I recently had the opportunity to ask the singer/songwriter Rachael Sage some questions on travel. As a touring artist she’s lucky (I think so) to travel a lot for her career, I was interested to find out if the travelling side of her work is something she enjoys…
Rachael gave some fantastic answers, in my opinion best read while listening to her music (At the bottom of her website are links to various sources).
A soulful vocalist and innovative keyboardist, singer/songwriter and producer Rachael Sage has become one of the busiest touring artists in independent music, performing 150+ dates a year with her band The Sequins throughout the US, UK, Europe and Asia. She has earned a loyal following for her infectious melodies, poetic lyrics, and often-outrageous, colorful stage banter.
Sage has shared stages with Sarah McLachlan, Colin Hay, Marshall Crenshaw, Marc Cohn, The Animals and Ani DiFranco. She has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and received numerous songwriting awards including The John Lennon Songwriting Contest (Grand Prize) and several Independent Music Awards and OUTMusic Awards.
MPress Records will release her 10th album, “Haunted By You” in May. Featuring The Sequins as well as guest appearances by Dar Williams, Mike Visceglia (Suzanne Vega), David Immergluck (Counting Crows), Doug Yowell (Duncan Sheik) and more, it was self-produced by Sage and mixed by Kevin Killen (U2, Elvis Costello).
Would you still travel if you didn’t have to for your career? If so, what is it about travel that makes you tick?
I think I would definitely still travel if I wasn’t a touring artist, because a lot of what drew me to the idea of being one was the concept of developing my craft as a performer, while ‘seeing the world’. Things didn’t really seem to take off for me, career-wise, until I left the safety of home, and to a large extent, the grind of doing things one way, i.e. playing show after show in NYC, my hometown.
In one way or another, whether I’d pursued acting or visual art as more of my primary career, I think I would’ve been lured to the travelling lifestyle because it’s such a huge part of how I think I derive my inspiration, in general. Namely, from the search for what’s universal, and cross-cultural. My family played a pretty big part in instilling me with this sense of adventure and independence, since they sent me to sleep-a-way camp when I was only five! Granted, it was only to Maine, but somehow the idea of being “away” and finding new parts of myself in a strange environment always felt more natural to me than staying home.
I went to an intensive ballet program in France when I was eleven, and a trip to Russia when I was fifteen, on a high school exchange program (where I happened to also fall in love for the first time). Then I went to college all the way across the country, in California. During college I lived and worked for several months in Dublin, Ireland, which was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had, and where I first played with other live musicians versus just synthesizers and drum-machines. The world is wide, and I just never saw the logic in staying in one place if life opened other doors; plus, as someone who felt I never quite fit in or had many friends growing up, travelling seemed to prove to me that it was possible to forge a deeply spiritual connection to a place itself, and not just to other people. As an artist, that’s a particularly liberating discovery…
Can you describe for me one of the best experiences you’ve had away from home?
When I was on tour in Israel, I had the opportunity to perform a few songs for a group of young students, as part of an assembly. I don’t speak Hebrew, so I was worried they wouldn’t connect with my music, especially because they were also very young. But I ended up doing a song called “Hey Nah”, which only has nonsense-words in the chorus, and they all started singing along. By the end, they knew the song so well it was like it became their own, and even after I stopped, they kept singing it. For the remaining hour I was at the school, they were flocking around me and smiling and singing this song, it was really wild and unbelievably moving. One of the girls spoke a little English and her friends pushed her forward and she told me she wanted to be a singer when she grew up. I paid her a bit of extra attention, we laughed together, and as I was leaving the students were all saying “we love you Rachael!” It was pretty intense…
Conversely, what is the worse experience you have had while travelling?
While I was on tour in Germany years ago, our rented van broke down on the highway in the middle nowhere on a Sunday. It was just me, my drummer, and my accordionist, and the van had been rented to us by a promoter back in Czech Republic who we weren’t due to see again for another week. Needless to say, there was no one to come rescue us, and it was just a nightmare all around. Somehow we ended up being towed to a garage that said they couldn’t fix our van for at least another day, and the rest is a blur but I do remember lots of crying, panicking, and a general breakdown in our otherwise affectionate band-dynamic that I hope to never experience again!! I believe we made it to our next gig somehow, which was a miracle in itself…
If you could travel with any other famous person, musician or otherwise, who would you choose and why?
I would choose Glen Hansard, because I think he’s such an incredible musician but moreover, he seems like he probably has an adventurous approach to seeing the world and connecting with new people, while he’s on tour. I’m not always great at that and admittedly, sometimes I just want to chill out in my hotel room, do internet and catch up on work. I think it would benefit me to tour with someone who’d be more apt to take in the local color even at the expense of “discipline” so to speak. I just have a feeling because he’s been doing this so long, performs with such natural ease, and seems to be so eager to collaborate with other musicians, that he’d be an interesting person to travel with…
Otherwise, I bet Sandra Bernhard would be hilarious to travel with. She’s just so irreverent and witty, and also very spiritual and compassionate; at least that’s the impression I have of her – so I bet it wouldn’t ever be boring!! I also can’t imagine she’d ever settle for less than a decent meal. She’s a New Yorker, after all!
Some places are nice to visit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you would like to live there. Can you name a foreign place you’ve visited that you’ve genuinely thought you’d like to live, and why? (If not foreign, then somewhere else in the US?)
I wanted to live in Dublin, after I was there in college. I interned for Bill Whelan, who wrote the music for “Riverdance”, and met so many incredible musicians both from that experience at The Abby Theatre, as well as just locally on Graphton Street (where I lived), and recording in a music studio called Bow Lane, that I started to really feel like I belonged there. I’d never really felt that much a part of any community until then, except when I was a ballerina, but that’s so cut-throat and competitive that it was always very “fraught”. When I was living in Dublin I definitely felt at home, and was pretty depressed when I had to go back to school.
When I go back to Dublin now, I still have this sense of nostalgia for that time when I was there in college, when I absorbed so much Irish music that completely changed my sensibility as a songwriter. I just think Dublin is such a gorgeous, soulful city, I’ve made some great friends there, and I always look forward to going back. I’ll be there on tour this November with Judy Collins, and I can’t wait!!
Do you feel that being away from home a lot makes you more attached or less attached to the comforts and regularities that can be associated with your own home and living in one place? In other words, do you think you could give up having a home and be permanently on the road/nomadic, or are you leaning more towards spending less time on the road and more at home?
That’s a great question, and it vacillates, honestly. A couple years ago I felt more drawn to spending more time at home, because I’d recently moved and was enjoying the fact that I finally had a space in which I felt comfortable, after a decade in one that never felt quite right. But this month, for example, I’ve been home two weeks and I already feel a need to leave again, to do shows out of town and to be travelling. A balance between the two is ideal because after too much time away, it starts to feel like you’re just running, like you’re avoiding your “real life”.
But I think ultimately it’s about the work, period, and about connecting with your audience. I don’t think I do my best work being at home, and it’s definitely harder to keep up your craft as a performer when you’re not playing as many shows, night after night. I can regroup in NYC, catch up on my business, refuel emotionally and see friends and loved ones. But “out there” – in the midst of so much that’s unknown and unfamiliar – is where I take risks and try new things, musically and also in terms of my banter, onstage. I try out different personas, different accents, different jokes, and I feel like I’m always pushing myself and improvising which is a huge rush. Being home equates to a kind of laziness, for me, which is nice for a bit but then I start to get really restless.
That said, if I am going to spend more time at home I want it to be for a reason, creatively. I’d take off a year even, to do a play or a movie, because I miss acting so much! But it has less to do with wanting to stay put, than to keep doing interesting work and challenging myself as an artist. As an aside, I don’t think being home is more comfortable and regular, actually. I find a touring life to have a lot more structure for me, and therefore, to be more comforting and satisfying, creatively. Plus, I love staying in hotels – I’m sort of a hotel addict, honestly!
What are your necessities when you travel / how do you succeed in “packing lightly” for the road? Any tips or tricks for people?
One of the things I love so much about touring is that you don’t need nearly as much as you’d think you might. I’ve learned that well by now. I don’t overpack anymore, ever. I take exactly the number of gig-outfits (and I do wear outfits, i.e. costumes!) for a week, because less that that and I get bored, and then I just repeat them even if I’m on a 5 week tour. No one will ever know if you wore that hot pink dress a week ago in another country! I also tend to wear things that are diaphanous so more can fit in my suitcase, and I don’t bring too many jeans or shoes because they’re heavy. If you’re staying in any major chain hotel they’re going to have laundry, so I never pack more socks and underwear than one week’s worth. I roll everything, don’t bring every T-shirt I “might” want to wear but actually visualize where I’ll be on the tour, what might be fun to wear in which city, and just pack minimally in that way. I’ve learned to decide ahead of time who I’ll “be” on the tour so I don’t overpack.
For instance, this last tour I decided not to bring any tutus, even though that’s often my thing. I took long, flowy dresses instead. It’s ok to change your style from tour to tour and limit your options. I tell myself things like, “you might read all ten of these books on this month-long trip, but you probably won’t…” so then I only pack two. The reality is that you can buy or borrow most of what you’d ever need, along any tour. Too many options is now the enemy to me haha. Especially since I’m a bit OCD! Plus, now I also play guitar (I used to just play keyboards) so I have an extra piece to check every tour, if we fly. I can’t bring two suitcases anymore, which has been a blessing!
How do you make the most out of long drives/flights? Do you have a favourite song for the road?
I read, or listen to music, or just try to keep my tour manager awake and my band laughing. I make a point to never cast anyone in my band who I wouldn’t want to share a very very long car-ride with; you have to be able to hang and laugh and also let each other just be quiet if people are tired. It’s important to be ok just privately entertaining yourself if that’s what the general vibe requires at the time, or likewise, to be able pep people up if they’re blue, or trying to stay awake to drive in the wee hours. And sometimes…you need to just sleep, because you know you won’t have time to later, and otherwise you’ll be exhausted for your gig! You become pretty damn sensitive doing long drives with more than one other person in a mini-van. It’s an art form unto itself!
We don’t fly as much as we drive, but on airplanes I generally work on my laptop or sleep. Once in a while I’ll watch a movie or tv, but that’s rare.
I don’t really have a favorite song for the road – but now that you’ve asked, maybe I need to write one!
Lastly, what is your favourite place to perform? How come?
My favorite place to perform is in the UK. I’ve just always really felt like there’s such a great appreciation of pop and folk music there, and that people are encouraging of originality and quirkiness in a way that sometimes I find lacking elsewhere. I always feel secure just totally being myself there, and audiences listen as intently to lyrics and songwriting, as much as they expect to be “entertained”.
When I performed at Edinburgh Fringe, in particular, it was somewhat of a revelation to be involved in a festival with such a wildly diverse array of musical, theatrical and comedic performers. The energy of all the artists feeding off one another was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had, and the caliber of artists was amazing. I just think artists are really beautifully respected and encouraged in the UK and Europe in general, both by the audiences but also by the venues themselves, and I feel like I get a bit spoiled over there!