Rachael Yamagata's first steady music gig was as part of the Chicago funk band Bumpus, back when she was a student at Northwestern. But in 2001, she decided to follow the singer-songwriter muse that she'd been following since she was a kid growing up in the greater Washington DC area.
Almost instantly her first solo album, the 2004 Happenstance, connected with fans, particularly after some of its songs were picked up on shows like Alias and The O.C. Her second album, Elephants, in 2008 rocked a bit more and still found songs landing on TV shows as artists including Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst, Rhett Miller and Ray LaMontagne got her to open shows.
Of her recent works, the title of her 2011 album, Chesapeake, recalled her mid-Atlantic roots; her most recent is the 2016 release, Tightrope Walker. She's been touring almost constantly since, most recently as a solo artist. Yamagata, 40, spoke one winter afternoon from Asheville, North Carolina, where it was unseasonably warm. "It's 75 degrees, which is crazy," she said. "So I'm very excited."
Rachael Yamagata: It is. I'm calling it my big road trip. Basically it's been solo and I've been meeting up with different friends and artists around the country and they've been opening handfuls of shows, and then I move on - planes, trains and automobiles. It's actually kind of fun. I'm having a great time.
Songfacts: I guess your music pretty easily translates to playing it solo, right?
Yamagata: I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if it would be too dark or require too much attention, but it worked out great. I spent a lot of time preparing the setlist. I'm using projectors. I've got a video element that's supplementing the songs and the set.
But yeah, the music does lend itself to a really intimate connection with the audience. I've had fan requests for a long time for me to do something like this and so far, so good. Everybody's loving it. It's its own unique experience, for sure.
Songfacts: Are you learning new things about the songs by playing them solo? Are you approaching the songs in a different way?
Yamagata: I did. Because I'm solo, certain songs make more sense as less rock guitar and more piano ballad. Or vice versa. I always like to change the arrangements anyway, and find a new way of presenting something on a record, just to make a different experience of a live show. But particularly with this tour, there are certain songs I've taken to a different place because of the environment we're creating with this particular show.
Songfacts: Can you give some examples, or do you just want to surprise people?
Yamagata: I'll surprise people actually. You don't always recognize them at first, so when you change them that way, there's always that little aha! moment, which I really love. So I'll keep it on the down-low for now.
Songfacts: I'm calling from DC. I understand you grew up in this area.
Yamagata: I did. I was all over. My dad is still in Georgetown. I grew up in sort of the Gaithersburg, Bethesda [Maryland] area. My brother is in Ashburn, Virginia. So the area is definitely very familiar.
Songfacts: Was it a good place to grow up musically? Were you exposed to a lot of music growing up here?
Yamagata: You know, I was such a nerd. I was, like, all about school, and the music I really got into was when I was in music theater. I was there all through high school doing plays all the time.
I'd heard about places like the 9:30 Club, and there were always the cool girls going to stuff, but I was such a nerd, I stayed in. I went to a bunch of HFS Festivals, so I did some of the summer festival music things, but it wasn't really until later that I got a sense of the music scene in DC.
Songfacts: What were you listening to growing up?
Yamagata: It was a lot of singer-songwriters from the '70s. With my dad and my stepmom, I was always surrounded by artists they were into like Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, Fleetwood Mac. On my mom's side, it was like, Barbra Streisand.
I'd sit in the backyard and listen to Michael Bolton and write in a journal and wish for a boyfriend. It was like, all over the place. But I would say, of musical influences, a lot of the storytellers of the '70s got into my blood, and I love a good story that's done very intimately and honestly.
Yamagata: I think that syncs and placements in TV and movies are always a great, great way to open yourself up to a new audience. The market is super competitive, so when it happens, it's a big deal, it's wonderful.
But I think for my music in particular, it does really lend itself to these universal emotional themes that are carried through in character storylines. So I've been lucky on that front to match up and when it's done well, when you mix those media, it becomes a new thing. Everything gets elevated: the song gets elevated, the storyline, all of it raises to a new level because of the combination.
I'm always fascinated when you get a particular show or movie that really nails it with the music.
Songfacts: Do some fans tell you they've found your music through those channels?
Yamagata: Yeah. There are definitely people who saw me either make an appearance on a show or they heard my song in something. You definitely do have fans for that for sure.
Songfacts: Which of your songs have been used the most in that way?
Yamagata: "Be Be Your Love" was used quite a few times. It's from a record called Happenstance. That one had a thing because it got used worldwide. It actually opened the door for me in Asia, and I've been able to tour quite frequently in Asia. That song was used in quite a few things over there, as well as some things in the US, so that song was super kind to me on that front, for sure.
Songfacts: Do people assume your songs are all autobiographical?
Yamagata: Always. They always assume that. And it's funny, because a lot of songs they also assume are love songs when I didn't actually write about a love relationship.
I'm not one to shy away from playing both sides of a situation: the person who did the right thing, but also the person who did the wrong thing. And I'm a big observer of human nature, so sometimes I'm writing about something that I'm emotionally connected to, but I'm not the main character of the story.
But the great thing about music is that you have your own way to interpret it. I do think people think immediately each song is about my own personal experience. Many of them are, but a lot of them aren't.
Songfacts: How do you approach writing, then?
Yamagata: It's always about problem solving for me. If there is something I don't understand - an emotion, a scenario that's got me bewildered in some way - my best way of articulating it is through music. I need a melody, I need a chord progression and I need the lyric. So it's often been my own attempt to make better sense of a complicated situation.
I see pain in other people that I feel and I want to figure out solutions to it. So sometimes the writing is about investigating why we're doing certain things to each other, or why we can't be our authentic selves, and more heady stuff.
For some reason, making music and writing songs has always been my best way to express myself coherently. I've tried to write prose. I'd love to write a book. I did read that book on "How to Write a Book," but never wrote the book.
It just comes easier to me through song. I usually hole up in a place and for some records, I'll sit down and I'll write 200 songs. They're like conversations, and I'll pick the ones that keep my attention.
For the last record, I did a lot of free writing - sort of stream-of-consciousness journaling every morning, then I would go back and retrace things that I had written and then I'd pick out themes that I really loved. I found about 12 that I really wanted to focus on, and then I'd obsess over these themes, and kept editing and refining and working on songs in a very different way. There's just so many different ways to approach it. [Chris Barron of Spin Doctors is also big on free writing.]
Songfacts: So the words come first and the music follows?
Yamagata: No, I come to write everything at once. I might have a lyric, phrase or an idea for a first line, but I often write the music, melody and lyric all at the same time.
Songfacts: Have you seen your writing become more complex as you've become more experienced?
Yamagata: I think the production is getting more complex. Sometimes the more simple the song, the more complicated it is to write. I'm trying to become a better writer. When I first started, I'd write 15-minute songs, and there was no structure. They'd meander, and then I went through a stage of learning all the rules, and that can really water down certain songs if you're just paying attention to verse-chorus, verse-chorus, and 30 seconds in, you hit the chorus.
And then you get to a point where you use some of the elements of the rules, and some of that meandering inspiration, and then you get real concise with your message, and you combine what you've learned with what's instinctual and that becomes a simple yet very complicated, very learned craft. So I'm trying to always find that balance and find songs that are so rich and stable that they can withstand the test of time or be performed by anybody and still resonate. I feel like I have a lot to learn still.
Songfacts: What song is the most meaningful for you to sing every night?
Yamagata: You know, it actually changes all the time depending on what I'm going through emotionally. The good thing about songwriting is you don't have to be in that same place you were when you wrote it, but you can actually expel emotions you're going through, or work with the lyrics of that song, but there's a different emotional content that it's being used for as a platform. So I don't think I can pick the most important or emotionally gratifying song because it changes all the time.
But I will say "Elephants" in particular, when I wrote it, it was one of those real gifts from above, channeled. You know when artists say something was written in five minutes? That was that song for me. It probably comes the closest to poetry that I'll ever get with the lyric, without much intellectual intention behind it.
It was one of those things where the lyrics were just flooding to me as I was running down a mountain, and I had to keep repeating it to myself until I got back up the mountain where I had a pen and paper and I could write them all down. There are a lot of layers in that song that I think if I had been conscious of sitting down and trying to write that song, it just wouldn't have happened. That one has a special place for me.
Songfacts: Have you tried to replicate that to allow another such song to flow into you?
That was after a big-time emotional experience. I was in the middle of the woods, and there were all these [figurative] animals like elephants and tigers and hawks, and while I was writing it I was walking and running past deer and squirrels, so I don't know why it came out the way it did in the first place.
I am paying attention to allowing myself time to wander and do things that aren't necessarily productive. I'm reading the book The Artist's Way, which is really reminding myself how important it is to explore and not have a to-do list for a little bit. I'm trying to get back to that place.
Songfacts: You've sung with a lot of different artists. Have you written with them too?
Yamagata: I did some writing with Jason Mraz, Mark Batson, Dan Wilson. Ryan Adams was really interesting. He was fun to watch. He would write a song and have verse-chorus and immediately start to record with the band, and do all this crafting really in the moment of inspiration. He was fun to study.
I've been fortunate to work with people who have had really different ways of writing. Some are really disciplined - will write every morning, review once a week what they've got. Everything is very lyrics-first, a lot of editing - a very different style than I do. I think co-writing allows you to learn from each other in a really nice way.
Somebody like Mandy Moore, who I wrote with back in the day, she is so disciplined and so driven and meticulous, and so well-educated with different styles of music. She was just relentless about getting the exact right phrase and really having the emotion expressed in a really succinct way.
She had put out some records with some producers I working with, and she's very, very insightful. Most people know her now for her acting as well, but musically she used to be in this pop world and you wouldn't expect that from her necessarily. She was one of the writers that I collaborated with that I may have learned the most from. So you never know.
Songfacts: Do you think she'll ever go back to songwriting?
Yamagata: Well that show This is Us is such a hit. It's something else. I weep when I see every episode. So for my own selfish sake, I just hope she keeps doing her show.
But she really is a fantastic writer. She's one of those people who whatever she does, it's going to be 120 percent. If she ever does make a record, and I wouldn't be surprised if she did, it would definitely be something worth checking out for sure.
Songfacts: Are you writing for a new album currently?
Yamagata: I've just started to. I did over the summer. I came back from a tour and wrote 11 songs, but I have to give myself a little more time to assess them. I don't think I'm nearly done. I have a lot more writing to do. I've been touring for about three years nonstop. It's been every day. I think I'm on my 22nd tour - I counted them the other day - so I need a good long break after this run and then I'll switch over much more into the writing-recording mode.
Songfacts: You don't have to write 200 songs first though, right?
Yamagata: I know that sounds outrageous, but it's not as hard as you think. They are not all good songs, mind you. A lot of them are terrible. But yeah, that's my way of having conversations and processing what I've been going through.
Maybe I'll keep it down to 150!
March 23, 2018
Get tour dates and more info at www.rachaelyamagata.com
Photo (1): Laura Crosta
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