Veteran singer, songwriter, and label owner Rachael Sage has been using her platform for activism and expression ever since she burst onto the independent music scene in the mid-90s. Coming from the same DIY scene that spawned the likes of Ani DiFranco, Sage committed her life to music in an almost nonstop cycle for well over 20 years.
She founded MPress Records along the way, providing a home for other artists like indie pop darling Seth Glier, Belgian rock hitmakers K’s Choice, and (full disclosure) this writer’s own band.
The cycle of nonstop recording and touring that Sage grew accustomed to came to a halt last year when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She spent six months away from a musical instrument and was entirely dedicated to treatment. When she found out that her cancer was in remission, the music once again began to flow. Out of that came her newest single, “Bravery’s On Fire,” a song that confronts the idea of vulnerability in the face of your mortality.
With a new album in the works, Sage has returned to music and touring full-force, and is set to play Savannah Pride Festival on Sat., Oct. 26 at 6 P.M with her backing band, The Sequins.
Ahead of her performance, we chatted with Sage about the last year of her life, her new single, and what lies ahead.
I know you’ve gone through a lot in the last year or so, and I’m curious about when “Bravery’s On Fire” began to take shape amid everything.
That was definitely one of the first songs I wrote after a pretty lengthy period, at least for me, of not writing. I was still in the middle of my cancer treatment when I wrote it. I really hadn’t touched an instrument for pretty much six months, which seems unfathomable now. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, I just didn’t have the energy—mentally or physically. It was such a new, strange experience for me.
In all honesty, I was nervous that I was forgetting who I was. So much of my energy is wrapped up in what I make and what I do, and perhaps less of it has been traditionally steeped in relationships. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; I’ve been very, very lucky to have that focus and to have the passions of music and the arts in general. So it was definitely somewhat of a dark moment for me, but I was also really trying hard and optimistic, and doing my very best to heal.
So the place that I wrote that song from was actually sort of a plea for someone else in my world at the time, to understand that I was not as strong as this person was asserting that I was. It was my attempt to be as honest as I possibly could about exactly where I was. It’s a song about finding strength in vulnerability, which is I think the most difficult thing to admit. For me, it took a lot of strength. I didn’t feel like I was admitting defeat. I was just speaking my truth and saying, “I’m not the strongest person you know. I may even be a bit of a mess.” [laughs]
Do you remember the moment that the wheels began to turn creatively after such a lengthy period away from music?
I was a full-time patient, so I put all of my energy into trying to heal and have the treatment be effective. So for me, what that meant was testing those boundaries continually, and if I couldn’t push through it then that’s where I was at. I would actually have much preferred to not have stopped [laughs]. But I guess what I’m saying is, it wasn’t conscious. It was purely a physical situation.
I’ve been so blessed in my life to have good health up until this past year, and I’d never thought about energy in such a tangible way until this year. I took it for granted, of course, as most people do. I was always one of those people who were, as you know, spinning a zillion different plates.
I kind of derived a false sense of confidence and pride from being that type of person. What I’ve really learned about this year is balance. So when you ask me, what was the moment where I felt like I could write again—it’s pretty clear to me that it was a moment when my physical state became much more balanced.
Instead of harnessing all of the physical energy I had to sort of power through discomfort, I was actually able to wake up in the morning, have energy, and resume what I consider to be my gift of a job.
You’re working on finishing a record that will be out next year—given what you’ve been through, is there a thread or a theme that carries itself through the record? There seems to always be something of that nature with your albums.
I do like a good theme [laughs]. That ties in a little bit with Pride, too. I’m so excited to be coming to support Pride, because like many of my peers in the LGBTQ+ community, I do love a good theme! I immerse myself fully, and I extend it to visuals, costuming, and everything else, and I’ll be doing that with this record. It has been really gratifying to find those threads between the songs.