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Rachael Sage in Primary Colors: Chatting With the Fiercely Independent Record Label Boss, Musician and Performer

Speaking to New York City songwriter Rachael Sage, via a zoom call, is like talking to a Frida Kahlo image brought to life. Sage, not only a fiercely independent singer/songwriter, record label boss, and graphic artist, is a colorful character. She dresses in primary colors and wears exotic head dressings, and one gets the sense that these are her everyday trappings, not just stage gear, as she appears onscreen, immaculately dressed and quite effervescent for our chat about her latest album release, ANOTHER SIDE.

ANOTHER SIDE, due for release May 17th, is an “acoustic re-imagining” of her previous release THE OTHER SIDE. The songs are stripped back versions of the full band arrangements heard on the earlier disc, and Sage has been playing them on her UK tour which ended just a few days before we spoke. Fresh from shooting a new video, she was just days away from supporting pop legend Lulu on a mostly sold out tour, billed as Lulu’s last ever appearances on stage

Sage, a fierce advocate of female artists, is excited to be on the bill, mentioning Lulu’s history, hobnobbing with The Beatles, Hendrix and Bowie but we get down eventually to talking about Sage herself.

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Another Side of The Other Side

 

Of the new album she explains why she rerecorded the songs saying, “What happens generally is that I get a little carried away, perhaps. I’m a producer so when I’m in the studio that really is an instrument unto itself. I layer and add so many different tracks and sounds to the songs, it’s an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach. And I love that process. But then when I go out on tour, and play with wonderful musicians like my violinist Kelly Halloran, the arrangements change a lot.”

 

 

People have frequently asked Sage where to get a record that sounds more like these live renderings of her songs. So she thought it would be fun to revisit them–but with a more intimate acoustic approach.

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Sage will tell you it’s just trying to be creative while using a different palette. “The acoustic reimagined versions are more in the vein of what you would get at a house concert, or if you were sitting in the front row at an intimate night out with your friends. So it’s more about the songs and the lyricism of them … we’ve tried to leave a bit more of a rawness in the vocals and the instrumentation, so hopefully it’s more organic and gritty.”

Photo: Bill Bernstein

On the new album, Sage features several female singers including Nashville singer-songwriters Amy Speace and Grace Pettis. A vocal champion of the community of female artists she says, “As a woman in independent music I relish any opportunity to work with, and perhaps lift up, other likeminded artists. I sang with a young folk artist called Crys Matthews who is just amazing. In a lot of ways she reminds me of a young Tracy Chapman–she’s very socially conscious and has a beautiful alto tone, quite different from my voice. So it was a lot of fun to sing ‘Albatross’ with her.”

Asked about the current state of women in the music business, Sage pauses a moment. “I think that it has shifted and evolved in some positive ways. But in some ways it has also got quite stuck. However I’m always one to look on the positive side and keep moving forward. I’m not a real complainer. I do a lot of comedy about complaining because I think that it’s something you have to power out of and then ask yourself, ‘How do I move forward, how do I improve things?”

Photo: Bill Bernstein

Sage names some strong, creative female artists who’ve inspired her, in particular Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow and Suzanne Vega. “If not for them I might be doing something quite different,” she says. “I might be playing straight pop music with dancers and such. But their example showed me that your brain is your greatest instrument and that the writing itself is an integral part of being an artist.”

 

Early Days and MPress

 

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Rachael Sage, London Palladium. Photo: Amanda Rose

 

Sage is also quick to acknowledge Carole King and Joni Mitchell for paving the way. “Before that it was a lot of girl groups singing other people’s words, with mostly male producers telling them how to be, how to dress, how to present themselves,” she says. “While I love that music of the 50s and early 60s it’s very different from these days. So hopefully we are going in a positive direction.”

Reflecting on her early career in New York’s lower East Side in the 1990s, Sage recalls the brushes with the music industry that led to her setting up her own record label, MPress.

“I used to go to a place called Café Sin-é which was just around the corner from where I lived,” she says.  “I would carry my keyboard on a little roller cart. It was so heavy … I can’t believe I would do that. But Jeff Buckley would be playing there, Paula Cole, a whole pile of Irish folk people.”

 

 

Sage loved it all and hasn’t looked back. “I started my record label at that time. There was a nice man, I won’t say his name, who wanted to sign me to a major label but ultimately I was nervous about some of his expectations. He would say ‘We love your music, we love you doing this, but we could team you up with this person or that person so that it will be better.'”

 

“I want to be part of a scene, even if I have to create the scene myself”

 

Sage says that if that had resonated, she might have made the leap. But every bone in her body was telling her not to do it. “I wanted to develop as an artist and to have creative freedom and importantly, to learn from my own mistakes. And I’m glad that I did. It’s a beautiful mixed bag. Every day I wake up grateful for the journey, I feel that way as an artist and as a business person.”

She will tell you the “business stuff” is her least favorite thing about running her own label. “But on the flipside,” she says, “I see myself as somewhat Warholian in the sense that I want to be part of a scene even if I have to create the scene myself.“

In fact, part of that creation is Sage herself. It’s hard to place her in a category as there are elements of folk music interspersed with European influences and theatre in her work.

“I think atmosphere is one of the most important aspects of recording or playing live, and it’s something I’m always mindful of,” she says. “I’ve always been a musician. Even at the age of three I was tinkering on the piano. But I was also interested in ballet. I heard a lot of European classical music and European folk music through my family’s heritage and through exposure via community centers. We had a lot of folk who would come through and play their acoustic instruments.”

Sage also loved pop music–the top ten and Casey Kasem. “I try not to be a music snob,” she says. “I think there’s resonance in all music, even something like heavy metal. If it’s the right guitar solo I can get into it and appreciate it.”

 

Deepest Dark

 

The first single from the album is “Deepest Dark”, a song written by Sage in her teens but revived by her interest in the television series Stranger Things. “I recorded that when I was about 14 on my four-track recorder and it sat there all those years,” she explains. “Once a year, I go back home and rummage through my old stuff, and it was my mum who actually found it and said maybe you could do something with this. I was completely addicted to the TV show Stranger Things at the time … something about the relationships in it, the teenage loyalty, the way they