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Rachel Sage


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.

:  When did you start working on The Blistering Sun?

:  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 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 image.

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 "Featherwoman".

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 for that!

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.

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