Review Fix: How did you get involved in music?
Sage: I started playing our living room piano after my mom put me in a pre-ballet class at two and a half. I came home and started playing classical melodies by ear, which definitely left my non-musician parents scratching their heads. But they were very encouraging, and my Mom started taking me to Broadway shows during school vacations, while my Dad shared his vinyl collection, which included a lot of doo-wop, R&Band The Beatles. It was a good balance, looking back, and the common denominator was melody. If a song didn’t have a good, strong melody – whether my own or something on the radio – it didn’t carry much weight in my family. I was also very influenced by Jewish melodies from music I heard growing up in Temple, and approached my Bat Mitzvah like it was my first big gig. It was an unlikely environment to learn the craft of songwriting, with no musicians in the family, but from the time was 5 until I was 16 and sent off to college, I was encouraged to write songs that “stick in your head” and “tell a story” and given all the right tools (singing lessons, a 4-track recorder, synthesizers, a drum machine) to pursue a career as a recording artist as well as a producer. I realize now how lucky I was, and I’m incredibly grateful.
Review Fix: Who has inspired your sound the most?
Sage: My number one favorite artist is Elvis Costello. I have been a die-hard fan since my teens, and his music has literally saved my life, on more than one occasion. On a flight home from Russia, our engine failed and we made an emergency landing. I was listening to “Spike”, over and over and thinking at least if it was the last album I was going to hear it was perfect. Dramatic, huh? I think he’s pretty much the most consummate songwriter on the planet and a master of so many different styles with such an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music, it’s inspirational. Other artists who’ve inspired me deeply in various phases of my life include The Beatles, David Bowie, James Taylor, Suzanne Vega, Maria McKee, Marc Cohn, Elton John, Billy Joel, Howard Jones, Sinead O’Connor, Ani DiFranco, LoreenaMcKennitt, Shawn Mullins, Cat Stevens, Carole King, John Lee Hooker, Leonard Cohen, Gershwin, and many composers, especially Bach and Mozart. My favorite songwriter the last several years has been Glen Hansard. I first heard his music when I lived in Ireland, and saw his band The Frames. I love the rawness of his voice, how passionate his lyrics are and the organic, acoustic instrumentation of his recordings, including how he uses strings and horns to widen the dynamics in his music.
Review Fix: How was the album “Choreographic” written? What inspired it?
Sage: “Choreographic” was inspired by my relationship to dance. Over the last few years, my music has been increasingly embraced by the lyrical dance community, with many dance teams and soloists performing to my songs and winning in various competitions. I wasn’t ever exposed to the “competitive” dance world because when I was a student at The School Of American Ballet, competitions were frowned upon, but when my music began appearing on the TV show “Dance Moms”, it was a thrill to see such prodigious young artists like Maddie Ziegler with impeccable technique performing with so much emotion, to my songs. It brought back a lot of memories for me obviously, because my early teens were when I was most dedicated as a dancer, and I started to think about writing my next album as a kind of love letter to the art of movement, of choreography which is what originally inspired me to become a musician. I holed myself up in a hotel room for a week in London between tours, early last summer, and wouldn’t let myself leave it every day until I’d written at least one song. I tried to envision what type of dance each song would look like, as I was composing, which was a fun challenge and definitely helped me focus and write more quickly than I had in many years.
Review Fix: How has ballet influenced you musically?
Sage: Ballet gave me so much, so early in my life. Foremost, it gave me discipline and focus. You grow up very quickly when you are training as a dancer, or in any type of conservatory setting I imagine. You learn early on to respect your potential and your evolving skills and to be “invested” in yourself, literally, and you become protective against negative or destructive influences, because you care so much about what you are doing and because it’s giving you so much back. For instance, when kids at school would bully or tease me for being skinny, walking with ballet turnout, being “so serious” or doing well in school, it was painful…but I always knew in my heart that dance was a privilege, and an opportunity not only to escape but to experience the kind of transcendence that music and art reveal when you least expect it – just moments where all of the hard work and rehearsal come together and you lose yourself and become part of something bigger than yourself. It gave me a new kind of spirituality based on the power of creativity. Working alongside other dancers in ballets like “Coppelia” and “The Nutcracker”, at Lincoln Center – where I also heard a live orchestra for the first time – also opened a door for me musically. When I heard that expansive sound I started to study it, what each instrument’s role was, how it supported the theme and variations and how the range of the orchestra created endless possibility for a composer, whether classical or pop.
Review Fix: How has this album changed you as a musician?
Sage: This album made me more humble, because it was “thematic” and I was learning how to approach that effectively, without (I hope!) repeating myself. We made the record fairly quickly and it was a very intense process, working with my co-producer Andy Zulla, after making several albums as the sole producer, because I was a bit out of practice collaborating with a “musical partner” versus just doing whatever I wanted with no one pushing back or challenging me. But I brought him on because he helped me make my very favorite album years ago, “Public Record”, that was also very orchestral; he and I have known each other since we made demos together when I was 14 and he absolutely showed me the ropes and taught me how to make records.
I knew Andy would encourage me to strive for performances that were more ambitious musically but also had a “vibe”, and that he also understood the “ballet-pop” concept and my longtime relationship to dance. He was very structured, and had a very specific work schedule because he also had other projects and is raising a daughter so about half the time, we were working together and the other half I worked separately. Initially that was challenging, but ultimately I think it helped me crystallize my own ideas more with greater commitment. It was a bit like a long-distance romance, where every time we’d reconvene it was a big holiday, and exciting, sharing what we’d each been working on our own and then relighting the fire, together.
I worked with some wonderful musicians on the record including my band The Sequins (drummer Andy Mac, fiddle player Kelly Halloran and cellist Ward Williams) – and my longtime engineer John Shyloski also did a beautiful job recording many of the tracks. I came away feeling like I’d created my best work so far but also, for the first time in years, feeling that I am a beginner again and full of grand ideas for future projects, incorporating dance and other multimedia elements. I suppose the biggest change is that I feel more myself – more open, more energized, and more inspired to collaborate with other like-minded artists, from both the dance and musical realms. I started out that way as a child, and it’s exciting to be harnessing that excitement again, as a musician and in spite of the challenges of the music industry and how it can be easy to lose that “innocence”, so to speak.
Review Fix: How do you want your music to affect people?
Sage: I want my music to inspire, uplift and empower. I want it to encourage people to be expressive and communicate more confidently, and to live – and love – more passionately. I have been so fortunate to have had so many amazing mentors who didn’t even know they opened doors for me, emotionally and creatively. But I saw or heard them perform as a fan, from the audience and it altered me, because we’re all connected and most of us want the same thing: to be heard, to be understood, respected, accepted and encouraged. If I can help do that through music and inevitably, a healthy dose of humor, my mission is accomplished.
Review Fix: What are your goals for this album?
Sage: My hope, beyond touring as widely as possible and reaching new listeners, is that this album inspires people to move, whether literally or figuratively. I think it’s a very positive, motivational record and from the first song – which was inspired by a homeless painter I met in San Francisco – to the last track, inspired by the great BB King – it’s about relishing personal freedom, freedom to live how you want to live and be expressive. I think it’s a very New York record for that reason…it’s eclectic, dynamic and quirky. For anyone who’s ever felt different, excluded, discouraged or just isolated, I hope it’s an album that provides comfort and inspiration. And of course, I hope it inspires some beautiful choreography!
Review Fix: Bottom line, why should someone listen to this album?
Sage: That’s an excellent question! I think for me, the reason would be because music, at its best, provides hope, can be cathartic or even transforming. But even if you’re not a lyric-driven listener…the musicianship and sonics on “Choreographic” are lush, uplifting and according to my oh-so-discerning mom, my choruses are “very catchy and fun to do Zumba to”!
Review Fix: What’s next?
Sage: I’m about to head off on a whirlwind 3-month tour, all over the US and then over the summer I’ll be playing festivals in Europe and making some more videos, incorporating dance. In the Fall I’ll be in the UK and Germany touring behind the record and I also have a van exhibit of my paintings scheduled for September, so it’s going to be a very creative, exciting rest of the year! In 2017, I’m aiming to do a multimedia show with my entire album performed with choreography, at a larger venue in NYC, so I’m planting seeds in the dance community now, to bring that to life and learn more about working in that world…it’s been a while! New albums tend to take on lives of their own, and bring adventures you don’t anticipate, so I try to leave plenty of opportunity in there for spontaneity too. Vee shall see!