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05 June 2008 @ 07:32 pm
columbus dispatch interview  
Little bit of theater sets stage for songwriter's stories

Thursday, June 5, 2008 3:10 AM

By Bill Eichenberger
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

For anyone who thinks the Do-It-Yourself ethic is exclusive to gnarly dudes in punk and grunge bands, we give you singer-songwriter Rachael Sage, who has written, arranged and produced songs on eight albums for her own MPress record label.

Sage, who will perform Sunday in the East Village night club in the Short North, answered the following questions:

Q. A critic recently wrote, “The best word to describe Rachael Sage's sound is theatrical.” Is theatrical the best word to describe your sound?

A. I am fine with the word theatrical, sure. I tend to think that critics and fans are a lot more qualified to describe my sound that I am, but that word would certainly describe the way I dress, if not my actual music.

I'm not really trying to be terribly theatrical as a songwriter, so I'm imagining that reaction has more to do with the way I produce and arrange my music, which I hope is always extremely dynamic. I try to use a very wide range of textures and colors when I flesh out my songs in the studio; it's just something I've always been striving for, ever since I got my first four-track. I'm always aiming to orchestrate my songs in a way that captures a wider emotional range than what I feel I can do with only my voice and a piano.

So I'd probably say dynamic is a better word, since I really play a lot with being so intimate I'm practically kissing the microphone, or, alternately, halfway across the room shouting through a bullet mike. I like to think that music is basically a reflection of how deeply the human spirit can express pain, elation and everything in between. Hopefully my music captures that, over the course of an album — or occasionally, even within a single song.

Q. Are your songs autobiographical?

A. It definitely varies. Some are absolutely biographical (Vertigo would be an example), while others are loosely based on some details from my life that I've exaggerated or just re-imagined a bit (Hunger In John); many are completely fictional, inspired by other forms of music that I've heard such as gospel (Moonlight & Fireflies), or a particular era or pop-music I just want to take a stab at, as a performer (Angel In My View).

Most people assume the song Chandelier is from my perspective, but it is actually from the point-of-view of a friend of mine. I chose to still sing it in first person, because it just makes it more intimate that way, and I think it helped to also bring me closer to the subject matter, as a singer.

Often I get ideas from friends or family members going through a particularly challenging time, but when I write about it I choose to incorporate a more hopeful or empowered ending in the song. I'm not that interested in purely capturing reality, without putting my own spin on it, so-to-speak.

I think part of the responsibility I have as not only a songwriter but also a performer is to try to uplift, and entertain. I do my best to turn lemons into lemonade, as often as possible — and that helps me too, in my own life. I have a tendency to be depressed, so I go out of my way to use the bridge as a section of many of my songs where some discovery is made, or a problem is resolved.

Too bad life isn't more like songwriting!

Q. In a related question, some fans just immediately assume the singer is singing straight from her life. Does that discount the artist’s ability to imagine her way into someone else’s life?

A. I think you've answered your own question (Ha ha). But personally, I think the only real thing that matters, at the end of the day, is whether the content resonates with people. If they think it's about your dog, and that makes them feel comforted about their own relationship with their dog, so be it. If they think it's about your sister, or your mother, and that achieves a different level of catharsis, that's great.

I like to tell stories, certainly, and those are the songs that are easiest to "follow," in a linear sense. But many of my songs are more poetic than linear, and the imagery I'm using is bound to be interpreted in many different ways. That's intentional, and I'm fine with that!

A few years back I wrote a song based on The Joy Luck Club called Satellite about the relationship between mothers and daughters, as inspired by the film. A few critics picked up on the generational thing, and many assumed I was writing about myself, as though I were having some kind of mid-20's crisis when I sang, "I am old, and I do not know the ways of you young women."

I mean, that's a pretty extreme example of someone totally misinterpreting where a "voice" is coming from. I guess I should've called the song Generation Gap and they would've gotten it, but that's not very poetic! That's why I included song-notes in my press-kit this album, to help people out a little, and minimize some of the guesswork!

Q. You are trained in acting and would like to return to it someday. How much of performing music is acting?

A. I think most of performing music is acting. I think acting is at the heart of what I do, every night. The reason I say that is because acting is about connecting to the material, re-living moments in a way that looks and sounds "real."

When I get up and perform, I am not spontaneously composing this material. It may be from my heart, and a reflection of my experience and imagination, but if I can't use craft, somehow, to reconnect to the words and music in a way that is as "realistic" as acting is supposed to be, at its best, then I'm failing.

I do improvise a lot in terms of my piano playing and playing off of the other musicians in my group and that keeps things fresh and in-the-moment on a different level. But I'm really grateful for a lot of my acting and dance training, which if nothing else helped me learn how to absorb my environment — including the audience — in a way that can help breathe new energy into my performance.

If someone sneezes, or shouts something out, I don't try to ignore it, mentally. I take it in, it affects me, it's a moment and I'm allowed to react to it. Things move faster onstage than in life though, you have to think quickly to incorporate something that happens in the moment into your banter or your musical performance. I think doing Shakespeare for so many years was great training for that!

Q. Does your time with the New York City Ballet influence your music? If so, how? (Songs in 6/8 time?!)

A. Certainly hearing all that classical music influenced my melodic and chordal sensibilities; but I always listened to lots of pop music too, so I think the biggest influence that dancing with New York City Ballet had on me was that having a relentless work ethic is the key to making art look "easy." The sore toes, aching knees, late nights of rehearsal and doing homework after most kids were sleeping definitely prepared me for a life on the road in ways I never could've imaged — and for running a record label! Billy Joel wrote plenty of songs in 6/8, and so did The Beatles; so I wouldn't say I got that entirely from Tchaikovsky ...

Q. What’s been the best thing about having your own label? The most difficult thing? (John Prine once told me that running his own label was difficult because sometimes he wanted to fire himself as the boss!)

A. The best thing is what is also the worst thing: you get to make your own mistakes, and have nobody but yourself to blame when you take a wrong turn, creatively or career-wise.

To put it another way: you have total creative control, but you are also responsible for the budget, the product and both long and short-term vision for the label, so balancing a personal life and juggling all aspects of your music and business can be extremely challenging. I love what I do, but I still have not figured out how to run a label, be an artist, and get more than five hours of sleep a night. It's definitely difficult to stay healthy, and not get sick.

John Prine was definitely onto something ... I don't really ever want to fire me, but I'd like to at least hire a different immune system!

Q. You told the Press & Sun-Bulletin that you were grappling with existential questions, “What's the point of all this? Do people need to hear another record from me? Am I better off going to work in a soup kitchen?” How did you resolve those questions?

A. Well, what I was referring to in that interview was a specific personal situation, regarding a close friend suffering from a severe depression that manifested as very self-destructive, dangerous behavior. So I didn't exactly resolve those questions, and I don't know if I ever will. Mental illness doesn't make logical sense by nature, and no matter how much you try to help someone overcome self-destructive behavior, I've learned over the last couple years that the cliché is really true: you can't force someone to get better, if they don't want to recover, themselves.

So in terms of making this record, I just decided that it wasn't doing my friend any good to worry about her mental/physical health, more than trying to live my own life healthfully and create art that would potentially be meaningful to other people. While I was recording, I cancelled a trip to Europe (for MIDEM), and more than a few studio sessions to try to make an impact on a friend in crisis, that's just what I thought friends did. They intervene, they try to protect each other from harm. But nothing I did in this particular case really seemed to make a difference, she just got worse.

So what I decided was that I needed to go on living my life, and when she was ready to receive support, I'd be there in an instant, no matter what. That's where I'm at, currently. In the meantime, I've been trying to focus attention on some issues that are important to all of us at MPress Records through our charity compilation series, New Arrivals (www.newarrivalscd.com).

Q. In the movie Barton Fink, the protagonist is talking about how grueling the act of creativity is, how it’s a purging and he must lie down for weeks after completing a play. And the character who is supposed to be William Faulkner says, “I just like to make things up.” Where on the spectrum do you lie as an artist? Does your music explain your life to you? Help you heal? Is it cathartic? Or do you simply like to make things up? To tell stories?

A. I am a really fickle, easily distracted person, I am ADD-central. So thankfully, where I am on the spectrum as an artist really vacillates. Sometimes something will devastate me and I am able to reflect on it and come up with a song, a poem, or a painting. That is always cathartic. Other times I specifically set out to experiment with a particular style of music, and just delve into my imagination in a playful way.

More often than not, my subconscious just leads me to the beginnings of a song, and my early years of studying the craft of songwriting allow me to follow that intial spark through to something that is a complete, three or four minute slice of life. It just depends. I never want to write the same song twice, so the best way for me to do that is to write differently, and to use different creative "muscles," just like a dancer would.

So to answer your last string of questions: yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. It is all of those things, and that's why I chose to do this, when I was only 5. I knew it would be, somehow. I saw it on TV, I heard it on Broadway, I heard it in dance class, on the 8-track, and playing along to my gymnastics routine. I knew music could potentially do all of those things for me if I chose it as a lifestyle, since it had already done all of that for me just listening, by the time I learned to play piano and sing.