Getting to Know Rachael Sage

Rachael Sage is one of the most innovative and unique singer-songwriters to come along in a good long while. She’s got a special style and has got charisma in every particle of her being.  Some people call her style of music “art pop” but it’s really more than that.  It’s a mesmerizing mix of a great many genres.  She has a voice that demands to be heard and has been selected as one of the 24 Emerging Artists at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, New York.

Falcon Ridge is celebrating its 25th anniversary the first weekend in August and the Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes).*  The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year

You can find out more about Rachael at her website:

Here’s a video of Rachael singing “Invisible Light.”

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Your latest CD Haunted By You was a bit of a departure for you since it was written on guitar.  Did forcing yourself to write with a different instrument n your hands change the sound and intensity for you at all?

Well, I didn’t really “force” myself to write on another instrument, as it kind of beckoned to me. It had been in storage for over a decade, unopened; I knew a few chords, literally, and an ex had left it behind but it just wasn’t something I felt I played well at all and piano is my gift, so it just sat there collecting dust literally. But when my last partner and I broke up, I did what many people probably do – I scoured my apartment, cleaning, reorganizing, moving furniture…and I just came upon it and opened it up and started playing it one night. The first song I wrote on it was “Invisible Light,” which was, appropriately, about summoning the Muse. I think she summoned me though!

I will say that the limitations of having to write more simply, with fewer chord changes and less ornate arrangements, definitely created more space for my voice so in a lot of ways I think this record is more open-sounding than some of my prior albums. Usually my accompaniment on the piano is very dense and sort of an extension of the lyrics; but on guitar I just don’t know how to be that complicated so everything becomes less esoteric. I think this album is very direct and less cryptic than some of my prior work, but the content also really lent itself to that, being a song cycle about passion…

This album contains many songs about intense passion and love.  Do you find it easier to write songs when you’re sad?

 I don’t think it’s easier to write sad songs, necessarily but I think what happens is that when you’re sad you just don’t feel like doing much else. You stay in, you reflect, you cry, you try to listen and sort through what you’re feeling. When you’re happy, you’re necessarily drawn to the outside world, less reflective and at least with me, it’s more satisfying to just experience that happiness in the moment. That’s where craft comes in though — having the discipline to take that time and carve that space to reflect not only on the moments when you’re blue, but when you’re hot pink as well!

 I have a brand new song called “Happiness,” actually, it’s one of my favorites and will be on my next record. I wrote it after seeing one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to, and fantasizing about being involved romantically with this (unnamed!) artist. I was on such a high after seeing the show, and am grateful I had the discipline to go home and delve into a reflective place at the piano, instead of going out with friends drinking or something…or I wouldn’t have the song.

 Is it possible to write happy songs when you’re not feeling especially happy?

 Absolutely! Thankfully, song ideas don’t only come from literal experience, but also imaginative. Wanting and yearning are just verbs, they’re words that may be truthful enough to use as defaults in a lyric but with a little more crafting – and a thesaurus upon occasion – it’s just as effective to turn “I’m dying…” into “I can’t wait to…”. It’s all about craft at that point, and deciding proactively what kind of emotion you want to project to an audience. I think it can also be helpful to approach writing from the point of view of a character other than yourself, just as an actor would. Since most of my academic training is in theater, and I have done quite a bit of acting myself, I really try to apply a lot of that craft — of getting inside another person’s mind and body — to songwriting as well. Many of the songs people assume are about my own literal experience, because I’m singing in first person, have actually been sparked by characters in novels, or on TV or in films. That’s the beauty of allowing yourself to be transported by other artists’ work…it can take your own somewhere new as well.

 It’s been said that you started writing songs after being bullied in school.  Were you always the artsy girl who didn’t quite fit in with the vast majority of kids in your school?  Did the kids who bullied you get to hear your songs or did you keep them to yourself?

 I don’t think it’s ever quite that simple, honestly. All it takes is one bully, it doesn’t need to be a whole bunch or an entire gang i.e. a “vast majority” to make your life hell. But in my case, where there was one there were usually another two or three “loyal” followers willing to back up the bully and unwilling to intervene, that’s for sure. 

 I believe that generally, when a bully is allowed to persist, it’s absolutely a failure of the faculty, of the adults around them. The school I went to where I was badly bullied simply had a very disconnected faculty, and teachers who really didn’t seem to care as much about the individual students as the rules and protocol i.e. “school traditions”. Later, in the same town when I eventually transferred to another school, I saw a blatant difference between how it was run, how proactive the staff was and how involved the teachers were in all of the students’ experiences. So sure I was probably always a bit “artsy”, but there was always someone artsier probably; but I think part of it was simply bad luck and the fact that I had a very meaningful life outside of school, already, as a ballet student. I left school early most days to pursue something I loved and as a result, wasn’t very involved in school sports. I also was a bit of a “pet” in music class – through no fault of my own but I could just play everything by ear – so there was always a bully ready to say something nasty and try to bring me down more than a peg or two. 

When I meet young kids today who tell me they’re being bullied, I am very very sensitive to point out to them that it’s nothing they’re doing or deserve; and I generally think it’s BS when people say bullies prey on “weakness”. I think they prey on difference, period. Strength and weakness has so much less to do with it; I was very strong, and had naturally good self-esteem, but I was not the same — like Cassie in A Chorus Line, I didn’t blend. Even in the adult world, that lack of acceptance is a form a bullying, obviously. Look at Russia, right now. It’s a crime to be gay, and even a parent is now required to report a son or daughter…it’s the exact same thing, it’s fear. Fear and intolerance for what you don’t understand, whether it’s something someone else may be gifted at that you are not (our class figure-skater was also bullied), or a way of loving that’s different from your own. It’s a topic that really pushes my buttons because it boils down to compassion, period. It’s either there, or it’s absent and adults have everything to do with how their children develop (or don’t), at every turn. When they’re paying attention, it simply doesn’t happen. When they “let kids be kids” and don’t take it seriously is when it’s rampant or even encouraged. I have no doubt that the parents of those who bullied me were pleased their own kids were the most cool and popular, whereas my own would have grounded me for life if they’re ever learned of me mistreating or teasing another fellow student, for whatever reason. For some kids, school was just a video-game, in a sense, and the prize was being cool, which boiled down to what clothes you wore, how you did your hair, whether you slacked off, were sexually active, were mean to other kids, etc. That never really made much sense to me and I genuinely wanted to do well and learn, so I was at a loss. If you got an “A”, but weren’t also sporty and had pretty long hair and a boyfriend by age 11, well, you were going to be bullied.

 As far as my bullies hearing my songs…well, maybe they did I’m not quite sure. I was always playing them on any available piano whether in school or at my own house, and later on I was making demos on my four-track. Generally speaking though, I don’t recall anyone who bullied me as caring too much about anyone else’s creative expression than their own! I certainly never aimed to have them hear my songs. My songs were just something I was creating, because it gave me focus and became a welcome challenge, to try to write better and better songs until ultimately, and after falling in love with a variety of musical performers on radio and TV, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do with my life.

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 You’ve spent a good deal of time touring the UK.  How would you compare the U.S. audiences to those you meet abroad?

 I’m on tour in the UK right now, and I will say that audiences here are every bit as diverse as in the U.S. I’ve played gorgeous big theaters in both countries where you could hear a pin-drop and the level of respect for artists is off the charts. Likewise, I’ve played outdoor festivals and clubs in both countries where crowds are barely listening or overwhelmingly drunk and noisy, and it’s just what it is…I think at the end of the day people are people and they just want to feel like they can relate to what you’re doing in some way, whatever the circumstances. The trick then becomes to learn to truly know a little bit about every scene, every town, every group for whom you’re playing and become a bit of a chameleon. I think you can still be yourself, and yet change/adapt your set and your overall sensibility to bring people in in different ways. For instance, when I open for Judy Collins in the U.S. I’m not going to play the same set of songs as when I perform at The 12 Bar in London, and I’m not going to wear the same outfit, most likely. I have such an enormous sense of admiration for the UK music scene, past and present, and The Beatles are my all-time favorite band so naturally, it’s an honor for me to play over there and yet it’s not all smooth sailing. This tour I’ve been opening for a wonderful artist named Joe Longthorne whose fans are quite a bit older and they expect standards. But that’s just not what I do, so I’ve been doing my best to win them over with my originals, some comedic banter and generally finding my more “classic” sensibility but some nights have been more connective than others. Conversely, I’ve also been doing some other shows here and there in the UK where I’m headlining smaller venues but the crowds have really been my exact target audience — folk and pop music lovers, who appreciate my eclecticism and humor and that’s been fantastic. Sometimes the smaller shows are just more fun, and less pressure in a way. I find that to be true in theU.S also, and it’s part of why I love performing at small but wonderful listening rooms like Rockwood Music Hall, in NYC. To me, playing in certain parts of the U.S. can be like playing in another country…like L.A. for instance! 

 What’s life on the road like for you and the Sequins?

 I don’t always tour with my band, so when I have that opportunity, it’s such a thrill to share the stage with them and I try to really relish it. My string players – Ward Williams and Kelly Halloran – are among the very best musicians with which I’ve ever played, and I just started playing with a new percussionist, Andy Mac, who’s fantastic. My longtime trumpet player Russ Johnson is quite simply a genius, and I just feel so uplifted and inspired by his natural sense of melody; he’s always surprising me and it keeps it so much more interesting, playing off of people with that level of experience, as well as soulfulness.

 Fortunately, all these fine folks are as kind and positive as people, as they are as musicians, so we really get along well and keep each other laughing. I truly believe it’s every bit as important to get along with your bandmates offstage as on, and I’m so lucky to be playing with a group of individuals right now, each of whom I consider to be a dear friend and someone to whom I look up, as a human being. Plus, they all dress well haha. It helps!

 Your band, the Sequins, have a lot of musical pedigree—many have played with some musical heavy hitters like Suzanne Vega, Ani DiFranco, and Counting Crows.  Do you ever do any co-writing with any of them?

 No, I’ve actually never co-written with anyone, other than jingles when I used to be in the jingle business years ago. In that context, I co-wrote all the time, and the lyrics were usually written before I was even asked to write the music. I suppose it’s like painting, or choreography for me; it’s a singular vision I tend to have…and I’ve never really been apt to wait to let someone else paint on my canvas. Thus far at least, I’ve considered writing to be a very private, solitary endeavor and I require a lot of space/quietude to do it, even by myself. I’ve had a lot of other peers ask me to co-write with them through the years, and I haven’t been opposed to doing so but it’s just never happened yet, plus I always have had so much material of my own I wanted to perform and record. Never say never though! I’d happily co-write with Elvis Costello, Glen Hansard or as you mentioned, Suzanne Vega. But I realize I really, really need to earn that kind of opportunity and it’s probably something that I can’t really commandeer. If it’s meant to be, it will happen 🙂

 Rachael photo: Bill Bernstein

Falcon Ridge is celebrating its 25th anniversary the first weekend in August and the Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes).*  The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year

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