Friday, August 1, 2014

Interview with Rachael Sage

Meet Rachael Sage, a singer/songwriter who also happens to be a former ballet dancer. She currently has a number of singles out and her full album, Blue Roses, will be released in October. Eight of her songs have been featured in award-winning dances on Lifetime TV’s “Dance Moms” and in two more that will air during the next half of the season, starting July 29th. Her song, Happiness – Maddie’s Song, which Dance Moms’ star, Maddie Ziegler, will be dancing to later on in the season, came out on iTunes on July 22, 2014.

I had an opportunity to listen to the new song and it's lovely and soulful. I can easily imagine a talented dancer like Maddie Ziegler performing to it.

© Shervin Lainez
Hi Rachael! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions. I'd love to know more about your life as a dancer. You were a student at the prestigious School of the American Ballet and even performed with New York City Ballet! Could you give us a brief look into your life as a dancer? Had it always been a dream of yours to be a professional dancer?

I started dancing when I was around 3, in a pre-ballet class. I must've loved it, because I kept with it and it become increasingly serious for me, to the point where I had to choose between gymnastics (which I also pursued, early on) and ballet, when I was around 9. Ultimately I chose ballet, because I could relate more to the emotional aspects of it...of expressing oneself through musicality, as well as movement - and because I also think it appealed to the young actress in me; I always felt like I was performing and telling stories, when dancing to music from as early as I can remember.

By the time I was 11, I was very serious about dance
and decided to audition for the summer program at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where New York City Ballet spent their summer season. My ballet teacher had had a few students prior who had been accepted, and she (Carole Sumner) had been a soloist with NYCB before she started teaching, so we knew we had an advantage at the audition, having studied with someone steeped in Balanchine technique. It was an intimidating open-call audition with hundreds of students and dozens of studios, but thankfully, I was accepted, and I spent that summer dancing in "Celebration" (choreographed by Jacques D'Amboise) and "Circus Polka" - which was an incredible experience.

© Shervin Lainez
At the end of the summer, one of the dance-mistresses invited me to attend the Summer Program at The School Of American Ballet the next year, and at the end of that course, I was invited by SAB to attend year-round, as a full-time student. That was a huge turning point for me, when ballet became the most important thing in my life, and it certainly was a dream come true! During my studies at SAB, I had the opportunity to perform at Lincoln Center in The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Mozartiana, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was so exciting to dance alongside the adult members of the company, and to be able to watch and learn from the wings, every night.

Eventually, my parents pressured me to go to college and I was discouraged from pursuing a professional career as a dancer; but the experiences I had studying at School Of American Ballet and dancing in several productions with The New York City Ballet, impacted me profoundly, and set me on my path as a performer.
Did you always sing and write music? Dance and music seem like a natural fit for musical theater. Was Broadway something you ever considered?

Yes, I have pretty much always sung and composed. I grew up playing piano by ear - mostly classical pieces I heard in ballet class, but also pop and Broadway - and for it, music just became a second language. I never really felt like a musical theater-type composer, however; while I loved melodies I heard in Broadway shows, and identified with the performers as an actress (another craft, I came to love), music and acting have always been very separate things for me. I love composing and singing my own songs, and acting in "straight" plays - from Shakespeare to contemporary - but I don't have a voice very suitable to "show tunes", versus pop and folk; I think as singers, we gravitate toward the music that not only inspires us, but with which we can identify. I always identified with singer-songwriters, because songwriting was my way of processing my life, and the world around me. It was less imaginative than confessional, as a young person. I was drawn much more toward the idea of telling the truth in a song, than escaping into a fantasy, i.e. musical theater.

Someday I'd love to try my hand at composing a Broadway musical - but I would rather act in a play on Broadway, before that!

Was it a difficult transition from dance to a singing career? Did you do it gradually? Did you always know it would be a second career for you after dance?

I really never made that transition, honestly. I was always doing both - always. Ever since I danced, I played piano, and wrote my little songs.  If there had been a way for me to continue pursuing my dance studies at a professional level, AND stay in school full-time (not really possible, in the advanced divisions at SAB), AND go to college, I probably would've continued both. But unfortunately, that wasn't the case so the choice was made for me. I was only 15 or 16, my family was very educationally-minded, and my senior year of high school, I simply couldn't attend dance classes full time without missing half of high school i.e. attending "PCS" (Professional Childrens School) or some other my parents pulled me out of it, which was very painful and confusing, since until then I'd been very much encouraged. Education was the priority though, so that was the beginning of my journey to focusing more and more on music, and less and less on dance. It wasn't exactly a conscious decision; but I certainly had a lot more to write about, all of a sudden! Really, it was a very abrupt shift, but thankfully music was my safety-net for everything I was feeling, after such an intense few years of highs and lows.

What and where do you find your inspiration to create? Is it similar to your inspiration for dance? Do you think of movement when you write? Do you imagine a song being danced/choreographed to?

I think the inspiration to create music or to write, in any format - poetry, a play, whatever - is very different from the inspiration to dance. Dance is so utterly visceral, and it's the mastery of the technique that permits one to become truly expressive, and for that connection between the soul and the body to extend outward, and uplift an audience. With songwriting, I think you can be a pretty mediocre singer, and barely play an instrument - yet still, you could write a brilliant, universal song that changes the world. It's a much more level playing fielf in a sense...because it's borne of ideas, and ideas can be simple and still be great. I suppose dance is similar in that way; an elegant dancer doing a simple port de bras can speak volumes - but the training and experience are there, nonetheless.

I knew from the beginning that I had a lot to say, a lot of ideas, and that for me, music was simply another language through which to communicate with others. So my inspiration doesn't really discriminate, any more than most people's tendency to converse about whatever is affecting them, their loved ones, or the world at large - or any other influence from a novel to a film to a conversation overheard in a café. Inspiration is relatively easy, for me. The hard part is sitting still long enough to let it flow through, and to have the discipline to stick with it until you have something that tells its own, succinct story.

Yes, I often imagine dance when I play the piano, particularly. Because I learned how to play by hearing piano accompaniment in ballet class, the mere sound of the instrument provokes images of dance, in my head. I choreograph all the time in my head! Some day I'd love to compose an entire ballet, in collaboration with a choreographer. I wrote a very short piece of music for the American Jewish Ballet a few years ago, but it was only about ten minutes. That was huge challenge, but so exciting, to finally see the dancers interpret my piece!

Do you receive requests from dancers or choreographers to write for them, either for performance or competition?

I haven't, really...but I am very open to it! Since I've released ten albums, there's a lot of music out there that people seem to be going back and discovering, in the lyrcal dance world, specifically. I'm very accessible though, and always eager to bounce ideas around!

How did the Dance Moms connection happen? Did you ever think of your music as theme or soundtrack music for television or films?

I was very fortunate, because Abby Lee Miller and the ALDC had already used some of my music and won with it, in competition, well before they had a reality show. When I finally visited their school this past Spring, Abby told me she'd choreographed to my song "Frost", for a competition, a decade ago! She said they'd been using my music for it was just my very good luck that she related to my work with respect to her choreography, and once they began using my music on the show, they just kept using more and more songs. I was as surprised as anyone, and only found out about it because the dances from the show kept "leaking" on YouTube, ahead of the episodes. It's been very surreal, and quite a wonderful opportunity, to reconnect with the dance community in general, which in my heart I'd never really left!

© Shervin Lainez
What is it like touring as a singer versus touring as a dancer? How do you stay focused and healthy on the road? Do you have any favorite foods, music, books, TV or hobbies that you pursue? Is performing as a singer the same for you as dancing? Do you have the same anxieties (that is, if you had any!)?

I think my training as a dancer - and also later, as an actress - gave me very good habits, that absolutely translate into good habits for a touring musician. For one thing, I eat very healthy, or at least as healthy as I can, on the road. It may seem like an obvious thing to do, but it can be lonely sometimes being the only one in the band having a salad instead of fast-food or hot tea instead of beer; at the end of the day though, it's my job to be able to get up the next morning and sing, again, and be well-rested and not dehydrated or tired. As a dancer, you learn to take care of your body, ideally, and to respect its limits by listening to it; I think non-dancers don't always have that sensitivity, to know when they've had "enough" - enough dessert, enough wine, enough of a very late night, enough talking even. Talking is very hard on the voice, especially in a loud club. I'm grateful that being a dancer taught me to take care of myself, to have physical as well as mental discipline and moreover, to not really pay attention if someone calls me a "party pooper" or "lame" for going off to bed! In my teens, I missed countless parties, to rehearse or perform; it taught me the value of hard work, and to be comfortable not always following the pack, so to speak.

I love watching movies - I could watch several a day if I had time! On the road, I do watch TV in hotel rooms, which is a welcome indulgence because at home I rarely do, there's just too much going on generally. After a show, I really enjoy decompressing in a hotel room, just checking email or doing Facebook and watching a good movie. I'm pretty simple, that way! I don't need anything fancy :)

My biggest hobby, I would say, is visual art. I love drawing, painting, crafting, decorating clothes, instruments and furniture - basically anything that involves art supplies, collage or glitter! Kind of hard to do that on tour, but sometimes I manage to get to it. When I get home though, I always have a few days where I need to make stuff, just to get it out of my system.

I don't really have much anxiety, around performance. I have anxiety when I'm NOT performing, or when I don't know when my next gig will be! That's a lot of what drew me to it in the first place...I think it was the same with dance; I was much more self-conscious in rehearsal or class, but once I got on stage, and was performing for an audience, all of that fell away, and I just got swept up in the music!

Do you have any other future plans for your music career? Anything on your wish list for the future? 

Well, I will be releasing my full album, "Blue Roses," later this Fall, and touring behind it in the US and also Europe. I'm really excited to share these new songs live, and hopefully, to collaborate more with dancers and choreographers. Who knows - maybe someday soon I'll be able to develop a live touring show with music and dance. Everything is possible!

Rachael Sage & The Sequins are currently on tour; visit Her current EP, NEW DESTINATION, was released in the U.S. in May 2014 on MPress Records.  

Be sure to like her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more news about her upcoming album release.


Grier Cooper said...

It's always interesting to see what dancers do after they stop dancing professionally. Rachel's story is inspiring; thanks for sharing.

Leigh Purtill said...

Thanks for reading, Grier! So many dancers are women and men of multi-talents. :)