INTERVIEW: Rachael Sage On Her New Album ‘Poetica,’ Performing, Pandemic Life & Connection

Rachael Sage will be performing at the Hanger Theater, in Ithaca on Feb. 11, accompanied by Kelly Halloran on violin and with the very talented Howard Jones. After listening to her eclectic catalog and reading rave reviews such as the one below, I was excited to speak with the singer-songwriter:

“Triumphantly unexpected and ever-surprising…John Lee Hooker meets Patti Smith meets Leonard Cohen meets Laurie Anderson? Yes please.” – Music News (UK)

Rachael Sage

Sean Nevison: What brought you to music?

Rachael Sage: Growing up I was lucky enough to have a piano in the house, though my parents did not play. At a young age, I went to see the musical Oklahoma and much to my parents’ surprise played the entire score back to them after the show. At around 2 and a half, I became a sponge and just picked up on everything. When I was four, I began improvising and at age five or six began actually writing my own songs with lyrics. It was all very organic as if a child learning a language, but I was learning the language of music.

It just became second nature! It was how I expressed myself, my emotion and how I used my imagination. The mimicry when I could control it became my expression. When you’re young it’s just so fun, and I was so grateful for that piano. Simultaneously I was studying dance at a young age and went to the School of American Ballet. I was hearing the best classical music and though I didn’t know the artists the music shaped my sensibilities. In grade school and high school, I just listened to everything I could get my hands on.

SN: Throughout this process was there an anecdote or an artist that deeply affected you?

RS: Oh my yes. As I was going to college I loved the Beatles, Carole King, James Taylor, which was my parents’ influence. I ended up entering a theater program and we were so lucky to travel to Ireland. I befriended a group of Dublin musicians and they took me to a music festival. There, after several heavier bands, I saw Marc Cohen with just his piano play “Walking In Memphis.” the whole set just took me away. That was the moment where I envisioned myself in the most authentic version of me as a musician. That style of music, melody, and storytelling. Watching Cohen command that stage with 30,000 watching was incredible. I credit that experience and that trip to blowing up my expectations of finding my own voice. It wasn’t about being on the radio, I understood now, it was about being authentic.

SN: I was lucky enough to see him perform a song at Levon Helm’s tribute concert to save the “barn.”

RS: Guess what! On my birthday many years ago I was opening for Marc Cohen and he invited me on stage to sing the harmonies on his song “Listening to Levon.”

SN: Incredible! So speaking of performing, how important are the relationships between artists and audiences? Especially in this day of streaming and in-person shows coming back into a little more normality.

To us, the audience is as important as food, water, and air.

Rachael Sage

RS: That’s a very philosophical question. I think music is as important and we all want it to be. I mean there are people in the medical field and people providing daily services who are just so brave. There are so many people in the music industry whether the venues, artists, crews, and so much more trying to navigate this new world with so much determination. In the music world, it’s that community that is so important. Artists might be risking their lives in a way to continue their art as their livelihood depends on it.

To us, the audience is as important as food, water, and air. Although we’d always like to be in person, it was amazing to see people adapt and still get the music to those that couldn’t be there. The hybrid is great as well! It’s all about sensitivity, creativity, and the bond in experience between artists and audience.

SN: How were you affected personally and professionally during the past two years of the Covid Era?

RS: Well this leads into my latest work Poetica, my current release. Early on I felt I have spent so much time with myself, I already knew myself. So it seemed ok, in the beginning as we adjusted. However, I recently had a cancer experience. I survived and found a peace in meditation, mindfulness, exercise, and certainly a spiritual element all of which most importantly led me back to music. To creativity. Expression. All of these branches were life-saving and in a strange, unfortunate, yet undeniable way, felt like I and many friends that struggled with cancer and life-threatening disease had a handbook. We were prepared for this pandemic in a way. It’s as if this virus is putting the entire world through a cancer experience. The shock and dismay of not knowing what to do. Then adapting to, what can I actually safely do.

Hopefully, it can turn into a sense of community and love. Reaching out and being loved by others reaching back out to you. A support group, even if it is remote. So it was rough having performances and audiences taken away. Then I adapted and bought a microphone and speakers to start self-recording which I had not done in ages. Poetica was initially going to be more of an audiobook of spoken word poetry. Then I heard the music. The music that could go with it. At the same time Dave Eggars, whom I just toured with, reached out and said “I’m in a studio in Pittsburgh, send me something to work on!” Dave became the co-composer on this record that turned into jazz and Americana based on spoken word poetry. So many others contributed during this process and I ended up producing what had become a fun adventure! This project kept me busy, sane and I am so proud of everyone on my record label as well, all of whom also produced incredible beautiful and creative projects during this time.

SN: Can you speak about the evolution of your songwriting?

RS: Initially it was something that was pure play without rules… you figure out and search for your voice and what you want to say and ask. My writing now has become less about cathartic sentiments which is important and relevant. More recently my wiring has become more informed by what’s going on in the world. It can be cyclical too, like on my album Character which was more personal and reflective in a way but also brought in what was out there.

I’m trying to find that intersection. I think it’s a natural progression, but something the pandemic has heightened. Far-flung ideas can even be interconnected. That hyper-awareness of what we are all going through together manifests and we ask ourselves where am I actually coming from? We also still need to find lightness. I listen to everything, including Dua Lipa and that pop song that became a hit, it makes people feel hopeful. It’s an exciting feeling to me that songwriting can be observant and of service. It can help people escape, yet also help them discover and figure things out.

SN: As you get ready for this tour, can you speak of your connection to Upstate New York?

RS: During the pandemic, I made my way to Beacon, NY. I have two very close friends in the art world here and it was a place that just made me feel safe. I had worked here in the past and love this very artistic community. We even shot my music video for “Wildflower” here and did album covers in the beautiful nature here in Beacon. I love the cute main street here and I’ve decided to stay. Though I still go to Manhattan and consider myself a dual citizen to Upstate. I’m so excited to tour with the amazing Howard Jones again and am looking forward to all the dates we have together. I’m also so thrilled that the wonderful Kelly Halloran will accompany me on violin.

SN: Finally, two fun questions to end. If you could teleport to any music moment in time as an audience member what would you choose? Also, what’s your comfort food when touring?

RS: Oh well, that classical music is so ingrained in me. I think it would be incredibly magical to witness the first time Bach performed an original piece. The other one is easy, I love Middle Eastern food. Moroccan, Turkish….all those fresh veggies and hummus. That really brings me home.

Find Rachael Sage on tour here:

Feb. 10 – Beacon, NY – The Dogwood (Winter Residency)
Feb. 11 – Ithaca, NY – Hangar Theatre*
Feb. 12 – Saratoga, NY – Universal Preservation Hall*
Feb. 14 – Boston, MA – City Winery*
Feb. 15 – Norwalk, CT – Wall Street Theater*
Feb. 17 – Pawling, NY – Daryl’s House*
Feb. 18 – Huntington, NY – The Paramount*
Feb. 19 – New York, NY – Sony Hall*
Feb. 20 – Sellersville, PA – Sellersville Theater*
Feb. 21 – Alexandria, VA – The Birchmere*
Feb. 22 – Richmond, VA – The Tin Pan*
March 1 – New York, NY – Joe’s Pub
March 4 – Beacon, NY – The Dogwood (Winter Residency)
April 9 – Binghamton, NY – Atomic Tom’s

* with Howard Jones

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