Rachael Sage’s new group Poetica creates complex blend of poetry and music

RACHAEL SAGE POETICA

TOM MOORE

RACHAEL SAGE

Poetica, fronted by singer-songwriter Rachael Sage, will perform at Rockwood Music Hall in New York, Sept. 30 at 7 p.m., to celebrate the release of their self-titled album on Sage’s indie label, MPress Records. Kelly Halloran, Andy Mac, Bryan Wilson and Trina Hamlin will join her onstage.

The intimate and cinematic spoken word concept album — produced and engineered by alt-pop folk musician Sage — will be released on Oct. 22. The sensitive and engrossing album blends poetry with jazz, classical, and Americana musical influences.

Sage said the album “was an opportunity to create new work with a stellar group of musicians, with absolutely no creative boundaries. The language itself and imagery therein has led us to places musically that traditional songwriting never would have. There are pieces that fall into a more classical vein, and others that skew more blues, Americana and even jazz.”

The group previously released two tracks from the album, “Thanksgiving” and “Passenger,” which are featured in videos below.

The video for “Thanksgiving,” directed by Natasha Alexandra, grabs attention with its playful graphics and then surprises with its compelling message of freedom.

The cover of the “Poetica” album.

Sage speaks:

Freedom like I’ve never known
You hold so easily upon your lap
She fidgets and cries while in my embrace
But you, professor of calm
Displace youth’s sadness
And in so singing make me whole
… No man ever creates woman’s power
So much as invigorates love’s house of mirrors

Sage said that “Thanksgiving” “is a poem that personifies freedom, depicting it first as an infant that can be either peaceful and calm, or restless and dissatisfied. As the piece develops, it becomes clear that this duality is also inherent in dynamics between lovers.

“I suppose this piece is a poetic play on the time-honored Sting-penned truism that ‘If you love someone, set them free.’ Freedom, in the context of any type of relationship — even between citizen and nation — can mean many things and especially this past year, this piece seemed like a fitting choice for a first single from Poetica.

“The process by which this album itself was made transcended vast distances, and yet it was also a profoundly intimate, unifying experience.”

In “Passenger,” a blend of blues and poetry, Sage takes us on a journey of two people who are counterposed to each other. Sage speaks:

“From the atmosphere it may seem that I’m all head and soul/While you’re all hands and heart/The way you bend the world to your touch/Is the way I strategize too much for my own good … A subtle smile on your familiar face/Giving away only so much/While I open my book as easily as dragonfly wings crush.”

The meaning of “Passenger” evolved over time. “It definitely came to mean something very different as we recorded it, than what I originally intended,” Sage said.

TOM MOORE

RACHAEL SAGE

The album “explores the concept of opposites attracting, and of difference being so wholly celebrated as to evolve into passionate desire. The idea of adventure and travel being a metaphor for discovering and exploring sensuality took on a new resonance as we were all isolated, yet also eager to find ways to connect deeply. I hope that the blues-infused music scoring this piece conveys both longing and hope, the kind of bittersweet yearning you only feel when you’ve brushed with mortality, and come back from it with a deeper sense of the beauty of this ephemeral thing called life.”

She credits her blues influences to Eric Burdon and Beth Hart (she has toured with both) and John Lee Hooker, who was a close friend in her college years, among others.

When you listen to this album, set aside time to linger on each poetic song. There is so much to discover in these genre-bending tracks.

“Days of Awe” is a timely song given that some Jews just spent the past month celebrating and reflecting during the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). These days are called the Days of Awe because of our burden to individually and collectively atone for our misdeeds, to make peace with our community.

Sage tells us in “Days of Awe” that “everything has a season and it is inevitable that if you pull off the leaves before autumn you will get your heart broken/I have never believed in karma/I’ve seen too many mensches suffer while the schlemiels won the prize.”

She said that the poem is about heartbreak, and was inspired by Patti Smith. “It feels both defiant and empowered to me, emotionally and energetically,” she said.

The cover of Rachael Sage’s 2020 album, “Character.”

During the pandemic, Sage collaborated with cellist Dave Eggar (who has worked with Esperanza Spalding, Duncan Sheik and Corinne Bailey Rae). As she engineered the project in isolation, with limited gear, she sent files back and forth to bandmates and guest musicians around the world.

In addition to Eggar, Sage’s frequent musical partners contributed, including James Mastro, Doug Yowell, Kelly Halloran, Jack Petruzelli, guitarist Gerry Leonard (who has played with David Bowie and Suzanne Vega), klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, jazz trumpeter Russ Johnson, drummer Quinn and UK-based rock-blues harmonica player Will Wilde.

Sage has been performing spoken word since for many years “in the East Village NYC music scene,” she said. “I used to pepper at least two or three poems into my longer sets in my 20s, and when I toured Europe with Eric Burdon, I got into some heavily improvised, trance-like kind of compositions with my band at the time. It always felt very natural to me.

“I think I worried it would be difficult to create something dynamic enough, without singing. But referencing artists like Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson and even Johnny Cash, my cellist Dave Eggar really encouraged me to have faith that the words themselves contained the DNA, so to speak, for where the music would lead, once we began this work. And he was right.”

She felt that “singing was not enough to express these ideas. It had to be spoken and not sung, because pop music couldn’t contain this kind of density — of imagery, language, musical composition and performance. In that sense, it leans more toward jazz than anything I’ve done prior … and that feels exciting.

“It feels like an evolution toward more risk-taking, and something more ambitious, and it will be challenging to perform this very complex material live. But I’m very fortunate to have a great band coming together to do it at Rockwood Music Hall on Sept. 30. I think that for all of us in Poetica, it will feel like flying, and I can’t wait.”

Sage founded MPress Records more than 20 years ago in New York. She has collaborated with Judy Collins and Ani DiFranco and has raised funds for various nonprofits, including WhyHunger, God’s Love We Deliver and Girls Inc.

In addition the Rockwood show, she will play at The Loft at City Winery in New York on Nov. 9.

For more information, visit mpressrecords.com or rachaelsage.com.

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