My name is Rachael Sage, I live in New York City, and I’m an artist. I began as a dancer, and now I sing, write music, create visual art, and I also run a record label. Half of the time it’s fascinating adventure, and the other half of the time, it’s so challenging I'm still very often tempted to just quit. But the one thing above all that’s armed me, guided me, and comforted me through every struggle and rejection is a wonderfully simple Jewish concept called “Chutzpah”.
The common definition of “Chutzpah” usually includes some combination of nerve, gumption, defiance, and courage. My first public performance was my Bat Mitzvah. An over-eager student, as well as the daughter of an avid feminist, even at 12 years old I saw no reason why I should only be allowed to perform the traditional Haftorah portion, just because that’s what was expected of me. Instead, when I proposed to my mother that I could learn and perform the entire service by myself, without the help of the Rabbi or the Cantor, she told me simply: “well then just ask to do it! In this life, you have to have chutzpah, period – and honey, you definitely have it.”
Whether or not I had it naturally, or because my mother convinced me I did, I took this sentiment and ran with it. I believe that this willingness - to have the nerve to try things everyone else says you’re not supposed to – has been the key to me becoming an artist, and to so many of the wonderful opportunities I’ve had, since I was the first female to lead our congregation in an entire Shabbat service, at the age of 12.
A couple years later, “Chutzpah” played another huge role in the beginning of my journey as a recording artist. I’d seen an article in People Magazine about Debbie Gibson, a teen-pop singer, who was the youngest girl to ever produce a #1 hit on the Billboard Charts. She wrote, sang and produced her own song, “Foolish Beat”. I read the article over and over and thought, “I could do that!” So, while my parents were out, I got out the NY phonebook and dialed her manager, whose name was mentioned in the article. He actually picked up! “Hello? How can I help you?” “Just have chutzpah…I said to myself…”; I could barely breathe. I explained that I was a teenager like Debbie Gibson who’d written over 100 songs, that I’d recorded them all on a four-track, I thought many of them could be hits, and I asked if I could send them to him. Miraculously, he said yes, and I did. A few days later he called asking for me, and I had some explaining to do to my mom! Ultimately, he became my first manager, connected me with my very first singing teacher --whose vocal exercise I still use every day to warm up -- and my very first producer, Andy Zulla, who helped me make my first several albums.
As a theater major at Stanford University, I had a lot of opportunity to use my “Chutzpah” in ways that helped further develop me as a person, and inevitably, as an artist. When I arrived at school I was relatively wide-eyed and innocent. Early in my first year though, I was date-raped. Lost, confused, depressed, and essentially broken, I had to somehow find my way back to the person I knew I had always been…someone strong, someone with purpose, someone bigger than just a victim.
All my life, since I’d been 5 years old, when I’d had dreams of being a an actress and a pop star, in my imagination it looked like Hollywood and Television. I’d dreamed of Grammys and Oscars and red-carpets and Billboard Charts – I’d had very big, very flashy stars in my eyes. After I was assaulted, I had something else. I had a genuine need for answers, and for hope, and for empowerment. I worried that I’d lost my “Chutzpah”, but what I couldn’t see yet was that I’d simply redefined it. The nerve that I needed now, wasn’t nerve to audition for Broadway or send a demo to a record executive. The nerve I needed, suddenly, was to write and sing from the deepest possible place I could find, in my own voice – simply to survive.
In over a decade of releasing a dozen albums, and playing hundreds of shows around the world, there has only been one constant upon which I could ever rely: not everyone will love what I do. But the only antidote to that, to stay sane, energized and inspired, has been my ability to summon my inner chutzpah. When I started playing New York clubs, and people were talking through my entire sets, it’s what propped me up there; I had the nerve to think I actually had something worth singing. When I was told innumerable times by “music professionals” that I should be writing songs for other people because my own voice was “just too quirky” for me to ever be successful, it was my inner chutzpah that helped me smile, say thank you and keep practicing. When my first acting agent, at aged 15, told me that I was a “terrific little actress” but in order to move forward I’d need to get my nose fixed, it was my inner chutzpah that blurted out, “but what about Barbra Streisand?”
A lot of my lyrics, and virtually all of my favorite songs by other people, are about confronting obstacles and rising above them, with sheer force of will, nerve, “Chutzpah” – whatever you want to call it. Every day, I strive to remain a vibrant, soulful, creative person against all odds: against the odds of an industry based on systematic rejection, against the odds of intense competition, against the odds of physical and emotional exhaustion, and more than anything, against the odds of my own self-doubt. When everyone else is telling you no, or even if you’re just afraid they might, I encourage you all to arise from the ashes on your own phoenix of chutzpah, and ask yourself the age-old question “If not me, then who?”
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Rachael Sage has had an illustrious career as an independent artist, respected and praised by the likes of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Rolling Stone and Billboard. She has shared the stage with Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan, and Shawn Colvin and her songs have appeared on MTV, HBO, [...]