When one thinks of Rachael Sage the first word that comes to mind is “independent.” The self-taught folk/pop/rock singer-songwriter began releasing albums on her own label, MPress Records, in 1996 and has since enjoyed all kinds of success—from winning four Independent Music Awards to being called “One of the Top 100 Independent Artists of the Past 15 Years” by Performing Songwriter. Most recently, her work was featured on the reality show Dance Moms. We caught up with Sage before she headed to Chicago to promote her new album Blue Roses.
GO: Your new album Blue Roses comes out November 4. How is this one different than some of the others?
RS: I think the reason that it’s the most different is because it’s a lot less me mining my own personal and romantic life; there are a number of songs that are more story songs. And you know I’m not entirely sure why I was inspired to write from more of that place, but it was welcome because it feels like a really good time to be more attuned to other people and the world at large, and not just to be navel-gazing. I’m proud I stepped outside my own stuff on this a bit—in particular on the songs “Blue Roses,” “Hands Off The Wheel,” “Wishing Day,” and “Misery’s Grace,” which are all about friends of mine who have confided stories to me.
And what are some of the other themes that are predominant on this album?
Well, one of the threads that I think really runs through the album is the idea of how much impact every single individual can have on another. Right now, there is just so much chaos and bad news that we’re all collectively processing in our communities, as a country, and as a global community, and I think that can easily resolve into feeling like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t do anything,” or “What can I do?” or people feeling kind of helpless and maybe out of control. I think that the inverse of that is to just kind of reset and remember how much impact we can have on just one person in our day, in our lives, in our relationships…I think that’s a thread that really runs through a lot of the songs and also not being as focused on the result of a relationship, what it yields you as much as how it can help you learn and maybe evolve in a new way.
You’re duetting with Judy Collins on this album. What was that like?
Oh, that was just such an amazing gift. I’ve toured quite a bit with her as her support and through the years we’ve become pretty close. I kind of joke—and she hears me say it and she laughs—but she’s like my folk fairy godmother because she just has this beautiful way of taking younger artists under her wing. I’ve been very, very fortunate that she likes my music but more importantly that she’s opened herself up as a friend and as a mentor.
I know you do a lot of touring. Are there any places that stick out in your mind as being particularly memorable?
Yes! Well, I just got back from the South and I have to say I absolutely love Savannah…It’s cliché to say because it’s supposed to be a haunted city, and there are lots of ghosts and haunted houses and everything, but I think there’s something very mystical and there are a lot of ghosts there, and the way the city looks, that Spanish moss and those very old buildings that all have stories that want to be told really makes me want to stay longer.
I also really love California. I went to Stanford and so visiting the Bay Area, particularly San Francisco, is always an incredible treat for me…Outside the U.S., I feel like London is my home away from home…It’s European, but it’s also so modern and so diverse.
You’re very open about being an out musician; I wanted to ask what that has been like, if you’ve faced any issues.
I’ve been open about being bisexual since I was maybe 23 or 24, and that was soon after I really figured it all out myself. I’d had inklings of it my whole life because it always seemed perfectly natural to me that love wasn’t something you could really judge as better or worse, whether it was between a man and a woman, or a man and a man, or two women. Maybe that made me very unusual, but even before I recognized my own ability to love another woman I never thought it seemed strange or unusual or something to be ashamed of, and I’m so grateful for that. I know a lot of that also has to do with growing up around New York City, being in the theater arts, being a dancer…My parents explained to me what being gay meant and that there was nothing wrong with it. And I know that’s so unusual—and every time I think about it and how lucky I was to have had that, I almost get tearful because I travel the world and I see the polar opposite of that in so many places, with so many people still struggling to have their voices heard and to be understood, recognized and accepted. And all I can say is that I just hope that by being open—by having it not be something that I’m hung up about—that that’s helpful to other young people coming up.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an independent artist?
I had been pursuing a career in pop music since I was a pre-teen, and when I decided to start a label, I guess you could say I had kind of been through the mill a little bit already. I had had some really surreal experiences in the music business with sleazy men trying to take advantage of me, [although] it wasn’t all like that. There had also been really great opportunities I’d had as a teenager from people who listened to my music. Some of them had offered me publishing and management deals and things like that, but when I really sat down to assess my goals after college I realized how important it was to me to self-develop and to make my own mistakes and own them, and to just go out there like Ani DiFranco had done or Loreena McKennitt and forge my own path…Then as the years went by, I realized how grateful I was to have that autonomy over my own creative work and to also have the opportunity to help other emerging artists, which is what we’ve started to do at MPress Records. I can’t really think of too many disadvantages. I mean, it’s an enormous workload. And I don’t get a lot of sleep and it’s hard to have relationships because it’s a lot of work, but I don’t have any regrets and I think I made the right decision.
We do, too!
Want to see her live? Rachael Sage (rachaelsage.com) comes to NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker Street) on Saturday, November 1, 2014.