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An interview with Rachael Sage

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Delancey Street (Mpress), the ninth album by prolific out singer/songwriter and queen of the keyboard Rachael Sage, sounds like it could be her most fully realized and richly rewarding effort. Making the personal universal on “Hope’s Outpost,” “Everything Was Red,” and “Back to Earth,” or  offering “Sage” advice on “Big Star,” “Brave Mistake,” or “Wasn’t It You,” the songs on Delancey Street illustrate why Sage’s following continues to grow by leaps and bounds.

Gregg Shapiro: How was your SXSW experience in March?
Rachael Sage: It was fantastic! It was the best we’ve ever had, by far. It all just kind of came together in terms of our efforts on the other end back in New York leading up to it, and all the outreach we were doing. Then people actually showing up in droves to our event, so it was really exciting and packed. All the artists played so beautifully, and our snacks were really good [laughs]. So, it was a perfect day.

Where was the venue?
We did our 4th annual MPress Fest SXSW at SoHo Lounge on 6th Street, which is a nice, big, centrally located venue. And we had to give it a little bit of our own vibe with feather boas and sparkly fabrics, but that only takes about half an hour to set up [laughs].

How many times have you performed at SXSW?
I think that this is the fourth time. We did our first one at a club that had almost a cabaret/disco vibe. It was very me, but it was a little out of the way. So we decided to pick a more mainstream-feeling room. It almost feels like a sports bar, but we go in with a mission and in about a half hour transform it into our own place.

And you can’t be much more centrally located than 6th Street, right?
That’s it, that’s the street.

Like Ani DiFranco and her Righteous Babe record label, you have been putting out your own records on your MPress Records label right from the very beginning. Additionally, you have been putting out the “New Arrivals” various artists compilation for a few years. How does it feel to be a music mogul?
[Laughs] Well, obviously it made me laugh for you to use the word mogul. But I don’t really think of it that way. I sort of feel like I just get these crazy ideas in my head, and then I become kind of possessed by them and they don’t let me go. So I have my obsessive compulsive disorder to thank. I would like to take this moment to thank her [laughs]. Her name is Natasha, and every Shabbat I say a little prayer for her, and I hope that she never gets cured [laughs].

I just think that I am really lucky that I am able to pursue something that I love doing so much, and that all of the grunt work and stuff that is not that much fun and keeps me up all night most nights and occasionally gives me pneumonia—at least I can rest assured that all that stuff is really . . . the purpose is to be able to carve out these opportunities to do the thing that I love most, which is to perform and to bring other artists together and keep building this community. I’m pretty damn lucky.

Over the years, you have included cover tunes on a few of your discs, but they’ve usually been songs by queer or indie musicians. One of the covers that you did for Delancey Street, which is available as a bonus download on iTunes, is a reinterpretation of “Fame.” Why did you choose that song?
That was a pretty literal reaction to the opportunity that I had earlier. Last year, I had a much older song called “Too Many Women” picked to be in the remake of “Fame.” That came out last year and it didn’t do quite as well as we had hoped, but it was such an exciting thing for me to have a song picked for a big, mainstream release like that. I was a huge fan of the original film Fame and also the TV show. Coco and Leroy felt like my slightly more than imaginary friends [laughs].

In a way felt like I was kind of raised with the dream of going to a school like that and being part of that world that was projected in those motion-picture shows. When I got that opportunity, I decided to not only perform that older song, “Too Many Women,” from my album Public Record, but to also do the cover to thank the folks at Lakeshore [Records] for picking me. I performed it when I went to L.A. and played Hotel Café, which is near where Lakeshore’s headquarters are. Then my band was like, “You have to keep doing this! Everybody went crazy; everyone was singing along and yelling out the word ‘fame’ in the chorus.” It was kind of campy, but I think it is a beautiful song, and I think slowing it down and playing it in the way that I did helped me recognize that, which is always fun.

The other cover on the disc is the Hall & Oates hit “Rich Girl,” which is also covered by The Bird and the Bee on their new record [Interpreting the Masters] . . .
I just found that out. I didn’t even know who they were [laughs].

Why do you think that this song is undergoing a resurgence in popularity?
Well, I’m not sure if it is that song in particular. I think Hall & Oates, in general, are back on everybody’s minds. They reissued all of these older songs as part of their independent re-release of their entire catalog. And they have been on television a lot, and all of that. I’m aware of that.

But as far as why I picked the song, I’m actually quite friendly with their percussionist Everett Bradley, who is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and he played percussion on my album. Shortly before he came into the studio, he invited me to this sort of upscale hippie artist salon event in New York and asked me to play a few songs. I ran into him there, and he invited me to go see Hall & Oats at Mohegan Sun a few weeks later.

So I went, and it was just a hoot. It was incredible and packed and over the top to be at a casino on New Year’s seeing Hall & Oates, one of my favorite bands from childhood. I went into the studio the very next day and just played that song, and it ended up on the record. But it was a pretty spontaneous decision for me.

In the song “How I Got By,” you use the word “ameliorate.” Did you ever imagine that you’d use that word in a song?
[Laughs] That’s very funny because Kevin Killen, who mixed the album and mixed that song, gave me a lot of shit about that [laughs]. We’re sitting around and he is writing vocal levels and asking me what kind of reverb I want and all of that, and he’s like, “Rachael, I’m very impressed you use the word ameliorate. The only other person I could think of who would use that word would be Paula Cole.” [Laughs] He must have teased her for her vocabulary as well. Growing up in my family, it was part of our breakfast ritual to read the New York Times and be tested on vocab. So for me it’s like no big deal. I’m sure that it will make my mother happy.

“How I Got By” makes reference to Esther Williams, and “Everything Was Red” contains a reference to Judy Garland. Are you sure you’re not a gay man trapped in a lesbian’s body?
Wait, wait, did you just say what I think you said? Because, if so, the answer is yes [laughs]. And you are not the first person to make this observation . . . but perhaps the first to print it [laughs]. My tour manager is constantly reminding me that that is the case, and I am often lamenting that I haven’t been invited yet to perform on a gay men’s cruise ship and I am wondering what I have to do. But, absolutely, a firm yes!

The color red can be found in the aforementioned “Everything Was Red,” as well as “. . . Las Vegas,” which includes a mention of Elton John’s “red piano” in the chorus. You can also be seen in red on some of your album covers. Would it be safe to assume that red is your favorite color?
RS: It’s pretty safe to assume, yeah [laughs]. You have met me in person many times; you have seen my attire. I do mix it up and I love all the colors of the rainbow and I have been known to sport a good bit of black, but red is by far my most prevalent color, and I am looking around my apartment and confirming this fact [laughs].

You use the word “l’chaim,” which means “to life” in Hebrew, in the song “Wasn’t It You,” and recently the Black Eyed Peas included the phrase “mazel tov” in their song “I Gotta Feeling.”
Did they really?

Yes! Do you think that this could be the beginning of a trend in which Hebrew phrases make appearances in pop songs?
I think it absolutely could be. But I have mixed feelings about this. Cirque du Soleil has their new show Banana Shpeel. My show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer was called Sequins & Shpiel.  They have [trademarked the name] Banana Shpeel, which debuted well after my show, but they’re huge and I’m tiny. So does that mean I’m not allowed to use my name anymore? This could become like a whole crazy lawsuit if I try to revive my show Sequins & Shpiel. We’ll see.

Queer musicians, such as Gregory Douglass and Allison Cornell, perform with you on your disc. Is it important for you to include out musicians as part of your band and part of the musicians with whom you work?
It’s important for me to include out musicians and queer people in my life. I think that’s just a natural extension of that. Most musicians will tell you that half the people in their band are there because they met them first as people and they liked hanging out with them, or they’re people with whom they are touring and they become buddies. Then they discover that they play three instruments. If you can’t get along with and hang with and enjoy the company of the people with whom you are being creative, you’re in trouble [laughs]. It’s a long process. The people that you mentioned in particular, and others, they’re just people that I love and whose work I admire. I don’t know why I would want to make any other choices in the studio than I do in my life.

Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Gregg Shapiro

Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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