Rachael Sage on the Magical “Tour Bubble” and Writing Ad Jingles

Rachael Sage

Tell us about your tour vehicle. Any notable breakdown stories?

I actually don’t drive – a true NYC gal – and my tour manager nowadays rents vans regionally (just easier than parking/owning a car year-round), but I do have a distinct memory from years ago when I was on tour in Germany with my band. All of a sudden the van broke down, and we were stranded – with all our gear – by the side of some random road in the middle of nowhere. Thank goodness it was a rare day off…we were able to get it towed to a nearby garage, but our tour manager was losing his mind because he had rented the van from Czech Republic weeks prior and there were all kinds of complications. Somehow everything got sorted, but I’ll never forget being stranded, basically, with my drummer and accordionist, and yet somehow still clinging to that magical “tour bubble” where (and it did) things just seem to work out, by the next show. We settled into a bed and breakfast near the garage, met some very nice locals, shared drinks and when we woke up the next day all was fixed and we set out on our way, While you’re young, right? I think today I’d have much more of a meltdown probably – ha!

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

We always look out for the nearest Whole Foods or Trader Joes along the US tours, but in a pinch there are things at Starbucks I can snack on that are better than some other options, like “kale egg bites” or a fruit and cheese protein box. Generally though, I’m good with any kind of salad, some veggies, a handful of nuts and if possible, an avocado. My rider lists hummus, nuts, fruit and avocado – and no alcohol. I’m not exactly rock ‘n roll!

On tour, I actually bring some snacks with me for the duration, like powdered greens, sardines (yep!), green tea, RX bars, cacao, almonds, and pumpkin seeds. In a pinch I can dig into the side pocket of my suitcase and find something that’ll “get me through”.

How many strings do you break in a typical year? How much does it cost to replace them?

I’ve never broken a string, ever. I guess because I’m a pianist, I play very sensitively. Of course now that you asked me that, I probably will. I leave my string on longer than most people because I actually love the sound of darker, even “dead” strings – both in the studio and on stage and especially on my electric guitar. I was amused to find out Judy Collins also likes to leave her strings on her guitar for many months too, when I toured with her. Until then I thought I was the only one!

Where do you rehearse?

I rehearse primarily in my home studio, since the pandemic, or occasionally in hotel rooms while on tour. I have a lot of instruments always lying around my apartment – bunch of guitars and several keyboards – and my violinist can plug her loop pedal into an amp. My drummer puts his small drum kit on my thick blue shag carpet, and, so far, the neighbors haven’t complained.

The only crazy experience I can think of rehearsal-wise was when I used to rehearse in my first tiny studio apartment in NYC in my 20’s. I had a small recording rig and composed jingles during that time, so I had NS-10 speakers which are strictly for studio monitoring. I used to run my keyboard, guitar, microphone, electric guitarist and violinist through my Ramsa board, and into those monitors and add various outboard reverbs and harmonizers; I was quite the budding engineer, looking back. Somehow we kept the volume down enough to not get complaints from my neighbors, but my drummer definitely rocked out in my living room – so that’s pretty much a miracle!

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

The first song I still remember (there were many prior that I’ve forgotten) was a ballad called “Where Does Love Go” and I still have the cassette demo. One of the lyrics was:
“Where does love go, does it really die? / If it isn’t so then tell me why / I feel so alone / Where does love go?”

I didn’t have a lot of friends and I guess being a loner also made me adequately reflective to be a singer-songwriter!

Describe your first gig.

My first real gig was in high school. I was playing keyboards and singing and had a drummer and electric guitarist accompanying me performing select retro covers. The drummer convinced me to enter the talent show and lo and behold, we won and were as shocked as anyone that we did! I think we won $500 or something but it wasn’t enough to keep me in the band, which had been enormously stressful…full of arguments over material and everything from costuming to rehearsal commitments to band “dynamics”. Even at 14 however, I sensed I was a solo artist at heart, and the next year I entered – and won – performing my original songs accompanied by drum machines and synthesizers. While my synth-pop phase was fleeting, I definitely didn’t miss being “one of the boys”, and enjoyed the autonomy of being a one-woman-band, able to arrange my music however I wanted. That was arguably the beginning of my Independent Music career!

What was your last day job? What was your favorite day job?

Every musician I know – every artist, for that matter – hustles more than just music, to keep things afloat. Through the years I’ve worked at a coffee house, a music studio, as a jingle-writer, singer and voiceover artist, art director, stylist, makeup artist and graphic designer (which I still continue to do). My absolute favorite job was as a jingle-writer. I honestly loved the challenge of coming up with just the right musical and lyrical hooks to help convey the feeling and message the ad company wanted, and I enjoyed collaborating with co-writers, various musicians and of course, the clients.

I suppose in many ways it taught me a lot of the skills I continue to use in my own day to day as a self-managed artist and label owner. Being able to work under time-pressure and stay “loose” creatively even when there may be other people hovering – that level of hyperfocus and adaptability – is something that’s enabled me to juggle many project simultaneously and maintain a very high level of focus amidst ongoing distractions. Sometimes I still think “in jingles” – but generally these days I keep them to myself lol…

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years? What do you expect it to look like 5-10 years from now?

I think the biggest change regarding my music-related income is just how international my artist statements from BMI and my other various music reports have become. TV shows to whom I know my music has been licensed in the US suddenly pop up in territories from Australia to Germany to India, and I only accredit some of that to my touring and other proactive efforts as a recording artist. The internet and stations like Netflix have enabled so many TV shows to be streamed constantly, so many of my most popular songs get used and reused which is always a bit mystifying but nonetheless I think it points to the continued need to pursue diverse media placements – and to always remember that songs “don’t go bad”. I have so much catalog, and I no longer feel like it’s “cheating” if an older song gets a new lease on life!

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

On a practical level, I wish I’d known that the most important skills I would need – besides music-making of course – would be filmmaking/editing, and musical engineering! Beyond that…I wish I’d known that I was beautiful, intelligent and worthy, at a much younger age…and to not look to “industry” folks for any kind of approval or opportunity, rather than just continually honing my craft as a musician, performer and songwriter. It took me way too long to learn that everything you choose in this world of creative artistry is should be in service to connecting with your audience and creating meaningful art that makes the world a better place. And of course, the most important audience is yourself!

Since founding her own label MPress Records over two decades ago, New York-based alt-folk-pop artist Rachael Sage has steadily released a slew of vibrant, dynamic albums. She has toured with an eclectic list of artists including Ani DiFranco, Beth Hart, Imelda May, Howard Jones, and Grammy® winners Shawn Colvin and Judy Collins – with whom she also recorded a critically-acclaimed duet of Neil Young’s “Helpless”. In addition to being a six-time Independent Music Award-winning musician and producer, Sage is also a John Lennon Contest Grand Prize winner who has released over 20 diverse albums and EPs. Sage has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, SXSW, and toured globally from Japan to Berlin with her band, The Sequins. Her 2020 album Character yielded the Billboard-charting single “Blue Sky Days”; her recent project Poetica, an adventurous fusion of poetry with jazz, classical and Americana musical elements in the vein of Leonard Cohen and Laurie Anderson debuted in October 2021.

The Other Side, her latest album, was released on 21 July. Connect with Sage online and on the road.

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