I enjoyed listening to Rachael Sage’s newly released album Character. Her beautiful, clear, strong voice takes us on a heartfelt journey filled with honesty and vulnerability. One song that stands out is “Bravery’s on Fire” which gives voice to powerful women when they aren’t feeling so powerful. Sage also covers songs by Judy Collins, Ani DiFranco and Neil Young. Of these, I especially enjoyed DiFranco’s “Both Hands” which Sage performs with a string quartet. I spoke to Sage, an energetic, inspiring woman who has actively pursued many artistic interests, including running her own record company, from a young age. And by young, I mean that at two years old she was already piecing out chords on the piano. She recently went through a difficult time battling cancer and after it all she continues to follow her heart with character and more.
Interview by Fredda Gordon. Photo courtesy of Rachael Sage.
Fredda Gordon: You now have 14 studio albums! Can you tell us about the new addition: Character?
Rachel Sage: I wrote the bulk of this album while I was recovering from endometrial cancer. I had taken the entire year once I was diagnosed in 2018 to just be a full time patient. It was what I was told I needed to do. I went through the typical treatments of chemo, radiation and surgery. It was a really, really challenging and overwhelming time for me, but in hindsight I realize now just how incredibly lucky I was to have support of parents and health insurance, and the support and talents of wonderful doctors and nurses who helped me through it. When I was coming to the end of my treatment I was still very overwhelmed, and doing my best to just regain my energy and my physical strength, but I was also very elated and high on gratitude and eager to get back into the studio and express all of that. That was the beginning point for making this record.
FG: How did you choose the songs you covered?
RS: I hadn’t played in 9 months and, like an angel, Judy [Collins] reached out to me and asked if I would like to be part of her tribute concert at Joe’s Pub. It was exactly at the moment when I was physically capable of even considering it. I took that as a great opportunity to say ‘Yes!’ It was like a metaphor of saying yes not only to that gig, just in general. I was assigned [“Open The Door”] to perform, it stayed in my body and when I was in the studio it was natural for me to record it.
“Both Hands”, by Ani DiFranco, was one I had on a playlist with strong, empowered women in folk that had come up on my [music playlist]. When you’re in the hospital and you’re having annoying treatments the best thing you can do is distract yourself and the easiest way I know how to do that is through music and she was on rotation. So, when I went back to the studio it fell into my hands and I was noodling on it, literally, when my co-producer said “That’s cool, what’s that!?” He didn’t even know who she was. He said “You have to record that, I don’t care whose song it is,” and I said ‘but it’s a cover,’ he said “I don’t care, we’re doing that!”
FG: What about Ohio?
RS: I was reading an article that showed Neil Young performing [Ohio] live. I clicked on it because I’m a fan, and some folks know I recorded Helpless with Judy Collins a few years ago. It was the most beautiful, gut wrenching, solo performance of him on electric guitar with these amazing projections behind him. The simplicity and the power of it really blew me away and had me in tears. I shut it off, went right to the piano and played my version of it right away.
I don’t think too much about these things. I don’t sit down and arrange them. I don’t know how to write music, It just either happens or it doesn’t. That happened so quickly. It was just right there and available to me when I went into the studio.
FG: That’s amazing that you don’t chart music.
RS: I learn by ear and self training. I’m not alone. A lot of my peers, especially in New York, play by ear and they’re more in that pop rock, self-taught vein. A lot of the music that I heard growing up was classical because I studied ballet for very seriously many years, so I do consider that to be a sort of formal education, even though it doesn’t seem to qualify to most people. I hear the best music, beautiful, melodic music. I would come home and sound it by ear on the piano and that was my education.
FG: You mentioned “Bravery’s on Fire,” that song shows vulnerability.
RS: I’m not alone in this, I met a lot of new friends in my treatment who felt the same way. As someone who’s a boss, who runs a company, who’s very type A and a leader by nature, I found it especially difficult not only to express what I was dealing with in my cancer experience to my closest loved ones, but also to my friends and intimate relationships. It made it that much harder because everyone perceives me as someone who continually leads and helps others and very willingly so. That’s my nature and default personality. So, in the process of healing from cancer I found it really difficult to carve that space for me to take care of myself adequately and to have boundaries that basically drew that circle around myself and said ‘This is what I need,’ or, ‘This is how I’m feeling.’ It’s just really, really difficult for me. Impossible in the beginning. This song is an anthem for me to set that record straight and finally say what I couldn’t say in the moment, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to say it when I was going through it. It made everything doubly hard. This song was a belated expression of what I wished I’d been able to say right at the beginning.
RS: Crazy and woefully unintended how applicable some of these ideas are to what we are all dealing with right now. There’s sort of this suggestion, at least within the musical community, that everybody use this time to be ‘productive’ and ‘creative’ and ‘self-care’. There’s all of these stipulations and expectations already arising of how everybody should be reacting to what’s essentially a completely unprecedented experience. I hope this song can also apply to that and help remind people that there is no ‘right way’ to react when one is under enormous stress.
FG: How has this pandemic effected you?
RS: As much as I believe what I just said, for my personality type it does help me to retain as much normalcy as I can. I think it’s ok to live our lives and to move forward as best we can, integrating what’s going and also channeling our resources and our energies in a positive way. I’m trying to balance that as much as I can by just showing up, working remotely and trying to run my company, MPress Records. Also to generate some new creative concepts and ways of sharing. For instance, yesterday my tour manager, Meridith Tarr, had a wonderful idea for us to revive MPressFest as a live stream, which we haven’t done lately. They were always a great success and created community and curated beautiful music. We’re going to attach a charity component to it. It kind of reminds me of 911 and how we did the same thing then. And then I try to make sure I take a yoga class every single day. I haven’t been as consistent as I could be, but I’m certainly not beating myself up about it.
FG: You created your own label which is pretty impressive. How did you get into to that?
RS: I started all of this very young. I got a 4-track tape recorder for my bat mitzvah and I know that’s a little bit unorthodox, but it was something that I really wanted. I was already a huge fan of the Beatles and so many other artists who have used recording as part of their composition process. When I was eleven or twelve I already has this vision of myself as a self-produced artist and I had been bouncing tracks on a 2-track cassette recorder. That was the beginning of me being a producer. By the time I was a teenager I had hundreds of demos. I was already adventuring into New York on the weekends, with and without my parents permission, trying to get a publishing deal. I did have one that was on the table and then my parents kaboshed that because they wanted me to be a nice, Jewish girl and go to college and think about it. Their philosophy was “If you still want this in four years it will be there for you.” Little did they know that’s not quite how the music business works.
The positive thing was that I learned very young how to make strong, polished demos. By the time I encountered this concept of putting out music independently wether it be in a shrink-wrapped cassette selling it at a craft show in the Bay Area when I was at school, or ultimately encountering people like Indigo Girls, Loreena McKennitt and Ani DiFranco, I was ready. I [thought] ‘This fits, this is me, I can do this, I am already independent!’ To be fair, there were the odd moments where I was offered major label deals. Some of them seemed scary and confusing and not advisable because of the people involved. Some of them I was on the fence about, and I almost did, but something quirky would happen, like the A & R person would get fired or the head of the legal would switch. I would get cold feet and realize that it was better for me to develop myself, to continue to have control over what I did. Then I committed fully to that and haven’t looked back since.
FG: Is there a difference for women today vs. when you started?
RS: I have always wanted to be part of a broader collective of female musicians and I know it’s gone in and out of vogue from a consumer standpoint. Things like Lilith Fair were enormously influential and positive. Then they kind of dissipated and we all wondered ‘Why?’ There were moments where you thought ‘Well, that’s good that we don’t need that now. Now it’s a more leveled playing field.’ And you would wait to see evidence of that on the radio and that wouldn’t happen. Parts of it are different and better. The part of the playing field that’s been leveled relates more to the internet and social media, access to all of those platforms. In the grand scheme that’s all very niche. People aren’t necessarily going to know the music, or discover it, unless there is a stronger [way] of sharing it, whether it be through big festivals or radio or what have you. It’s an ongoing challenge. I try to look at the bright side of it, like I’m part of the solution by signing and supporting new artists like Grace Pettis whose fantastic and maybe otherwise wouldn’t have as wide a platform. I don’t want to kvetch and I’m not one to lament, I like to lead by example and hopefully be part of the solution.
FG: You recently opened for Howard Jones. I was a big fan of his back in the day, what is he like?
RS: He is such a lovely, lovely person. He is how he writes. Most of his songs, if not all of them, are positive and empowering. Even the lyrics that seem the simplest … they might be simple, catchy pop songs at a glance, or at first listen, when you really sit down with them and you examine the ethos behind them, there’s always that thread of empathy and personal accountability and his really strong belief that he discusses at every gig that every single one of us can make a difference. In a buddhist sense that we absolutely all have the power to start with ourselves and to have that energy impact in a broader way.
FG: What about Judy Collins?
RS: Very similar but different. Judy’s also an incredibly down to earth, lovely, loving person. The very first time I met Judy in person I was playing her Wildflower festival in upstate New York. I showed up and I was at the tail end of a bout with bronchitis. I wasn’t sick anymore but I didn’t have my voice back. Of course I was a bit of a wreck about it and apologized in a pseudo whisper. Instead of being the typical headliner diva who might be like “Get away from me, stand over there,” she said “Oh, my dear, come with me.” She grabbed my arm, took me to her dressing room, and gave me a bunch of all these holistic, integrative therapies and medicines. She was just incredible! Within that day she let me know how much she enjoyed what I did. It takes someone whose evolved and just conscious to be able to share their stage with you that way, with that much generosity.
FG: Did you have music in your house as a kid?
RS: Yeah, I did. I didn’t have parents who sang or played. I didn’t have the Von Trapp family dynamic happening, unfortunately. They were thoughtful enough to have a piano in the living room on the odd chance that one of their two daughters might take to it. Neither of us wanted to do piano lessons and we didn’t want to play scales. But I can’t imagine what my life would have been like had that piece of fancy furniture not been there. At some point I went over to it and started playing around with it. With my legs dangling off the bench, I figured out that certain visual shapes I made with my hands yielded mentally symmetrical sounds to what I was looking at. That was really the beginning of me teaching myself to play.
As far as what they played, my dad steeped me in a lot of doo wop music, he absolutely loves doo wop, R&B and rock and roll. My mom was more the typical New York broadway cabaret fan. She took us to a lot of shows when we were young that were very influential on me like Oklahoma, A Chorus Line, and Sunday in the Park with George. So many great composers who I heard and I’m sure that was a big influence on me.
FG: How old were you when you were figuring out those shapes on the piano?
RS: Hmmmm… 2 and half or 3.
RS: I only did it with my right hand for a couple of years. Then my dad, who is tone deaf actually, but he’s very funny and he loves music, he said “Honey, I think Billy Joel uses just left hand too, so you might want to get that involved.” [laughter] So, I did.
FG: I understand you went to school for dance and started out as an actress. Can you tell me about the moment you realized that you wanted to do music?
RS: It was always music. I identified with people who were polymaths my whole life. I never thought there was some mandate that I had to only do one thing. I played music first but I did dance at the exact same time. My mom dropped me off at a baby ballet class when I was less then 3. I remember hearing “Greased Lightning” as one of their songs that we would shake it out to. They were very much concurrent, music and dance. I didn’t get serious about acting until high school because I didn’t have time. The only acting I did until then was as a character through dance. We had a class called character dancing at School of American Ballet where Andrei Kramarevsky, who recently passed in his 90s, imparted these wonderful Russian character dances to us where we would learn how to pantomime and play different characters with our bodies. That was probably the beginning of me realizing I liked acting. I went to college and majored in it, studied at the actors studio and I never really thought I’d have to make a choice between all of them. The moment that I did was when Ani DiFranco asked me to go on tour with her. At that point you have to actually pack up, leave the city, leave your schooling, your plans to get an agent, etc. Make a choice. So, that’s the choice I made.
FG: And, you also paint.
RS: I do… that’s a little different for me. Painting for me is more subconscious. And while I might sit down and have a plan to make a few paintings, I very rarely have a roadmap in my of what they look like. It’s much more process oriented and it’s a flow and actually quite therapeutic for me. I love doing it but it doesn’t have the same structure or same interaction sharing it with the wider world at this point. Although I’ve done a few art shows that’s not why I do it.
FG: What are your plans for the future?
RS: I had planned to really tour my butt off behind this record, especially after my cancer experience. It’s the thing I love to do most. I love meeting my listeners, hearing from them, having that interaction. I love the lifestyle of being on the road. All of that is hanging in the balance now and we don’t know when any of us will be able to resume that. It could be July, it could be September, it could be later. I hate to say it but we really don’t know. I’m trying to not hinge my plans on that anymore even though I hinge my hopes on that and just take it one week at a time and use this time to really listen to the universe, to other people, to my own inner voice. I’m definitely not stopping, but my days are structured a little bit differently now. Whereas in the past if I came off the road I would exclusively focus on my business, MPress, and sit at the computer for 12 hours then maybe go for a walk. I don’t think it’s healthy to do that right now. I think it’s important to stay connected to people so I’m going to be doing a twice weekly livestream series and I’m working on that today. Making the graphics for it, deciding which days of the week and which times to and I will be announcing that probably by the end of this week.
Note: The live stream is scheduled. Click here for more info.