Two talents to listen for
Rachael Sage and Natasha Panas are singer-songwriters ready to hit the big time. They are also proud of their very different roots.
Rachael Sage, a folk-inflected rocker in the Sheryl Crow/Alanis Morisette mould with eight albums under her belt, has just been named one of the 100 most influential artists of the past 15 years by Performing Songwriter magazine, alongside such luminaries as Billy Bragg and Joan Jett. Not surprisingly, she is feeling quite upbeat.
"People say I remind them of their kooky, artsy best friend who entertains them," says the theatre-studies graduate on the phone from her home in Manhattan's East Village.
"I'm a combination, sensibility-wise, of Natalie Portman's vulnerability and the range of someone like Cate Blanchett. And Meryl Streep was my idol growing up. I've done a lot of classical theatre, but I've also got kooky red punky hair and a self-deprecating sense of humour. My agent says I'm a female Woody Allen. I'm always making quips onstage about how I'm damaged by Jewish guilt, my nagging family and neurosis in general."
The daughter of Orthodox Jews, Sage loved Hebrew school and, ever the entertainer, saw her batmitzvah as "her first big gig". "I really enjoyed singing my portion, it connected to me personally. I was a bit of a geek that way. Plus, I think I had a crush on my cantor - he was a guitar-strumming singer-songwriter on the side.
"What my ancestors went through, having come from Russia and Germany and, under duress, been afraid to be who they were," she adds, "has made me appreciate my Jewish roots."
She also believes that everything from the concept of tzedakah (charity) to Israeli music, particularly what she calls the "minor-chord Hatikvah type of melody", have seeped into her songwriting. "Anything I heard growing up, from cantorial music to Broadway to folk, went into the soup."
Her Jewishness sets her apart - in those areas of the US where Jews are few and far between, she is most popular. "In the Deep South or Midwest, I seem more colourful than most folk singer-songwriters. In New York, I'm a dime a dozen."
She even has, on her website, a Yiddish dictionary, with her very own bespoke definitions and examples. Here's how she puts mishugenah into modern context on www.rachaelsage.com: "All those people who think it's worth the risk, driving and talking on the cell phone - they're all mishugenahs! Didn't they see that episode of Oprah?"
Sage is something of an entrepreneur, with her own record label, MPress. But she admits that a spate of personal crises - she has been "facing a lot of challenges with friends going through severe depression and eating disorders" - have made her want to challenge the perception people have of her Stateside as "this empowered, progressive, strong feminist woman who couldn't show her vulnerability." Hence, her latest album, Chandeliers, is a far softer and more sensitive record than her previous ones. "It's kind of an un-New York album for me," she says.
So what is it with her and chandeliers? "For a couple of years I've had a chandelier fetish," she explains.
"I was on tour in San Francisco and I hit this street where there was store after store of chandeliers selling wholesale. There was something so poetic about this one item that I'd only thought of as rare and fancy and lending class and sparkle to one room, and then thrown on top of each other like they'd found each other. I love things that glitter and sparkle. I'm a bit of a straight drag queen."
Natasha Panas is a Sade-ishly smooth jazz-, soul- and blues-influenced singer-songwriter with a startling backstory. Her Warsaw-born grandmother, Ruth Altbeker Cyprys, escaped the Nazis with Panas's mother, then two years old, by cutting through the bars of a train truck heading for Treblinka concentration camp.
"She was a strong and resourceful lady," says Panas, who has something of her grandmother's force of character, acquired from years on the cabaret circuit. "She kept a hacksaw in her boot."
Cyprys told her tale in the biography, A Jump For Life. It was published in 1994, but Panas could not bear to read it until 1997, while in Milan on her "year abroad" during a music and Italian degree. "It was overwhelming," she reveals. "It also made me wonder about my identity and my destiny."
Because of her mother, she was Jewish, and yet her father was a Greek-Italian who was born in Ethiopia and grew up in the Belgian Congo. And, besides, after the war, her grandmother shunned Judaism "because she thought admitting she was Jewish was asking for trouble". Confused, she arranged a meeting with Milan's chief rabbi.
"He was hysterical," she recalls. "Rabbis are some of the funniest people on the planet - they've all got that same laconic tone of voice. It was funny hearing an Italian one with the same inflection. He said: ‘Why are you here?' I explained to him, and he asked: ‘Is your mother Jewish?' So I told him, and he said: ‘Don't worry, you're a Yid!'"
Although Panas is, like Rachael Sage, in her thirties, she is about to release her first album, Yellow Flowers. But her CV is far from empty - she performed at Stringfellows nightclub in London when she was 16, and has toured as backing vocalist with everyone from Vanessa Mae to Ms Dynamite. She has dabbled in the world of soulful house with a friend who calls her "the piano bitch with the perfect pitch".
She even recorded an album and played some shows with Harper Simon, son of the legendary Paul, and his band Menlo Park. "Those were the craziest gigs I've ever done," she laughs. "They were at the Masonic Temple in London. There was a guy wearing a wolf's head and a girl with a bird's head at the door, and everyone else had on cloaks and masks. I was alone on the makeshift stage, draped over a throne. It was nerve-wracking: Paul Simon was there." What did he make of it? "I don't know - he was wearing a mask."
Yellow Flowers is titled after an Italian friend, "a traffic-stoppingly beautiful girl" who died in a car crash 10 years ago. "It was a massive shock - the first time I lost someone I was close to."
The album was produced by Paul Simm, who has worked with Sugababes and Amy Winehouse. It features vocal contributions from David McAlmont. On it, Panas explores themes of "love lost, loneliness and disillusionment".
But it is not all despair. "There are some really happy songs on there," she reassures. "I'm multifaceted," she adds. "I can be really loud, which is understandable coming from Jewish, Greek and Italian stock, but I'm prone to melancholia, a result of spending so much time alone, writing and performing."
There is a track called Ah Satan - so is she a bad girl on the quiet? "Ah Satan - that's my name backwards!" she explains.
"It's about when you do things and you know they're a bit naughty, but you have this devil on your shoulder. Not that I do naughty things... although I have driven through the odd red light."