I feel it, how do I talk about how big it feels, how do I not let it devour me? I have to remind myself that my music, and deep connections to strangers via my improvisation, is what I can offer. That is my form of love. And if I remember that, then there is light, and I recall that I love everyone, even someone who might be capable of shooting another because of who they love. In short, it’s hard to not succumb to the numbing sadness, but it’s part of the light, too. It’s all interconnected and the moment I can remember that and remember love, my body becomes less tense, and thus I am tending to myself in that moment. Thanks for asking that question.