The Unparalleled Bliss of Crippling Heartache: An Interview with Rachael YamagataBy Joe Daly
September 20, 2012
If you can recall the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, then you have a crystalline picture of the present state of the music industry: absolute carnage on all fronts. Record labels have begun suing people for illegally downloading new albums, while paradoxically, more and more bands, such as Green Day, are streaming their new albums for free. Technology has leveled the playing field, allowing anyone with a MacBook to release an album, and the price of gas continues to push more and more up-and-coming bands off the road because they can no longer justify driving a hundred miles to split $50 four ways. It seems like nobody’s making a living anymore, except the lawyers and maybe the toothpaste companies buying ads on American Idol.
An artist would have to be plumb crazy to walk away from a well-oiled support team and try to enter this fray alone. Right?
Singer/songwriter Rachael Yamagata, arguably still in the nascence of her prime, has done precisely that: she went “The Full Indie.” Leaving behind the soothing comforts of big labels and grizzly management teams, Rachael has started her own label and taken on the dizzying responsibilities of stewarding her own career. Essentially she has added at least two full-time jobs to her day-to-day creative responsibilities, assuming oversight of everything from capturing song ideas on cocktail napkins to haggling with venues over audience seating requirements.
Those who have followed Rachael’s career are not surprised. While it takes some musicians a decade just to get everything together to put out a record, in the past ten years, Rachael has released three successful albums and four EPs; she has serenaded US Presidents, shared stages with the likes of Patti Smith, Steve Earle and Dave Matthews and collaborated with songwriting legends like Jason Mraz and Ryan Adams. She has placed songs in countless movies and television shows and a cover of one of her new songs recently went to number one in Australia.
Known as “The Troubadour of Heartbreak,” Rachael Yamagata writes the best breakup songs of all time. For those looking to ride out a good love gone bad, there is no better catharsis than lying in bed all morning with the shades drawn, listening to Rachael Yamagata’s rich, smoky voice pour from the speakers . Where contemporaries such as Cat Power might take anguish to soul-whipping extremes, Rachael’s body of work reflects a spectrum of emotional hues, from dark and despairing to playful and irreverent. This innate ability to peel back raw emotions through gorgeous, sprawling ballads is perhaps her greatest strength; individual experiences differ, but the underlying emotions are all the same and thus music fans from most walks of life find it easy to relate to her tunes.
In 2011, Rachael released the stunning full-length Chesapeake, and this fall she is releasing an EP of what promises to showcase darker and more personal material. In preparation, she recently performed a residency at New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall and in November, she kicks off an extensive two month tour in support of the EP.
We recently caught up with Rachael during her residency to talk about her recent career moves, her songwriting secrets and of course, sad, sad songs.
So how has 2012 treated you so far?
It has been incredibly busy. I can’t even keep track of it. We did a bunch of touring at the beginning of the year; I had finished 2011 with a three and a half month tour of the US, and 2012 was two rounds of Asia, one round of Europe, and this summer has been lots of catch-up work, trying to get a grasp on this new release. I’m also finishing up an EP that’s coming out in November, so lots of busy work. It’s been very good, but super, super busy. I’m full-on “indie artist” right now, working as my own label, working without a manager, working very, very solo. I took a Berkelee online course as well, so it’s been quite a hefty schedule.
That’s a lot to take on. Have you been able to create as prolifically as you’d like?
No. (laughs) That’s the easy answer, but I gave myself a little bit of a window because I tend to write sort of in bulk anyway; I’m not a huge write-on-tour-everyday-type person, so I really gave myself the summer to totally commit to learning more about the boring stuff, whether it’s music law or accounting or getting better with the details of upcoming events and put on a business hat, just so I could stay coordinated and understand where I was at on that level. Then this September I’ve been doing these residency shows in New York City as sort of experiments, in preparation for a fuller tour in the fall. I’m sort of transitioning into that creative period and beginning to write again, now that my feet are a bit more on the ground with that other stuff. But it’s really, really hard to do both at the same time. I really have to concentrate and take my mornings and use those for partial dream work, and look at those scribbly napkins with lyric ideas and just kind of keep them in play on some subconscious level.
How have the shows been going?
They’ve been great, actually. We’ve sold out the first three, and there’s one more left that I don’t know if it’s sold out or not yet. It’s a tiny room that’s very intimate and cool. I’ve had a lot of guest artists that happen to be in New York City jump up for things, and I really love all the support acts. The crowds have been awesome, so it’s really gratifying to see people coming out and returning week after week. It’s got a very Storyteller vibe, so it lets me kind of be silly and structure the show differently because it is so intimate.
Tell us a little bit about the new EP.
It’s six songs; very ballad/string-heavy and dark. The last record I did had sort of a lighter side to it and a different movement than albums I’ve done before, and this is going to answer the call a bit to where I naturally come from, which is these cinematic, dark ballads that make you want to drink wine and contemplate sadness…(laughs). Perfect for the fall!
With the leaves dying…
With the leaves dying…getting ready for winter… (laughing)
You’ve been called the “Troubadour of Heartbreak,” but obviously you’ve got a healthy sense of humor.
I’m a complete goofball and I don’t have a problem expressing that. It comes out very easily in live shows, which I think helps the pathos of the shows. If I just got up there and sang my songs, I really do think that the show would suffer because you can only take so much intensity without needing to breathe; so a sense of humor is natural, it’s good to have and it helps keep me in my own truth. It’s only just starting to creep into my music. A couple songs on Chesapeake had a lyrical sense of humor to them, so we’ll see if that keeps working its way into the music, but it’s definitely part of the live show.
Now that Chesapeake has had a chance to decant a bit, where do you see that fitting in with your body of work?
I think Chesapeake was this refreshing re-entry into doing really carefree music, but that is in my voice. It was so spontaneous and so unplanned, in a musical way, and so much about the band, that it was like this burst of energy. I think it’s sort of a freedom record for me; being out of certain business situations and expressing myself in that way. It was a blast to make. I don’t know where I’m going to go next, although I think I’m still interested in doing something stark and stripping things down and having my hand a bit more in the production and seeing what that does. But the greatest thing about being declared independent is that I don’t feel the restrictions anymore that used to creep into my head before, like “Are people going to like this?” or “Are people coming out to my tours going to like this?” or “Can I get to the next stage of releasing a record because of what I’ve done?” None of that is there anymore. I’m just going to keep doing whatever I feel like doing and hope it resonates somewhere. We’ll see what happens.
I don’t have to tell you, but you’ve had a pretty colorful decade. In the eight years since your full-length debut, Happenstance, where do you feel that you’ve experienced the most growth as an artist?
I always think lyrics are super important in terms of what I can offer. I think that’s where I keep expanding. It’s my greatest strength and I think it’s getting better. I guess the knowledge of what I want out of making music has grown as time has gone on as well, because you get more perspective and experience.
You mentioned lyrics on cocktail napkins earlier. Where do you typically find the ideas for your songs? Is it noodling around on an instrument? Walking down the street? Where do you find your inspiration?
All over. When I go out to see live music, I often go out to watch another band and just get inspired musically that way. Lyric ideas come from everywhere. Someone will say a phrase in a conversation and I’ll say, “Damn, that’s a good line,” and there it is. (laughs) I’ll tell them right there, “That’s so getting into a song.” Or if there’s a concept or something that I haven’t heard or written about that strikes a chord in me, I’ll take that and explore it. One of the new songs on the EP is called “Has It Happened Yet?” It revolved around my own thoughts about a past relationship, wondering if this person had essentially moved on. Were they now dating somebody or going to the restaurants we used to go to? Were they waking up in what used to be our bed? I was thinking about these things, and that’s a pretty universal idea—that gut-wrenching thought that you want to keep out of your brain, like “What are they doing? Are they naked?” (laughs) I was thinking about that idea in terms of my own life and somehow the phrase “Has It Happened Yet” came and worked its way in and became the basis of that song. But the ideas come from everywhere. I think that all artists, in any realm, are keen observers. They’re always on the lookout; their senses are heightened and they’re noticing things, so there’s material everywhere.
When you’re sifting through the songs that you’ve put together for a new release, what do you need to hear in the finished product to make it onto your album?
Something that, for me, hasn’t been said before in the way that I’m saying it. Something that moves me. While I’m writing something, certain things will happen; sometimes I’ll hear a verse that’s not necessarily sad, but I might something and think, “That’s totally what I want to say. That’s totally how I’m feeling.” I’ll actually get emotional about it, and when that happens in the writing process, then I remember that song and I pay attention to it for later, because it struck such a deep chord. Songs like that usually make it onto the record. And the flow of a work is always important to me; even though everything is single-based now, I still really believe in sequencing. Generally I find that I don’t usually start with a concept, but things develop and looking back on it, you see a thread.
The winner of Australia’s version of The Voice, Karise Eden, scored a number one hit there with her cover of your song “You Won’t Let Me…”
Right? How crazy was that?
How did it feel to see someone score so big with your tune?
So weird! So awesome, and so weird. Watching it was so surreal. I was like, “Wow, that’s our song,” because I wrote it with my friend Mike Viola. It was strange, and it’s really exciting because I think it’s done very well in Australia for her, and I’m happy because Viola and I knew it was a special song when we wrote it; we just had a feeling and there were strange incidents surrounding that song, so I knew it had potential to do something, just in a very synchronistic way. So I’m happy that it happened for her and I would be delighted if it took off for me. That would be even better. (laughing)
You’re ending the year with the release of the EP, followed by a huge tour. What can the audiences expect from it?
God, if I know. (laughs) That’s terrible… What’s funny is that my new philosophy—I probably shouldn’t say this—is just to leap off the mountain and watch it come together. These are all giant decisions. “Oh, I’m gonna book a tour. OK, how do I do that?” Because when you’re not working with someone who’d guiding everything, it’s new territory. I knew I wanted to get back to some places I’d been and I knew I wanted to premiere these new EP songs, as well as continue playing the songs from Chesapeake because that album to me is still pretty new. I also wanted to do something that worked with the nakedness of some of the themes of these new songs, and so we’re going to bring strings, and I’m trying to get upright bass, and I’ve changed the venues to be seated as much as possible to really create an experience that doesn’t rely on rock artistry, as I’ve done in the past. Which can be really fun, with a full band, flaming into an adventure of a show, but this one I sort of want to be a bit more naked. Not literally. (laughs) Strings and broken-down things to really let the messages and the lyrics shine through. I’m describing a sort of a date night because I think it’d be fun. I haven’t done it this way for a long time, so we’ll see what happens.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Rachael.
Great interview, JD.
Solid piece, my man.
You got the conversation skills.
Nor real familiar with Rachel
but like a good interview should do –
you make me want to seek her out.
It’s amazing to read these accounts of current indie musicians, who need to manage every aspect of their success, and be smarter and humbler than they ever had to be. From my outside perspective, they seem more like writers, every day. Does this mean now for writers, our events will be filling arenas where the VIP-only backstage parties don’t run out of speedballs until dawn? I like to think so.
Anyway, an excellent interview, Joe. I’ve been playing her album “Chesapeake” this morning. I swear I only listened for free on Spotify for a few tracks…