Rachael Sage is an interesting woman and a testament of how indie rock can work. From New York City, Character is her 15th solo album, and 2020 marks 14 years since she dropped her first one, 1996’s Morbid Romantic. She runs her own label, MPress Records, which was originally to release her own music, but has since expanded to a roster of about a dozen artists. She has shared the stage with everyone from Sarah McLachlan and Ani diFranco to Animals and Marc Cohn to Judy Collins. She is currently touring with 80s icon Howard Jones. And she is critically lauded.
Character is a song cycle initially based in her diagnosis, treatment and recovery from endometrial cancer in 2018, and in it she reflects on concepts such as gratitude, compassion, authenticity, and optimism. She questions, in short, what comprises character. And in so doing, she lays out her path to recovery. Sage has long been known for lyrics, which veer towards the poetic, but now, she has a new appreciation for the healing power of music. This is an album about survivorship.
And this is what speaks to me, this album speaks to surviving, whether it is cancer or some other form of heavy trauma, Sage’s lyrics and her gentle music caresses the listener, holds them in place, and whispers in their ear that it’s all going to be okay. And sometimes we need that.
The album begins with ‘Blue Sky Days,’ and Sage opening singing about ‘the white ocean’s open embrace/Cold sun rays/Red moonlight/God’s giving grace,’ before the song veers into her confusion, devastation, and the chaos of the cancer diagnosis. Instrumented with guitar, bass, drums, a beautiful cello peels over the song as well. This song is a stream of consciousness of how one is faced with chaos and oncoming trauma and finding the strength of character to think about the world around her.
‘Bravery’s on Fire,’ the second track is rather visceral, and anyone who has survived going through ‘Hell and back and back again’ can recognize this feeling:
I’m not entitled to anything
And I do not deserve more than I have
I don’t see a superhero
When I look into the mirror
Arbiting between the good and the bad
Because I’m just another person
Struggling in her skin
Trying to believe when it gets too hard
I’m so sick of pretending
My courage is unending
All I feel is battered, bruised, and scarred
And I wish I could be grateful
To be me
But my bravery is on fire.
‘Ohio’ sees her step out of her own world briefly, out of her own pain and suffering, to see the wider world, in a cover of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Ohio,’ about the Kent State Shooting in 1970. Here, Sage makes this her own song, re-orienting the song to the piano, with theatrical flourishes over top, largely through a heavy drum and bass.
The title track of the album sees Sage digging deeper into alternative rock, with chaotic electric guitars and her own voice reminiscent of Charlotte Gainsbourg. Lyrically, she examines the cornerstones of our social life: faith, authenticity, freedom, and integrity. And she asks, ‘What does it mean to have character?’ I love this song.
Taken as a whole, Character, is a rather stunning album, as Sage shows a deep love of life and an empathy not with just herself and her struggle in fighting off cancer, but the manner in which she structures her songs means that this is not necessarily an inward-looking album, as it does speak to the larger experience of trauma and survivorship.
Rachael Sage is on tour from now into June, you can see her dates here.