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How Rachael Sage Owns Her Role as Music Producer in the Face of Sexism
One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is why I often feel so hyper-driven to “prove” myself in so many different realms, as a member of the Music Industry – in addition to simply “being an artist.”
I think at the heart of most of my career-choices, since I was a very young girl, has been a distinct sense that I was never expected to deliver quite as much as my male counterparts, whether as a musician, a producer, or a business-savvy individual.
I have an early memory of being told by a fellow student in a high school electronic music class that I was probably never going to be as good a keyboard player as I could be a pianist because “women just aren’t as technically inclined as men”…the implication being that somehow, because of my gender I was not apt to be as innovative or edgy in my sonic sensibilities as I might be “sensitive,” as a girl. From that moment, I became very attuned to both sound/sonics and my natural love of melody and performance, almost as a rebellion against that assertion. Later that year when I took the stage at a talent show – and won – playing my self-programmed Jupiter 8 alongside several drum-machines and sequencers, it was partly an act of protest; I didn’t want to just be “the girl at the piano.”
Production has always been such a haven for me, of self-expression and empowerment. From my early teens, I fancied myself a producer, demoing hundreds of songs on my four-track, and eventually, landing some “production deals” by virtue of my home-grown recordings. Slowly, I learned that most producers I encountered – at least at that stage – had an almost predictable set of preconceptions about what I, as a female artist, might not comprehend adequately about my own music and creative vision. I learned very quickly to distinguish between a producer who actually valued my ideas and was positively nurturing, vs. the more common character who saw an opportunity to manipulate me into emulating something more commercial or at worst, generic.
If there was resistance, the default was often, “trust me – you’re a very attractive, talented young lady, but I know what I’m doing…” as though because I was “cute” I couldn’t possibly know what I wanted my music to sound like! In moments like that, my inner-fire to self-produce, or seek out more respectful, open-minded collaborators was fueled. Incidentally, not once in over a decade of recording hundreds of songs did I encounter one female producer or engineer, in my teens or twenties. Kind of incredible!
Of course, a lot of this paradigm has shifted, as social norms across the board have evolved and women have become more accepted – and proactive – about entering positions in production and engineering. Women like Linda Perry have served as beacons to artists like myself, even as I wish gender simply didn’t enter the equation of music-making, period.
Over the years, I’ve been wildly fortunate to have surrounded myself with wonderfully talented, open-minded and supportive team-members both in the recording studio and at my label, MPress, so I am very, very lucky and cherish these relationships with diverse artists and peers who “get” and support my artistry. And yet, strange attitudes and behaviors still persist when it comes to the specific area of studio production, I find.
Often I’ll invite session players to work on a track and even the most loving, amenable and otherwise “progressive” male player will have an automatic tendency to bypass eye-contact with me when another male (i.e. engineer) is present, turn to them continually to ask for their opinion even though I’ve already made a solid suggestion or given feedback, and generally assume I’m really more of the “artist” even though they know I am producing. It can feel like a men’s-club, even though in another context like a live band rehearsal I would receive a very different type of energy. In such situations, of course I’m naturally upbeat and do my best to maintain the focus of simple trying to create the best possible recording that serves the material; but I do notice the behavior, and on the up-side, it can bolster my determination and push me to be more articulate and communicate more directly.
All in all, every day I believe there are always opportunities to “show by doing,” and to just forge ahead even when you get a no, or meet with opposition based on subtle or not-so-subtle stereotypes of what qualities are “more male or female” in the music industry. The long-held “men are logical and women are emotional” stereotype surfaces in myriad ways but it’s just something that encourages me to refine all aspects of my roles both as a creative artist and a producer/label owner, and to become as empowered a version of myself as possible.
When I encounter other young musical women or LGBT/minority youth who seek creative mentorship in whatever form, I always remember how inspiring it was for me to have access, however briefly, to the handful of amazing indie/DIY individuals early in my career – from Ani DiFranco to Sarah McLachlan to Susan Blond – who sparked something in me. I do my best to try to help them turn keys of natural passion and aptitude and help open doors. I would be such a different person without the strong female characters I’ve encountered whether via music industry groups like Women In Music, Indiegrrl and GoGirlsMusic, or more personal peer-relationships with artists like Judy Collins and my musical partner/violinist, Kelly Halloran.
Last week I attended a benefit hosted by Cyndi Lauper, who is doing great work on behalf of LGBT homeless youth. She is a perfect example of someone who effects change not just be “being herself,” but by using her platform to encourage others to do the same. Inspiration is everywhere, and obstacles are only as great as you let them be. I’m so grateful I had a mom who always told me that even if I had to work twice as hard because I was a women, all my goals were always within reach because thankfully I was willing and able to work harder. She instilled in me a sense that being part of any particular group striving for justice (in my case: Jewish, female, bisexual) necessarily arms you to be more sensitive to others – and I love that philosophy!
All the artists on my label are advocates for causes in which they believe passionately, and I really do think the challenges we face early in life help distill each of us into exactly who we want to be and what energy we want to project into the world, as members of our communities. I hope that I’m some sort of uplifting example, somehow, to other female artist/producers, and that one day soon, it won’t be remotely surprising to see a woman at the console, or any other “desk,” in whatever capacity!
Rachael Sage has become one of the busiest touring artists in independent music, performing worldwide with her band The Sequins. Sage has shared stages with Sarah McLachlan, A Great Big World, Colin Hay, Shawn Colvin, Marc Cohn, The Animals and Ani DiFranco. She has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and received numerous songwriting awards including The John Lennon Songwriting Contest (Grand Prize) and several Independent Music Awards. Her songs have appeared on MTV, HBO, the Fame soundtrack, and in the current season of Lifetime’s top reality series, Dance Moms. MPress Records recently released Sage’s latest full-length album, “Blue Roses,” which features members of Daft Punk, Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen’s bands, and a duet with Judy Collins. For more, visit www.rachaelsage.com.