Rachael Sage Interview Saturday 25th October 2014
Our favourite New York chanteuse accepts a lunch invite and chats to JLTT’s Pete Sargeant about her new album due for 2015…
JLTT: So ‘Blue Roses’ has the longest credit listing ever…. and I’m not in it !
RS: This is actually the shortest thank you note section I’ve ever had in the history of my eleven albums. I left out all of my immediate friends and family and I grouped them all together… so don’t feel so bad, Pete
(Laughs) Now I don’t feel so bad! Welcome back to London and it’s great to see you again
Nice to see you too!
Recently we re-ran the original interview that we did
Thank you ! I appreciate that
Two people from different worlds met and spoke
That’s right and I didn’t read it again so I wouldn’t feel pressured to outdo it
There was so much (conversational ) chemistry there the first time….
Well now you can! What I found interesting about that was we both make music but our perspectives are pretty different
(Laughs) For instance, you know what chords you’re playing and I don’t!
‘Blue Roses’: I listened to it and when you first started off I thought you were going to play ‘Hey Jude’ !
Really? I thought that song sounded more like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’!
Now this to me is a beautiful arrangement of piano and Hammond
It sounds very stately but you’re using an unusual voice here. What’s the lowdown on that?
An unusual voice?
You’re not using the voice I associate with you.
You’re singing it in a different way
I had no idea. I think maybe there’s a little bit more edge on the track so that brings out a bit of a different grittier sound in my voice..?.
There’s some ringing guitar in the mix
Oh ringing guitar! I’ll tell you one thing, I actually tracked too many guitars on this arrangement and I ended up needing about half of them. I got carried away because I was so excited I wrote this song on electric guitar (one of the first I’ve even played on electric guitar) and that’s what happens with me. I overlay, over-track and get excited and at the end of the day I listen back to the mix and realise the voice is getting lost. So I try to create a little bit more space and focus on, as you said, the Hammond organ and just a couple of guitars. It’s probably a little different because there’s no piano at the forefront of it…..
Without knowing it, your voice adapts to that arrangement
Well thank you
It’s in a slightly different place. I’m only saying what I’m hearing and I always do. I had a conversation with Eric Johnson and I said to him ‘When does a painter stop painting?’ He goes ‘I’ve come to the conclusion recently, you’ve got to say at some point say that’s enough to make the song work. Then leave it.
(Reflecting) Now that I’m thinking about it, I think maybe what you’re thinking of is that chorus where I kind of scream my head of a little bit
There’s a little bit of a triumphant ‘I shall overcome’ and I’m backing away from the mike and putting it out there
See there’s a tinge of Julian Lennon in that.
Wow! Thank you. I’ll take it !
Ok. The title track is very distinctive and sounds very reposed with a soft vocal. Now, there’s a lovely bridge in that; what inspired ‘Blue Roses’?
Well I went on an incredible first date with someone to a Leonard Cohen concert actually. Lot of my friends and peers were there that night and it was a beautiful night. This young handsome fellow gave me a blue rose. While the relationship didn’t work out in a romantic sense, we remained great friends and what that metaphor to me was about was the idea of a rose that doesn’t exist in nature. Something that is man-made, created, quirkier and a little bit more transformed. It resonated with me in terms of the idea of surrounding yourself in your life with the people you wanna be most like. The people you hope will rub off on you and leave their pigment on you. I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in general, socially and throughout my life. But I think this record is really embracing the idea of proactively creating your family.
I think all musicians are loners to a certain extent, we sit on our own and write stuff. What we put out, is not some concocted personality but the music we make. Some people walk in the room and say ‘Hey it’s me! I’m your friend!’
Players don’t do that. Our music is actually our badge
People come to you via your music and what you’re doing. Then you might or might not connect with them
That’s very true. Although I will say I’ve made music in the past with brilliant collaborators and peers and then I’ve made music with brilliant collaborators and peers who are also incredibly warm, affectionate down to earth people. What I have discovered is the latter is infinitely more gratifying. That’s a little bit of what I’m talking about, who the people are you surrounding yourself with people with whom you are making music or just the friends in your life. I think they impact your creativity and who you end up rising to be a lot more than we sometimes acknowledge. Maybe that’s just a natural part of growing older
That’s very true. I’m finding doing some stand-up stuff, you have to be very self-reliant on what you think is funny and just crack it out. It’s so different from music, you have to have the confidence that people are gonna laugh at this. I’m doing musical songs and my hero is Alan Sherman.
Love Weird Al !
The third track is the current single isn’t it?
Yes the current single in the UK.
It’s very lively and catches your attention from the off. There’s a classic piano figure in it which is hypnotic.
It’s probably the most uplifting sensibility I’ve ever expressed in a song and part of that is because I wrote the music to it on the way home from a show I saw at The Beacon. The song evolved over a couple of years and I didn’t finish the lyrics until more recently after I’d seen this young talented dancer Maddy Siegler perform on one of my other tracks called ‘Birthday’
When I arranged and produced the song, I really did it with her in mind hoping she’d dance to it when I presented it to the show. Miraculously, that is what happened. An adventure to say the least!
Yeah you’ve gotta do these things. Track four- ‘Barbed Wire’. Did you write that on guitar?
I did write that on guitar. I don’t even know how to play it on the piano!
You see, it’s got kind of a Brian Wilson oceanic sound. There’s a track on ‘Surf’s Up!’ that’s reverbed and sounds like they’re underwater. I don’t know if you know it?
The vocal is by Carl Wilson
Well I felt like I was underwater when I wrote the song I’ll tell you that much!
It’s a very ethereal vocal. This album is a lot more ethereal and dreamy than the previous one
That’s interesting. I recorded a lot of it at my home studio in New York City which I affectionately call Meshuga Studios which in Yiddish means ‘Crazy’.
Ok. Another word I don’t know !
It was really a luxury
I’m still getting round to ‘schmuck’…….
That’s a good one to know. It comes in handy. I was very relaxed because I was at home and I was able to actually continue to have a bit of a life and be integrated with my city and not just disappear for a month or so to another place. That was great because I was also able to get James Maestro to come by and play some slide on that. I don’t know if you know him from Garland Jefferey’s Band or Ian Hunter’s band. He’s fantastic.
I know Jeffery yeah. I love playing slide. I don’t play enough I’m told. Every time I play a gig people say ‘More slide Pete’. I never do it.
My sonic reference for that track was actually Chris Whitley
Oh yeah. Five is ‘Wax’, very haunting. Very musey, movie-like with the tremolo guitar but not vibrato.
It sounds like it’s from a film.
Maybe I should try and get it into a film ! As they say ‘From your lips to the goddess’s ears’.
It has that theme. Track six….
Very sad !
That’s a song I wrote on a dare, a bit. I attend something every year called the Vocalline Conference and it’s basically an incredible gathering of thousands of acoustic musicians from all different genres in Memphis but now it’s in Kansas City. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it? We all just kick it in this hotel and play in the rooms twenty-four seven and jam and have showcases. When I checked in and registered a couple of years ago, they had something when you were registering where they gave you a piece of paper and challenged you to write a song on the topic on the piece of paper and then you would perform it the last day at an open mike type of thing
I thought ‘Why not? I’ll either get a song out of it or I won’t’. So I picked up the piece of paper and it said ‘newspaper’. I’d just been to my reunion for my junior high school where I happened upon the young man who was my first kiss. So that’s what I wrote that first song about
‘Used to Be My Girl’
Bossa Nova isn’t it?
I guess a little bit. (Laughs) I wasn’t thinking about it! It has that feel.
It has a Bril Building vibe
Oh thank you.
In fact, you should do a version of this acapella as it’s virtually a doo-wop song.
Wow! That’s a great suggestion.
That’s what it made me think of
That’s great because it’s such a progressive lyric. The funny thing is, a lot of people have suggested that could be a radio track and then I point out it’s a bit edgier lyrically and they may not have even noticed it is about a trans-person.
Lou Reed got away with ‘Walk on the Wild Side’
I like the idea
Melancholy, slow waltz. Where was your head?
I wrote this about a friend of mine whose wife passed away from cancer and she was only in her early thirties. It is just tragic. My friend was so connected to this woman and they were really a storybook romance. Like Linda and Paul McCartney. I just wanted to do justice to their connection and I see him post on Facebook a lot and that really helps him
I understand now. That’s why I interview people. Nine.
( Surprised ) Really? Oh good !
This is the heavy, blues-psychedelic man speaking and it’s my favourite. It’s tranquil
Well, I was very inspired by that Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush duet ‘Don’t Give Up’. When I say that, it’s in a very loose sense as it doesn’t sound anything like it. The feeling of it and that’s another song I wrote about another fellow who took me out on another incredible date and then I found something out that was a deal-breaker for me. We became best friends after that
He was a psychedelic-blues guitar player !?
(Laughs) Exactly! I got to play the song in L.A. and he was there and heard it. He knew it was for him!
He enjoyed it. It was a sentiment
Ten, ‘Hands off the Wheel’.
That’s an older song
To me it sounded like a key track.
Yes and if anyone said to me ‘What’s Rachael Sage doing now?’ I would play them that track….
That’s so interesting. It’s the oldest track on the record, I wrote it about ten years ago on piano and I played it once or twice with my band back when I used to play The Bitter End and Café Shanae and I just forgot about it
It’s a lost gem, then
It is a lost gem but lyrically it seemed to really fit on this record because there’s a lot of kind of tolerance, acceptance and not trying to control people on this record
Yes. That’s why I’m saying it’s a key track because actually, it summarizes what the record conveys to me as a listener
I completely agree with you. That’s why sometimes these songs are hanging out and say to you ‘Please put me on this one!’ Now I can actually play it on guitar whereas when I first wrote it I could only play it on piano.
(At this point, your scribe remembers to present this meeting’s earrings – black cat ones )
Now eleven – ‘Wishing Day’.
That is a very literal song
I didn’t really understand it
That’s ok. I’m gonna tell you what it’s about. I wrote it about triplet brothers there are two twins who had this incredible band called Fragile Tomorrow and they’re kind of in the vein of Big Star, Elvis Costello and R.E.M. They’re a Southern band and super young; only twenty one. They crossed my field because I was on tour with them in the South. Just the loveliest guys you’ll ever meet.
What I discovered one day looking at Facebook posts, their mom who is fantastic and supportive of their music posted something asking everyone to think about her son Paulie and marking the day he passed away. What I’d discovered was theses twins has in fact been triplets, they all have cerebral palsy, the triplet brother died when they were five
When I read this post from the mother, I thought I’d write a song from the perspective of the brother who passed away looking down on them and being proud of them and their music. A year later it turns out we signed this band to M-press Records.
Can you make sure I get to hear them then?
Absolutely. They’re working on their record right now in Savannah
We were at Blackberry Smoke last Sunday and it was absolutely amazing.
The guy opening for them was a guy called Aaron Keylock sixteen years old who was amazing. A young Johnny Winter…..
This engineer and co-producer of mine worked with Johnny Winter quite a bit. That was a real loss
The reason why I play a lot of slide guitar is Rory Gallagher and Johnny Winter. Every guitar I’ve ever bought apart from the twelves, I raise the bridge so I can play slide when I want to. I get that now. ‘Leaving You’, quite commercial in a Carole King/Tori Amos kind of way.
Cool thank you !
The best arrangement on the record I think
A lot of these songs are just not about my life and they seem to be the ones people are drawn to the most.
I just said that to another major artist. I’ll tell you why : Bob Dylan wrote ‘Hurricane’ and he wrote songs about other people. The thing each songwriter has to learn, writing about yourself is great but if you tell a few stories often that will bring in a few people who weren’t listening to you before because they’re intrigued by you doing that and discover the rest of you. Like a doorway into your soul.
Right. This one is about… I don’t know if you’re familiar with the actor Cory Monteith he was on Glee and a rising star in America.
Was he a gay guy ?
He wasn’t gay. He was dating Lea Michelle who was also on Glee.
They’re all gay on Glee !
(Laughs) You’d think so but no! He died of a drug overdose. He was very handsome and I wrote this song from her perspective of trying to help someone who is an addict. Trying to help them overcome that and recommitting to that person. I have been there myself.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman passed away the same way
When he passed away, people asked me if I’d written that song for him. I was a huge fan of his
I don’t really watch Glee and those shows….
I don’t really watch it either but I do know Lea Michelle from having seen her as a kid on Spring Awakening on Broadway and she was phenomenal.
I watch this ‘Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’ and I wanna get two people on there; Hitman and you.
That would be great
Hitman is my buddy Russ from New York
What about the cover? Neil Young….( ‘ Helpless ‘ with none other than folk goddess Judy Collins duetting..)
Works really well. Barb Jungr does ‘Old Man’. There’s a lot of Neil Young songs I do myself but I wouldn’t have thought in a million years to do ‘Helpless’ but here it is on your album
That’s the thing, I don’t think about it I just do what feels like something I would write
A lot of his songs are very good guitar vehicles…so we smoke ‘em, in SPIN THE WHEEL
Yeah. I can imagine that !
Once you start playing them over and over like ‘Down by the River’ it’s a really good way of getting an audience to lean into the music
She picked this song as she really wanted to do it with me, Judy Collins.
Have you heard the ‘CSNY’ album with the black cover with ‘Dejavu’?
Honestly, I’ve never been a huge Neil Young savvy person but the love of my life is obsessed with him and in college he listened to him constantly. That was right around the time I met John Lee Hooker. The main reason I recorded this duet with Judy Collins, was because she suggested that we do a cover and she wanted to do something that was little bit more in her vein and era. This one came naturally to me on the piano, it’s just three chords and I liked the fact that I didn’t understand the imagery with the open-endedness. Then the blue-tinted windows seemed to tie-in with the Blue Roses and it all kind of fitted
It makes sense. But I would’ve thought that if you were gonna pick that record, you would’ve done ‘Dejavu’ the Crosby song…
(Laughs) I don’t even know it!
It’s a song to get lost in and I love Crosby because I do a number of Crosby songs like ‘Triad’…..
Well I’ve done about four covers in my entire life.
I spend a lot of time retooling songs. A song is black and white and I colour it in my way. I’ll change the chords, the key….
(Laughs) That’s all I know how to do is change it!
Yeah but if you do that, people come up to you and appreciate that you haven’t just replicated. You can’t be a jukebox….no satisfaction in that
You have to make it your own
The original stuff I write is quite dark and I never know if it has massive appeal
I’ve been invited to cover a Carole King song for a tribute album. So if you have any good ideas for that. I have a few that I’m exploring. No pressure!
‘It’s Too Late’…
That is a beautiful song.
I know it from The Isley Brothers live who did a slow version of it. It’s a terrific vehicle for Ronald Isley’s voice and Ernie Isley’s guitar. ..
I love ‘So Far Away’ but they have asked me to find something more obscure that’s not on Tapestry. We’ll see what I come up with. That’s the best record to me.
My band always does a Dylan song in every set, my joke being ‘He’ll never do one of ours but we’ll do one of his.’ I’ve evolved an arrangement of ‘ Wheel’s on Fire’ which he co-wrote with Levon Helm. It could be about him being angry with a woman, it could be about him being angry with God. No one’s quite sure. But I play it and I’ve written a coda for it at the end which goes E minor, G flat minor seventh, A 9th, C Major seventh. But it builds up and it’s four chords and I start playing that through a string pedal and I just let the band do what they want on it. Without realising it, over that steady build up from the end of that song the band just go everywhere they want to
(Laughs) I’ll be seeing Judy again, I’ll keep you posted, Pete
Rachael Sage’s new album ‘ Blue Roses’ is out now on MPRESS Records The Co-Producer with Rachael is John Shyloski For more information visit www.rachaelsage.com