The Blistering Sun
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The Blistering Sun
by Rachel Sage
CEV: Before we get started talking about your latest release
could you give me a little background as to how you got started in music and
some of the highlights of your career so far.
RS: Well, I've actually been playing music since I was three years old. My parents
took me to hear a few Broadway shows for our family vacation, instead of going
on a trip (which my six year old sister and I were not so thrilled about - we
wanted to go to Disney World!), and I came home and played "Oklahoma"
on the piano. That's pretty much how I got started! After that, it was A
Chorus Line, and pretty much every classical melody I was hearing in pre-ballet
class...everything was fair game and thankfully, even though my folks were tone
deaf, they were extremely encouraging and always willing to listen and be
supportive, which was crucial. If I'd felt like what I was exploring hadn't
been important, or musicality a desirable quality, I might've just stuck to
memorizing tv commercials.
CEV: When did you start working on The Blistering Sun?
RS: I started working on The Blistering Sun early 2005. I did the
basic tracks all at once, which included bass, drums, piano and trumpet, and
then every time I came home from a stint on the road, I'd break up the touring
with some more work on the record - either vocals or strings or guitars or some
other tracking. It was an off-and-on kind of thing after the first chunk of the
recording, but that's just how it needed to be, since I hate to not play live
for more than a week or two! I start to get anxious, like I'm gonna forget how
to do it. It's kind of funny...I really need that audience-interaction to feel
like a legitimate artist, in terms of finding what works and what doesn't
dynamically, and being holed up in the studio for more than a few days can
definitely become surreal, these days. When I was younger it was different, but
I didn't tour as much then. I really miss it when I stop for very long. I think
it's healthy, to have the two processes feed each other also, in a certain way.
CEV: Any particular meaning behind the title on this release?
RS: Of course! The Blistering Sun is a line from the song
"Surprise", which I composed for my sister's wedding. There's also a
line in "Alright, OK" that goes "someday I'm gonna take the
biggest risk ever / and then I'll be hot as the sun...". Between these two
phrases, I really feel the bulk of what I'm trying to convey on this album is
reflected, namely: that the things you are most afraid of, and reluctant to
embrace, are usually the things that will ultimately enable you to grow.
They're scary because you know they're challenging; they can burn you out, they
can deplete your spirit or even kill you - just like the sun - but also like
the sun, they are probably the most life-giving, inspirational sources also,
namely: love, relationships, pursuing your craft despite all apparent
obstacles. We become so accustomed to protecting ourselves against what's
uncomfortable in our society, in so many ways. I wanted this title to reflect
what I have felt, leading up to recording this batch of songs, in terms of
finally realizing that protecting myself so much from what I fear had left me
weaker, not stronger, and more lonely than happy. I think in a lot of ways,
this is an album about hope and fear and how the two can fuel each other,
almost like an ecosystem, until something truly beautiful and exciting emerges
that once seemed impossible.
CEV: How many CD's have you released so far in your career?
Was it easier to write/produce The Blistering Sun than it was to write/produce
your very first release?
RS: This is my seventh CD, not including an unreleased album I
recorded (half live, half studio) called "Assorted Tchatchkes".
I don't usually think about how easy or hard a creative process is, to be
honest; I just kind of face each day of the work (and play) as head-on and
positively as I can, trying to break old habits and be spontaneous while also being
aware of the permanence, and detail involved in the medium of recording. I
definitely worked hard on this record, along with my wonderful engineer John
Shyloski. But one thing that absolutely was easier than previously was the fact
that I truly felt inspired by the musicians I was working with, at every point.
When I made my first CD ("Morbid Romantic"), I was still searching,
really almost fishing for sounds I liked, and ways to frame my material that
reflected my personality. The last few records, I hardly thought in those terms
at all - it's been more about just serving the songs, letting them tell me how
they want to be arranged, and getting my ego out of the way...which can be hard
for a diva, but self-production is a funny thing in that you really don't do yourself
any favors as an artist, if you pamper yourself or lie to yourself about what
your "best" is. It's a lot like ballet, that way! The mirror - in
this case, the speakers - are there to help you, if you respect and listen with
truly open ears, knowing your goal is to communicate emotionally. I guess
certain things do get easier - like singing, and actually playing your
instrument - with practice, but likewise your ears get sharper which can
actually get in the way sometimes, and make it harder to enjoy performances
that are more raw in favor of a tighter approach. If anything, that is my
greatest challenge as a producer.
Writing is, and has always been, mostly a joyful process, purely creative and a
release. Writing is the easy part!
CEV: Tell me about your writing process when you decide to start work on
something like the Blistering Sun. Do you bring together material that you
already have written to form the bulk of the new release or is it all written
new just for the project you have in mind?
RS: I can't imagine writing material from scratch, on the fly,
while the clock is ticking and the budget is burning, so to speak. So no...I
never compose in the recording studio, at least not one I am renting! If I had
my own studio - which I hope to one day, and did to some extent when I was
in the jingle-business years ago - that would be different. Generally, it's
good to be as prepared as possible going in to record, because then you can
relax into and actually focus on the performances, not on whether you should
cut thirty seconds from the bridge or whatever. Back in the day, I know many records were made that way; artists camped out and experimented and wrote
songs and the minute they finished them they rolled tape. Times have changed,
and as an indie artist, so that's just not viable.
I'd played all the songs on this record live at least a handful of times,
before I recorded them - except Featherwoman, which I write several years ago,
and just kind of put away. It wanted to be on this record though, and now I
play it live every show!
CEV: Was it hard to decide what material went onto The
Blistering Sun and what was going to be set aside?
RS: Not really. I think editing is the easy part, in terms of
reckoning with what's cohesive - or just up to the level of other material -
vs. not, What's more difficult, once the music is tracked, is knowing when to
stop "guilding the lily", or piling on parts...You can get caught up
in the arrangements - which is a part of the process I love - and lose the song,
or the lyric....you can end up burying your words. Kevin Killen is a great help
in that department, he weeds out a lot of stuff I have admittedly become
attached to, and it can be a little painful but in the end, he is trying to
carve out space for the vocal, and get the point across. I cut two songs from
the record about midway through, and added two others, but it was a natural
flow, and by that point I had a firmer idea of what I wanted the whole album to
feel like as a whole. My engineer was also helpful, he tends to agree with my
instincts, which is great!
CEV: Does this CD have a mood or feeling to it or is
there some theme that sort of ties all of these songs together as a
listener moves through this CD?
RS: Well, I think I touched on that in question #3, but to
recap: essentially, this record is about saying YES. Jump into the fire, laugh
at your vulnerability, don't be too precious with your energy or you end up
never putting it out, and it will come back to you as a result. It's about
taking chances, and being open to looking like a fool in order to become an
expert, or something like that! I could've also called it: "Leave Your Bad
Attitude At The Door" or "Shut Up And Enjoy It" I suppose, but
that sounds a little less inviting!
CEV: I found the cover artwork very interesting, tell me how
you decided on the cover for this release and who actually created it for you?
Is there a message to be had from this image?
RS: My friend Wiggly drew the image of me on the cover. I was actually going to
draw it myself, and had even started working on it - I had already wanted to
have artwork, versus a photo, on the cover and had barely begun when I did a
ability with him and his band "Trapped Door", and for the poster he
drew that picture. I immediately thought it was the cover, I asked him right
away and was surprised to hear myself asking - since I've always done my own
art - but I thought he just captured me. Mine would've been more serious. He
has a wicked sense of humor, but he also gets me...he gets my campiness and how
it deflects my melancholy, how it's been a struggle - but I was ready to
"let it go" about now. He has the same dynamics in his own
personality, in a lot of ways. He's definitely a visual soulmate, we just hit
it off and I wish he'd do more artwork because I think he's really talented;
but he's juggling a lot in his life so I was very lucky to even get that one
The message I see from the cover, which was made me want to use it,
unquestionable, is that nothing bad is going to happen if you confront your
fear. Only good will come from it - and you will only become stronger, or even
a "superhero" version of yourself, compared to who you were before.
Say yes - look life in the eye, and She will look back, more often than not,
with compassion or at least grant you insight you didn't have before. I believe
that! I believe in the "Just Do It!" approach, and think this record
is my anti-procrastination record, in that sense...
CEV: Compared to your other releases to date will The Blistering Sun break any new
ground for you as an artist? What do you see as new terrain for you on this
release and what will fans definitely recognize as Rachael Sage?
RS: I'm never quite sure how to answer this one, even though I'm always asked! I
kind of think that's not my job, to be my own best or worst critic, outside the
framework of getting my best physical performances, and trying to connect with
the music. Obviously the more you tour, the more of the world you see, the more
people you meet...the more you play and hopefully you grow as a player. But
really, I focus a lot less on how to shock myself or anyone else with being
"new" than just trying to be honest, trying to be open and always
experimental. I'd get bored otherwise! I suppose it's relatively new topically
for a Rachael Sage album to not be more introspective, to be trying to find the
"light" - which I definitely was, as quickly as possible, in each of
these songs. Get to the answer, get to the hope. I have tended to want to
wallow in melancholy or confusion or remorse or regret, in much of my previous
work. I was ready to see some effect, and not just explore the cause, on this
one! I was impatient to be happier, to appreciate the pure process of playing
and being expressive versus needing to document some kind of downward spiral. I
think that's some kind of progress...
CEV: Who are some of the supporting musicians that helped you realize the music
on The Blistering Sun?
RS: The core musicians on the record were mainly my touring trio: Russ Johnson
(trumpet), Dean Sharp (drums) and myself on wurlitzer, piano, mellotron,
harpsichord and assorted other toys. Doug Yowell also played drums on a bunch
of the tracks, and bassists Jeff Allen, Conrad Korsch and Todd Sickafoose all
contributed. Some other musicians included Allison Cornell (violin), Dave Eggar
(cello), Julia Kent (cello), Marianne Osiel (oboe, flute) and my dear friend
Edie Carey on background vocals on "Proof" and
CEV: What have your fans and the reviewers who've written about this CD had
to say about your music since it came out? How much do you pay attention
to what the critics have to say about your music?
RS: To be perfectly frank, I don't have a lot of time to collect press and mull it
over; but what little I've seen, and being indie there's never tons of press -
more of a trickle, has been fairly gracious. There are thankfully always some
folks who've followed me for a while, who are interested in a trajectory of
some kind in terms of my career, and who understand my work as a whole. Those
people are saints, they are the people who choose to cover me coming throughNashville orBoston orMadison instead of only
noting who's playing the local arena, and I'm always grateful. Of course, there
are always other folks who will continue to compare you incessantly to other
artists merely because your are all female or all play piano, and write very
little about your actual music. As long as no one is outright malicious, I tend
to just be thrilled to be written about at all, and hope that it encourages
people to check out the record for themselves, or come to a live show. One
thing I have noticed is that I get compared to Laura Nyro more and more, and
even Rickie Lee Jones, occasionally. that makes me really happy and excited,
because these are women whose work has really managed to remain relevant,
through many years of social and stylistic shifts. That is my long term goal, to
be an artist of that nature who never becomes complacent, and who is always
still exploring...Because life is extraordinary so much of the time, and even
when it doesn't seem like it is, it probably is. I'm pretty easily impressed
with the fabric of any given day, and the not-so-hidden meaning in everything.
I probably have myHebrew
School training to blame
CEV: How much of The Blistering Sun will be finding its way into your live shows
in the coming months? How do you balance the need to promote your new
release with fans' desires to hear their old favorites?
RS: I never write a set list, so I just really go with my gut. I
play a different show every night, I try to play what I feel like playing, but
I also mix it up for my band - or myself, if I'm solo! - in a way that keeps it
interesting and never gets stale. I have seven album's worth of material, but I
do focus mostly on my last three records, plus a few older tunes that people ask
for. If someone makes a request, I try to play it - because it's pretty great
they even know my music enough to make a request, and I like to say yes to
that, I think it's important. That said, if I don't remember an older tune or
I'm playing with my band and they don't know it, I just gently decline, or make
a joke, and play something "related"; at the end of the day, I think
an audience connects with how connected you are to your material, so it makes
sense to go with what you feel, mainly. To me, that seems most balanced.
CEV: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to CEV about your new CD The Blistering Sun Rachel and I do wish you much success in this current release and all your future efforts.