Meet the colorful, vivacious and extraordinarily prolific force that is Rachael Sage. This industry vet and seasoned singer-songwriter has an impressive 18 albums (give or take) under her belt, she’s placed her music everywhere from Return to Amish to Inside Amy Schumer, and she’s spearheading her own label of over 20 years, Mpress Records. When she’s not busy touring all over the world, she somehow finds the time to paint or collaborate with one of the various charities she’s involved with, including Vision Aid Overseas, which helps provide optical aid and services to developing countries in Africa. Rachael took some time to chat with me on one of her rare days off from her current “PseudoMyopia” tour.
You’re primarily a pianist, but you’re actually playing quite a bit of guitar throughout your album, Myopia, and its acoustic companion record, PseudoMyopia. What prompted you to shift from piano to guitar?
Actually, I’ve been playing “basic” guitar—in other words, just open chords and rhythm, mainly—for a few years now, and I’ve used it as a writing tool for a while. But when I began touring with folk legend Judy Collins (who also began on piano), I noticed how she was able to connect so differently with her audience when she was standing right in front of them versus behind a piano. So it was probably that experience that pushed me to start performing more live on guitar. And since I began as a dancer, it definitely allows me to get up, move around more, and show that I actually have legs!
Naturally, I started to write more on guitar, and I’ve been playing my Gretsch electric in the studio and my Guild and Martin acoustics, both live and on my recent recordings. I love how guitar accompaniment leaves more space for my vocals than piano. Plus it’s a lot easier to travel with, especially overseas!
You just got back from touring through the UK, and you’ll be heading back out again this month. How would you say the European audience reception differs from here in the States?
I actually don’t think audiences vary so much in the UK versus the US. What I find is that audiences vary much more based on what type of venue I’m playing. For instance, if it’s a rock room where folks are standing, drinking, etc., they’re more apt to be chatty and “lively,” whereas if they’re seated and the vibe is more formal in a theatre, they will listen more intently and it’s just a different type of experience. I think that dynamic carries over wherever I’m playing, although I do find that UK audiences are much more proactive about finding me after the shows on social media. They really want to stay connected and behave more like friends than “fans.” But everywhere I go, music seems to be a necessity and something people genuinely relish, across all borders and language barriers. Obviously, that’s something that continues to seduce me about being a musician.
You’re not just an incredibly active touring musician. You’ve also had your own label, MPress Records, for over two decades. How do you juggle being a label owner with songwriting, performing, and touring?
I used to really push myself to the edge, literally, and I got sick and was run down most of my 20’s and 30’s. Getting bronchitis or even pneumonia once a year seemed “normal” to me because I was working so much into the wee hours and probably got an average of four to five hours sleep every night. As life progressed and I’m in my 40’s now, I have very much realized that balance isn’t just a new age “ism” that only applies to non-artists. I’ve been humbled by the reality that I now need at least six hours of sleep, and most importantly, to exercise every single day—whether it be yoga or pilates or just walking for an hour. I find, ironically, that when I carve the time out for self-care these days, my mind is clearer, my stress levels are lower, and I actually can be much more efficient than when I used to run myself completely ragged. This is all a pretty new concept for me, so I’ll keep you posted how it evolves.
As far as the label, I try to reply to emails in real-time whenever possible, and always within the day. “Deal with it now” is my golden rule, because falling behind only creates more stress and plus, it reminds me that running my business is both a choice and a privilege. I am doing what I elected to do and staying present with it keeps me in a state of gratitude that compliments the responsibility of being in a leadership role. No one but me is “forcing” me to operate MPress Records at this point; it is laborious, yes, but it’s a labor of love for sure, and that is a great source of fuel.
Songwriting is something I’ve been doing since I was in kindergarten, so while it may ebb and flow in terms of inspiration, it’s more of a language that helps me navigate my life than any kind of external pressure. My ability to write songs helped me carve the life I lead, and I am never overly worried I will run out of ideas because every day new things happen that either inspire, surprise, or concern me as a human being. So I will hopefully always have that outlet to help me try to make sense of all of it in a creative and expressive way.
You’ve had an impressive 22 cuts in the Lifetime show, Dance Moms. Will we be hearing any more songs of yours in the upcoming season?
To be honest, I’m really not quite sure. I recently played in Pittsburgh and choreographer Gianna Martello and Abby Lee Miller both graciously attended and were incredibly supportive, as always. But every time they’ve used a new song of mine, it’s been a complete surprise, with the exception of “Happiness (Maddie’s Song),” which I brought to them specifically for Maddie Ziegler. I guess we’ll just have to watch the new season, wait, and see.
Speaking of dance, your 2016 album, Choreographic was devoted to ballet pop, and the video for your song, “Try Try Try” even featured Joffrey Ballet dancer and An American In Paris star Abigail Simon, while your recent video “Alive” featured Dance Moms star, Elliana Walmsley. Were these collaborations inspired by your past as a professional dancer?
Yes, absolutely. I grew up studying ballet from age 2-1/2. My mom put me in “baby ballet” because she had been a dancer herself, but of course, she had no idea I would embrace it so much and eventually end up studying professionally at The School of American Ballet by the time I was 11. I made my debut with The New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center in The Nutcracker when I was in junior high school, and continued dancing in many other productions with them well into my teens, so that was a very formative time, and definitely shaped my musicianship. Every day I heard the most beautiful classical pieces as accompaniment, and I absorbed those melodies and arrangement concepts subconsciously, so I suppose I’ve always written “ballet pop,” but seeing young dancers perform to my music is what inspired me to write a whole album with dance in mind. Working with these amazing dancers was one of the most gratifying periods of my life and felt like a full circle for me.
You’re also an accomplished artist and you often design your own costumes, album covers, and instruments. Can you just “turn on” the creativity, or do you have to wait for lightning to strike as far as inspiration goes?
I never wait for anything—maybe that’s because I’m a New Yorker! Ballet gave me the discipline to understand that it is through regular practice and by setting the stage—in whatever context—for creativity to flow through technique, that lightning strikes. So I try to do something creative every single day, whether it be writing a poem, making a painting, or just putting together a wild outfit and walking around to see how people react. I consider being an artist to be my life’s purpose, and I really do approach music as a 360-degree process. I know that if I remain open each day to engaging with other people in an authentic, empathetic way, and open to receiving both beauty and tragedy in whatever complex forms they may appear, I will necessarily be able to create. I try to always be on input, and output flows naturally from there.
I went through a difficult period last year where I was dealing with some health and other personal issues, for instance, and I simply knew I couldn’t play my instruments without crying. But what I could do was paint! So I painted the most I’d ever painted, and the biggest canvases I’d ever worked on. It was both healing and productive. Working on something creative every single day is vital for me, really. If I don’t, I will start to feel like I lack purpose and become very depressed. Thankfully I am aware of this and know myself well enough to avoid that. It also comes back to self-care; if I am tending to my physical health and reducing external stress, I have the “space” to create. If I neglect myself in any way, that balance starts to shift. It’s not very rock ‘n’ roll, I know, but learning to conserve and protect one’s base energy level so it can be projected through art is a lifelong lesson, it seems.
Your song, “Sistersong” is a very poignant and topical song relating to the #MeToo and Women’s March movements. Do you feel that we’re seeing enough changes specifically in the music industry for women?
I think about this a lot, and what I would say is “I really hope so!” I think sometimes in my own life and career, I am guilty of having been way too trusting and I have, as unlikely as it sounds, let people take advantage of me and it has created a lot of scars. I am and will probably be healing from them for the rest of my life.
But forgiveness is also a very important part of standing up for oneself, both in life and in business. I try to learn from my mistakes continually, so I don’t repeat them. I think you can be a feminist, and also forgive others for having been reckless or ignorant, especially if it helps you to let go of negative energy that is only hurting you.
I was sexually assaulted in college, and it created a lot of inner-turmoil of course that required me to channel pain and confusion into my art. All these years later, I am stronger and wiser, but also still very vulnerable and I am as apt to tear myself down with self-criticism and insecurity as anyone else. My song “Myopia” attempts to “reset” this tendency and is an anthem about purging fear and self-love, essentially.
As far as “Sistersong” and its continued relevance, what I am able to recognize when I sing it lately is this: the power that I have as a female artist is to try to share my experiences and my naturally positive, optimistic outlook with others in a way that distills hope and common humanity into something beautiful and empowering. This is generally my goal in anything I do: to recognize that life itself is inherently hopeful and that our ability to heal from past pain, to grow wiser, to evolve and to impact positive change, in whatever way we choose, is pretty much limitless.