Rachael Sage: An Alt-Pop Artist, Survivor, and Musical Miracle Worker

Article Contributed by Candice Dollar | Published on Tuesday, May 2, 2023

If you're looking for a singer-songwriter with the ability to take you on a journey through the full range of human emotions, look no further than Rachael Sage. A multi-instrumentalist and founder of her own record label, MPress Records, Sage has been crafting vibrant and dynamic music for over two decades.

Goldmine Magazine has described her music as "mesmerizing," "thoughtful, pensive, and flush with an emotional flourish, all carefully and adeptly executed”.

Billboard has described Sage's "keen, ironic sense of humor and quirky sense of the profound" as what makes her special as a songwriter.

BlackBook has called her "one of music's most inimitable iconoclasts”.

Sage has toured with an eclectic list of artists, including Ani DiFranco, Beth Hart, Howard Jones, and Grammy® winners Shawn Colvin and Judy Collins. In addition, she has recorded a critically-acclaimed duet of Neil Young's "Helpless" with Collins.

Sage is a six-time Independent Music Award-winning musician and producer, as well as a John Lennon Contest Grand Prize winner. She has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, SXSW, and toured globally with her band, The Sequins, from Japan to Berlin. Sage is also a visual artist and former ballet dancer who performed with the New York City Ballet. She has raised money for a wide range of causes, including WHY Hunger, American Refugee Committee, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, and National Network For Youth (NN4Y).

In 2020, Sage released her album Character, which yielded the Billboard-charting single "Blue Sky Days." Character is a stunning tribute to the resilience of the human spirit. Written during her recovery from endometrial cancer, the album is a song cycle that explores the concepts of gratitude, compassion, authenticity, and optimism. Sage says, "I hope these songs honor just how resilient the human spirit can be, and remind us that sometimes 'it's ok to not be ok'”.

She followed this up with her pandemic lockdown passion project, Poetica, an adventurous fusion of poetry with jazz, classical, and Americana musical elements in the vein of Leonard Cohen and Laurie Anderson. “I was all by myself, totally isolated for many months, so I taught myself to engineer, and I just tried to create this sort of a throwback to the West Coast beatnik poetry style of having jazz accompaniment with poetry. I freed my mind. It is a pure kind of expression, and very different from my pop music,” Sage explains. Poetica debuted in October 2021.

Rachael Sage's highly anticipated upcoming album, The Other Side, is set to release in July 2023, and the first single "Whistle Blow" has already captured the attention of many. Co-produced by Sage with Grammy® winner Andy Zulla and longtime engineer Mikhail Pivovorov, the song features a distinctly Americana sound, with slide and acoustic guitars creating a captivating musical landscape. The accompanying one-shot music video, directed by Jenny He, premiered in Holler, while the song premiered in Americana Highways. "Whistle Blow" addresses power dynamics and boundaries, and Sage uses her platform to spread messages of empowerment, especially for women. The song is a composite account of women's struggles for respect in different areas of life and history, and its propulsive, musically lush sound will resonate with anyone fighting against oppression. According to Sage, the song embodies the courage and focus needed to speak the truth, stand up for oneself, and worry less about people's opinions.

Candice Dollar from Grateful Web had the privilege of sitting down with Rachael Sage to talk about her music, her journey, and the power of healing through art.

GW: Rachael, it's an honor to speak with you today. It looks like you’re in a hotel room. Where are you located?

RS: I'm in Pittsburgh. We just played here last night, and then we're headed to Lancaster. How about you? Where are you?

GW: I'm in Nebraska.

RS: Nebraska is one of the handful of states that I've never been to. Next time, we'll have to recruit you as our guide.

GW: Yes, you have to come here! That would be lovely. You're on tour right now, is that right?

RS: I am. Yes. I just put out my very first single from the album this past Friday, and it's called “Whistle Blow,” so this tour is kind of a pre-release tour, if you will.

GW: Awesome. How is that going?

RS: Since lockdown, musicians like myself, are just so eager to be back out on the road and connecting with our audiences. I probably would have been touring anyway, but it's exciting that I have a new single, and actually, we're playing a lot of the material from the new album. We’re doing things a little differently this time, and putting out several singles before the album drops. There'll be another single at the end of May, another one at the end of June, and then another in July, before we put out the whole meal. We've been enjoying getting back to it. We were on the road, up until a few days ago, with a wonderful act named Annalyse & Ryan, who are also from Beacon, New York, which is where I live now, so it's been fun to be a family of sorts on the road.

GW: Speaking of material from the new album, you recently released “Whistleblow,” Can you tell me a bit about your inspiration for that song?

RS: Oh, yeah. Well, the suggestion was that I hope that anyone who is experiencing any kind of questionable power dynamic in the workplace, or at large, will relate to the song, but specifically, I wrote “Whistleblow” as a composite depiction of a handful of public figures, several of whom I looked to as heroes of a kind, and then having it come to light that they had been less than ideal in terms of how they treated women in the workplace, and on their staffs. A few of these folks have had a very unceremonious fall from grace, in a very public way, and it hasn't been just one person, you know? It has felt like one right after another for the last several years. When you think you can look to someone for leadership, and you kind of project your hopes and dreams upon them, and they are doing good work in one space, but then something comes out where they seem to be a bit of a sleaze, you're like, “Oh no, not them”. It has been that type of a roller coaster these last few years. It just becomes harder and harder to look to public leaders for inspiration, not only politically, but also in terms of their values and how they treat women, so that's really what it's about.

GW: This resonates with me on multiple levels. Without going into too much detail, I have recently experienced abuse and oppression in the workplace, and in my personal relationships, so I really value your message. I am approaching things differently this time, and I'm speaking up, or whistleblowing, if you will, and despite the fact that there has been some backlash, I'm immensely grateful for the amount of support I’ve received, specifically within the music community. As a writer, it feels good to experience firsthand just how powerful sharing stories can be.

RS: I am so proud of you and inspired by you. Wow, thank you for sharing all that with me. You can imagine that as a songwriter, there's nothing more meaningful than having someone share their story in that way. It reminds me how much we are all going through the same issues, and how music can highlight that, and hopefully cast a positive light.

GW: As far as my own personal situation goes, I don’t necessarily think the backlash has anything to do with people not believing these stories. I think it’s more along the lines of them not wanting to be forced to take action or stop supporting the artist. Unfortunately, people don’t understand how damaging it can be to continue supporting a known abuser, whether actively or passively through indifference.

RS: You know, that's part of what I was trying to  highlight in the song. It is so hard to believe that people to whom we look to for leadership, and inspiration— whether it's personal, creative, political— that they're not only fallible, but they can be complete jerks, and also just not mindful in any other way outside of their public position. It is devastating, and it's really sad, and it's jarring, but what I wanted the song to convey was the flip side of that— the heroism of people who aren't afraid to confront that and to speak up, even if it means that they won't be well received for doing so. You're very brave, and I'm very proud of you.

GW: Thank you, I really appreciate that. It never ceases to amaze me how small the world really is, and how connected all of us are.

RS: Yeah, and that's a lot of the reason I do music, is to keep making the world smaller, and also to not have to always bear my own specific, personal private truths, but still, at the same time, share insights that I have, and apply them to all different types of scenarios. So that's really where that song was coming from. You know, I could talk about my own relationships on 20 more albums, but the fact of the matter is, the wider world, unfortunately, gives me plenty to dig into as well.

GW: How about Poetica? That feels a bit more personal somehow.

RS: That was the side project I did during lockdown, when we all needed something to dig into to keep us from going a little crazy (laughs). It had been brewing for a while. I've been writing poetry my whole life, and this project has been very different. A lot of people are like, “Oh, you mean just the lyrics for your songs?” I'm like, “No, no, no. Totally different. Different parts of the brain. Different levels of subconsciousness and connection to things that are happening to me, and a different pace at which I write it. It's usually very fast, with a handful of post completion tweaks, but it's not the same kind of wrestling match that song writing can be. I was writing a lot during lockdown. Oftentimes, I would use this self imposed motivational technique of opening a facebook post, and then writing a poem, and then forcing myself to hit post, and sharing it without over editing, and  without overthinking it. It became a therapeutic act for me during those times, but I had many poems before that, which I'd always thought, wow, I should put these into a book, or I should put music with these in some way. And so, when I finally had the time, that's exactly what I did. I was able to collaborate with innumerable musicians all over the country, and some around the world, who had just as much time on their hands as I did. I was all by myself, totally isolated for many months, so I taught myself to engineer, and I just tried to create this sort of a throwback to the West Coast beatnik poetry style of having jazz accompaniment with poetry. I freed my mind. It is a pure kind of expression, and very different from my pop music.

GW: How has that been received? I know from personal experience that there aren’t many poetry fans out there.

RS: You know, what was interesting was that some of my music fans came along for that ride. They saw that a handful of the same characters [cellist and violinist] were involved in the project, and they were curious about it. I have had a really great response. When we've done those pieces live, sometimes even at a chatty venue,  I just go for a spoken word piece, and there's just a slow drop. Everybody shuts up, and they're like, “What is this?” and suddenly it’s like they're listening to a narrator in a movie, and they're like, “What's going on?” And I've noticed that some folks who say they haven't even necessarily been into poetry before, are queuing in, and they're encouraged to write, so that has been really satisfying.

GW: Do you have experience teaching others to write?

RS: Absolutely. I have trouble teaching songwriting, because half the time I don't know exactly how I do it. It's a muscle that I've been using since I was five years old, and some of it is automatic. I have these mental tricks and habits, and the encouragement I give myself to have that receiver on at all times. To make sure I've got that notebook, or iPad, or voice notes, or   whatever it is. In most of the lessons I try to impart the same that I would for playwriting, or poetry, or even visual art. It’s more about that 10,000 hours of  doing it, and giving yourself permission to suck. You know? Everything you make isn’t going to be amazing, or maybe it all will be amazing to you, which is awesome, but it's not the point. You keep doing it, and it gets better and better, and it becomes easier to access that flow. If you write every day, it's going to be there for you when you really have something to say, or when something in the world just strikes you so deeply, that you can’t not express something about it.

GW: You are so inspiring. I imagine you would make a great teacher. On top of everything else, you also founded your own record label, MPress Records, which I think of as “Empress” Records, by the way. Can you tell me about that?

RS: That's the poet in me. I really like to pick words and titles that have multiple layers and meanings to them. Yes, I founded MPress Records many years ago now. I was in my late 20s, and it was just before I went on tour with Ani DeFranco, who was a huge inspiration to me, as someone who had forged their own independent path in the biz, and I naively thought, I can do this, no big deal, I'm pretty good at business. It was a big learning curve, and I've kept learning, and I continue to do so every day of this adventure, but I'm so gratified to be able to make my own mistakes and market myself the way I want to. That feels comfortable to me. As you can imagine, as a young, attractive person in this business, and this is something people are telling you, you don't even know this, you're like, “I'm just me,” and then you have all these older, sleazy men in the music business telling you how attractive you are, and how it's so great that you can also do this, that and the other, and you're just scratching your head like okay, when's the marketing plan coming in for the music? When do I hear about how much you love that chorus, and not how much you love my outfit? It’s not that I don't think my outfit is cute (laughs), but there needs to be balance. In my younger years, I went through a lot of questioning the motivation of a lot of folks who were in the wings eager to help, but not necessarily attuned to what my message was, as a very feminist young singer-songwriter, and wanting to entertain, as I always do, and always will. I embrace my quirkiness, as it were, that little bit of an outsider quality to my personality, but I also embrace being an unabashedly strong female. It just seemed like a logical thing to eventually start my own label and put out my own work, and I've had the beautiful privilege to put out other artists' music as well, so that's been a great way to create community too.

GW: So relatable. Someone once said to me in reference to my music journalism, “are you sure these artists aren’t just trying to sleep with you?” which is so insulting to my intelligence.

RS: You and I, all the ladies, we have to kind of develop this super thick skin where other people's irresponsible and unmindful language doesn't have the power to impact us the way it might. Because we know our worth, and we know what we do is important, and we also know who we are and what we stand for. The more I have stories like that in my landscape, the more I'm able now to put them aside, and weed them out, and it really is about surrounding yourself with like minded peers and folks who are your target audience anyway, because you have one now, and how exciting is that? You’ve built that. As we say in Yiddish, “feh,” which is kind of like saying “moving on”.

GW: My daughter wants to be a writer when she grows up and she tells anyone who will listen that her Mommy has a magazine. That is everything I need. “Feh” to the rest.

RS: Oh my god. I got somebody in Nebraska to speak Yiddish. Amazing.

A Poem by Rachael Sage


I remember the first time I heard you play

It was like a chimney that had been hidden

Behind a giant wall-sized painting

Was pilfered away and bless those thieves

Who collectively call themselves obscurity

For lifting that heavy scarlet curtain

I remember so clearly because my family was hurting

The night you took the stage - small, unassuming

Though the venue was, it felt to me like the answer

To the question "what is, what will be, what ever was?"

If that isn't large-scale, I don't know what breathes

I don't know what teases truth out of a group

Whispers loudly "I've got you" and grips, like a fever

The muscles in the mind, repeating shamelessly

"You are fruition, and I am the vine"