Ten Thousand Years, August 7 2020
Sam Rae proposed to her girlfriend of four years with the song Combustible Stars, from her upcoming release Ten Thousand Years, but it was almost the song that cancelled the entire album. She had flown to Seattle to record three songs in three days with engineer Mike Davis, drummer Sean T. Lane, and producer Jacob Hoffman, and they had decided to track everything live to tape. At the end of the trip, “we barely even got half of that one. I was so discouraged, I almost didn’t record the rest.”
After stepping away for over a month, Rae came back into the studio and made the decision that would give the rest of the album its form: “No matter how difficult, we’re going to do the rest of it on tape.” Despite the extra work and risk, Rae enjoyed the challenge of trying to get each take in full. They focused on finding a foundation in live takes of Rae on guitar and vocals and Sean on drums and they built the songs from there: “I believe that gave me this mental strain that made me perform better.”
That wasn’t the only way the making of Ten Thousand Years was different from her past releases. Rae was writing more than she ever had before, and allowing herself to feel more exposed in her creative process. In the years after earning her degree in classical cello performance, Rae had performed mostly improvised cello pieces with a loop pedal, using her voice as an ethereal accent, but this time her voice is front and center, and her lyrics are on full display. “I think I was using improv as a way to cover up the challenge and vulnerability of song-writing for years. I didn’t really know it, because I thought my creative mind was limited to the cello. I hadn’t challenged myself to expand outside of that. Once I started rising out of that singular identity I began challenging myself to strip it all down and actually write semi-structured songs, to make my lyrics and voice front and center. I think it was a conscious choice to just follow what felt uncomfortable, which is my constant drive in music.”
A lyric from her song Colors of the Highway captures the classic music-industry tug of war between doing what you love and finding a livelihood: the hand that feeds/it moves so innocently/it doubles as a fist that’s coming back on me/but it will light my way through the darkest of hours/this highway was meant to find me. “That lyric sits so right with me, because music is a double sided coin, sometimes it’s hard being on the road but also so ecstatic at the same time. The highs and the lows are part of the career, and over time it’s almost like the slow wearing of an old jean jacket. That jacket that’s worn to pieces but is also the last piece of clothing you would ever get rid of. All of the stories...it gets better with age but less innocent too.”
When Rae started recording Ten Thousand Years in 2018, she had been on the road with Brandi Carlile, playing cello and singing backups, for almost a year, and a lot of the writing for the album was done on tour. “I went through this three-or-four-month phase where I was just in the back of the bus after every show with Brandi. I was using the adrenaline I had from our shows with her to...write my own songs. About 60-70% of the songs were written on the back of that bus.”
Though she had a clear vision of the gentle alt-folk record she was setting out to make, her collaborators each added a unique influence. Trina Shoemaker mixed her record. “When I first called Trina she was finishing up mixes for the Wood Brothers and Sheryl Crow. I felt so nervous and vulnerable dialing her phone number. But as I spent a few weeks twiddling my thumbs, my fianceé, Cat, called me and said, “What are you doing?! You have to call Trina. She’s the best person to mix your record.” So I did. In my very first conversation with Trina I could just tell that she was going to be a game changer for this record. She spoke to me as if we were crossing paths at the local dive bar. Like when you play a game of pool with a complete stranger. She came off as that kind of person who is a genius in their trade but will let the work speak for itself. Trina is immensely inspiring to me and is an absolute artist in her own right. She understood the musical language I was trying to evoke and took it even a little further than I ever thought it could go.” Mike Davis, who does much of the engineering for former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and songwriter Chris Walla, “always brought this feeling of calm.” Rae appreciated the way Davis approached her from the beginning, saying, “He always looked me straight in the eyes when we talked about our approach...there was none of that male ego bullshit as if to say ‘you probably don’t really know what you are doing so let me guide you,’ just based off of my gender. Mike, from day one, approached me as a human and respected my vision. Most importantly he brought this unique sense of an overarching vision the whole way through. He always saw the whole even when I couldn’t. That trait is hard to come by.”
Rae had already played a few live shows at Racer Cafe in Seattle with Sean T. Lane, the drummer on Ten Thousand Years, and she knew they collaborated well together. She trusted him so much that she waited until they showed up to the studio to play him all the songs for the first time. That’s the way he wanted it. This way we could capture his first intuition, that freshness before we start to question ourselves. She describes Lane as someone with a gentle demeanor, who never says anything that’s not worth saying, and praises his ability to creatively experiment with sound. “He’s basically the flavor to the whole record, that’s Sean. Like the sweet and spicy sauce on the table at the Chinese restaurant. He’s that crucial element that you can’t really eat the meal without.”
Jacob Hoffman had been one of Rae’s bandmates on the road with Carlile for most of the year before they got to work on her album. “We’re the only two people with Brandi that are pursuing careers as solo artists, and I think we get a lot of momentum and even sometimes a little competitiveness out of that, and it’s good to have, ‘cause it keeps us both moving.” At the same time, Hoffman has been a huge advocate of hers on the road: “He’ll just pull me into a conversation when we are out with Brandi just to introduce me and tell them about my record,” Rae says. Hoffman played many of the instruments on the record, including bass, guitar, keyboards and vocal harmonies. Rae credits his ability to write essential parts, and get them down quickly: “He’s that first-take wonder. He lights up when he is behind an instrument. Just hit record once, and he’s done. The ideas are already there.”
Working with all three of them, Rae was pleasantly surprised to find that ego wasn’t a consideration. “I just never felt like any of these guys ever questioned my abilities, ever. If anything they were lifting me up. Which is such a rare experience in the music industry unfortunately, so I just felt really well-supported and... safe.”
The final album is a testament to that feeling of safety. The songs breathe and land softly, evoking expansive landscapes and intimate stories. Rae sounds relaxed and at home, and her voice imparts warmth and comfort and sometimes wistfulness. It’s easy to hear that Rae has never been more sure of who she is as an artist, and where she’s going next.
Ten Thousand Years is out August 7, 2020.