Rachael Sage – Ballads and Burlesque

Take a journey through Rachael Sage’s newest album, Chandelier, and you’ll find an independent artist asking many questions.   Some are basic, some are personal, and some probably don’t have worthy answers. But the point is, Sage still doesn’t hesitate to inquire, and that is something you’ll need to know as you listen to her music.

Because for Rachael Sage, somehow everything seems attainable.

 I write this because I believe it, too.  Sage, in all respects, is a powerhouse. She’s built her own record label, MPress records, which she founded a decade ago. She writes beautiful melodies, lyrics, and songs, and sings with passion – creating albums that require heavy listening around her vocals and piano talents.  The attention that you give to her songs provides quite a reward, and Chandelier is one of her best works, so you’re fine to start there.

And the thing is, Sage is who she is. I’ve compared her (as most have) to Tori Amos, but perhaps I’m wrong to do so.  Besides, that’s too easy, and Sage hasn’t settled for what is common. Maybe it’s better to give Rachael Sage her due, without comparisons.  Because she isn’t a follower – only an artist who’s paved a road that’s a bit hard to find, but welcoming and smooth once you stumble upon it. 
Glide recently had the chance to chat with Sage over e-mail.

This is your eighth album in ten years.   What does that mean to you?

It means there’s some hard proof that I’ve been busy, so hopefully some of my loved-ones will take it less personally that I’ve been away so much, touring behind all these albums, or alternately, recording them!

Honestly, I generally feel like I should’ve made twice as many albums by now, given how naturally prolific I was as a teenager. I write songs and I always have, that’s the core of what I do…and honestly I feel like a slacker in that department most of the time because if I’d been around during the Brill Building era, I think I would’ve written new songs every day. Being an indie artist and all, that’s just not possible for me. I spend way too much time online, promoting my work and running a label!
So eight albums in ten years seems reasonable, but not overly prolific/productive to me personally given the way my brain is wired to create output I like to think I’m capable of. I demo’d a lot more songs at age 13 than I probably ever will again – and I certainly had no idea what a luxury that head-space was, at the time. I love performing though, so the most meaningful aspect of the number of albums I’ve recorded is the number of opportunities I’ve had to travel to new places and meet new listeners. I’m very lucky!

The song “Chandelier” is one of my favorite tracks on the album, and closes it beautifully.    How important is it for you to have such a strong song stand out at the end of an album?

I tend to think the strongest “slots” on an album, in a way, are the first and last. I often put my poppiest – i.e. most radio-friendly – tracks a little further in, maybe 3rd or 4th but of course that varies depending on the overall flow between tracks, and the subject matter. I do think it can be effective to begin and end with a definitive point of view as a singer-songwriter, with songs that say the most about where you’re coming from and where you’d like to go. Plus, “Chandelier” is a slow, intimate song, and for people who might be new to me, I don’t think it would be as apt to grab their ears. I like to know someone has stuck around a little bit, before I really spill my guts (haha). Putting a dramatic ballad at the end kind of guarantees that someone is really listening. At least that’s how I relate to CDs myself! Sequencing is rarely easy; I always struggle with it but I never stop playing with the order until I’m completely convinced it’s the best way for the songs to hang together, as a record. I’m obsessive!

Who are some of your favorite songwriters?   Do they affect how you write?

My two very favorite songwriters are Elvis Costello and Marc Cohn, who are pretty different from each other aesthetically. They also happen to be two of my favorite live performers, instrumentalists, singers, and most charming storytellers on stage…
I’m not really sure the way they affect the way I write, if they even do at all. Musically, I’m probably more directly influenced by classical music, Billy Joel, Carole King, Hall & Oates and James Taylor than I ever could be by anyone I’ve become turned-on to as an adult – simply because those were influences I absorbed at such a young age, it was more subconscious in terms of affecting my own sense of craft.

But Elvis Costello and Marc Cohn are both so great at what they do, and so gifted at connecting with live audiences; they continually remind me what music can sound like at its most imaginative and passionate. I don’t think I particularly sound like either one though, so you’re probably more qualified to tell me how they’ve impacted my own process, than I am!
I get most of my ideas for songs from literature, film, anecdotes I hear from stranger’s conversations, or visual imagery. I almost never listen to music and then promptly respond with a song, it’s just not how songs come to me. They usually come to me from life and observation, rather than a groove or stylistic influence. At least that’s been how it’s worked for me, so far!

There is a lot of emotion hidden in these songs, in the music and in the lyrics. Can you talk a little about that?

 Well, I’m relieved to hear it (ha)! If there wasn’t, it’d probably be time to take a break from music and find another expressive outlet!
 My goal as a songwriter is usually to convey a sense of possibility within challenging situations. I like to flesh out moments that test the human spirit, whether my own or someone else’s, and then look for redemption against whatever the odds may be. I’m not that interested in snapshots that don’t show some ray of hope, ultimately.

While I was making this album, I was definitely struggling with how to respond to a very close friend’s severe eating disorder. So there are a lot of moments on the album that may reveal emotions I wasn’t even aiming for necessarily. There were always two dialogues happening in the studio: my daily communication with the engineer and musicians while arranging the material, and the tough questions I was asking myself and the universe, regarding my friend and the source of her illness. I was trying to make logical sense of something that ultimately, I realized was out of my control. That’s why I put “Chandelier” at the end of the record, because sometimes the only answer to sadness on behalf of others you love is gratitude for your own blessings, and for all the things that still make life beautiful. Life goes on – and it’s never boring!

Relationships seem to play an important role in your songs.   What’s it like during one of your shows when you’re singing a song about a relationship gone wrong?  Does it take you back when you wrote the song?

When I perform my songs, I try not to think too much. If I do, that’s when I’m actually pulled out of the song…which is never good, and something I always regret! You don’t want to be singing a heartfelt ballad and contemplating your next meal. Or when you’re gonna be doing your next load of laundry haha – even though those things might try to invade your mind at the most inconvenient moments. For me, the key is the audience. The lyrics are a script, they’re there to guide me and bring me to a new place usually, in terms of the emotional truth each night behind any given song. I don’t really care if I remember or feel the exact same emotion I did when I wrote a song, it’s not that important to me. What’s important is being in the moment, and somehow channeling where I am as a person each day, in a new way, into the material. The audience response, and of course, the other musicians with whom I’m playing – if applicable – is a huge factor. If it’s a really big venue, very dark and not easy to look at individual audience members, sometimes that can be a challenge, and you just have to think of it more like theater, where you trust they are there and can “feel” them, but it’s more about your relationship to your instrument, and how deeply you can manage to delve in your imagination.
I’ve had extensive training as an actress and dancer – while I’ve had no formal training as a musician – so I’m sure that has shaped my process quite a bit, as a musician. I always try to let the lyrics and the music themselves take me to the emotional places I want to go, and not play out the “result.” It’s a lesson I’m constantly learning though, not to think too much. If I think about a high note I have to hit 4 bars later, I never nail it. If I just think about the content, the meaning of the words and what I’m trying to express to the audience, the chances are much higher!

What’s the best way someone could support your music?

The best way someone can support my music is to actually buy the albums, and/or attend a live show (hopefully both simultaneously!). Everything stems from those two things – they’re equally crucial to sustaining a career as an independent musician. Telling your friends about music you enjoy is always great…I think I single-handedly turned over 100 people onto Ani DiFranco’s music at Stanford, once I heard her song “The Story” in a bookstore in San Francisco. A few months later, she came to my college to perform because so many of us had asked her manager if she would add us to her tour route. It really is a relationship, and every person who enjoys an indie artist’s work has an enormous ability to spread the word about it, and really make a difference in terms of helping sustain that artist’s career!

I also have a Street Team, which people who want to be even more involved can join at www.rachaelsage.com. We regularly rely on Street Team members to help promote local shows, spread the word about MPress Records releases, and basically be another grassroots arm of the label by posting flyers, posters and distributing promotional materials throughout their communities.

Glide Senior Writer Jason Gonulsen lives in the St. Louis, MO area with his wife, Kelly, and dogs, Maggie and Tucker. You can e-mail him at: [email protected]

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