Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed singer songwriter Rachael Sage about her music, what inspires her, and highlights from her career.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m a singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist based in New York, and I also founded a record label called MPress Records. At heart, I think I’m someone who wants to uplift others through hopeful, positive and empowering music and art in whatever form – and I also really love making people laugh.
When did you first WANT to write songs?
I first wanted to write songs after I heard the Broadway show “Oklahoma” when I was in nursery school.
I came home and played the score by ear on the piano and saw my parents lose their minds, wondering where that came from since while they love music, they aren’t musical at all; I immediately understood that it wasn’t just the mimicry of what I was doing that elicited such an enthusiastic reaction, but that the satisfaction of seeing their child grasp the worthiness of these brilliant melodies.
They encouraged me and almost right away I knew that I also wanted to write my own songs and tell my own stories. Within a year or so I was making up little ditties about my friends and my experiences at school, as well as composing classical music inspired by accompaniment I was hearing in ballet class.
When did you take a step to start writing songs?
It was very organic. I would come home from dance class and play music I’d heard that day…then begin improvising. One of the first original songs I ever played on the piano and sang was called “Why Don’t You Stay” and it was written from my mother’s perspective, when she was saying goodbye to him as he was leaving on a work trip. I think I was 5 – but by then I definitely understood how a song could capture a moment in time, and reflect emotions as much as be a catchy pop tune on the radio. Somewhere in a cardboard box is a cassette demo of it from years later…at some point I’ll have to unearth it and give it a proper studio treatment with a band!
What was your first song released, and what was it about?
The first song I ever recorded that ended up on an actual album was called “William”, and it was loosely based on the film “Immediate Family” featuring Glenn Close, about adoption. I was just discovering how to take an idea for a song sparked by a narrative that was not my own, and to inject it with details more familiar to my own experience – sort of like Method Acting, which I’d been studying in college. I recorded it with just piano, guitar and violin and it ended up on my first record, “Morbid Romantic”.
What was your latest song released, and what was it about?
I just released a song from my project “Poetica” called “Sleep When I’m Tired”, which is essentially about the complete exhaustion created by emotional as well as physical isolation. The song also examines how (self)love manages to survive and provide hope even amidst the most disorienting circumstances…love being the ultimate antidote to disillusionment, in times of duress.
Focusing on your latest song. What were your biggest challenges with Sleep When I’m Tired?
The biggest challenge was that I recorded and engineered it by myself under lockdown, so it was somewhat difficult to achieve the sense that we were all a band playing in a room, i.e. the illusion of a live performance at the heart of the recording. But through the magic of technology and talent of my fellow musician who also self-recorded and sent me audio files to integrate into my arrangement, I think we created quite a vibey virtual ensemble!
How many songs are you working on right now?
I’m in the studio currently working on my next fill-length album, which looks like it will be 12 songs. I’m working on ten at the same time but I rotate between them and this week I’m focusing on organ and electric guitar overdubs, which is very exciting!
Do you keep to a theme with your music, or just go where the mood strikes?
It completely varies. I get bored very easily when things start to sound overly similar, so I’m always trying to present a collection of diverse yet thematically related material on my albums. But every album definitely has a different overall feel to it, which is reflective of my ever-shifting sensibility! So I guess it’s somewhere between both: I keep to particular lyrical themes that have some kind of relationship to each other, but also go where the mood strikes, musically!
What is your favourite song you’ve recorded, and what do you love about it?
I love the track “Unconditional” from my collaborative project Poetica, because it really doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever done. The silver-lining of self-recording under lockdown was that I finally had the time to properly learn to self-engineer and edit and I was able to approach this track almost like a film-score, where I gathered as much footage i.e. musical elements as possible, via remote recording, and then collaged the arrangement together in a way I felt best supported the poem. I really enjoyed layering the strings in particular – performed by my amazing cellist Dave Eggar – and the mix process with my longtime friend and collaborator, Andy Zulla.
Do you find other people’s music inspires you? Who do you listen to most?
I’m inspired by so many musicians and composers, but lately I’ve been listening to a lot of music I grew up absorbing but haven’t revisited in years, such as Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, as well as The Beatles and Nina Simone. When I’m working on new material, I tend to I go back to music I heard earlier in my life that made me want to do this in the first place…while also keeping an ear to the ground and exploring indie artists like Abby Ahmad, Fiona Harte, and Elizabeth & The Catapult. Of course, I’m often listening to the artists on my own record label, including our country-rock Grace Pettis and A Fragile Tomorrow. My favorite current artist is Jon Batiste, and my favorite artists in general are Elvis Costello and Glen Hansard. I love how their music always feels both inevitable as well as surprising, which to me is the mark of all the best artistic expression.
Do you write your own music, or do you have musicians you work with?
I usually write my own music but on Poetica I co-wrote the musical accompaniment to a handful of my poems with my cellist Dave Eggar (Coldplay, Paul Simon) as well as one piece, “Pulpit”, with my longtime violinist Kelly Halloran.
Do you play any instruments?
I play piano, Wurlitzer, guitar and percussion.
Do you like performing live, or does it scare you? Where can people watch you?
I love performing live, but part of why I love it is also because it IS scary! I enjoy that high-wire feeling of facing fear head-on, and sharing that with an audience in a way that’s equal parts memorable, transforming and uplifting – on a good night! People can find my tour schedule at poeticaproject.com or rachaelsage.com.
Is your music available online, and where can people listen to it?
Yes, all of my music is available everywhere music is sold (Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify etc) as well as at mpressrecords.com.
Are you able to make music full time, or do you have day job?
I am a full-time musician as well as a record label owner/President. I do also do other things like graphic design, painting and voiceovers; but generally speaking, music is my #1!
Are your friends and family supportive of your music career?
Generally, yes. Of course there’ve been times when I’ve had to ignore “controversial” advice from both family and friends – such as what kind of music I should be making, or what other gigs I should or shouldn’t be playing (everyone always has an opinion, especially if they really are concerned about your well-being); but overall I feel accepted if not wholly understood, but my friends and loved ones, when it comes to that core part of my personality which dictates that I must always be doing or making something creative, period.
What’s something you never expected about being a songwriter? What have you learned that surprised you?
I never expected being a songwriter to eventually lead me to playing shows all over the world. I’ve been so fortunate that by virtue of writing songs my career has led me to play shows everywhere from Japan to Scotland to France and Netherlands.
I’ve learned that people all over the world essentially want the same things: to be accepted, to be heard and to feel purposeful (among other things). It turns out love is not all you need to live a life “of meaning”! I’ve had a lot of audience members at countless shows tell me their life-stories just hanging out after gigs, and there’s rarely been a night when I wasn’t surprised by the infinite variety of ways people tell me music binds them to their sense of humanity.
Have you had any experiences that really stand out because of your songs?
A few years ago I was invited by The John Lennon Songwriting Contest to teach a group of young students how to write a song, together. We started with nothing and by the end of the day we had a fully recorded song, and had made a video for it! They kids were just spectacularly creative and cooperative and it’s a day I’ll never forget. Also when I was on tour in the UK, I did a bunch of creativity workshops with kids between ages five and fifteen or so, and it was a very moving and gratifying experience. I really enjoy working with young people and helping them overcome shyness and build their confidence. I had several mentors who did that for during my teens, so it feels good to give that energy back to those who may not otherwise be exposed to the arts in that way.
Do you have any important events coming up we should know about?
I have a tour coming up with UK singer-songwriter Howard Jones, in just a few weeks, and will also be touring the UK over the summer. Keep an eye on my website for details!
What is the first piece of advice you would give to anyone inspired to write songs?
I would tell them just write from the heart, and to always have a way to capture ideas, whether in a journal or on an ipad. Try not to judge what you write, in the early stages – just commit to some kind of regular time every week or every few days at minimum where you try to write something, however short or whether at an instrument or a cappella. In the same way conversing with loved ones becomes second nature and something you crave, your process of creating should be akin to a conversation. What do you want to say or express, and to whom? Remember that no one is like you so your work will necessarily be unique. Take confidence in your irreplaceable perspective and know that if you love and feel excited about what you write, someone else is bound to connect to it!
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I’m not a big believer in being “proud” of what simply feels like a sense of innate identity, realized; I really had very little to do with my own drive to be creative or even the work ethic that I learned from my opportunities as a young ballet dancer, mainly. What I am most proud of is quite simply, that I never quit, even when I faced rejection and have felt misunderstood or discouraged. And certainly yes, it has been worth the effort every step of the way!! I can’t think of any more gratifying job than to be professionally responsible for reminding people how we are all connected, just by doing what you love! That makes even the most challenging aspects of being an independent artist worth every late night and long haul.
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POETICA / SLEEP WHEN I’M TIRED (OFFICIAL VIDEO): EMBARGOED UNTIL JANUARY 19th
POETICA / SLEEP WHEN I’M TIRED – VIDEO DESCRIPTION:
The video for “Sleep When I’m Tired”, by the collaborative spoken word music project Poetica, transports us to a dream-like, middle of nowhere destination where poet and bandleader Rachael Sage follows an ephemeral path in a moody and mysterious forest. A perfect backdrop for this heartfelt blues tinged ballad, the lush and richly colored greenery provides just the right amount of ‘Blair Witch’ creepiness to make us wonder: why is she there? Where is she going? What are these artful antiques – some musical, some seemingly remnants of a previous indoor life – and how are they sustaining our protagonist? Equal parts Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, Poetica’s clip for “Sleep When I’m Tired” is a cinematic escape from the mundane that takes us on a visually beautiful but slightly disturbing trip into the unknown, encouraging us to slow down and notice the inspiring relics left along our own paths by others, especially in these often surreal and disorienting times. Directed by Nick Clark and filmed by Michael Flanagan in the Hudson Valley, NY; art directed by Rachael.
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