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Returning to Ireland

New York singer- songwriter Rachael Sage told David Hennessy about joining Imelda May on her current UK and Ireland tour, what Ireland means to her and that there are now days when she does not think about her brush with cancer.

New York singer- songwriter Rachael Sage has shared stages with names such as Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan, Marc Cohn and The Animals. She has also been named one of the Top 100 Independent Artists of the Past 15 Years by Performing Songwriter magazine.

Releasing music since 1996, she has put out fourteen studio albums excluding acoustic offerings and collaborations like the recent Poetica.

She also established her own independent record label.

But when The Irish World chatted to Rachael, it was supporting Irish World award winner Imelda May on her current UK/ Ireland tour that she was excited about.

Rachael told The Irish World: “I’m bursting with excitement, I can barely contain myself, it is such a dream come true.

“I’ve loved her music for so many years. I just think she is extraordinary, an incredible voice but also an amazing human being.

“And she’s also been so lovely to me on social media. We haven’t even met yet and she’s sending me very nice messages. So I think that bodes well. But yeah, we’re super excited. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.

“A couple of years ago, I was in the mix to be considered to support her and then obviously, the world took a great pause and everything was in flux for a while so I didn’t hear anything about it.

“We were all living our best lockdown lives and just trying to muddle through and then out of nowhere, my agent heard from hers and we were offered this opportunity.

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“And I had many other plans for the months of April and May. I was going to finish my record and even move- I just quickly put all of that on hold because it was a no brainer, ‘Of course, of course. Yes Yes. Yes, I have to do this’.”

This past year has also seen Sage release her collaboration project Poetica, a collective that takes jazz, spoken word poetry, folk music and builds its own world of musical prominence.

“We have two solid weeks there in Ireland. And what’s so wonderful is that Imelda is Irish so we’ll be going there, these will be her crowds.

“And I’m sure they’re just thrilled that she’s coming back and supporting her new album and her poetry book.

“And I also just released an album called Poetica which is built around my poems.

“And for me, Ireland kind of equates with poetry.

“That’s what I think of, I think of so many great poets and writers.

“I think if nothing else, I’ll be enunciating my lyrics extra in Ireland.”

This is something that Rachael and Imelda have in common with Imelda releasing collections of poetry both in print and CD form and having her poem You Don’t Get to be Racist and Irish plastered on billboards around Ireland in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

“That’s part of why I’m so, so excited to share the stage with her,” Rachael says.

“I very quickly tuned into how she uses her voice to raise awareness for innumerable issues that are also very important to me and I try to be the same way in all I do so I think we will be a good match.”

Imelda also recently played a fundraiser for refugees from Ukraine at The Roundhouse, a gig that Bob Geldof also took part in.

“I saw that. Wonderful. As soon as the tour came up, I was just watching everything she was doing trying to get to know her better.

“I knew her music, but I hadn’t really keyed into her persona as much.

“I think it is very important to know a bit about each other. And if I’m going to support her properly, I also want to be able to help warm up her audiences and know our points of overlap. And she seems like quite a kindred spirit.”

Rachael and Imelda would have started talking about touring together before either of them had released a spoken word collection.

“Very coincidental, so when I saw that she just put out this poetry book it’s like, ‘Wow, this makes even more sense than I would have thought it might have musically’.

“I think it comes back to Ireland, because part of the reason I love it so much and I felt so at home there is because words are so important, words are the heart and soul in a lot of ways of the culture there.

“I identify with that so much as someone with Jewish heritage because from the very beginning of my life, it was emphasized how important it was to use your words carefully, how important It was to read and to read the stories of others and how storytelling itself is something to be revered, something with enormous power.

“I think we’re gonna get along great.

“I really do consider both the UK and Ireland to be my homes away from home.

“In many ways I feel more myself when I’m across the pond.”

Rachael spent a summer in Ireland when she was younger and credits the experience with inspiring her and her music.

Still only a teenager at the time, it was her very first job working as an intern for Bill Whelan.

“I lived in Dublin and worked at the Abbey Theatre so I really discovered a lot of music that informed what I do today.

“So it’ll be kind of a full circle for me to go back there.

“I was there during my junior year of college.

“I was interning at the Abbey Theatre with Bill Whelan.

“And then I also fell in with a group of guys, some musicians.

“My mum would think they were bad boys, but they really weren’t.

“They were very lovely gentlemen, and I kind of became their sister.

“And then they took me to some festivals and it was really like something out of a movie to be honest.

“And when we went to the festival Feile.

“Every artist I loved was playing this festival like Van Morrison and Elvis Costello and Marc Cohn.

“I mean, it was just crazy.

“It just gave me much more fuel for my passion, which was already all there.

“But it kind of prompted me to shed some of the electronic bells and whistles in my production and really seek out wonderful acoustic musicians with whom to play when I got back home.

“I just love St. Stephen’s Green. I love the park there. I’ve written songs inspired by that park, actually one of my songs called Sulstice was written when I was sitting on a bench in that park watching swans. So the swans made it into the song.”

Glen Hansard is a favourite artist of Rachael’s and she tells a funny story of once missing out on meeting him.

Rachael says: “I have met Glen Hansard a number of times very briefly.

“But amusingly when I was over in Ireland last it was the Jewish High Holidays.

“So I went to a local synagogue. I’m not super religious but I was just observing my heritage.

“And when my tour manager picked me up from a temple she said, ‘Rachael, you’re gonna kill me’.

“I said, ‘What happened?’

“She said, ‘I just hung out in a pub for three hours with Glen Hansard just shooting the breeze and drinking beers’.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, my God’.

“She just randomly walked in. He was there, he struck up a conversation. They were talking and just hanging out.

“And she said he was just the loveliest guy, which didn’t surprise me at all.”

Why didn’t she give you a shout to join? “That was why she apologized, because she didn’t.

“She didn’t feel it was ethical to remove me from my high holiday.

“And I was like, ‘Huh, I don’t know. There must be an exception for that in the Torah..’

“Oh, anyway, we joke about it. It’s all good.

“He is very much one of my favourites.

“And I also love Passenger. I love Hozier, I love all the Irish folk rock guys.”

Rachael has just unveiled the poignant single Revelation Ground.

“It’s kind of an unassuming, intimate, folk number, I think.

“But what I hope that it does is kind of serve as a hopeful song that also acknowledges the depths of ups and downs that we’ve all been through.

“And I am really trying to capture that period of time when we were all so isolated under lockdown, but also wanting so much to stand up for Black Lives Matter and against social injustice.

“So there are these two kinds of dynamics in the song, one being the overwhelm of the pandemic and the other being the courage and the hope coming from trying to create a better world.

“And I think that’s in a lot of ways why I wanted the song to hearken back sonically and musically to music from the 60s, which has inspired me so much over the years.

“Sometimes music is pure entertainment. Sometimes it’s to get you up and dancing. Sometimes it’s kind of meditative and almost prayerful in a way.

“I was definitely struggling to find my musical voice again when I was so very isolated.

“Some people locked down with their families. I unfortunately was far flung from mine but I did have my guitar and I did have that lifeline to the broader music community through the internet.”

Sage has also advocated for a wide range of charities, including Foundation for Women’s Cancer, WHY Hunger, American Refugee Committee, Foundation For Woman’s Cancer and National Network For Youth (NN4Y).

These are close to her heart as Rachael had her own brush with cancer some years ago.

Rachael wants to encourage other women to go for regular check-ups as she very nearly paid the price for leaving it too long.

“I was diagnosed in 2018 with endometrial cancer which essentially is uterine cancer.

“It’s the most common type of women’s cancer other than breast cancer and yet, most people have never heard of it.

“But many, many women are diagnosed with it every year. I had never heard of it and I didn’t even know that it ran in my own family, that my aunts experienced it as well.

“So when I discovered my own family history of it, I was quite shocked.

“A cancer diagnosis is very frightening, overwhelming, and it does kind of force you to reassess and re-evaluate everything that’s important to you in life, much in the same way that I think this pandemic has done for many, many people.

“So there have been a lot of parallels there for me.

“And in some ways, I feel like my recovery better equipped me to be able to orient to the chaotic nature of what we’re going through over the last two years.

“And so there have been some skills, I was very grateful to have like meditation and taking care of your mental health and even physically making sure that you get outside and jump around and do all the things they were telling us to do to increase our immunity were kind of automatic to me at that point.

“It didn’t lessen the fear necessarily of getting the virus but I did feel empowered.

“And I was grateful for that.”

Now that years have passed, does she think about her cancer less? “A couple of years ago when I was just coming out of it, I asked a dear friend of mine I was doing a gig with-  One of my first gigs after my recovery- I asked her point blank, ‘Are there days that go by where you forget that you went through that? That you just forget about it altogether?’

“Because at that point, I couldn’t imagine. It was so close to me and everything in my life seemed to orient to it in one way or another.

“And she said, ‘Absolutely’.

“She’s like, ‘I know it seems like that day won’t come and that everything about your life is related to having gone through cancer, but I hardly ever think about it. I think about it once a year when I go get my scan or I think about it when a friend or a loved one is going through it. For the most part, I don’t think about it at all’.

“And she said, ‘I certainly don’t think about it on stage’.

“And I thought that was very heartening.

“And sure enough, her words were prophetic.

“And many, many days do go by when I wouldn’t say I forget about it but I don’t feel anxiety about it as much anymore.”

Rachael supports Imelda May on her Made to Love tour until 15 May.

Revelation Ground is out now.

For more information, go to rachaelsage.com.

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