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Sage for the Ages

Over the past decade, Rachael Sage has become a veritable Renaissance woman, claiming singer-songwriter, record company founder, voice-over artist, pianist and ballet dancer among her many artistic accomplishments.

From a child dancing pas de deux in such productions as “The Nutcracker” with The School of American Ballet to earning a degree in Drama from Stanford University, this entrepreneur has always taken her talent into her own capable hands.

“I’d been recording my music my whole life,” said Sage, whose lyrics recall relationship heartbreak and the oozing pain of loneliness and isolation. “I just felt there was so much I can do on my own. I saw other people doing it, such as the Indigo Girls, and I thought, ‘I can do this.’”

By this, Sage is referring to MPress Records, the label she started in 1996 at the age of 24. She was and remains more concerned with getting her music heard than signing with an established record label that might wrestle creative control from her, and she is now in the studio recording her sixth CD, titled “Ballads and Burlesque,” due out this August.

Many critics have drawn comparisons between Sage and indie luminary Ani DiFranco (though, according to Sage, she has a lot more in common with Carole King); indeed, this summer, she has shared the stage with DiFranco, as well as Suzanne Vega and Eric Burdon & the New Animals.

Sage’s songs blend old-world melodies with whimsical rifts, implanting both modern themes and painful historical events. The resulting sound is both balm-like soothing and icily haunting and boldly recalls a rich Jewish cultural heritage born of Eastern European ancestry (Sage is of Russian-Jewish descent). A letter read during a Yom Kippur martyrology service at her synagogue inspired one of Sage’s songs, “93 Maidens.” In the letter, Haya Feldman, a young woman in the Warsaw Ghetto, describes crushingly how she and 92 of her classmates planned to poison themselves rather than let the Nazis rape and kill them.

As many of her fans know, in a very Sandy Koufax-esque gesture, Sage never plays on any of the High Holy Days or on Passover, and tries, even while on the road, to light Sabbath candles.

But even they might not have realized that Sage has been channeling her Jewish roots through the music she mixes since she was knee-high to a Steinway. “When I was about 5, my parents took me to a Jewish community center to hear Israeli folk music,” she recalled in a recent interview. “I would come home from Hebrew school and pound out the tunes I’d hear — L’cha Dodi and Ma Tovu — on the piano.”

Sage was a grand prize winner in the 2001 John Lennon Songwriting Contest. She also was commissioned to record, “Song of Songs,” a Ladino ballad, for the American Jewish Ballet. The song premiered at the Spoleto Festival in 2000.

“I learned at an early age that I didn’t need to draw a line between my religious education and my music,” said Sage. “Judaism is pretty much the biggest influence on my sense of melody.”

Malina Saval is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles.

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