Independent Spirit

Singer/songwriter/pianist Rachael Yamagata’s music can be described as soulful heartbreak with dashes of rock music. Her music has been heard on popular television series such as ER, Smallville, The L Word, Grey’s Anatomy, and One Tree Hill and films such as Golden Globe nominee Hope Springs (2012), Prime (2005), and Definitely, Maybe (2007). Working with Toots & the Maytals and Ryan Adams to Jason Mraz and Ray Lamontagne, Yamagata has recorded music for over a decade, starting with Chicago band Bumpus in the 1990s before departing for a solo career. Yamagata discusses her music, aspirations, and thoughts on the music industry.

Jeff Boyce: Tell us which records or musicians inspired you to sing and pick up an instrument? How have they impacted you to this day?
Rachael Yamagata: It’s definitely an eclectic beginning. When I was five my parents drove me cross country with two tapes in the car – The Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ and The Muppets. We listened to both over and over and over. They were also big into the artists of the 70s so I grew up listening to Stevie Nicks, Carole King, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, Rickie Lee Jones, Elton John, James Taylor etc..I fell in love with storytelling and we’d go to Beach Boys concerts on the Washington Mall and I think that’s part of the reason I’m drawn to intricate harmonies. Music theater was a big focus in school for me and I was obsessed with the all of them. I think that’s why I gravitate towards orchestral production as well. Later on in college, the first band I joined introduced me to Tom Waits, Nina Simone, Prince. A mentor of mine hooked me into Nick Cave, Marianne Faithful, Patti Smith…I mention this entire history because I really never thought I would pursue music or songwriting. I wrote songs for myself starting at 12, had one year of piano lessons before I quit – but kept playing and writing…It was my outlet – a way to combat intense shyness and articulate my feelings..All of those past influences seem to weave themselves into what I’m doing now. The first time I heard ‘Poses’ by Rufus Wainwright I had to pull the car over and listen… Roberta Flack’s version of ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’ moved me dramatically as well… Fun bookend fact of later years – covered ‘Something’ for a tribute compilation and also did a version of Gonzo’s ‘Going To Go Back There Someday’ for the Muppets album.

During your tenure with Bumpus, what insight or value did you gain that would forge the way to your solo career?
I learned so much about performing a dynamic live show by being in Bumpus. I started as a backup singer in the band and there were three lead singers spanning the genres of soul, funk and hip hop. It was amazing chemistry on stage, but there was a real strategy involved in creating a set list and balancing the different moods of the songs. I think that really helped me in terms of creating a flow to my show that doesn’t just feel like a monotonous sad song. It’s important to have different energy within the set and work off the audience as well. Bumpus taught me a lot of that.

Describe the moment when you completed your first solo studio album Happenstance (2004).
It was all such a rollercoaster of a time. I was ecstatic to have a full record with these great musicians and the newness of it all was amazing. There was never any free time so I honestly don’t remember feeling anything but elated.

Many of your songs such as “The Reason Why,” “Worn Me Down,” and “I’ll Find a Way” have connected to many audiences. How therapeutic has your music been for you?
It’s as important to me as your closest friends and having those conversations that get you through life challenges. When I can get the right phrase down with just the right melody or chords etc… it relieves me of what I’ve been going through.

Is it hard to balance your private life with public appearances? (What insights have helped you balance the two?)
Yes and no. I find such camaraderie with so many fans. I write selfishly to get through my own ‘stuff’, but when you are vulnerable in that way and people connect with it for themselves, you feel less alone. In that way, my private life is not so different than my public life. However, there is a line to what I can give and still sustain my own energy or sanity. I’m very vulnerable in songs and that creates a very intimate connection, but it’s a universal intimacy rather than based on a personal day to day intertwining. The lines can get blurred and it’s taken time for me to become comfortable with my own boundaries.

Which five concerts have you attended that made a musical impact on you? (What made the music good and which artists where they)?
Most recently – Martha Wainwright played an intimate show upstate. It was just her and her guitar and I was blown away. Her intensity and voice – it was magical. Kicked my ass. She was 200% delivering – no tricks, just her voice and the meaning behind it. Saw Rufus Wainwright in Amsterdam (I was playing the smaller room in a venue – he was next door). His unbelievable showmanship along with his musical genius was just as compelling. He had costume changes and dancing and hilarity and then could crush you with a ballad. The epic nature of that ‘performance’ really struck me. Ryan Adams’ shows are amazingly fresh and taught me a lot about the chemistry of great players up there really listening to one another. Daniel Lanois played Joe’s Pub once and I was mesmerized. The beauty of all of the textures…Keren Ann is another favorite of mine. She has such a delicate touch with different elements – French horn, piano, electric guitar… all so crafted and free at the same time. Her show at Joe’s Pub years back really got to me. There are many more…

What do you feel about the current state of music?
I’m not as educated as I’d like to be so I’m not sure I have any big pulse on the general state, but I almost wonder if production evolution is surpassing the growth of great songwriters getting attention. There is something clean about production now that is becoming the norm… Clean meaning perfect, aligned, bright, snazzy, hooky in all those seductive ways that make you love it. The classics run the risk of sonically sounding quieter in a million ways and yet they worked the muscles of musicianship and writing and capturing in the moment magic and they stand the test of time because they hook you with something else. I still trust word of mouth and suggestions from my peers to guide me to what I end up loving. I think the climate is right to get something longstanding into the mainstream – more doors have opened to bring left of center music into the world definitely. I always want the criteria to be a great song though, a moving artist… There’s a lot of good music out there. I still want the great music.

Where would you like to see your musical work take you?
To the moon of course.

Are there future projects your fans can look forward to?
I’m definitely going to start on a new record soon.. I have a covers ep that I’d love to finally get out as well. After this U.S. tour I’m going back to Asia in the fall and if I can swing it, I’d love to get to Europe again as well.

by Jeff Boyce