For this month’s label spotlight, we’ve decided to feature MPress Records. The multi-talented singer-songwriter, producer and founder of the label, Rachael Sage, is a force to be reckoned with. This talented woman has been making music since 1995, cultivating a sound all her own and creating a following that has stuck with her throughout all these years. Not only does her label spotlight (no pun intended) her many talents but has also allowed other artists such as Melissa Ferrick and Seth Glier a platform to share their talents with the world.
Most recently, The Wall Street Journal premiered a new duet featuring Rachael Sage and folk icon Judy Collins singing Neil Young’s song ‘Helpless’. Sage’s music has also been featured on Lifetime’s hit show Dance Moms and she even appeared on the show to perform a song she specifically wrote for Maddie Ziegler, the young dancer who has most recently become Sia’s muse. This woman is unstoppable and we wanted to catch up with her to find out how she balances a label, continues to play shows and work on collaborations.
Tell us a bit about how MPress Records came to be?
I founded MPress Records in 1996, but it was really in name only; I was just handing out my short-runs of CDs in NYC at places like The Bitter End and sending them to some folks I thought might “get” what I do… like Ani DiFranco, who had really inspired me to want to have an indie label, and to oversee my own creative vision with the most possible autonomy. I did send my second album, Smashing The Serene, to a bunch of college stations in 1998, and it got a lot of airplay and charted in CMJ which prompted a distributor to reach out to me, and that was an important first step. However, it wasn’t until 2000 really — the year after I played Lilith Fair — that I became a label in earnest and began to build meaningfully on some of the earlier groundwork I’d done as an indie singer-songwriter in terms of developing my presence at retail, radio and as a national touring artist. I started small, with one intern, and eventually that intern became my label manager!
How is it running a record label and being one of its main artists?
Running a label is never boring — I always put that out there first, lol. It’s obviously an enormous amount of work, and I’m still extremely hands-on, day-to-day and prefer being looped-in on just about every aspect of the label operations, promotions and virtually all aspects of the other artists’ endeavors as they relate to our work at MPress, i.e. their respective tour, PR and radio activity. So it’s a huge amount of information on top of my own career that I’m processing constantly, but I’ve really learned to multitask in ways I never imagined possible in my early years when I (gasp) was focusing almost entirely on just writing, practicing and performing. What a luxury that was, and I didn’t even realize it! Now, I’m incredibly grateful for that initial foundation I had early on as a conservatory-trained dancer and actor, because it really taught me to trim the fat out of my life and work, so to speak.
I learned at a very young age to not need to waste time, and to be able to relax and actually find a peaceful kind of meditation in the process of not only creating art and music, but in interacting with colleagues, brainstorming promotions and nowadays, staying connected to listeners and peers on the socials which I really enjoy and find to be a very expressive process, by nature. I may just be in denial, but as a rule I don’t really think I have that thing some people have where they “hit a wall,” need to just veg out, or go on a vacation because I genuinely love all of the aspects of being both an artist and a label-owner, and the more stressful aspects of our business easily fall away, the minute I hit the stage. The catharsis of performance is where I find my balance, and refocus my life and goals, unlikely as that may seem. When I’m off the road too long, I go a little nuts admittedly, but I also relish the downtime I have in NYC to reconnect with friends, the staff at MPress, and to generally reflect on what’s coming next.
What is your favorite thing about running a record label?
My favorite thing about the label and the role it plays in my life is that amazing feeling of pride and enjoyment — “nachus,” we would say in Yiddish — that comes when I’m able to help our artists “hit the mark,” whether creatively or in terms of garnering an opportunity to connect with a wider audience. Another word for that might be community… we like to think of the label as a kind of family, even though of course it’s a business. It is absolutely a labor of love for all involved, and to work with such a passionate group of individuals — both the staff and artists — is a true honor. It also kicks my arse and encourages me to continually push myself creatively as a musician and performer to be surrounded by staff and artists whose talents and work ethics I admire so deeply.
How did you get involved with Lifetime’s hit show Dance Moms?
It’s all been a bit mysterious, and felt like the universe just wanted me to get involved in the dance-world again; but basically, the lyrical dance circuit — if you will — has been using a lot of my music, for years, well before the show ever aired. Abby Lee Miller actually used one of me songs, “Frost,” a decade ago for her competitions, and my understanding now is that even before the show aired, her school was using a bunch of my songs and winning with them at competitions. So, it was very fortunate for me when her show blew up, and she continued to want to use my music, which MPress happened to have already submitted to a library from which Lifetime licenses music, for their shows. They started using a couple last year, then mining my whole last album, pretty much.
Eventually I was invited to appear on the show, which was definitely an interesting experience! I was a serious ballet student in my youth, so it’s been very flattering and inspiring to watch these talented young girls reinterpret my songs. They are all really lovely, sweet and hard-working young people and if I’m ever feeling lazy all I have to do is watch one of their routines on YouTube and remember what is humanly possible, with hard work and dedication! We recently reconnected in Kilkenny, Ireland where I was on tour, and Abby and the girls happened to be giving a master class to some local students. My violinist and I ended up having dinner with them in the basement of a pub and spontaneously serenading them during dessert, it was pretty memorable! Ultimately, what this experience has given me has been a key back into my first love, which was dance. Being a dancer is what taught me virtually everything I know about music — it’s really an unexpected full circle.
What are your must listens for 2015?
First off, there’s new music from The Weepies, woohoo! I went to college with Steve Tannen and love Deb Talan’s voice so much, it’s just great to hear them keep evolving and every song they write is an ear-worm that’s deceptively simple and completely essential. And, of course, everyone must listen to my label-mate Seth Glier’s forthcoming album, If I Could Change One Thing! He’s grown so much as a writer and performer, and there are some really timeless, universal songs and themes on this record. My favorite song is the title track, a gorgeous duet he does with Crystal Bowersox.
Aside from that… well, fresh off of SXSW I would definitely encourage folks to keep an ear out for Canada’s JP Hoe, whose songwriting just slays me — he has so many songs I wish I’d written, just a clever, super-melodic writer in the vein of Neil Finn; he’s got a new record coming out soon, so that’s exciting. I’m actually anticipating a lot of pending releases — including a new EPK from Brooklyn-based art-punk-rockers J & The 9’s, who completely blew me away at SXSW with their incredible, high energy stage show and super catchy tunes. One of my current favorite singer-songwriters is another Brooklyn-native, Matt Nakoa, who has a beautiful release called A Dozen Other Loves. He’s wildly talented and reminds me a bit of Jamie Cullum and Harry Connick Jr. with a little Jeff Buckley… just instantly classic — and one of the very best pianists I’ve ever heard. I think we’re going to keep hearing a lot from folk-pop duo The Sea The Sea, as well as our newest band (shameless plug!) A Fragile Tomorrow, and the band Shel, a wonderful sister-group who sing like angels and write completely unique, sweeping Celtic-tinged song and have a new album coming out soon too. It’s going to be a very inspiring Spring!
What piece of advice would you give other label owners/musicians?
Expect the unexpected and be ready to make the most of every interesting situation that arises. Be driven, but be adaptable and generous to others along the way — you can all rise together!
Years ago, I was 100% sure I wanted XYZ kind of career, and that included very little of the one I actually have sustained, or specifically, this particular gratifying experience of being in a leadership role, with other artists. Hold tight to your discipline, your craft, your music, your art… but don’t hold so tightly to your initial career-vision that you miss the chance to explore what might surpass it, or develop you further as an artist or business-person in a substantive way. I call this “going where the love is.” We say it constantly at the label: “go where the love is.” The “love” may not be in your own backyard by the way; for me, it wasn’t really. I found my true voice and sensibility by leaving NYC, ultimately, and by stretching myself in front of European audiences, before I felt comfortable enough to do that back home.
For musicians and entrepreneurs alike, what you do and create will be a positive mirror for certain people, they will identify with it and it will be immediate and visceral. Remember those people are precious and a kind of lamp-post through the darkness of whoever else who may not “get” it, initially. Treat them with enormous respect and inclusiveness because they are part of your team, and can help light the path toward building more of your audience.
This business, like most, is about people and relationships every step of the way, and even if you’re introverted — which many musicians are — there are ways to connect now online that can have a powerful, lasting impact, and ways to give a leg up to your peers that will enrich you as much as require you to go out on a limb. Treating every listener like they are a universe, being open-minded to adventure, and embracing what at first seems far-fetched, may lead your further than your long-held plans. Someone very attuned to his creativity said this to me today on Facebook, and I thought it was amazing: “There will be more songs, and more paintings, but there will only be one me.” I love that, because what it signifies to me is that perspective, vision and point-of-view trump any single accomplishment. It took me until my 30’s to really believe that, but it’s a huge gift to realize for instance, that uplifting someone struggling with mental or physical illness through music is more satisfying than winning an award. Music has still has the power to radically change people’s lives in a positive way, and the good news is the world needs that now, more than ever.
Thanks, Rachael! And for everyone reading this: Rachael Sage will be touring through May; check out her tour dates here.