Rachael Sage is a multi-talented creative mind who learnt how to turn life’s challenges into a creative renaissance. The award-winning NYC-based alt-pop artist, producer, multi-instrumentalist, former ballet dancer and philanthropic advocate is a kaleidoscope of inspiration for all those women looking for a sense of purpose and meaning, championing diversity and inclusion in her everyday life.
As a cancer survivor, she takes her path as a gift and revelation, something you can easily get from the poetic lyricism of her beautiful songs and artwork which she considers a healing tool.
“Character“, her latest album, is a musical testament to the miracle and mystery of the human experience, in all its inspiring, painful and confounding glory. Sage muses: “I hope these songs honour just how resilient the human spirit can be, and remind us that sometimes it’s ok to not be ok.”
Vibrant, sensitive and profound, through this in-depth interview she reveals to CrunchyTales the magic of embracing and celebrating midlife unconditionally and unapologetically to the fullest.
Rachael, The New York Times has described you as an artist “alternately channelling her inner Fanny Brice and Jewish Norah Jones.” How does it feel to be compared to them?
It’s always flattering to be told you have a good sense of humour, especially if that person is someone like Fanny Brice who has inspired a Broadway musical, a film with Barbra Streisand and countless young Jewish artists like myself. In short: I’ll take it, ha! As far as Norah Jones, she’s just so lovely and classy and while I don’t see that much similarity there myself, I’m certainly a fan so it was a very positive comparison.
Has entering midlife changed your perspective on life (and music)?
Well, I plan to live to 102 so I don’t think I’ve entered midlife yet! But in all seriousness…nope. And believe me, I’ve thought about it quite a bit. But honestly, not at all. I don’t think it’s denial either. I just think being an artist and generally, a world-traveller has given me a very specific sense of time, of opportunity, of community and my perspective generally comes more from those realms than on anything particularly to do with age. As I often sing via my song Alive, It’s good to be alive! And I’ve tried to be aware of the gift of life since I was young, mainly because there was so much illness in my family and my grandparents passed before I could meet them so I’ve always had a very distinct sense of life’s preciousness and that as the saying goes, we are all here to walk each other home. My mom used to say I was ten going on thirty as a kid, and now I think I’m less serious and more playful than I was then. Being a kid was pretty stressful as I recall! I don’t miss school, I don’t miss being bullied or not having choices about how to spend my time. I’m much happier now! Covid-19 has given us all a nudge to not waste time though, I think. But how one defines wasting time is really the biggest insight into a person I can think of. I no longer think walking in the woods or meditating are a waste of time, versus something healing and wonderful one can do to stay level and mentally healthy.
You are a proud representative of the LGBT Community and a philanthropic advocate who has raised a considerable amount of money for a wide range of causes. What do Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion mean to you personally?
I always felt like a bit of an outsider, even before I had a sense of my sexuality. Sometimes that felt like a gift – when it came to creativity for instance, and being able to write about isolation or pain – but for the most part, it was just a challenge. Now that I have the opportunity to create spaces of inclusivity and to stand up for equality, diversity and LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, I will always seize it! It’s so easy to widen the circle, to make people feel welcome and heard, and it’s something I enjoy doing because I understand how lucky I was to have a supportive family (however bumpy it may have been to get there), and a loving community in New York City, myself. I was always raised to help and include others and to recognize that we could each be in the other’s shoes in the blink of an eye. It only ever makes you feel good to make someone else feel good, right? I was often amazed as a kid that no one stood up for me when a bully was being unkind or even occasionally, violent. We have to encourage each other to be brave, to stand up for one another and to remember we’re all human beings, foremost. Differences should be celebrated, and uniqueness is a virtue – but unfortunately, much of the world still doesn’t see it that way. Artists do, though! In many ways I believe our role is to repeat that mantra over and over in as many permutations as possible, so everyone understands just how beautiful and special they are, and how much love they deserve.
You have faced a very dramatic health issue in your life. Has this influenced your songs in any way since then and if so how?
Yes, I have indeed been faced with a cancer diagnosis in 2018, the treatments for which were perhaps more frightening and overwhelming even than cancer itself. Radiation, surgery and chemo were not easy decisions for me to make as I am generally so leery of any harsh or toxic traditional Western medicine. But I was told by multiple doctors it was the only way to significantly improve my chances of a full recovery, so I committed to it while also pursuing holistic treatments simultaneously (acupuncture, massage, and strict dietary changes). I approached my treatment like I was in a conservatory for healing, with the same discipline I’ve had in my songwriting, dance and theatre pursuits. I think if anything my artist background influenced my recovery, versus the other way around. Now, I just try to write songs that uplift, empower and bring joy, foremost. I probably complain less as a person and also as a writer, in my work. Of course, that may change but for now, I have an awful lot to be grateful for. And even with all the chaos and tumult amidst the pandemic, war and the personal losses I’ve faced with many friends and relatives having died in the last several years, somehow I’m in a place where I feel more grateful to still have this life to celebrate those people than I am depressed they are gone. I think in some ways it’s my responsibility to pay tribute every time I get on stage or go into the recording studio, to all of those people who have helped lift me up in some way, and hopefully what I do will continue to raise up and encourage others, whatever trials they may be facing. I have never been more grateful to be an artist than I am now, and I really do try not to take it for granted.
Where do you get your inspiration for songwriting? Do you personally find this a simple process or does this take a lot of preparation?
It really varies. Some songs take 5 minutes to write, and some remain partially written for years until one day I’m in the shower or walking down the street and suddenly I write the bridge. Whatever the case, I think the most important thing is to be open as a human being, to what is going on around you and inside you. Being a good listener is the best tool, I find, to be a strong writer. And always write down your ideas, however large or small, in a little notebook or sing them into a device. You won’t remember them otherwise, even if you think you will.
Gratitude, hope and beauty are quite recurrent topics in your albums. By including them is this your personal way of planting seeds of love in your fans?
I suppose that is the case, yes! I like the way you put it – sort of like the Tears For Fears song. I am less conscious about it though, as I certainly don’t think of myself as any kind of preacher versus just being a songwriter and poet sharing my own insights and hopes and reflections. I certainly am someone who enjoys creating and receiving beautiful art of any kind, but I also try not to shy away from the jagged edges and odd dissonances that make music more interesting than if it’s just purely mellifluous all the time. Nobody likes a Pollyanna and I definitely have my slightly goth/rock ‘n roll streak, especially since taking up the electric guitar, ha! I actually want to make a punk record at some point, but I know it won’t endear my parents to me much, so maybe I’ll wait a while longer for that project.
Ageism is a global challenge. Mature people are often disadvantaged in the workplace and access to specialized training and education declines significantly with age. Have you ever experienced something like that in your field?
Actually no, I have not. Maybe it’s because I wear bright colours, glitter, and flowers in my hair and am generally quite childlike in many ways, in spite of being CEO of my own record label and a bossy boss when I need to be. Honestly, I really enjoy toeing the line between wearing Hello Kitty on my body and feeling like a very old soul, in spirit. I am aware, however, that Sia is an anomaly on pop radio and it’s not easy to be older than 20 or 30 on the airwaves. That’s not my focus, however, so it’s also not a struggle. My biggest inspirations are people like Judy Collins and John Lee Hooker, the former of whom is in her 80s and still touring 100 days a year and the latter of whom coined the phrase age is just a number! On the flip side, I always try to learn from younger artists and be attuned to what is impacting them and inspiring them as I really enjoy that continuum and think sometimes the more we separate ourselves from generations the less we understand each other. I’ve also dated much younger and much older people, so it’s really always been a matter of authentic connection for me versus any concerns about “appropriateness”. I like to think we’ve evolved a bit beyond the assumption that age should dictate social interactions or work expectations, in the arts. Alessandra Ferri was still dancing on point at 52. Why not, if she could? The best examples are in the doing, and as far as I’m concerned she’s a superhero in that regard.
Do you have any specific rituals that help you make peace with yourself and the world? How do you manage to unplug from the hustle and bustle of your working life?
A few years ago I would have said, I don’t. It’s never been a priority for me to unplug because I’m very committed to my work, which I love. But since my cancer experience, I do understand how stress is not exactly the healthiest thing, so I try to do yoga and take a lot of walks. I also like watching movies late a night but am usually doing work email at the same time. Unplugging is not my forte though, to be honest!
“Revelation Ground”, your latest single, has been written during the lockdown. How did you succeed in staying grounded during these past years?
I made a point to stay in close contact with my musical friends and of course my family. I was totally isolated for the better part of two years, but even though I was by myself – which I’ve never had a problem with as I’m naturally an introvert – I was always texting, emailing or video messaging peers and we were supporting each other virtually doing lots of live streams and sharing our various recording projects and so forth. I also made a point to move somewhere closer to my two best friends to I could at least see them from a close distance, which was crucial. Ultimately I recorded Revelation Ground and my poetry record Poetica as a way to give purpose to the long stretches of time I was no longer travelling on tour or in the studio with others, so these recordings have a different kind of intimacy to them. Art should reflect the times, so I just went with it…but now I’m very eager to play with a band, to get out there and do festivals and reconnect with larger audiences because we’ve all been cooped up so long! Being on tour with Imelda May this month has been incredible in that way, and at a time when Ukraine is under siege, women’s rights are under attack and racially motivated violence is rampant in the US, it has felt quite redemptive just to connect with people on a human level, remind each other of the healing power of music and of our innate goodness.
Which do you feel is the most important song you have written and why?
I think the most important song I’ve ever written is Bravery On Fire, because while it was composed as a reflection on my own experience as a cancer patient, I have received a lot of feedback since its release – and on my current tour – that many people can relate to it and it’s helping them get through a difficult time. It’s always so humbling to hear that, and it makes all the long hours and hard work instantly worth it!
You’ve already worked with big names in the music industry. Is there anyone else, in particular, you would like to write with or sing with?
I actually haven’t done that much collaborative songwriting, although it’s been amazing to record a duet with Judy Collins and tour with artists like Ani DiFranco and Howard Jones. Some of my favourite artists are Elvis Costello, Glen Hansard, Hozier, Nick Cave, Sinéad O’Connor and Marianne Faithfull. Of course, it would be a dream come true to collaborate in any way with even one of them, so thanks for the encouragement!
Rachael, you’re not only a great songwriter but also a very prominent visual artist and poet. Do you have any tips for us on how we can keep nurturing our creativity in midlife when we often feel as though we’re on a rollercoaster?
Honestly, I think everyone feels as though they’re on a rollercoaster: young, middle-aged, older people. Life is challenging, childhood is fraught with stress and pressure (at least it was for me!), and I don’t think creativity hinges on calm but it can induce calm to be creative. My biggest tip is simply to start, whatever it is, and don’t judge yourself. We think of G-d as being the almighty creator, and when we make things or create something new whether physical or ephemeral we are truly doing something holy and miraculous. I don’t mean that to sound overly self-serious or dramatic but I really do believe that. It has very little and yet everything to do with us. It’s laden with personality and expression while also being mysterious and incredible. What better way is there to spend one’s time than to share one’s unique gifts? Plus, it keeps one out of trouble, as they say.
Finally, what advice would you give to those women who have a problem getting to grips with ageing?
“You do you.” No rules, no right way to live your life so don’t worry what anyone else thinks and you’ll be way more comfortable in your own skin. Easier said than done, but all the women I admire in their 60s, 70s and beyond who are elegant, grounded, mentally acute and funloving also have a “don’t give a damn” attitude when it comes to needless worry. Life will force you to truly worry when you need to, so in the meantime embrace your joi de vivre and give yourself as many rounds of applause as you need, whenever and wherever – because you’ve earned it! That, and surround yourself with people who appreciate and respect you, or if you just prefer to be alone, do that to the hilt, your way. But that goes for any age, I think.