Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Erica Rivera Interviews Rachael Yamagata

Rachael Yamagata

Rachael Yamagata is a force to be reckoned with. Heartbreak is her forte, as evidenced by her studio debut "Happenstance" (2004) and its follow-up "Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart" (2008), a 2 CD-set of both unflinchingly raw break-up songs and guitar-driven anthems about moving on.

For her latest release, "Chesapeake," Yamagata appears to have purged the pain of the past, embracing a wiser, more confident attitude paired with a lush, string-infused sound. Yamagata’s trademark longing and unapologetic honesty are still on display but longtime listeners are in for a few surprises as Yamagata showcases a more complete picture of her personality, sans desperation. Though Yamagata may always remain, at least musically, addicted to unrequited love, the songstress has certainly matured on matters of the heart.

Thanks to a PledgeMusic Campaign and "the stash of cash that Dad put away for my wedding," Yamagata gathered her dream team of musicians to bring "Chesapeake" to fruition. Released on her own label, Frankenfish, it seems Yamagata’s independence has allowed her an unprecedented amount of artistic exploration.

I talked with this spitfire musician in anticipation of her return to Minneapolis on Nov. 11.

"Elephants" was like the breakup album of the century. How did you come down off of that and move into "Chesapeake," which sounds a lot more confident, more grounded, more hopeful?

Rachael Yamagata: I think it’s about me getting used to the heartaches of life. "Elephants" was about diving into the pain, submerging myself in it and exploring it to the point of explosion. "Chesapeake" was about the layers of life and taking that positive route again. Even though "Elephants" was dark, it was still about optimism for love and hopefulness but "Chesapeake" is more of me digesting the heartache. It’s like a rebirth. I’ve never been able to be plugged into it like that before. I mean, a song like "Saturday Morning" is all about "I love you, let’s make up and have a good time." Obviously, there’s trouble in the relationship that’s mentioned in the song but it’s not the concentration of the song. I’m not sure what’s behind the change. I was going through another terrible breakup at the time I wrote it but I think I’m translating it differently this time.

Is confessional songwriting incompatible with happily ever after?

RY: I sure hope not! I don’t know that they’re exclusive. What I write about is the universal conflicts of relationships and that can show up in any context, either between two people or in the world, like politics between countries. The thing I feed off of are definitely the down times, but I also think you are the most true and the most raw when you’re in love with someone. When you have that trust, you really show who you are. That potential for insight exists everywhere, but for me, it’s most clearly seen in love. I hope that I can be super in love and still get to the crux of challenges. I hope I don’t have to go through a breakup every time I want to write a song! [Laughs]

One of the standout tracks on the new album is “The Way It Seems.” It’s fun and flirty and all about the contradictory nature of, presumably, your personality. Talk about how that song came to be.

RY: I wrote it as a joking exercise for myself as a writer. I’m so used to these heart-wrenching ballads that I took that song on almost as an experiment, like "Let me talk about how ridiculous I can be." I’m the kind of person where the greatest thing and the worst thing can happen on the same day, so that song was me investigating that contradiction.

Sometimes people see me onstage and think I’m a madwoman or I’m crazy or I’ve had one too many. But I also have three cats, I watch DVDs at home, I go to bed at 8 p.m. Other people don’t get to see that side of me.

I was actually still undecided about whether or not that song would go on the album up until the last minute, but I played it live a few times and the response was so great, I couldn’t ignore it.

Where do you think "Chesapeake" falls on the radio-ready spectrum? Are you hoping to get more airplay? Is that even important to you?

RY: "Elephants" was such a different type of album. It was so dark, I didn’t have my hopes up about getting those songs on the radio. What’s different about "Chesapeake" is I didn’t have to try to make these songs that way. I hear "Saturday Morning" and "Miles on a Car" and they seemingly fit for radio, at least in my ears. Then again, I’m never right about these things. [Laughs] I hear other artists’ music and I think, "That’s going to be a smash!" and it’s not.

Speaking of other artists, you’ve done duets with some incredible people like Ryan Adams, Jason Mraz and Bright Eyes. Is there anyone you’re dying to collaborate with now?

RY: I’d love to just sit in a room with the guys from Journey. Patti Smith is one of my new faves now that I’ve read her book. Elton John is someone I’ve been so influenced by for so long. And…Kanye West! Someone just showed me his 34 minute film “Runaway” and I thought it was so brilliant. I said, "I get it. I understand the ego."

Let’s talk about string instruments on "Chesapeake." It seems like they’re a very important component to your music.

RY: Choosing all of the musicians for this album was very strategic. The ones who came to record on it are so unique. The strings are super super important to me. They feed the lyric in the songs. Oli Kraus played so many instruments on this. He would sit and play the violin between his legs, because he’s originally a cellist, and the result are these gorgeous backdrops for the album. Strings add a cinematic quality to the music. It’s ridiculously beautiful. I love how the arrangements turned out. When I heard "Full On," I started crying because it was so magical. I’m so grateful for the PledgeMusic Campaign for making this possible.

You’ve been to Minneapolis at least a couple times. Any particular memories or favorite places you’d like to share?

RY: The times I’ve come to Minneapolis to do songwriting, Dan Wilson would take me around. I’m terrible with names, so I couldn’t tell you which restaurants, but he was my guide. I love the Fine Line, of course, and I'm looking forward to coming back. Will there be snow in November?

Oh, yes.

RY: [Laughs] Yeah, the weather! And the tunnels! I don’t know how you do it. I would starve and die if I was trying to find a Starbucks in that tunnel system. I’ve lived in Chicago and upstate New York, so I know snow, but you are better people than I am for living there.

You’re an active presence on Twitter. Have you found that a good way to stay connected to your fans? Any regrets about tweets?

RY: I once found this site with the most regrettable tweets and they were mostly historical musicians who said, “God, I wish I hadn’t tweeted that” but I have a terrible memory so I forget what I tweet. Twitter is a quick way to reach everybody. It’s easy, it’s fast, it’s on a phone, so it’s good for me. Otherwise I’d have these thoughts and write them on a list and get to them three months later. I’m enjoying it. I’m fighting the pressure to be funny and interesting all of the time. The truth is, I’m super boring. If I tweeted every thought that went through my head, 80% of them would be about my cats and the rest would be business.

Cigarettes and tequila; are these really the secret ingredients for a sexy voice?

RY: I had this husky tone before I became a smoker. And I hate that I’m a smoker now. Tequila, however, is lovely. Who was it…Karen Carpenter? No…some singer with a distinct voice who said she got it from yelling at her brother while she was growing up. I have my vices, but I’m also an extremist, so I’ll go for nine months when I’m not touring and I won’t drink. But I also suffer from terrible stage fright, so that’s part of the tequila. It’s a complete crutch. I recommend none of these things for anyone else! [Laughs]

On the topic of vices, there’s a surprising lack of profanity on "Chesapeake."

RY: I know, right? One of my friend’s parents who wasn’t familiar with my music was looking me up online and she said, "You have a beautiful voice, but I’m not into rap music." I guess she just saw some of my lyrics and made an assumption about what kind of music I write. I do curse in conversation but I use profanity in songs like sex scenes in a movie: only when crucial to character development. It’s either for emotional expression or if I come up with a really creative phrase like "Don’t fuck me in front of me." I mean, that’s brilliant! [Laughs] Some emotions don’t deserve a graceful word. I wasn’t consciously not cursing on this record. I’ll save that for the shows!

Published on Metromix Twin Cities, Oct. 2011