A soulful and innovative alt-pop-folk-rock singer-songwriter with her hands in countless projects–including owning her own record label–Rachael Sage does it all. With 6 Independent Music Awards under her belt, she spins narratives of gratitude, forgiveness and the beauty and strength of humanity. In her interview with Berklee Groove, Sage explored the inspiration for her new record, Character, how her life changed during her successful recovery from cancer, and advice she’d give to young musicians during these challenging times.
How did Character come together? What inspired you?
I wrote the record in the wake of a cancer experience. I was doing a seven-week tour across the United States with Howard Jones, my childhood idol. It was the best time of my life. When I came home, I went to a routine exam at Planned Parenthood and they found uterine cancer. Writing Character was me attempting to heal from something traumatic, as there were so many different paths physically and mentally to go down. I had to slowly learn that you have to control how you orient. In my case, I was fortunate enough to be resilient. It was difficult for me because everybody thinks of me that way, whether it be my fans, family and closest friends. They assume I’m fine.
Some of the songs reckon with that idea of the person that we present to our closest companion. It’s about recognizing a different type of strength, to be completely transparent and accepting the fact that you might not be okay. The album, however, has a range of songs – Blue Sky Days is one of my favorites – that one is hopeful and upbeat. After the diagnosis, I stopped playing for the better part of 9 months. I was a full-time patient. I was going to and from hospitals, and resting. I had no choice.
Thankfully, I did have the hope of wellness and that hope of getting back to music. In a lot of ways, that’s what Blue Sky Days is about: still seeing hope and that moment where you know the clouds will clear.
Take me back through your journey into music. What ignited your interest? Where did it all begin?
Music chose me, really. I learned to play piano by ear. My parents owned this baby grand white piano bench in our living room. My parents were not musical. I don’t think they ever used it, I think it was just for decoration. So I have to ask myself, what if it hadn’t been there, what would have happened? Would I still be making music? I figured out that hitting certain keys yielded pretty sounds. I started navigating the piano. From about ages 2 ½ to 5 years old, I was writing instrumentals – at 6, I was putting pop songs to lyrics. I loved anything American bandstand and Casey Casem. I went to sleepaway camps, where I’d make songs for the talent shows and assemblies. I need to say thank you to every single institution – whether it be a camp or school – that gave space to young people to get up from 3-5 minutes to share something. I think this is important, as these moments can change a young person's life. It’s something I worry about, too – how are young people always going to have those opportunities? Parents have an obligation to not only focus on academia, but also to encourage and nurture their children’s creativity.
How do you feel you have grown since Morbid Romantic?
I definitely feel twice as smart. I was a kid back then; I was idealistic, and fresh out of school. I experienced trauma in college, so a lot of that reflected on my first album.
I spent a good portion of my twenties making music. This is what I want to do. I wanted to connect with others who have experienced the same thing as I did. Making this type of music helped my connection with the women's music movement in the 1990s. This included artists like Susanne Vega and Sarah McLaughlan. We had these explosively creative musical manifestos under a beautiful umbrella.
I was honored to be part of that community (the music industry at large and the indie community). Through the years, I’ve tried to carry that torch in my own way, you know, as an indie girl. The main thing that’s changed about me as an artist is my orientation in storytelling. In the beginning, my biggest motivation was to tell my own story as it happened and how I felt it; it was a matter of me being heard. As the years go by and art itself changes, I became eager to incorporate stories of other people in my work. Despite using “I” in my lyrics, I’m using stories of others. You realize as you get older, we are not unique.
Your sound can be described as theatrical. What is your approach to creating a pop song? How do you construct it in such a unique way?
Well, I studied theater, dance, and my whole self. When I perform live, I am trying to create something unique on the spot. That’s why I get told that they’re theatrical.
Writing a song, however, is a bit different. One at a time, I’m creating these extended moments. My goal is much more about creating a vivid sensory experience when you listen to songs; I am trying to be a dreamcatcher for an idea or concept. Once I have that poetry, lyric or melody, and just add in 40+ years of the craft I develop it and stick with it. I take a chorus or melody and tweak it so that it conveys a different emotion. Likewise, with the lyrics. You need to cultivate things in yourself and in others – we tend to idealize the muse and the spiritual component that’s very real – accept gifts from the universe. Take the time to listen to it.
You have been involved in drama, music, art and writing; you also founded MPress Records. How do you balance all your creative projects?
I don’t really know if I do! I’ve always been very go, go, go. My whole life has been that way. My whole community and family was; I had mono as a kid and I was told, “you’re fine!”. I was raised in an environment where that was a badge of honor.
However, being so inclined to go, go, go has pushed me to be much more interested in creating work that empowers and upfits people. It encourages me to push and create passion. I love doing it. I know there is that cliché that says, “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life,” but that’s how I feel. I love music, painting, and creating. Part of this journey has been more challenging as with MPress Records, it is a business, but I’m still helping to create new art.
What advice would you give an aspiring artist?
Especially during these extremely trying times of COVID-19, practice your craft! Lean into it! You’ve had every excuse under the sun to not practice, but you don’t have that right now. We have who we are in this moment. We have the ability to stay focused, art music has always been something through which society has found its identity in any time in history; being part of the conversation is more important now than ever. This morning, Sharon Stone – made a painting – loved it. Not judging ourselves, not putting limitations on what we can and cannot more.
Who inspires you?
There are so many different people – some having nothing to do with music. Film really does it for me, too; probably written 5% of my music about film characters. I wrote “Atmosphere” after I saw Willem Dafoe as Van Gogh. I also tend to write about conversations I’ve had with people – especially people at shows who have shared their stories with me. I look to history, as well. “Seven Angels” is a song that’s true to life; it’s a biographical song about a Brooklyn neighborhood of Orothodox Jews who lost their lives in a fire.
Musically speaking, though, my list is too wide – one major inspiration is Elvis Costello. Almost everything he does is brilliant. He’s mastered so many different styles, he doesn’t give a crap, he’s a musical genius and works so hard. He keeps music flowing.
There’s others, like the Beatles, David Bowie, the music from the women’s movement in the 1990s, Fiona Apple, Marianne Faithfull, Maria McKee. Hozier is also brilliant, and so are Glen Hanser and Carole King. Like I said, the list is too wide!
How do you #getinthegroove?
My default is always being in the groove and my weakness is not being able to stop, unless I make a conscious decision to do so.
I wake up every day. I paint a lot. I hear songs in my head. I take long walks. I think lighting candles, dimming the lights, being outside in nature, and changing something around your creative environment helps.
I think it’s also important to keep your eyes open. Stay open to new friends, food, buildings, and architecture. Being open brings in new energy and ideas for me. I learned a lot as an acting student to make sure you’re actually breathing in the present moment – which is easier said than done.