A ‘Sage’ approach to music and dance

Rachael Sage. Photograph by Erin Baiano.

A prolific award-winning musician, dancer and visual artist, Port Chester native Rachael Sage is a creative visionary. On her new album “Myopia” (MPress Records), she covers Howard Jones (“No One Is To Blame”), sings in Yiddish (“Umru Mayne”), and ventures into new musical territory. Best known for her keyboard work, with her instrument usually decked out in feather boas and sequins, Sage has been turning her attention to guitars, both acoustic and electric, as of late. This shift gives songs such as “Haunted By Objects,” “Alive” and “Olivia” an exciting vitality. Now based in New York City, Sage took time out of her busy recording and performance schedule to answer a few questions about her career and her new album.

Rachael, your performance style draws heavily on the piano and vocals tradition. Who would you consider to be your strongest influences?

“I’ve been playing piano since I was 2 ½ years old, so it’s hard for me to separate my later more conscious influences from those around me at an early age. A good cross section from early childhood through my teens would have to include classical music that I heard in ballet class; Broadway music from shows like ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘Annie’ and ‘A Chorus Line’; The Beatles, Elvis, Buddy Holly and ’50s doo-wop music via my dad; Carole King, James Taylor, Jim Croce and Cat Stevens; Chicago; Journey; Elton John; Billy Joel; Howard Jones; David Bowie; Prince; The Police; Bruce Springsteen; U2; Maria McKee; Tracy Chapman; Sinead O’Connor and Suzanne Vega.”

Since 2004, you have released one album every two years. Was this a conscious decision?

“No, not really. But apparently it takes that long for me to write, record, tour and repeat. (laughs)”

What kind of discipline does it take to do that?

“What’s that saying? ‘If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.’ So, yeah, technically I know I possess a great deal of what most people define as discipline. But discipline to me is cooking dinner, or paying bills, or exercising, not burying my head and my heart into something for 12 hours at a time that never ceases to fascinate me. I am certain that my early career as a young ballet dancer gave me certain attitudes and skills, which have helped my focus as a musician, but I am also just very fortunate to love what I do.”

I’m glad you mentioned ballet. Your 2016 album was titled “Choreographic.” Can you please say something about the intersection of music and dance in your life?

“Dance was the most defining influence on my childhood and teen years, without question. While I played piano naturally by ear, dance and specifically ballet was a structure within which I was raised and through which I learned not only to master a difficult physical vocabulary with a rich cultural history, but it also exposed me to the greatest classical composers, the most spectacular costumes, sets, lighting and, perhaps most significantly, the magic of being part of an ensemble. 

“Through my studies at The School of American Ballet, I became a mature, artistic, expressive person who learned to absorb lessons from great teachers and to work well with my peers, whether they were nice, mean or worse. I learned to be a professional artist and the crystallization of this is a memory I have of stepping on a hot curling iron someone’s mother had carelessly left on the floor. In spite of an immediate third-degree burn, I knew no one else could fill my part in time so I shoved my foot in my ballet shoe, jumped and pirouetted my way through the Candy Cane role in ‘The Nutcracker’ and, as they say, the show went on. It’s a fine line between commitment and obsession, but I chose to think of it as fulfilling my responsibility as a dancer and it was a microcosm for many scenarios that would arise once I became a professional musician, as well.”

Your music has also been featured on Lifetime’s “Dance Moms.”

“When ‘Dance Moms’ began using my music, my primary emotion was excitement, because I was already a huge fan of all of the talented members of the ALDC (Abby Lee Dance Company). I remember seeing Maddie Ziegler perform a solo to one of my older songs, ‘Down My Spine,’ and crying like a baby. I just couldn’t believe someone so young could have such a sophisticated sense of musicality and so much emotional depth. All the young girls I met on the show were mature beyond their years, seemed surprisingly grounded and had an openness to their personalities which truly impressed me. I suppose in many ways, even though I was strictly a ballet dancer, their precociousness reminded me of myself as a kid. 

“I’m really eager to share my video for ‘Alive’ from the new album, which features dance prodigy Elliana Walmsley, who got her start on ‘Dance Moms,’ as well as choreography by Gianna Martello, who created most of the dances on the show and was a featured cast member. It was a dream come true to work with them both, and I hope people enjoy the collaboration.”

You also run your own record label, MPress Records. 

“Well, that takes more discipline. Running a business of any kind is inevitably very hard work. Overseeing even a very small staff and roster of artists in whom you believe profoundly is a perpetual challenge that can be both humbling and exhausting. I describe it as a labor of love, through which I’ve learned to be a better leader, to be a teacher in some respects and, of course, a perpetual student of the ever-shifting landscape we call ‘the music business.’ 

“I’ve always been very hands-on at MPress, from graphic design to writing promo spiels to overseeing photo shoots for our artists, including Grammy nominee Seth Glier and Independent Music Award winner A Fragile Tomorrow. But these days I’m also very grateful to have a fabulous team, including Jojo Gentry and Meredith Tarr, who’ve both been helping me implement my glittery, eclectic vision for well over a decade.” 

The title of your new disc is “Myopia.” Do you wear glasses? Contact lenses?

“I’ve been wearing glasses since I was a little kid, maybe 6 or 7. I remember the dark day when I had to wear them to ballet class for the first time and put them down on the floor while I did pirouettes. I think I’ve felt a little bit like an outsider ever since. 

“When I was 11, I was able to finally get contact lenses, which I wore pretty much continually until my 20s. Before that, I only wore my glasses early in the morning or late at night, because I’d been raised to think they were unattractive and made me look, well, nerdy for lack of a better word. But at some point, I found some funky glasses that reflected who I was — colorful, a little quirky and outgoing. Since my 20s, I’ve mostly reserved contacts for onstage and leaned more on glasses day to day. My eyesight has also worsened, and I’m now legally blind without corrective lenses. Thanks to my equally myopic parents for that, oy. (laughs)”

“Myopia” has been described as an edgier album and features you playing more guitar as you did on 2014’s “Blue Roses” disc. 

“I’ve been playing acoustic guitar for a number of years now, but I play a lot more electric guitar on this record. I think it just suited the songwriting more and, as a producer, I’m always looking to serve the vibe and the feel of the song, so I pushed myself to approach the arrangements a bit differently, used a couple new instruments — both fantastic Gretsch guitars — and had a lot of fun being out of my element until it became my element. I would liken it to making the jump from acrylics to oils, as a painter, something I’m still working up to.”

You are primarily known as a singer/songwriter, but over the years you have included cover tunes such as Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl,” Little Children’s “Mexico” and Neil Young’s “Helpless” on your albums. The new album features a cover of Howard Jones’ “No One Is To Blame.” Why did you choose that Jones song?

“I chose that song because it’s been my favorite pop ballad since my youth, and because last year my dream came true when Howard Jones invited me to tour with him. I suppose meeting him and forging a beautiful friendship gave me the confidence ultimately. It just made sense.”

Fellow Westchester County native (and a September 2017 WAG subject) Dar Williams can be heard on the reprise of “Invisible Light” from 2012’s “Haunted By You.” How did that come to pass?

“I’ve known Dar for a while now and she’s always been so down-to-earth and ridiculously charming. I adore her music and respect her across the board. There are moments when chutzpah meets fate. Reaching out to her to ask her to sing on that song and having her actually agree to do it was one of them. She was such a pleasure to work with, so easygoing, funny and creative. I love Dar.”

Speaking of Westchester County, do you have any fond memories of growing up here that you would care to share with the readers?

“I was born in Port Chester and lived in Rye until I was 5, but honestly, I don’t remember too much from that time other than wanting a bunny and my parents saying ‘no.’ (laughs) However, my longtime co-producer and mix engineer Andy Zulla actually went to high school in Chappaqua with Dar Williams and they did all kinds of collaborations there, unbeknownst to me. How’s that for a small world? (laughs)”

For more, visit rachaelsage.com.

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