Since founding her own label MPress Records two decades ago, NYC-based alt-pop artist Rachael Sage has steadily released a dozen albums of vibrant, dynamic music with poetic, image-rich lyrics spanning subjects as wide as her inspirations. Often designing her own album artwork, costumes and musical instruments, Sage has toured with an eclectic list of artists including Ani DiFranco, Beth Hart, Sarah McLachlan, Judy Collins, and Howard Jones. Raised mainly on classical music, doo-wop, ‘70s folk and British pop, Sage possesses a rare combination of musical ingenuity, visual dynamism and emotional insight. Her songs are cinematic and beautiful, her production layered, lush and laced with orchestral surprises.
“Myopia”, the title track from her 13th album, is the crystallization of countless studio hours and hundreds of shows in the U.S. and around the world. It’s also a new kind of anthem for Sage, who sings passionately about a “screen of judgement / in my face all the time” being lifted. With its Bruce Hornsby-esque piano riffs and hushed choruses, it’s a declaration of self-assurance and vision that perhaps could only be made as disarmingly in the middle of a cultural crisis. “The idea of things coming in and out of focus depending upon what lens you might be looking through seemed especially provocative right now. As someone who is legally blind without glasses, and who’s also used to squinting to see something more clearly, I started to think about nearsightedness on a much more macro level.”
The clarity that comes from being comfortable in one’s own skin is a theme that runs through much of Myopia (“Alive”, “Maybe She’ll Have Cats”) but there’s also a distinct thread of paranoia and a few other extremes. “Olivia” was sparked by an episode of “Law & Order SVU” and the heroic character Olivia Benson, portrayed by Mariska Hargitay. “I am a bit obsessed with that show, not only because the acting is superb but because it really juxtaposes the creepiest, most disturbed individuals in society against this incredibly fierce, resourceful and empathic woman who does a hell of a lot of saving and is basically the closest thing to Wonder Woman on TV.” “Snowed In” was in fact sparked by Edward Snowden and the eerie, theremin-like guitars and industrial-sounding percussion summon the mood perfectly. “Fiery arrows / falling from the sky / I know everything about you.”
Sonically, Myopia is a bold departure for Sage, with a much stronger emphasis on her guitar playing over her usual piano palette, with inventive contributions by Hoboken-based guitarist James Mastro, who Sage affectionately calls “the king of wah”. Sage and Mastro toured last year with Beth Hart, and inevitably some of Hart’s grit and soul rubbed off. In an unexpected foray into her roots, “Umru Mayne” finds Sage shout-singing in Yiddish over punk rock guitar and Doors-esque organ. “I’ve never sung in Yiddish before, but this song just really spoke to me and then somehow when we recorded it, I channeled a bit more Patti Smith than Mandy Patinkin…”
The only other cover on the record is equally adventurous but not wholly unexpected. Last spring, Sage toured with UK synth-pop legend Howard Jones, but her plaintive version of his classic “No One Is To Blame” is both a loving tribute and entirely her own. Anchored by her mellow Wurlitzer and delicate acoustic guitar, her longtime band The Sequins provides uplifting strings (Kelly Halloran on violin and Ward Williams on cello) and an intimate beatbox percussion loop (Andy Mac). Other guests on the album include drummer Doug Yowell (Joe Jackson, Duncan Sheik), keyboardist Rob Curto (Lila Downes), trumpeter Russ Johnson (Elvis Costello, Deborah Harry) and bassist Mike Visceglia (Suzanne Vega).
Produced by Sage and her longtime engineer John Shyloski, Myopia was recorded last summer at Carriage House Studios in Stamford, CT as well as at Sage’s home studio in NYC’s East Village, and you can feel the swelter. The heavily electronic “Haunted By Objects” – on which Sage plays Moog synthesizer – describes the psyche of a hoarder whose only potential recourse may be to set everything on fire, while “This Darkness”, a bluesy lamentation about the Dakota Pipeline, reflects the urgency and courage of Native Americans’ resistance to environmental desecration; the enemy in the dark is indifference, the iciest kind of blindness.
Sage explains: “This is a warm-weather record. These are songs about getting out there, thawing things out, and unearthing the truth. Sometimes you can’t do that in the dead of winter. But when the sun is shining, even the murkiest future appears hopeful.”
Binghamton Live Songwriters Series has been hosting original music artists at Atomic Tom’s since May of 2016, and has presented live music at LUMA Projection Arts Festival since its inception. The 2019 season hosts Rachael Sage, the Jen Chapin Trio, and Ithaca’s troubadour, Joe Crookston—with more to be announced—as well as local and regional singer-songwriters every First Friday in coordination with the First Friday Art Walk, April through November.
Atomic Tom’s is located at 196 State Street, in downtown Binghamton, New York 13901. Unless otherwise specified, shows start at 8:00 p.m., and tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door.