Rachael Sage has two distinct personas. On the one hand, there is the serious singer-songwriter who plays piano, writes pensive lyrics and delivers them in a hypnotic, understated voice that sounds like a less pretentious Tori Amos. On the other hand, there is the Rachael Sage whose current stage show, Stop Me if I’m Kvetching, is zany, over the top, Jewish-centric and bordering on improv-oriented performance art. Somehow, she has found room for both of these personas in her life – maybe because before she made it in music, she was part of the New York theater scene. I recently got a chance to talk with Sage about her background, her show and her ninth (and latest) studio album, Delancey Street.
Who were some of the musicians or other artists that inspired you as a kid?
When I was really little, I loved Broadway Show music, like A Chorus Line and Oklahoma. I also loved disco and movies like Grease, Xanadu and Saturday Night Fever. By the time I went away to summer camp, I remember being obsessed with Billy Joel, Elton John, The Beatles, Buddy Holly and Hall & Oates. By junior high I was into Carole King, Cat Stevens and James Taylor, and by high school it was U2, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Prince and Depeche Mode. [But] I think the moment I stopped being a “kid” was when I discovered Elvis Costello. His music changed me forever [and taught me] to stop writing for “radio” and start writing from my kishkas, so-to-speak.
You just completed a residency in Edinburgh, where you and your band performed your show Stop Me if I’m Kvetching. What was that like? Do people actually kvetch in Scotland?
People do indeed kvetch in Scotland! Thankfully, when I got to the part of my show every night where I asked people to write down their kvetches — so I could compose some spontaneous songs about them in my set — they were extremely forthcoming. Common kvetches in Edinburgh included: too many crowds at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, too many shows they wanted to see that were all happening at the same time [and] not having enough money to buy more beer. There were plenty of people who didn’t like their job, their employer and of course, who were sick of the rain!
Your most recent album came out this year and is called Delancey Street. What does Delancey Street represent to you – either literally or figuratively?
For me, Delancey Street represents a crossroads, a place where the past and present are converging and inevitably, there is some degree of conflict…but also, the excitement of endless possibility. In NYC, Delancey Street was a place where so many Jewish immigrants shopped, worked and essentially established their lives as Americans. The area eventually became much more diversified and lost most of its Jewish character but it still provokes a sense of nostalgia, thanks in part to the film Crossing Delancey, which admittedly, I found very charming. I hadn’t watched it since it first came out until very recently, but I definitely had a crush on the guy who played the Pickle Maker. But I digress…
Metaphorically, in terms of the album, Delancey Street is that place where you sort out what you want to continue to hold onto from your past, and what you are okay with letting go. Half the year I live out of a suitcase on tour and I’m happy as a clam; why, when I come home, would I want to keep so many old photos, books, clothes, tchatchkes…”memories”? I really wanted to break down the relationship we all have to the past… I guess I was drawn to the image of Delancey Street as a place where very brave people, including my own ancestors, were able to reinvent themselves in a completely new culture — yet still maintain the essence of who they’d always been.
In one of the interviews I read, you’re quoted as saying – referring to your Jewish heritage – “It’s something that’s never going to end as far as my own personal quest to understand who I am.” Would you elaborate?
Well, I basically feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding all the richness and dynamism of Judaism, not only as a religion, but also as a culture. Particularly, I’m becoming more and more interested in Jewish history, as well as music, art, theater and the Yiddish language. I wish I could speak it, and I wish I’d known my grandparents. I feel a tremendous sense of loss, ongoing, that I did not know my parent’s parents. There are so many gaps, so many questions I’d have asked them, or perhaps I wouldn’t have needed to, because they’d have just explained.
I often wonder if I wasn’t a Rabbi or a Cantor in another life. I have had pangs of wanting to abandon my musical career to immerse myself on that deep a level; but that always retreats, when my instinct tells me that playing and listening to music may be the closest I’ll ever come to understanding life’s mysteries and to contributing meaningfully to the community at large. Being a songwriter, naturally I want to understand the world, and my place within it, in as much detail as possible; being Jewish, and characteristically inquisitive, I have my work cut out for me!
Rachael Sage kicks off her U.S. tour dates on September 22nd with a show at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City. Visit her official website for more information.
-Dave Steinfeld is a music journalist. He has written for
American Songwriter, Beyond Race and Blurt.
This is his first piece for Heeb.