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[whitespace] Sage Advice: Rachael Sage uses her 'Illusion.'

Photograph by Bill Bernstein

Sage Against the Machine

Label owner, poet, songwriter, designer, Stanford grad Rachael Sage does it all

By Sarah Quelland

MUCH LIKE Ani DiFranco or Lisa Dewey, Rachael Sage is a self-starter, an empowered young woman who runs her own nationally distributed MPress Records and published her own book of poetry. Sage performs Saturday (June 29) at Plant 51 as part of a benefit to help a 34-year-old cancer survivor pay off a mountain of medical bills.

When Sage was 3, she began teaching herself classical pieces by ear on the piano. Today, the composer and pianist crafts luxurious folk-pop songs enhanced by lush strings and kicky horns tinged with the exotic sounds of traditional Irish, Russian and Middle Eastern music. Her sophisticated, worldly style reflects her own eclectic influences, which include Carole King, Elvis Costello, the Indigo Girls and George Gershwin. She melds genres fluently, incorporating sexy jazz and classical nuances into her luscious alternative pop.

Sage's feminist sensibilities and provocative leanings make her a natural for the estrogen circuit (she's toured with DiFranco and won a spot on the Lilith Fair lineup). Her lyrics are insightful without being pretentious. There's also a sweetness to Sage that gives her a more universal appeal. She's won numerous awards, including the ASCAP Pop Songwriting Contest.

"The thing I feel most proud of right now is to finally be out doing a full-scale national tour behind a release as it's coming out," she says. "I've never been able to line that up before."

With songs inspired by everything from the hit TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Angel") to hate-crime victim Brandon Teena ("Camera"), Sage says, "Every album, I try to explore a different side of my range and my lyrical perspective." She says she pushes herself to write about things outside her own frame of reference. But like so many Americans, this passionate New Yorker was deeply affected by the events of Sept. 11.

"I live right next door to a firehouse," she says. "I walked past this little firehouse every day on the way to the studio, and you would just see all of the flowers and all of the signs--it was more and more every day. People were really desperate to try to figure out what they should be doing to help and how to express their confusion and anger and compassion."

To work through her own feelings, Sage wrote "Memory," on which she speaks out against hate and repeats the sentiment, "It's love, love, love, love, love that's the answer."

Her phrasing and quivering vocals illuminate Sage's songs. Her style ranges from smooth and romantic to soothing and tranquil to sassy and jazzy. It's this kind of diversity that makes her such a gem.

Sage designs her own clothing and instruments using vibrant splashes of color as an expression of youth and vitality. She also studied drama at Stanford University and graduated in 1994. She believes the experience has made her grow as a songwriter.

"I'm more able to improvise and just do things off the cuff," she says. "With experience and playing a ton of gigs you become much more comfortable with your instrument, your voice and with an audience, so you're able to try things more spontaneously. I'm much more interested in improvisation and changing it up constantly than I was back in school."

Sage will take the stage with cellist Stephanie Winters and drummer Dean Sharp, forming what she calls a "chamber pop" trio.

With a tour, new projects and her label, music is never far from Sage's reach. "Writing music is this place I go to be human again. To feel what it means to love and to remind yourself what's important in your life. I'm dependent on writing music to keep me sane."

Rachael Sage and Lisa Dewey play Saturday (June 29) at 8pm at Plant 51, 44 S. Almaden Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $8. A special reception with the artists will be held at 6:30pm with proceeds benefiting the medical fund of cancer survivor Larry Shein. Tickets for the reception are $25. (408.297.5151)

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From the June 27-July 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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