Samantha Bowers will be the first to tell you New York can be a lonely place.
Seven years since moving there to attend college and pursue music, the Connecticut native — who performs as Sammy Rae — gets along with a little help from her Friends.
An eight-piece group encompassing horn players, a rhythm section, and background singers, the Friends is what Bowers calls “a musical community," a family she’s formed across years of attending gigs and scouting buskers on the subway. Together, they make swoony, euphoric jazz-rock, pitched somewhere between Lake Street Dive and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, with Bowers’s soulful vocals at center stage.
Since releasing a five-track EP, “The Good Life,” in 2018, Bowers has seen the group’s popularity sky-rocket. They played to full houses for most of their New York shows last year and embark on a full US tour this spring, including a sold-out stop at The Sinclair in Cambridge on Saturday.
“I knew I didn’t want to be on stage by myself, and I didn’t want to be with different side players for every gig," says Bowers, 26, speaking by phone. “I wanted to be part of a band identity.”
Growing up in Derby, Conn., Bowers first discovered music through her parents’ CD collection, fixating on Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, and especially the E Street Band. “I remember those first few records where they were all so tight, and everybody knew the first name of every musician in the band,” she says. “That was what I wanted for myself, to facilitate and lead a community."
At 12, Bowers was writing her own songs and taking piano lessons. By 16, her interest in jazz had bloomed into a full-on passion for the genre’s leading female vocalists. “Every school was asking me to audition as classic-contemporary or jazz,” she explained. “I ended up listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington, which is where this element of jazz dexterity and technicality came in to inform the classic-rock and pop voice I had forming.”
After coming to New York to study education at Manhattan College in the Bronx, Bowers embedded herself in the city’s music scene. Anxiety hit her hard, but she pushed through it to attend mixers and open mics, talking to whomever seemed friendliest and eventually forging connections with other musicians.
“I felt so overwhelmed and drowned by everything stimulating me in New York,” she recalls. “But it was a blessing, because I could just find an opportunity anywhere."
Gradually, she met enough like-minded musicians to put a band together, with tenor saxophonists, trumpeters, and bassists all attending informal jam sessions in Brooklyn. She began writing complex, multi-instrumental arrangements, aiming to give each member of this group at least one opportunity to shine per track.
"I always know the musicianships of the others in my band so intimately,” says Bowers. "I think, ‘Let me write a bassline that would highlight [bassist] James Quinlan’s strengths, and let me be sure it has a groove where our drummer Cbass Chiriboga can really articulate his own interpretation of the song.’ I’m writing this whole body from the beginning, and then I bring it to the band to help flesh it out.”
After selling out 500-capacity halls last year, the Friends are leveling up; they’ll be back in Boston this October to play the Royale, which seats 1,200.
It’s going to be a busy few months, Bowers acknowledges, taking a beat to marvel at how much has changed since she first got to New York. "Make sure you don’t stop trusting yourself,” says Bowers when asked what advice she’d give others starting out. “Do what you can to get the others around you to believe how passionate you are. Don’t give up on that passion.”