It is common knowledge that St. Olaf is overflowing with musical talent. This is a college that prides itself on the musicality, creativity and soulfulness of its music students. And this year’s first-year class brought with it a student who exemplifies all three of these characteristics: singer-songwriter Sammy Brown ’17, whose debut single “How to Go to Confession” will be released for distribution Nov. 5.
The song was inspired by her close friendship with Zach Sobiech, her bandmate whose single “Clouds” was a viral hit on YouTube last spring. Sobiech, who was diagnosed at age 14 with osteosarcoma, the most common form of bone cancer, passed away in May.
“It was just something I felt like I had to do. I did [it] for myself,” Brown said.
A member of Manitou Singers this year, Brown has always relied on music and considers it therapeutic. “It was just a way to get everything out without talking about the heavy stuff,” she said.
Brown’s friendship with Sobeich has been influential in her own development as a musician. Music came naturally to both of them from a very young age.
“Zach got a guitar when he was twelve,” Brown said. “We always just sat around the campfire. We’d go busking. Our moms said to start recording it, which we did at Zach’s guitar teacher’s [studio]. We did that, and we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we did our own?'”
The result of these recordings was a song called “Blueberries,” and from these roots grew their band, A Firm Handshake, with the addition of friend Reed Redmond.
According to Scott Herold, CEO of Brown’s record label Rock the Cause, A Firm Handshake’s album Fix Me Up rocketed to top album in the nation on iTunes, surpassing albums by Imagine Dragons, Mumford & Sons and Macklemore. It also became the number 20 record in Billboard’s Hot 200.
“I met Sammy at a concert for Zach Sobiech last winter,” Herold said. “Rock the Cause had just released Zach’s goodbye anthem ‘Clouds’ worldwide. She was running around the concert barefoot like some wild pixie. The album was really more a way to have something for family and friends to have a record of Sammy, Reed and Zach creating music together. The family grew worldwide.”
Brown has a similar view, acknowledging that the band started out as a way to preserve the music for family members then blew up in an unexpected way. “How to Go to Confession” already has a fanbase of friends and strangers awaiting its release. Brown hopes that this will lead to more song profits, 25 percent of which will contribute to the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund, which has already raised close to one million dollars for cancer research.
“How to Go to Confession”was recorded in June and has a slightly more produced feel than the folksy acoustics of “A Firm Handshake.” According to Brown, the song also has a bit of a Celtic vibe. Brown draws on musical inspirations such as Ed Sheeran, Regina Spektor, Stornoway and the Beatles for her poetic, acoustic sound. As a songwriter, she said she appreciates “lyrics with a play on words and a poetry, like Paul Simon.”
Brown’s music definitely comes from the heart, not from a textbook. “I don’t know any theory, I’m not super fancy about it,” she said.
“She is in possession of a great gift. She can be a big star,” Herold said. “She has to decide if this is what she wants.”
For now, at least, Brown says she wants to focus on college. “I feel like it’s the thing to do,” she said.
Still, Brown has written a few more songs, and she might go to New York to work with other songwriters. She is also learning to play the guitar. Wherever Brown’s journey takes her, St. Olaf is lucky to have her unassuming, talented, “pixie-like” presence here on campus. Students can support Brown and gain some great new music by finding her on iTunes, Spotify and Amazon after the single’s release.
Photo Credit: BEKAH ENGSTRAND/MANITOU MESSENGER