It’s a crisp Winter day and I have been invited to lunch by New York chanteuse Rachael Sage, an offer I am more than pleased to accept. Later that same day, Sage will perform a set at London’s famed Union Chapel in Islington, north of the West End far-flung readers, on a bill with Sadie & The Hot Heads featuring Elizabeth from Downturn Abbey singing with her rootsy band.
Earlier in the week I had been heading to town and had my eye caught by a pair of red earrings in a boutique window near that railway station. They seemed to say ‘Rachael Sage’ …so I bought them. When I arrive at the star’s hotel, she is clad in black…and red
Now I could edit the following down to be a sort of conventional interview. But I don’t do those. So as usual this is two people chatting about music and …well, everything. We had for an Italian, order and switch on the recorder….
PS: Right….welcome back to London!
RS: Thank you
We saw you on your previous visit with your cellist. Playing the piano and a bit of guitar featuring the album that we were happy to review. Was I fair in calling you a night creature?
Absolutely. I tend to send my best emails around four and five in the morning. I think it’s just… it’s a common musical thing to be evoking muse when everyone else is asleep. And the moon is out
Do you manage to write material at that time of day ?
Definitely yeah. It’s my most productive time of day. I just love the fact that everyone else is asleep and I’m awake. The handful of people who I see on Facebook or are emailing me, I know their kindred spirits.
A lot of my friends are American musicians. Your music does sound better late at night I have to say. Like a lot of jazz, a lot of blues. But what makes you such a nocturnal creator?
I think it might actually be genetic. My mom is a night person. She gets up early in the morning to do work but if she had her way she’d be up all night and sleep all day. Just like me. I think it’s something about the rest of the world being quiet and not asking anything of you. Just knowing that for a while at least you’re safe to step away from responsibilities and just focus on being creative. And listening to your own heart and your own mind. It’s probably like when other people meditate, which they may do in the morning but I never got with that programme. Plus everything looks better at night don’t you think?
I agree entirely. Even a wet pavement looks better than burning tarmac to me
(Laughs) Especially in New York City with the city lights out of your window.
Do you actually live in New York City?
I do. Smack in the middle of the East Village. Right between the East Village and the Lower East Side
I noticed that you were doing some benefits after the big storm?
Of course. It really affected everyone all around me and I lost my power for about a week which was just a mild inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. But you really felt just a touch of what everyone else was going through.
My friend Vernon Reid of Living Colour lives in Staten Island and I think they got a bit of a bad time
Oh terrible. I hope he’s ok and family…
I heard back from him that he was ok. But obviously his neighbourhood was pretty much ripped up. I thought the New York was at its best in that period
I think anytime there’s a crisis like that, New Yorkers have such a resilient way of coming together and letting all their differences be put aside. I agree with you completely.
Also, the amazing sight of the Republican governor down the coast a bit with the President doing their best…
I agree with you again
That was one of the pivotal moments I think of the last election. That is what Obama seems to stand for is trying to do the best for the community. I thought that almost crystallised it. Or am I being over romantic there?
I don’t think you are. And if you are, that’s what I’m all about anyway!
Your fellow performers. Presumably you meet the people that you end up playing with, collaborating with at their shows, your shows?
I have a new one that you’re gonna enjoy tonight. A wonderful violinist called Kelly Halloran
You could have me on harmonica if you beg!
Really!? Maybe you could come on Tuesday. I have a short slot because I’m opening for Sadie and the Hotheads at the Troubadour.
So who’s in your current line-up for these dates?
Kelly Halloaen is playing the violin and she also sings. And in general she plays guitar so next time we’ll get it all together. She’s just fantastic. I heard her a couple of years ago with a mutual friend of ours. And I was just blown away and finally we’re gonna do some touring together. It’s really exciting
Do you find that you compose totally differently on the keyboard as opposed to the guitar?
Absolutely. And I think, when I’m on the piano I’m coming from more of a place of comfort and catharsis and basically anything in my head or anything I’m feeling can just come out immediately through my fingers because I’ve been doing it so long. It’s very connected. But on the guitar I’m quite limited because I only know a handful of chords still. I’m learning but I’d call myself an advanced advanced beginner or beginner intermediate. So for me, especially since I’m a very heady person and I overthink just about everything in my life, being on an instrument where I can only have a simple approach necessarily is probably very healthy for me. And I also think, you know in all different mediums whether that be musical or art, even acting, improvisation sometimes having those strict limitations can force you to be fixing
Remarkably, I was talking to Eric Johnson in Texas last night, and he confessed to me, he thought he’d over-layered his past recordings a bit too much. I said ‘Eric, you’re a clever boy, you can use forty eight tracks. The question is ‘Do you need to?’
I was talking about this with a friend yesterday actually. She was asking me ‘Do you ever feel like a song is really done? Or is it a sense that more could be done to it? It is a process. I mean, when you play live as much as I do and a lot of my peers do, you do test these things out on the road and you might debut a brand new song that’s only ninety per cent finished. And you’re sort of playing with the words to the bridge, or not sure if you’re going to add this third or fourth verse. And you work out those arrangements live. For me, that’s pre-production and that’s what helps me know exactly what I want to do
Yeah, exactly. This is what Eric and I were talking about. Because there comes a point where the painter has enough detail in there to say that’s enough. He might paint a pastoral scene of a field and one boy fishing. And that one boy fishing will make his statement
Yeah I mean that’s a very articulate way to put it. And you’re a writer so that’s your job. Sometimes I just call it the vibometer. You know, you just keep adding and adding and adding and if it isn’t giving you any more vibe and helping you feel it any more deeply it’s probably too much and you should nix the track. But, another funny thing is, you know, growing up I used to use a lot of synthesisers and drum machines and I wasn’t quite the organic acoustic artist I am now. But I think that doing music in that way is what helped me appreciate when things can be a bit more direct, organic and played live
I agree with you and I think this is why I’m often put off by an over busy band like Yes or Genesis and I’m warmed to the heart by someone direct like Bill Withers
I’m with you completely. I think we’re kindred spirits. One of my favourite current songwriters is Glenn Hansard. And I think he has a spectacular sense of when to leave things alone. And when to just go with the musicians jamming. And he just captures that…
I think it goes to the actual root of why we make music. If (and there’s nothing wrong with this) you are making music to show off your technique and impress people, you will go into these multi-tracked, fully arranged works because that’s what you want to do. That’s what you want to put over. But a lot of the musicians I really like, especially the Blues guys like John Lee Hooker and various others I’ve made a point of going to see them when I was younger. They had nothing to prove. And therefore, they would make the song work
That’s very true. I don’t know if I mentioned this to you, but I was quite friendly with John Lee Hooker when I was in college at Stamford. And I used to go over to his house all the time and I met him through my work as a DJ at the local radio station. Yeah, he was always working on a new song. A lot of his new songs sounded like his old songs !
But, why else would the likes of Carlos Santana and Los Lobos want to work with him? Because they respected what he’d created and wanted to make him sound terrific
Absolutely. For him, it was such a primal thing to make music. He’d been doing it since he was a little boy and ran away from home
Through good times and bad !
Exactly. It was a survival skill I think. But yeah I think that balance of what’s essential about music and what the skeleton, the plot is. What you’re trying to communicate. And then also, decorating it. It is the role of the producer in the studio. Because I’m talking a big talk here with you about liking everything being wilted down to its bare bones, but the truth is I absolutely love a lot of layered big arrangements. And I love the Beatles and I love exploring that idiom as almost an instrument unto itself. But it is a fine line between overdoing it (gilding the lily as they say) and nailing it
Are there times, when you might be perhaps, not in a musical sphere, but in your personal life more, are there times when maybe you’re over sensitive?
(Laughs) I hope so ! If I’m not over sensitive I’d be out of a job. I think the minute that I don’t need to express everything that I’m feeling in a sort of desperate, if not inspired way is when I need to look to do something else
You don’t seem to be writing just for females?
Of course not, why would I want to do that?
Some do ( Some do nothing else – PS )
Honestly I can’t think of one. And if it seems like they are, they’re probably not and its just turning out that way
Maybe they need to change their outfit or something?! I mean we’re all humans on this planet and quite honestly, I’m very much a product of my generation in terms of… even my philosophy about gender and about every person having a bit of a man and woman inside them period. I think that it’s about soul and spirit and what’s in your heart. What you believe. And how you want to experience music and life.
I work – outside of this – with some very sports-obsessed, fast driving, macho show-off guys and I do wonder what’s beneath this?
Well, you know working with is one thing, playing with is another
Well I play with entirely different people. The great thing about music is, if the music sounds good it doesn’t matter if you’re playing with older, younger people, where they’re from
I couldn’t agree more.
One of my favourite groups of musicians where there’s such a diverse group of people that what they create must be a record. I’m thinking of a group called War
I was just reading an article about Eric Burdon and his new album. I haven’t got it yet. I need to get it in
I’ve been offered a chat with him
You must. You know I toured with him too, right?
Yeah. I saw him do a reunion gig with War at the Royal Albert Hall. My god. What talent. All these guys can play so well but they serve the song. They actually put that in the back pocket and create an atmosphere
That’s what I respect more than anything else about creative artists. When someone’s able to do that
You’re right. There’s nothing like that admirable restraint when you have all the colours in the rainbow. And you pick a few. It certainly worked for my favourite artists—–.
Also I would say that there are … with the acting world a parallel, where great actors don’t actually need to be the loudest voice on the stage
Absolutely. In fact, the woman whom I’m opening with tonight, Elizabeth McGovern was one of the first theatrical actresses who inspired me as a young girl. I saw her perform in a Midsummer Night’s Dream at the New York Public Theatre when I was a teenager and she played Helena. She was spectacular
It’s such a great piece. I saw that at the Lyric in Hammersmith and it was like a rock about comedic version last year. It was heavy, it was fun, they had superhero costumes in it and they just enthralled an audience of every age. There were sixteen year old girls from a school who were laughing out loud at it. Afterwards, they were saying ‘I hadn’t realised Shakespeare was so funny.’
It’s a hilarious play
JAZZ & STUFF
Well yeah, but it depends on spirit because spirit is more important in most artistic work. Let’s talk about musicians that you play with when you’re back at New York. You mentioned a trumpeter to me? Who would that be?
Les Johnson. He is absolutely fantastic and he has been playing with me for many years. He was one of the first full-on jazz players with whom I’ve ever performed. With him, it’s just about serving a song. He just shuts his eyes and just feels it. It’s different every single time but it’s always appropriate
What style is he from? Is he from Dizzy or Miles?
You know, I think he is so eclectic and diverse. He was on ( Hit ?) Factory Records for many years and he’s also a composer. So I think he’s observed all of these different influences. Than he really truly comes out with his own voice. I’ve never heard anyone with his style
Cool. You’d like the guy I play with. He sounds like Tony Bennett. It’s like what Miles Davis said ‘Don’t play what you know. Play what you don’t know.’
Wow. I love that !!!
One the basis that, if you just play your clichés, fine yeah a round of applause. Miles, I saw Miles play.
A week before he passed. He made all of his musicians play way beyond. And Robben Ford, I interviewed him, was in Miles’s band for years. He said ‘Miles would make you play stuff that had never come out of your fingers before.’
The closest thing that I can really relate that to, because I’m not a trained musician, is my acting training. Because I had an incredible teacher who’s won many awards. She’s an award- winning playwright herself. She does many one woman shows around certain political events. She portrays up to forty, fifty people by herself. Her name is Anna Duvere Smith. You should look her up. She was my advanced acting teacher at Stanford. Her whole thing was getting out of your comfort zone. She had you study people who looked and behaved and believed that nothing you did as a person. Portraying their behaviour as part of your performance training. It really was incredible. You didn’t get an A in class unless you really picked someone who was really nothing like you. To study, take notes on and perform their behaviour
That kind of bravery puts electricity in a performance. Have you ever read Miles’s autobiography?
I haven’t. I need to.
Rachel, promise me you’ll read Miles’s autobiography?
Because until you read it, you don’t quite understand what it’s like to be a black guy playing in a mainly white run fifties. You would relate to it because there are things that he says… he was never afraid to stop and do something different. He didn’t want to make the same album over and over. He said “My fans may want that, but I don’t ”.
Sometimes, people ask me the one thing I hope audience members get from my work. And you’ve kind of just nailed it. So I better go and read this book because I always say it’s not necessarily about the specifics of my story and the details in my work that I’m even putting forth. But that sense for an audience member that I want them to feel validated, to tell their story in whatever way in their life that they possibly can. Whether they’re an artist or not. I think everyone has that in them. That’s what I want to promote.
It’s so easy just to become established for doing something and do it forever. When you’re performing there is pressure on you to be good on the night
You now, I think it’s the most humbling thing in the world. The fact that you can’t just rest on your laurels, or what you did last night or last year when you return somewhere. It really is about being present in that moment. The way that I cope with that, is to really think of the audience as another member of the band. We’re all there, it’s a band. It doesn’t even matter if I do my best that night on a technical level, and make no mistakes, if my spirit and my personality aren’t engaging in a genuine, authentic way it still might not land. So I think it’s about respecting the fact that they did come out and see you and they’re not at home watching television
They could be anywhere doing anything
They sure could. It’s a gift. I think gratitude is a huge part of it. But you also have to pump yourself up and feel confident. And know that you have something of worth to offer and——–
There’s a thin line between being confident and being arrogant isn’t there?
I don’t think the line is always as thin as we sometimes think. Confidence is an awareness that you have something to share. So it’s completely about the other for me. Whereas, over-confidence is kind of an oblivion where it’s all about you.
Yeah. Unfortunately, a point that some artists seem to be believing their own publicity and everything else, their feet must start to leave the ground?
I don’t know. As a neurotic Jew, I think I’ll never have that problem. I’m my own worst critic all the time. I try to make friends with that critic as often as I can and calm her down.
There is a danger in playing that you over analyse what you do. And it comes less natural. What an audience most likes, and you know this more than other people, is where their personality seems pretty genuine, connected to you and not an artifice
A lot of times, they seem to like my mistakes as much as when I hit the mark. I also try to talk to my audience after the shows and try to get a feel for who they are and what they’re about. Sometimes, people who come to my shows have shared such incredible stories to me about their own fortitude and experiences they’ve had that have shaped them. It’s given me wonderful song-writing ideas. I try to just keep open to inspiration wherever it my come from
PETE & THE JEWISH THING
This is no insult to your family, I get the feeling that your family is as much your audience as your blood relatives with your material. I’m asking whether you feel your family in inverted commas, compromises you audience as well as blood relatives. Are you as close to your audience as you are to your really family?
Oh sure. I mean the concept of chosen family is one that I’ve always been comfortable with. I think it’s also living in a big city, being a New Yorker, being an artist. Being a theatre person where the main reason you’re showing up maybe is to be part of a play, an ensemble. Is that feeling of family whether it’s from the group itself putting on the production or the audience. It becomes a community. That’s the word I like to use. I say it in Yiddish ( ?? – PS – didn’t catch it) that means ‘family’. And when I say it to someone they know that what I mean is they’re in
Sometimes, the Jewish element of what artists do doesn’t always connect with an outside audience. I went to see Jackie Mason years ago. Very funny guy, but a third of the act I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Everyone around me was laughing.
How were the other two thirds?
Brilliant. He was saying ‘his mother was a schlmaga who thought she a shmader !! ’ or something and all the other people around me were laughing.
I think it’s like world music or ethnic food, I think they’re things we have to share with each other, cross culture. Which only works if that person is as attuned to their own story and heritage. Otherwise, it can become quite generic. If he’s trying to be something he’s not.
Well put. I left feeling I didn’t get all of the jokes
You probably didn’t. How about Woody Allen do you like him?
Woody Allen’s a genius.
There you go. He’s a master
I like ‘Sleeper’. It’s one of my favourite films
Yeah I’m a big fan.
‘Sleeper’’ is great because he goes into this cave and there’s this old Volkswagen that’s been there a hundred years and it starts first time. That is one of the greatest gags ever, to me
Yeah. I think sometimes the best comedy is just about that underdog navigating the wider world in a way that’s just highlights how vulnerable they are. And I think that’s something that every culture can relate to.
A lot of great works centre on or involve a lot of what I would call ‘punctured dignity’ Where people who pretend to be something wonderful are brought down to earth by circumstance. It’s a an archtype…
Archetypal, yeah !.
There’s a play called ‘The Government Inspector’, which is an Eastern European play. Wonderful because bureaucracy is shown to be nothing but a conspiracy to benefit those in charge
Yeah that’s what I love about studying theatre too. I think it’s great training for song-writing because you really learned how to capture each different archetypes. And even going back to just mask work. You put on a mask, you’re a certain type of person. And you’re trying on their life and I think it just helps you break out of your own experience and relate to other people
You want people to leave having felt that they’ve been somewhere else with their own lives
Transported maybe? Well hopefully they’ll feel that way tonight.
I remember you being good last time. I don’t know how good you’ll be tonight
I’ve heard the venue will be a lot quieter
We were there last year for Rosanne Cash. Fabulous venue. Crystal clear sound. She was playing with John Leventhal on guitar
I’ve seen John Leventhal ! incredible musician..now who else does he play with ?…
Shawn Colvin. People like that, their music can be absolutely stark, guitar and vocals or quite delicately arranged. The songs lend themselves to that. Someone like John Leventhal will be able to realise the finished piece. That’s the producer’s art to me.
Well, John Leventhal production certainly has been an influence on me. And his guitar work on some of the Mark Cohn records I heard early on as well. Directly influenced the way that I sit here and compose and arrangein the studio.
Have you ever worked with Mitchell Froom? (Crowded House, Suzanna Vega – PS)
I have only met him through Facebook which is quite funny. At a certain point he invited me to be a friend and I accepted and then I wrote him a very perky and upbeat note. I couldn’t resist. About how much his musicianship and production has inspired me. And specifically Suzanne Vega’s album ’99.9’.And he wrote me back and was really lovely. He wrote me back and said ‘Well you never know, maybe we’ll work together someday’. I didn’t want to overwhelm him by jumping on that. But I was enthusiastic and we stayed in touch
See I think you make better music if you’re a fan. If you can draw inspiration from all over. If you want to sound original…. steal from obscure people
(Laughs) Alright. Well I won’t tell you the obscure Russian artist that inspired me when I went there as a teenager. You’ll never know you’ll just think it was me
When you hear me play guitar you won’t mention Harvey Mandel. We have a deal on that ?
Talking about the UK, what were your original educational plans?
Well during my junior year I was scheduled to come and study Shakespeare at Oxford University. I’d applied and I got accepted. I was so excited and Shakespeare was really my passion at the time. And then I randomly met the great John Lee Hooker through my work as a DJ for the radio station at Stamford University and he was so fascinating and such a wonderful human being. And so as friends we hung out and I couldn’t bring myself to leave because it was the first time during my whole college experience I actually felt that I was learning something that would impact the rest of my life. So I told my parents I decided to stay and explore that relationship. And they had a really rough time understanding that. But I think now they get it and they know what an important human being and musical influence he was
Let’s talk about your love for Elvis Costello. He came up when I was around here
See I didn’t really know his early stuff. I didn’t know his whole punk thing and I was in grammar school when he was hip. Other kids in my class were liking him. His voice didn’t quite connect with me. It was to crackly and I liked a purer sound at that point. I liked Billy Joel and Elton John when I was a really little kid. But when I got older, and I heard his album ‘Spike’ I just thought it was the most brilliant record I’d ever heard. I love every track on it
The first track on it blew my head off. It starts off a real mess and then it’s got my hero Roger McGuinn on twelve-string guitar and Paul McCartney on it. That’s the only one that I own because I love that first track so much. The rest of it I can’t stand his voice
His voice has really grown on me. I actually think it’s gotten a bit stronger since he got into different styles and new things and worked with Brodsky Quartet and for me that was a real breakthrough for him
Yeah..and Diane Krall appearing
He works with everybody. ‘Juliet Letters’ is my other favourite album by him. I just think it’s brilliant. The thing about him, for me is that to my ears he’s like the Meryl Streep of music. He can just transform. Transformation from one genre to another. He approaches each one with so much gusto. He’s just revelling and learning everything about it. So he’s done everything from classical, to punk, to rock and folk
The TV show is quite good. Have you seen that?
Yeah I thought it was excellent. I loved it
There was quite a good one with Kris Kristofferson
Yes. Who I also love.
There are people you probably know who I know nothing about !
I’m sure that works both ways! (Laughs)
Part of the Elvis Costello is the keyboard player, Steve Naive. Brilliant keyboard player. Did you know that Elvis was the son of Ross McManus who is a show band singer in the UK?
I did know that. And that’s why I was kinda dubious. All his life until more recently he said he didn’t read music, he didn’t write arrangements
Ross McManus used to be a generic jazz singer on show bands and radio shows over here. He was like a performing danceband singer on the live shows.
Whatever he did. He did something right as a father
Well, I think Elvis was a bit of a rebel. He was in the mid seventies with the rebellion thing where you were supposed to hate everything before it. Stupid notion. When I heard the Sex Pistols I thought it was a third rate versions of the Stooges
When I was young, I used to hang around with a group from Detroit called the MC5. And their lead singer was Rob Tyner, a real renaissance man. I got to know him when I was very young. He encouraged me to listen to jazz. Because of him I saw Sun-Ra and all that. So I owe him quite a lot. He’s dead now, Rob Tyner. He took his surname from McCoy Tyner, the jazz pianist. His real name was Derminder. But a fantastic man. He wanted to know something about everything. He was very inquisitive.
A lot of people I know who’ve grown up to be artists had a mentor of that ilk. I’ve had a few. Well what I do is certainly a contrast to my prior incarnation as a ballerina. It gave me some range. I’ve been very lucky and met some amazing people in my not so long life. And this past year I got to open for Al Stewart. Whose music I was completely unfamiliar with except for ‘Year of the Cat’. And he had me sit in and play keyboards
One of the best songs ever is ‘The Eyes of Nostradamus’
It’s an amazing song and I’ve heard him do it every night for the past couple of weeks.
Isn’t he a wine connoisseur?
Yes he is. He invited me to do some wine tasting in Los Angeles next time I go there. I’m not that into wine but I do like red wine
The other people who like wine are the band Train with Pat Monahan. They’ve got their own wine
I liked his performance on ‘Live from Daryl’s House’.
He made a brilliant solo album
Oh ? I’ll check it out.
Time to get going – thanks for the chat Ms Sage….you’re still enigmatic, but that’s cool
Later, at the show, Rachael signs a single for me – ‘Pete, you’re a Mensch!!’ ..I am kinda hoping that’s a compliment..I’m not sure if she ever wore the earrings
RACHAEL SAGE has albums out on MPRESS Records
(Footnote : Ms Sage tells me some weeks later that yes, she does wear the earrings…)