Abby Sage invites you to the visual world of ‘The Rot’

A bby Sage blinks into the light. It’s morning time in Los Angeles, current home base for the Toronto-born singer-songwriter. The sun blares through the window, drenching everything in frame in a luminous glow, reducing things to their purest form. On Zoom with NME from her home, Sage speaks softly and chooses her words carefully – kind of like how her music sounds: a form of self-expression that is earnest yet subtle, a quiet tone revealing thoughtful lyricism and a deep sense of introspection.

Sage first made her mark in 2021, with a distinctive style blending folky sensibilities with the buzzy emotional technicolour of the indie-pop tradition. “Fucking hate it when you call me darling on an LA morning in the middle of the spring”, she sang on ‘When I Leave’ from her debut EP ‘Fear Of Yours & Mine’. She moved on to crafting dreamy stories of friendship on 2022 EP ‘The Florist’, weaving delicate melodies between rolling drumbeats and careening electric guitar. Finding her place in the hazy universes of Faye Webster or even Mazzy Star, she gained favour across the worlds of alt and indie music, soon opening up for the likes of Gus Dapperton, Vacations and Suki Waterhouse.

From the luminous, Chagall-esque paintings of ‘The Florist’ to the imaginatively staged portraits of ‘Fears of Yours & Mine’, visuals have been an integral part of Sage’s artistry. The artwork and videos for her upcoming debut album, ‘The Rot’ (due March 1), showcase imaginative papier mâche creations hand made by Sage herself. “I found that crafting the puppetry and papier mâche helped me to get my point across”, Sage tells NME. “It’s important to me to build a world when I’m writing music.”

Now, Sage is turning her gaze inward and exploring the arc of growing up. Jumping off from storytelling on her projects to date, Sage takes on the project of revisiting her entire life on ‘The Rot’. From examining memories of childhood, blurry yet formative, on ‘Milk’ to growing up in her family home on ‘3 Floors, 3 Doors’, she takes a fine-tooth comb to the pivotal moments that subconsciously made her who she is.

Sage dances lightfooted through the album across quietly visceral contemplations about youth, sexuality, and identity. At the beginning of this new musical chapter, NME joins her to take stock of how far she’s come.

NME: Tell us about the idea of the “rot”. What does that mean to you, and how does it show up in the music and project? 

“Over the past year and a half, I spent a lot of time alone and wanted to dive deeper into myself. I thought a lot about what was important to me and what didn’t align anymore. I unlearned old ways of thinking in order to start over anew.

“I think everyone kind of goes through that. There’s a cyclical nature to looking at something that felt so right to you before, but that you now have to let go of. I named the album ‘The Rot’ after that cyclical process of growth, a form of ‘rot’ in a positive, natural sense.

“My last project was called ‘The Florist’. It was quite observational, and written like I was tending to something that already existed. I zoomed out into a lot of different chapters of my life when writing this album – from childhood through to all the important moments – and found a lot of necessary vulnerability.”

You split your time between LA and London, and are originally from Toronto. How does a sense of place influence your music? 

“I’ve lived in LA for about three years but still haven’t found all that much inspiration here, probably because I fall into the same daily routine. Being in a different place, like the UK, enables me to take a step back and look at my life through a different lens. I get a lot of good from getting away from my day to day.

“That’s why I do a lot of my writing in the UK. My mom’s side of the family is there, and I found Roy and Tim [production duo MyRiot] out there a few years ago when we made my first EP. I knew they were the ones I would be comfortable exploring all of this with, so I went back out there to write this album.”

abby sage
Credit: Abby Sage

The themes and lyrics of ‘The Rot’ show a fascination with the grotesqueness of life. What drove you to explore this, and how does the music delve into that? 

“I think you have to be jolted in some way to create change. And so I wanted the lyrics to be jarring in their imagery and what they evoke. The line ‘Cut it out with a knife’ on ‘Obstruction’ is a very visual representation of making a change in your life by removing something unwanted from it. Similarly, the line on ‘Milk’, ‘I want to drink my milk in my own filth’, is a very visceral kind of plea to get back to that dirty, original freedom of childhood.”

It seems like you’re facing up to an inherent messiness in human relationships… 

“Interestingly, for this album I wanted to avoid writing about relationships in the standard sense like I have on other projects. I wasn’t seeing anyone when I was writing this album, and wasn’t necessarily reflecting on any past romantic relationships either.

“‘Obstruction’ is more about a pestering thought than a person or a relationship. The ‘obstruction’ is a personification of the feeling of something bothering you, like it’s a person knocking at your door. There was a memory of something that wouldn’t leave me alone, and I wanted to get it out of my mind.”

“It’s important to me to build a world when I’m writing music”

Visuals are a key part of your work. With ‘The Rot’ in particular, there’s a real theatricality to the videos, from the art direction to the papier mâché crafts. What were your intentions with this? 

“The subject matter of this album covered such a large span of time. I wanted to create a ‘theatre production’ with the visuals as a reference to the way our lives have so many ‘different acts’.

“I’ve always done arts and crafts and made things with my hands. In my early years, we were always playing outside and getting our hands dirty, which I definitely carry with me now. I feel like being hands on helps me tell things the right way.

“There’s also just something so beautiful when you break the ‘fourth wall’ and things look like they are man made or designed by someone. There’s no tricks or gimmicks.”

You’ve said that ‘Hunger’ is about sexuality and the way we learn about it growing up. What moved you to explore this idea in song? 

“There’s so much misinformation about sexuality that gets spread. Especially at a young age when you’re only just starting to explore the world. The perception of sex shifts so much. One minute it’s something bad or harmful, yet it’s also supposed to be the most beautiful thing in the world.

“I came to a place of realising how natural desire and sexuality are, even though there’s so much shame attached to them for various reasons, especially for young women. I wrote ‘Hunger’ for my younger self and for people who are experiencing that confusion and misinformation.”

Sonically, ‘The Rot’ is quiet and sparse compared to your previous projects, which had a greater presence of percussion and electronic elements. What went into creating the sound of the album? 

“I used to have such a desire to fill space and mask my vocals in some way, or do something that made me feel more safe. But this project isn’t supposed to make me feel safe. I felt it was right to let the sound represent how honest I’m being on this music. Given how important the topics are, we chose this sonic palette to let them speak for themselves.”

What does performing live mean to you? 

“I really love playing live. I open for very different people, but it’s been really nice to see a through line of respect through every crowd I’ve played for.  People at my shows are very engaged and it’s a beautiful thing. That connection is the most important part for me, because you can see it immediately. You’ll say something and see it click on someone’s face in real time.”

Abby Sage’s debut album ‘The Rot’ will be released on March 1 via Nettwerk

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