Youth. We envy its beauty, romanticize its innocence, dream of its possibilities and often forget how challenging it can be. Our society puts a lot of pressure on our young people to become well educated, to excel at sports, to be accomplished in the arts, and to continue their education. They’re also feeling inner pressure to be social, attractive, and the center of attention while, at the same time, they don’t know how to fit in, don’t feel attractive or don’t feel anywhere near as “cool” as their peers. It is, at the very least, a confusing time. However, recently I met a talented young man who is able to embrace his youth with the spectrum of feelings it encompasses and turn it into soulful music.
Sam Foster has been listening intently to music ever since he can remember. He started with classical, but in elementary school he realized he loved singing so he joined a choir and took up piano. In 8th grade he discovered he also wanted to write songs. At first writing felt difficult, but with perseverance and the help of his music mentor, Elijah Miles, he soon improved and felt more confident about his skills. Along the way he has also developed a love for lacrosse, an affinity for language arts and within the past year he took up guitar.
At 16, he now has a CD, plays once a month at his local Zeek’s, sings the national anthem at games and performs whenever he gets the chance. His original music was a highlight of the Husky Help & Hope (H3) suicide prevention and awareness walk last spring. After that performance, he started looking into the cause and realized it represented issues already very important to him. That experience became more valuable and rewarding with the realization that he was contributing to greater community awareness of suicide and mental illness. As a result, he’s excited about performing at Care*Connect*Build, Forefront’s Nov. 18 evening fundraiser. “I feel like there is not enough open talk about mental illness, and that it is sometimes swept under the rug and suppressed; now I know I’m doing my part to help,” he says.
A self described “modern soul artist,” Sam counts Etta James, Marvin Gaye, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith among his favorites, though he says he listens to all kinds of music and lets them all influence him.
For a musician who lives and breathes music you would think that making music and performing it is the obvious goal, but for Sam it hasn’t always been so straightforward. There were times when he felt his feelings stood in the way. Sometimes, it was just too hard to let the practicing end and the performing begin. Now, when he feels that way he listens to music that he can “get lost in” and tries to picture himself having fun on stage.
Sam has struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) most of his life, but didn’t realize he had it until a few years ago. One of the things Sam has learned is that he really needed some space to reflect. Although he admits it may have been hard for his parents, he needed them to step back a bit, not be quite so assuring or ask so many questions. While their support and willingness to always be there for him is critical, he needed time to develop his own confidence by tackling some of these issues without them. It’s a delicate balance.
At the same time, Sam stresses the importance of being able to talk about his condition with family and friends. One of the songs he recorded last year, entitled “Unbreakable” was inspired by a deep friendship. The haunting melody speaks to the unseen but imperative bond that is so crucial for all of us. He knows that no one should feel like they have to go through such difficulties alone. Now that he understands that everybody has some kind of challenge, he accepts his as both a strength and a weakness. “It’s helpful and harmful,” because, as he says, “I can obsess so much about performing that it can be detrimental to the performance, but it also gives me material to write about and keeps me driven and turning out music.”
It’s clear that the benefits seem to outweigh the fear these days as Sam says, “it’s a way for me to channel my emotions and turn them into something positive, something that I can share with other people…. I can share my experiences that they may not see are happening, but that are actually happening.”
And those emotions have a ripple effect. The subject matter in his songs has been enriched by his deepened emotional insights and empathy. Currently, he is interested in writing about societal behavior issues, and larger global problems. He knows his songs have to be authentic and resonate with others in order to make that emotional connection, which is what he says music is all about.
‘There’s a reason’
When asked if he had any advice for others, Sam said, “If I had to say one thing to a person who is having a hard time. I’d say, there is a reason for it. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but you’re meant to learn from it. I know I’ve learned something from my ongoing struggle. I’ve learned you need to have faith in yourself, just push through it… That’s what I told myself in my hardest times. Even though it may look dreary now. There is always a reason for it, you’re going to get through it, you’re going to learn something from it, you’re going to be better for it if you just keep going…”
It seems his challenge has matured him beyond his years, and hopefully we’ll get to hear that in his music for decades to come. — By Lisa Wahbe
Hear Sam’s music at the Forefront’s third annual fundraiser, 6:30-8:30, Wednesday, Nov. 18 at the Husky Union Building (HUB) on the University of Washington Seattle campus. In addition to music by Sam Foster and pianist Matthew Felton, the evening will include mezzes from Vios Café, a dessert bonanza, inspirational messages and an opportunity to support Forefront’s work to prevent suicide and care for those affected by it. Click here to register.