Rachael Sage,
The TVD Interview

In the ever-evolving landscape of the music industry, few artists possess the unyielding determination and artistic prowess that Rachael Sage embodies. Her multifaceted career has spanned over two decades, garnering critical acclaim and a fiercely dedicated fanbase.

As I sat down with this indomitable singer-songwriter, pianist, and producer, the underlying theme of our conversation became abundantly clear: the power of music to heal, uplift, and empower both the creator and the listener. From her introspective lyrics to her infectious melodies, we delved into the depths of Sage’s musical journey, discussing the inspiration behind her latest album, the role of vulnerability in her songwriting process, and her unwavering commitment to advocacy through music.

What inspired you to become a singer-songwriter?

I don’t think I chose to be a singer-songwriter; I think it chose me. I know it’s cliche, but in my case, it really is true. I started playing piano when I was less than three years old. My legs were dangling off the bench and they couldn’t tear me away. It was fascinating to my little developing mind how you could touch an object and out would come the most marvelous sounds. So, it was just very natural for me. And it was, in a lot of ways, my language, even ahead of reading and writing. So, it’s just always been there as a way to be expressive.

In terms of songs, I think it was sort of a natural evolution from playing instrumental music on the piano to recognizing that there were songs on the radio, there were songs on television, there were songs being played in a carpool in the car. And very quickly my brain keyed into that and I started making up my own songs, really by the time I was four or five. So yeah, I haven’t really looked back since. It’s just always been my way of expressing myself.

What artists have had the biggest influence on your music?

The most obvious group that springs to mind is The Beatles. I’m obviously not alone in them being my foremost influence as a songwriter. Musically, I was a ballet student from a very young age. I was in pre- ballet at two, three years old, running around just dancing to the music, and then eventually I became a very serious conservatory ballet student. And all of that classical music permeated my sensibility, so I found myself merging British pop and rock with classical influences by the time I was 12, 13 years old.

But also, I was just very immersed in pop music, and in all kinds of music—Top 40, Alternative. My sister was super edgy and kind of goth, so I got The Smiths and The Cure, but also pop artists like Howard Jones and Madonna. Everything really influenced me growing up because I was just a sponge for music in general. And I’ll just add that my favorite songwriter ever is Elvis Costello, and to this day I listen to his music on almost a daily basis.

How would you describe your music and style, and what sets you apart from other artists?

I think my music is a hybrid of impressionistic lyrics as well as storytelling. Some people might identify themselves as either or, but I think just like I am a painter—I’m also a visual artist and I dabble in more representational art and more contemporary, impressionistic, abstract art. I think I’ve always been drawn to abstraction and poetics in my lyric writing alongside storytelling and directness.

And it’s the balance and the juxtaposition of those elements in my music that really drives my quest to find that purposeful way of expressing what’s deeply in my soul and hopefully encouraging other people in their own various ways to do the same in their lives. So, my live shows are all about freedom and forging through fear and looking at issues in the world squarely, but also more ephemerally. I think it’s that balance that I’m always looking for, and maybe it comes from my immersion in ballet and classical music. But I think there are just infinite ways to express the human spirit, and that’s always what I’m trying to do.

You’ve released several albums and EPs over the years. How has your sound evolved with each new release?

I think naturally we all evolve as people in our lives. Hopefully we learn lessons and they actually stick by a certain decade. Easier said than done. But I think as I’ve made my way in the wider world and traveled and played innumerable shows—the biggest thing that’s pushed me musically has been exposure to other kinds of people and other places. And this sense, it’s very timely, obviously now, even today to be talking about it, but this sense that at the end of the day, every single person on this planet essentially wants the same thing. They want to feel safe, they want to feel heard, they want to feel seen.

And so, that’s really what my focus is now. Whether I’m writing a song about my own personal experience, which I still do on occasion, or a song that addresses a sociopolitical issue, or perhaps the story of someone else who might not have the microphone—the voice—and I’m trying to give them a voice. Or even just a frivolous, upbeat pop rock song, which on occasion every set list needs. I’m really just kind of looking for that thread of universality in everything that I do.

Take us through the creative process for your latest release, The Other Side.

Well, the first song that I wrote for the album was the title track. And we were kind of coming out of lockdown but weren’t quite there yet. We had vaccines, but many, especially immune suppressed individuals like me—I’m a cancer surviver, so I’m especially careful—we weren’t quite back to our lives and weren’t even sure what that would mean. So, it was sort of a hopeful projection of overcoming fear and obstacles and just transcending everything that was containing us and diminishing us in some way during that time.

So, since I wrote it, it became a theme for this album. And then I carefully kind of curated the rest of the songs on the record to be reflective of that theme in some way of transcendence and the before and after of a very difficult time. So there’s a lot of hope on the record. “Flowers for Free” is a song that I actually wrote many years ago as a teenager, and I never quite knew what it meant. And then it took on a new meaning. It became more about the idea that we can control aspects of our own mortality in ways that we may not even realize, and this kind of dialogue with giving up and striving to continue. And other songs on the record like “Only You,” which it’s not my song, it’s a cover, but it was very much about just highlighting what loved ones mean to you and keeping their memory alive as something that ignites us inside.

That said, it’s just all different aspects of what I’ve been through during lockdown and then coming out of it. And I guess there’s just one particular song I’d love to highlight, it’s a song called “No Regrets,” and it actually is the first song that I ever wrote with my dad, who like me is now in cancer remission. During that time, he was very much in treatment and we weren’t quite sure what was going to happen, we almost lost him. So as he was thankfully getting better, he wrote a cute little poem just about his appreciation of little things in life, and I thought it would be fun to set it to music. And so in effect it’s our first co-write, almost all the lyrics are his. And if ever there’s an example of a miracle that I’ve ever encountered, is to see someone whose own doctors had given up on them, summon their own strength and courage and resilience to face something like that head on and remain hopeful and positive and to transcend it. So, it’s very inspiring for me.

What’s your favorite track on the album?

I don’t know if I have a favorite track on the album. I love them all. However, I really enjoy playing the title track live. And then, there are a couple of other songs that seems to be listener favorites. “Whistle Blow” is one of them. It’s very much about the Me Too movement and where that also led, all different kinds of people, the world over to be stronger in setting boundaries and confronting abuse in the workplace and otherwise. So, that was how that movement impacted me, and that’s a song that came from that. “Deepest Dark” is a song that’s much more lighthearted, and I just made a video for it actually—it’ll be coming out very soon. And it’s just about finding each other and holding each other even across great distances. And essentially, it’s a song about friendship. It’s like a platonic love song.

I guess the only other song I would probably highlight is “I Made a Case,” because it’s a duet with Howard Jones that appears last on the record. And you mentioned seeing me with Howard, and it was just such a wonderful surprise and an honor that he was willing to be a guest on my record. And he made it so much fun and was just incredibly sensitive to the song and to what it was about. So, I’m very grateful for that.

Who has been your favorite musician to collaborate with so far?

Certainly, Howard is right up there at the top. But I would say that Judy Collins is another one I truly admire. Being able to record “Helpless” with her in such a beautiful studio in New York City, and both of our engineers were there and we sang it live. So, that was a day and a memory I’ll never forget. And she was just so generous with her talent and her experience, and I learned a lot that day watching her just step up to the plate and just go for it. She’s just such a strong and just brilliant artist. That was incredibly inspiring.

Speaking of Howard Jones, what is you favorite song that you have not collaborated on with him in the past?

There’s so many. But the first one that popped into my head was “What Is Love?” I recently attended his ’80s tour with Culture Club and Berlin, and I look at the audience and I see what they react to. And of course, he’s had hit after hit after hit. I mean, really, so many. “New Song” is another one I love. But when he performed “What Is Love?” and everybody chants that chorus back, “What is love? Does anybody love anybody anyway?” It’s the kind of song that is so brilliantly a statement and a question. It’s expressive, but it’s not preachy. And it’s very deep for something that seems so simple on the surface. So to me, that’s what great music can do, is it can operate on these different levels and touch so many people.

Your music often explores themes of love, loss, and personal growth. How do you draw inspiration from your own experiences to create meaningful lyrics and songs?

Well firstly, thank you for asserting that I do that. There is a bit of a mysterious process to some songs that are written, and I’m sure any songwriter would tell you that it seems sometimes as though we don’t write them at all. And of course we do, but they kind of seem to be hanging in the air and then we’re just open to them and you can’t even explain how it happened. But that’s the anomaly for me.

I think since I’ve was a little kid, I always was just playing with the medium. I would get an idea for a song, whether it would be from something in my own life, a friend’s life, a film, a TV show, a book, and it just lingers with you just like anything else would in your life if you’re not a singer-songwriter. We carry impressions of people and events with us, and that’s obviously the river from where empathy flows. We care and we try to wrestle and grapple with and confront these things in our lives. So for me, it’s always been music that has allowed me to kind of let those things go. And when I sit at an instrument, whether it’s a piano or a guitar, or even just clapping with my hands and singing to that, it’s kind of a conduit and a release for those ideas to come out.

And then there’s the craft of course, that we’ve all—those of us who are songwriters—we’ve studied a million other songs, but we’ve also just kind of played imaginatively with all of the tools that we have, whether it’s our voices or our sense of melody. And then at the heart of it all is being a music fan. People are sort of shocked to hear that I tend to live 90% of my life in silence these days. I don’t listen to music continually because it’s hard for me to think when I do about other things. But for the better part of my grammar school years, teens, twenties, I was constantly listening to music. And now when I do, it’s a very deliberate and sort of spiritual experience for me.

So, that’s a kind of gathering too. It’s sort of like you’re planting flowers and then you cut a few and put them in a bouquet and you give them to someone. I think all the time I’m planting seeds, I’m planting things in my life and in my relationships in terms of trying to be in touch with what’s going on in the world. And then sometimes you’re able to cut a bouquet, and that’s the song.

The shift back to vinyl over other mediums has been amazing to see over the past decade. What do you attribute this to?

Well, first of all, God bless it. We kind of joke, we’ll say, “Well, the kids today…”, or “The kids in Brooklyn…” I think there’s often a nostalgia for anything retro and things from the past. But I think it’s beyond that at this point. I think there is a yearning for artwork and something that’s tangible and it’s an experience and you unwrap it and you open it, and there’s this much larger canvas upon which the artist has been able to express not only the music, but the visual accompaniment to it. And that was always something wonderful and something that influenced generations of music lovers.

So, I feel like it’s more of a rediscovery of something obviously that’s been there all along, but also an appreciation again of what it means to have an experience that’s sensory. I can only say that, as a vinyl lover myself, the process of making vinyl albums has been so gratifying and so exciting to remaster the music for vinyl, to envision the experience that the listener will have. And also, as a visual artist—this particular record I just made—I was able to include 16 paintings in the artwork because it’s just a larger format. And that was so exciting and fun for me to match a different painting with each song and just kind of know that there will be a reveal as it were.

And it’s the same type of thing you might have in a dance or in an unveiling of anything that’s beautiful and aesthetic. You think about how it will be revealed just like a director might with a film. What’s your opening scene? What’s the cover going to look like? What’s your next development? What’s the insert going to have? And what photos will you include? And what’s the font going to look like? And then it’s all kind of supposed to seem organic and it’s a perfect mesh with the music. And to me that whole process is endlessly exciting and interesting.

Do you feel the vinyl sound is different than other forms of music we are accustomed to listening to today?

Absolutely. And certainly, that’s something that people react to. Although there are fans who will just buy the vinyl, ask you to sign it, and tell you they’re going to hang it on their wall. So, I don’t want to diminish that. I think that’s pretty cool too. It’s like a keepsake and a token from their beloved musician that is just something that they’re going to enjoy in that different way. But for the audiophiles out there and the folks who are actually listening to the vinyl that they acquire, including myself, I love music from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s—that’s what I was raised on. Carole King, Joni Mitchell, old rock and roll, The Beatles, Elvis, Buddy Holly, and these were all records that I heard on vinyl from my dad’s collection or my mom’s. And even classical records I heard growing up that way including Broadway cast albums.

And there’s something about putting this needle on the record and also the odd pops and imperfections, you might call them, but the warmth sonically of vinyl just doesn’t feel like anything else. And it is a very real thing. And when we get that master test press back, we’re of course listening for a bunch of other technical things, but I’m always able to enjoy the album front to back and flipping it over in a very different way than CD or digital. It’s just much richer somehow.

When all is said in done many years down the road, what do you feel you will leave as your legacy in the music industry?

Oh wow, that is an incredible question. I hope I leave great songs as my legacy, along with the liberty to be as fully expressive without judgment, self-judgment, judgment from others as possible. I try to really merge my creative output with just a sense of inclusion and community. And I consider myself to be part of a movement in that way. And it’s a movement that has thankfully transcended folk music, and now is in pop and rock and many other realms, including Americana. I just was down at Americana Fest. And I think that’s really what I hope is my legacy, to leave a positive and lasting impact on the sense of freedom that people have to be who they are genuinely and to be embraced through music.

Anything else you might like to share as we close?

Oh yes. Just that I appreciate how much people love the experience of vinyl, and I really tried to put that into The Other Side vinyl with my co-producer. We sat with the music and we made sure the sequence still flowed with the two sides. We remixed some things even for the sonic landscape of vinyl. And then of course, as I mentioned, I really hope that people enjoy the sensory experience of seeing the artwork. And if there’s folks with synesthesia out there like myself, I hope that this experience transports you somewhere else that is hopeful and colorful and lifts you up.

Rachael Sage’s The Other Side is in stores now—on vinyl.

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TOP PHOTO: JOHN SHYLOSKI

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