By larry may
In the middle of a tour to support a new record and also losing her voice, Rachael Yamagata is fielding phone calls from assorted journalists and hacks from various music mags. All of the calls have to be made before grabbing a quick shower and heading to a faceless venue to promote her new double CD, “Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart”.
She is gracious, amiable and as cheery on the phone as the girl you knew in high school and just ran into again. There is none of the usual trepidation that an interviewer has to endure while an artist begins to let their guard down, and her answers, while most assuredly rehearsed down to the quick, are provided with none of the weariness that characterizes the stock responses that will get one of the phone as quickly as possible.
Rachael is genuinely excited to talk about her new record and treats me not like another interview, but rather like she is a hostess inviting you into her world.
When asked about her roots, she said, “I was brought up in the suburbs of Maryland and Washington, D.C. I was split between DC and upstate New York, because my parents were divorced. Mostly, it was DC until I went to college at Northwestern, with one year at Vassar. Then I joined a band named Bumpus, and went solo in 2000. I put out my first EP in 2001. I started writing really late, because I always thought I was going to be an actress. I studied theater in school. I was also a French major and an Italian major for a short while. Music really took over for me the first time I saw Bumpus, which I ended up joining later”. Staying with the school theme, she expounded on her scholastic career, adding, “I was a great student in high school, making all A’s until tenth grade. But I got tired right when everybody else is hunkering down for college. I had a real problem with discipline. I could write an A paper and refuse to turn it in on time, and take a lesser grade two days late. I had a problem not with the work, but more the institution of school itself”.
I told her about the overwhelmingly positive reviews I had received when I played her new album for music fans, and I also wanted to know if she was as serious and as dark as the “Elephant” half of her record suggested. She replied, “I’m really not. I have a cold, and I’m losing my voice, which makes me sound more somber. But the first part of this (Elephant) is a really internal record. It’s a very cinematic, in your head, heartbroken, vulnerable experience for me. But because I can get that stuff out on record, I’m really lighthearted most of the day. I have a pretty strong sense of humor, and try not to take myself too seriously. People don’t really expect that when they meet me, but I use the songs to get rid of that dark downtrodden stuff”.
She talked about some of the songs on the new record, and she explained first about “What If I Leave”. “That was one of the first songs written two years ago, and the only way it made the record was the spontaneous recording we used on it. We all fell into the rhythm, which was very tribal, very trance like. It gave life to the song, to the point where I took out some lyrics to let the music breathe a little more. It has a hypnotic feel to it, which is a perfect fit to keep the dreamlike quality of the entire record. But it felt right to have that song right after “Elephants”, which is not the most straightforward song”.
We also discussed the song “Duet”, which is well, a duet with Ray Lamontagne. “I wrote the entire song, and had his voice in mind when I wrote it, I thought we would be a great match. I had sung on one of the tracks for his record, we’ve known each other for years. We were recording at the same studio back to back, so it made a lot of sense. Our voices mesh together really well, and he is such an emotive singer that I think it works really well”.
This new album was inspired by some trying times. She lost her adored stepmother, endured a busted eardrum while on vacation, and dealt with a lot of heartache. After hearing “Elephants”, she really has used this record to give this pain a place to exist and also to serve as catharsis for the last two years. “ I had some huge ups and downs professionally, really with such an intense schedule and losing your own sense of time. I had to digest and process all of that, and then there were shifts in my personal life. I had a death in my family which affected me rather deeply, and that led to some of the darker themes on this record”. If pain creates great art, Yamagata has used her sorrow to craft an album that starts slowly, yet forcefully, and finishes with a flourish of emotional release that doesn’t require the listener to skip even one track.
After laboring over such an exquisite and personal record, Rachael feels like the album should be experienced as a whole piece of art, not cut up into pieces, as has become the norm with today’s technology. This record really feels timeless, and would have had a place in record collections twenty or even thirty years ago, before albums were easily chopped into bits of information on an anonymous hard drive. “It makes me feel like you’re missing the best part, and I love that people are interested, but the sequence was important to me, and took so long to figure out. I have heard this record in every configuration you could imagine. This record flows from each song into the next, and you put so much care into that, because it’s so magical to me to present it that way.
When people only grab a couple of songs, it makes feel that they’re missing out. With this record especially, it is very much to be heard in sequence. I’ll just cross my fingers (that it happens).
Rachael has other interests, adding, “ I would love to write a book. I’ve really gotten into writing prose, and blogging quite a bit. These blogs are my versions of short stories, and I can make them lighthearted, which sheds a different light. I love to talk about my travels. I’d love to compile them into a book, it would be very funny”. She hasn’t completely given up on acting, and has gotten some calls. “ I got offers for some indie things, and “Survivor’ called me. I don’t think they knew that I was a singer. Every once in a while, something will come along, and I’ll audition. I’d love to act again”.
With a new tour, a new album and a new perspective, Rachael Yamagata has a lot to do before the end of the year. “It will hit me when I know there’s nothing I can do about it anymore, and the record is in stores. I’ve given the record up, and now I’m on tour. We did two shows last night, and then drove from Chicago to Minneapolis. The volume of everything you have to do is so intense, and your brain begins to fry. So when the record comes out, it kind of hits you upside the head. You want to smile, and then cry, have a real private moment. I like to wander into a record store, see it on the shelf, and then wander back out. That’s my little moment. But I get over it pretty quick. There are other things to occupy my mind. I guess the world scares me right now. I feel resilient in terms of what I can handle. But there are holes we’re digging, environmentally and politically, that concern me right now. But for right now, I just want to get a sense of peace through release, I’m a firm believer in release. I would like to set things free, in general sense, I’d like to get this record out, move past some past relationships and find my sense of peace again. That’s what I really want to accomplish before the year is over, and start next year with the power of good attitude”.