Independent musician Rachael Sage's new music project and tour
Hard as it may be to believe, it has now been 25 years since Rachael Sage released her first album. Since that debut, 1996’s Morbid Romantic, the openly bisexual singer-songwriter has barely come up for air. She has released 14 proper studio albums, toured frequently, run her own record label (MPress Records), raised awareness about youth homelessness and various other causes, and had her visual art displayed in various lower Manhattan galleries. Basically, she’s been an artistic Renaissance woman.
Sage’s prolific nature has been even more astonishing in recent years given the COVID-19 pandemic and her own bout with endometrial cancer. In March of 2020 — literally a week before NYC went on lockdown — she unveiled Character, an album that was inspired largely by the latter ordeal. Sage returned last month with yet another offering called Poetica. This album, however, is unlike anything else in her catalog; Poetica, as you might expect from the title, is a collection of poems.
There are 18 poems on this album, all composed by Sage (who also handles vocals, guitar and percussion). She is joined by a long list of musicians including cellist Dave Eggar (her initial collaborator), violinist Kelly Halloran, guitarist Gerry Leonard, drummer Doug Yowell and multi-instrumentalist Jack Petruzelli. Some of these poems were written just last year, but one dates as far back as 2003. The result is less a singer-songwriter disc and more a foray into spoken word, free jazz and classical. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Sage about Poetica and other subjects.
You beganPoeticaduring last year’s lockdown with your cellist, Dave Eggar. Tell me a bit more about the inspiration for this project and how it evolved.
Rachael: I was locked down in a quirky attic Airbnb in New Haven, Connecticut, where I'd holed up to be next door to my best friend and tour manager after our tour with Howard Jones was suddenly halted. The days were long, life was somewhat of a horror show at that point and watching the news became pretty much unbearable. It became clear that if I didn't focus on something creative, I would become very depressed. So, in the process of recording what I thought would become an audiobook for my pending poetry volume, I began layering my voice, humming melodies and adding percussion. [I] then reached out to Dave [Eggar] to get his reaction.
He immediately became very excited about the material [and] asked if he could read more of the poems, so I sent him a PDF of over 200! Being the consummate editor he is, he honed in on a couple dozen and those were the ones we began creating arrangements for remotely. We had a feeling we were creating something highly reflective of the unprecedented time we were experiencing, and it evolved into something much larger than we imagined thanks to the incredible musicianship from [people] all over the world!
As we speak, you’re touring in support of this album. What has it been like so far, doing these shows? What's the vibe like in other parts of the country regarding the pandemic and in general?
Rachael: It's been pretty revelatory just to get out, travel, connect with live audiences and play with my trio! (Kelly Halloran on violin and Dave Eggar on cello). So far we've had very mindful and folks who've all been wearing masks and don't try to get too close after the shows; but obviously, there's a bit of anxiety that accompanies a tour at a time like this. But so far, so good.
When I last interviewed you (which was about a decade ago!), you had just released the album Delancey Street. One of the poems on this album is called “Lower East Side Baby.” What is it about that part of NYC that keeps drawing you back?
Rachael: Well, I happen to live there now – so in terms of that particular poem, it was a true story! I was minding my own business, just out to get a juice at my local spot, Kollectiv, and a young woman with a perfect bobbed haircut and a very hip fashion sense was walking past me. I didn't even really stop, just smiled; but her baby in the carriage was staring straight at me. This baby was clearly a kindred spirit and wanted to look at all my glitter and bright colors; it was so cute! So in a way, the poem is capturing that NYC magical energy where no matter how much in a rush we all may be, those who are meant to linger, to find each other and connect — however briefly — will.
It's the juxtaposition downtown, that I enjoy! In addition to the gorgeous and creative painted murals everywhere, the people-watching is amazing in my neighborhood. I’ve made lots of friends just walking around or sitting in coffee shops. I love the diversity and artistic aspects of downtown NYC, including the LES. I live next to two art galleries, which has always felt very auspicious... And of course, back when we spoke about Delancey Street, I was very much cued into the Jewish immigrant history of the neighborhood, and how my ancestors' sacrifices settling in NYC — before they eventually scattered — impacted my experience as an American. I do still think about those aspects of the neighborhood, from time to time...
One line on Poetica that jumped out at me immediately was in “Days of Awe” when you say, “I have never believed in karma. I’ve seen too many mensches suffer while the shlemiels won the prize.” For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with you. Expand on that if you would.
Rachael: Yes – well, we all know the sayings "nice guys finish last" and "too nice for my own good.” I suppose that was my poetic, Yiddish-y way of expressing an awareness that there doesn't always seem to be a correlation between how kind people are and how much they suffer. On the flip side, the poem is about accountability, and owning one's actions — regardless of whether one is a "believer.” In microcosm, this could seem to be solely about personal relationships. But I chose the title because I also believe it applies to the human experience as a whole and how our short-term desires impact the wider world: abuse of our planet, imperialism, so many things…. All of which Judaism encourages us to reflect on and deconstruct, during the Days of Awe, aka the High Holidays. Ultimately this is a piece about repentance and responsibility.
You also run your own label, MPress Records, which is home to such talented musicians as Grace Pettis and Seth Glier. What do you look for in other artists before you sign them?
Rachael: I actually don't look for anything in artists. I would say instead, that they look for something in me [or in] MPress! And once in a very blue moon, what they feel we can offer and what I actually believe we can contribute is realistic. In the case of Seth Glier, I was definitely not 'looking', but he opened up for me at a gig in New Hampshire years ago and his sheer songwriting, vocal and musical talent was just so striking, I immediately wanted to help. We developed a friendship that evolved into a working relationship, and I'm proud to play even a small part of his success because I really believe in his vision.
In terms of Grace Pettis, a member of her team approached us at SXSW, and suggested she would be a good fit for us. Of course I'm always a little dubious when I hear that — not only because our resources are very limited, but because I hadn't necessarily perceived a "buzz" about her prior. But when I went to her showcase with my tour manager, we were both blown away by her writing, her powerful pipes and her delightful persona. We hung out a bit and the relationship grew from there. It was very clear how driven she was right away — but more importantly that she genuinely needed help, in a way MPress felt equipped to assist her in achieving her goals. Her work is very socially conscious in addition to being beautiful to listen to, much in the way The Indigo Girls and Dar Williams have always moved me.
At the end of the day, for myself and all of us at MPress, it's about making and releasing music that impacts people's lives for the better, in some way. We are careful though, to never take on too many artists; each one really receives a lot of personal attention and it's a family-like atmosphere, which is the only way I would ever want it.
Is there another spoken word album in your future?
Rachael: I absolutely believe there is another Poetica album in the future! I have so many poems that would be interesting to explore in this vein, with the same core collaborators. It's been exciting to bring these pieces to life for audiences, and I also think it would be great to incorporate visuals in the future. While I'm not sure when I'll be able to focus again on recording in the same way I did during lockdown, there's definitely a 'backlog' of material and I now have a split-psyche approach to it all, like I imagine some bands must [have] between group and solo material. I can say "that would work best for Poetica" vs. myself as Rachael Sage. I quite enjoy the flexibility of writing for a specific ensemble so it would be fun to approach a second release for Poetica more deliberately, in that way. We'll see!