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Songs of sickness and health: Rachael Sage, and the album she wrote during her cancer treatment

Rachael Sage’s new album Character was written in the wake of a life-changing cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery period. Songs of bravery, gratitude, compassion, authenticity and optimism – we caught up with Rachael to find out more.

Could you tell us a bit about how the album came about?

I wrote and recorded “Character” as I was recovering from treatment for endometrial cancer. After I was diagnosed in 2018, I essentially spent the whole of the next year receiving chemo and radiation therapy and recovering from surgery. I had very little energy and wasn’t able to do much creatively, but I devoted all my focus and strength to being the very best patient I possibly could. It was a humbling and overwhelming experience, but as you can imagine, by the time I was almost better every fibre of my being was eager and hungry to get back to doing what I love most – making music!

Once I was well enough, I started to slowly get back into it, playing keyboard, guitar and doing a little vocalizing. Soon that led to me writing a new batch of songs (during winter 2018 and into the new year). By early 2019 I was grateful to be back in the studio with my favorite people – who just happen to be my engineers and bandmates – relishing every moment of answering what has become my most pressing question in the wake of my own cancer experience: “what defines character?”

What are your reasons for wanting to share this very personal experience with us, through music?

I never really think of my writing process as exclusively “personal” to be honest. I mean, we are all inextricably connected, and especially having been raised in the Jewish religion that has been pressed upon me from my first day of Hebrew school! “Every person is a universe…” And here we all are, sharing this collective journey. The personal is also inevitably political, because the freedom we have in our individual lives – as women, as medical patients, as citizens – is tied so inextricably to our larger society and the challenges we face, together.

So my reasons for sharing my thoughts, feelings and questions on this album were not entirely different from on any other, really; my first presumption making art of any kind is that if I am, try to be my own muse and authentic in my expressiveness. It will necessarily resonate and hopefully, help others via some kind of catharsis or uplift –  the way any art is meant to do. That is my job, however personal, and I probably take it way too seriously but this time it really did feel like the most important thing I could possibly do, to turn a difficult time into a meditation on gratitude, hope and simply being human.

What are you hoping your audience will take from it?

I am hoping listeners will hear this album and that in my own chronicle of finding my way through a dark time toward an even brighter light, so to speak, they will find hope, as well as the ability to embrace forgiveness. When one receives a cancer diagnosis it is a natural thing to experience regret: regret that you didn’t exercise more, that you ate poorly, that you didn’t sleep enough, that you were not mindful of others or simply that you didn’t take better care of yourself mentally. Inevitably I experienced those sorts of negative, self-judgmental thoughts, but what my cancer journey taught me was that everything truly begins with your outlook, and with your ability to choose how you interact with the world and the people around you; we all have an enormous amount of power and can inspire others, even at our weakest, physically.

Every day I saw examples of doctors, nurses, administrators, friends, family ‘stepping up’ for myself and many others, being kind and helpful well above/beyond what was required. I also saw patients enduring pain with grace, and others struggling to do so and all of it held a mirror up to my life and begged many questions that hopefully, this album answers compassionately, through the creative process.

It has been humbling to have many people approach me at live shows along my tour dates thus far, and tell me my song ‘Bravery’s On Fire’ in particular has granted them a kind of permission to be honest and vulnerable – whether with themselves or others. So much of our days are spent putting on a brave face, pretending we are ‘okay’, and generally feeling we may be the only one experiencing whatever challenge we may be facing. Likewise, my song ‘Blue Sky Days’  – which is essentially about being present, mindful and grateful for beauty, even amidst chaos – seems to be striking a deep chord with my listeners.

I’m glad that in some way, the experiences I’ve had before making this music, along with the boundaries I’ve found it helpful to create in order to stay healthy and a ‘cancer thriver’, have helped me write material that can be a positive source of uplift, to others!

Right now is a very challenging time for everyone and there is a sense that no one really knows the truth or understands the nuance of so much of what we are seeing in the media. I know that for me, being creative and making music quite literally saved my life and helped me recover from a very dark period, both mentally and physically. In much the same way, my connections with close friends when I was struggling – even if through a computer or social media – were a huge source of comfort.

With much of the world being told to “stay home” and to literally not touch one another, there is going to be a lot of anxiety and stress as well as literal and emotional isolation. I think we are being forced as a collective world community to take the hardest look we’ve ever had to take, at how we’ve been treating one another as well as our planet. It is of course, very painful but it can also be something that helps us make wiser, more positive choices moving forward, in so many realms. I guess what I’m saying is that even in the context of suffering, we have opportunities to find renewed purpose and distill who we truly want to be. My prayer right now happens to be embedded in this music, and it is a message of hope derived from the fact that every single one of us has the ability to be a ‘light’, and to make choices that improve the state of our own well being, our family, our friends, and therefore the wider world.

Character by Rachael Sage is out Friday 24th July 2020 via her own label, MPress Records.

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