VIDEO FEATURE & WEB-EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW
Musician: RACHAEL SAGE
Music Video: “Home (Where I Am Now)”
Songwriters: Rachael Sage & Fiona Harte
Video Directed by Rachael Sage & Meredith Tarr
Shot & Edited by Meredith Tarr
Performers: Rachael Sage, Kelly Halloran and Zaharry Zaharryeff
Location: Camden Lock, London, UK
Track Produced by Rachael Sage & Andy Zulla
RACHAEL SAGE Web-Exclusive Interview
with M Music & Musicians magazine publisher, Merlin David
Rachael Sage is one of the most engaging, hardest working and busiest touring artists in independent music. She performs 100+ dates a year both solo and with her band The Sequins—touring the US, UK and Europe. Sage has an innate ability to engage the audience with her enchanting piano playing and powerful vocals that covers a wide dynamic range. When you watch her perform live, you can feel the energy and see how much she truly enjoys performing. And with her improvisational audience interaction, she has earned an incredibly loyal following.
In a review of one of her albums, M Music & Musicians magazine said “Sage injects a tattered vulnerability and quiet resolve into her originals—which invite comparison to Tori Amos and Fiona Apple in their sly elocution. And Sage’s emotional commitment seems just as genuine and compelling as those artists. She sets her own standards.”
Sage is not only a gifted songwriter and musician, she is truly a well-rounded creative artist—and her talents cover a wide spectrum of the arts, including dance, painting and graphic design. In September/October 2016, NYC’s Think Gallery presented an impressive art installation by this East Village-based mixed-media artist.
Sage is a former dancer who studied at the School of American Ballet in her teens. She has been thrilled to see her music widely embraced by the lyrical dance community over the past several years. Videos featuring young girls dancing to her music have received over 9 million YouTube hits.
Sage has received numerous songwriting awards, including the John Lennon Songwriting Contest Grand Prize and several Independent Music Awards. Her songs have appeared on MTV, HBO, Fame movie soundtrack, and 16 of her songs have appeared in the last three seasons of Lifetime’s controversial reality series Dance Moms. She first began playing by ear at two-and-a-half years old. By 12, she was dancing at Lincoln Center in classical ballets like “The Nutcracker” and “Coppelia”—while balancing schoolwork and making demos of her songs.
With this new album Choreographic, Sage delivers a musically ambitious and emotionally accessible tribute to dance, her very first love. She “envisioned each song as a fully-choreographed multi-media experience.” The result is an inspired set of piano-based chamber-pop merging orchestral elements with her signature blend of folk, pop and rock. The album was co-produced by Sage and Grammy-winning producer Andy Zulla (Idina Menzel, Rod Stewart).
We are thrilled to present this exclusive U.S. premiere of her video “Home (Where I Am Now).” From London, during her UK tour, Rachael Sage discusses songwriting, touring with fiddler Kelly Halloran (G Love), producing a unique, unassuming video shoot for her next single, and how a busker they’d never met magically entered the frame during this shoot. Since the second verse of “Home” is about buskers, they decided to roll with it. She laughs and says, “You can’t plan this stuff.”
How did the idea of “Home (Where I Am Now)” come to you?
This song was my very first co-write. A very talented young singer from Dublin named Fiona Harte reached out to collaborate, and we got together and quickly realized her passion for New York City was identical to mine for her hometown. We bonded on our reverse-affection for our respective cities. After I spent a bit of time just getting to know her over tea, I started playing a piece of music I’d already been developing—and suggested we write a lyric sparked by the dynamic richness of city life, for an artist. She was only 18 at the time, and I loved her line “fearlessly breathing with the wind”—it’s very youthful and definitely not an image I would’ve come up with. The rest of the lyric I tried to write from a very young artists’ perspective, which was easy because I just imagined the summer I spent in Dublin in college, when I was 18—and how beautifully inspiring that was. It’s wonderful to me that unless we’d sat in a room together in NYC, where she gushed about loving my hometown so much and fantasizing about moving there, we wouldn’t have written this song.
What does “home” mean to you?
In general, home is a pretty abstract concept to me. I feel most at home when I’m connecting with an audience. I have no idea what that says about me psychologically (laughs)—that I’m most at ease on stage performing for virtual strangers. But something about this lifestyle of being a touring artist, traveling from place to place and meeting kindred spirits all over the world—who also inevitably share their insights with me as well—has always felt more like home to me than actually being home. I adore NYC and will probably always live there, but absence really does make the heart grow fonder. (Smiles)
That’s not Manhattan in the video. Where did you shoot this?
Most of my videos have been very polished, choreographed and designed. It’s no secret that I’m very visually oriented and get a bit obsessive about details. So shoots can take several days and editing a lot longer. With the case of “Home” I decided a couple days before we were to be in Camden, London on my tour that I wanted to do something entirely the opposite and completely spontaneous. I didn’t even know exactly where I wanted to set up to shoot, but since I wrote the bulk of my current album Choreographic in a hotel room in Camden last year, it seemed fitting. I really have come to think of London as my home away from home.
Tell us about the video shoot.
Basically we took the tube to Camden from our hotel a few stops away, armed with a video camera and our instruments. I said “let’s just walk around until we find a really vibey spot where we can do a few takes of the song.” We sat in a café for a bit, had some tea. I talked with Kelly Halloran, my fiddle player, about what I wanted to do, and then started walking around Camden Lock. I saw the canal with the canoes and the swans and said “let’s do it here!” My tour manager, Meredith Tarr, set up the camera leaning against a concrete divider where bicyclists were whizzing by, which was a bit dangerous. We all had to watch out so we wouldn’t get hit. (Laughs) And then we just started recording. The one thing we didn’t have, for better or worse, was a way to play back the song loudly enough to actually lip sync to. So we just counted off the starting tempo from my violinist’s iPhone and played it live—without hearing a track and hoping we could just line it all up manually later. (Laughs)
I love the busker. Is he someone you know?
No, we’d never met him. (Laughs) Because we were actually playing live and there was no recording playing from a boombox or anything, folks started gathering and thought we were just a couple of buskers. Then an actual busker started jamming with us. (Laughs) He was from Bulgaria and had a bit of hard luck, seemingly. He didn’t speak much English, but when we tried to explain to him what we were doing and give him some direction after the first take (where he just casually walked into frame and we kept shooting), he didn’t quite get it. So we just did the same thing a few times, let him come and go as he pleased. Then after, he told us that meeting us had made his day and he got very emotional. He was also a very talented visual artist and showed us a journal he’d been drawing in—with beautiful images of the exact area where we were shooting. It was definitely a “moment.” We gave him a bit of cash after the shoot because he really was great and we were very grateful that he’d magically showed up for our little video. He said he was going to use it to buy an amp, since his had broken. The whole interaction was very poignant and surreal. We got his email so we could send him the video, hugged him and watched him set up to busk only a few yards down from where we’d been shooting.
That is an amazing story. I love happy accidents. Anything else unique during this tour?
This tour has been unique in many ways—because of the connection my new album Choreographic has to my history as a dancer, in my youth. I composed this batch of songs specifically with dancers in mind. I hoped it would inspire lyrical dancers to choreograph in the way the TV show Dance Moms has used so much of my music the last few years—which is what triggered all of this again for me. Amazingly, we’ve had many schools, in both the US and UK, reach out to have me perform and do workshops for their students. So inadvertently, after 20 or so of these, I suppose I’ve become somewhat of an educator now. This week alone, we’ve performed at half-dozen schools, between our regular evening gigs, and it’s been extremely gratifying—and humbling as well. Kids are so honest and direct. It really forces you to be quick on your feet and completely authentic, while coming from a positive place.
How did you start writing songs?
While I wrote instrumental songs at the piano long before I wrote lyrics, I do remember going away to sleepaway camp and hearing Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” for the first time. I was the youngest camper they’d ever had. But my older sister was going and I begged my parents to let me go too. It was a huge turning point for me, not only because I was away from home for eight weeks but because it was the first time I recognized that playing by ear was actually a “skill.” For me, it had just been a fun thing I did automatically, and I was always sounding out music I heard in ballet class—or from my Dad’s Beatles’ collection on our piano.
Who inspired you to become a songwriter?
My camp counselor had cassettes of various pop and rock artists, and I would hear them for a bit and then go find a piano and reinterpret them. I vaguely recall hearing The Police for the first time at camp, and also Journey, Chicago and Hall & Oates—all of whom I instantly loved. I didn’t really hear any female singer-songwriters until I was older. My best friend in junior high school played me Carole King. Suddenly, after mistakenly thinking I wanted to be a synth-pop artist like Debbie Gibson or Madonna, I had a very clear sense of what I wanted to do and be. Substantively and sonically, Tapestry encouraged me to write more personally—while still writing catchy hooks. She was the singular inspiration for me to reach beyond merely imitating pop artists I’d heard on the radio or seen on TV—and develop my identity as a “singer-songwriter.”
Anything else help inspire you during those early years?
I also saw two films when I was very young that definitely ignited my desire to become a serious musician and work on my craft a lot harder as a singer-songwriter: Coal Miner’s Daughter about the great Loretta Lynn, and The Buddy Holly Story. Seeing these great icons’ life stories and iconic personas on the big screen by such charismatic actors was extremely formative—and it planted a lot of seeds in my young mind, to say the least. (Laughs)
You play songs on piano and guitar. Tell us why you chose a guitar for this song?
I actually do play piano on this track as well, but it’s mixed a bit more subtly and was an overdub. The reason I chose guitar on which to write the song is because I was co-writing it with a young artist who played very minimal guitar herself. I wanted to make sure it was a song she felt capable of performing herself. When I’m on guitar, I necessarily tend to keep things simple. If I’d written it on piano, it would probably have much more complex harmony and then she wouldn’t have been able to play it herself.
What guitar do you play?
I play a Guild on tour—it’s served me very well for many years, and holds tuning exceptionally well. It has a nice rich tone with a lot of low end, which is great for me because I finger-pick very quietly. In the studio, I also play an older Martin guitar—but it’s much too fragile to tour with.
What keyboard do you use?
I use a Casio Privia, which is great because it’s 88 keys but also very light—which my back really appreciates. (Laughs)
What PRO are you with, and how do they help a songwriter/artist like you?
I’m with BMI, and have been since I graduated college and released my first album shortly thereafter. BMI help me collect royalties from songs that air on the radio not only in the US but all over the world. They also collect when my songs air on television. Through the years, they have been very accessible and helpful to me whenever I’ve had questions or needed help navigating the publishing aspect of my musical income.
Best advice someone has given you.
Suzanne Vega and I were on a panel together at Lilith Fair. She obviously as the established, experienced one, and I was just a newbie completely overwhelmed to have garnered an opening slot at the festival. At one point she turned to me and said, “When it comes to the business you’ll get all kinds of advice from managers, lawyers and agents—but take it all with a grain of salt. Make music you love, and block out the rest of that noise.” I took it very much to heart.
Best advice you’d like to give.
Get a regular gig and shed where you’re “safe”—well out of earshot of the “industry.” Even in the age of The Voice and American Idol, don’t expect to spring fully formed into the career-artist you imagine you could be just by practicing at home or recording. You need to be in front of an audience, however small, to learn to connect with one. Looking back, I wish I’d had a regular gig as early as high school. In college, I started playing the coffeehouse once a week. It was the beginning of a very long, at times arduous but always interesting, process of finding my true voice—both as a musician and a persona. The 10,000 hours theory applies to performing onstage too. (Laughs)
I’ll be doing more touring behind this album, which came out in May 2016 in the US—but is only coming out this month in the UK/Europe. I’m also super excited to share that I’ll be touring with one of my biggest childhood idols, Howard Jones, in March 2017. (Smiles) I have to think that experience will prompt more writing since his music has been a lifelong source of inspiration to me. But I guess we’ll see.
Where can your new fans get more info and stay updated?