Eradicating the Pain with Rachael Yamagata
On the 27th of February, the American singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata played a gig at Berlin’s Privatclub. I met up with her at the venue, where she was wrapping up a two-week solo acoustic tour of the country. “It has been like a whirlwind,” she enthuses. “We have been here for eight shows in total. It has been packed even though it was short as we only played in Germany, which has been great as I got to go to cities I have never been to.”
Yamagata was brought here by Nic von Vogelstein of artist. people. promotion. “We met in Paris and I told him a bit about my history of being an independent artist trying to get back to Europe, but that this had been a slow-going process,” she recalls. “He told me that he loved my songs and that he thought I should be a star in Germany. Nic has done a lot of work to get the word out there.” To her surprise, she was more widely known here than she thought. “These audiences have been so quiet and attentive and know the obscure tracks that some people would not even know were on the record,” Yamagata says. “The American market is so singles-based… It is like making a kid and only wanting to hang with the arm.”
Even though Yamagata has a solo career of over ten years, she admits to still battling with stage fright. “That is why I have tequila in the refrigerator! It starts with a little talk with myself to remind myself that it is less about my nerves and my ego and more about the shared experience with an audience that wants you to succeed”, she says. This inner battle was hardly noticeable when she walked on stage to a cheering sold-out crowd at Privatclub and enchanted them with back-to-basics acoustic renditions of her old work, as well as a couple of previews of her upcoming album.
Yamagata came to the scene as a solo artist with ‘Happenstance’ in 2004. The pop-rock album- with a couple of nods to blues- compiled honest accounts of love and heartache. Its audience was initially largely American, but grew when some of the songs were featured in films and television series such as ER, The OC and The L Word. “For so many people it was a crucial album in their lives. Life has gotten so much more complicated so that time seems so youthful,” she explains. Last year she celebrated its tenth anniversary by playing the album in full at limited venues across the States. “It was just like going back to high school, it was so much fun. Enough time has gone by so I can just really appreciate the record for how important it was. It is so energized; these are just good hooky pop songs!” However confessional the lyrics were, the reunion with the material did not feel confrontational. “These were the first heartbreaks I had ever gone through and when it is your first time, those are really painful. […] Then it happens again and again and again and it becomes more… hilarious. And you start to see that it is just life. So it felt like, ‘wasn’t she cute being so down by that!’”.
Four years later, Yamagata delved into darker territories with ‘Elephants … Teeth Sinking Into Heart’ (2008), a double album that compiled haunting love ballads on one disc and more up-tempo rock songs on the second. “The album was the hangover after the big party,” she tells me. “‘Happenstance’ was my initiation into worldwide touring; my schedule was crazy – I was flying four times a week. ‘Elephants’ was the first time I found out that the experience was quite lonely. It was also the time when my stepfather passed away; I had never ever had a close person die. There were a lot of themes in there that were super heavy and super dark for me. I wanted to investigate that. It was darker, it was a departure and it is still one of my favourite albums.”
The album caused her to be dropped by her label, but did expand her fan base in Europe. “Europeans are so creative and they have a much broader sense of art and innovation in terms of pop music. There is a depth. America is the kid in so many ways. There is something [in Europe] that suits me very well, especially in a commercial aspect. What might not be understood as well in the US for me might be like a launching pad in Europe, which is fantastic. If I wanted to play 15 dark songs in a row and say nothing in between to the audience, I could probably get away with that here, which is great because sometimes I am feeling dark and people go on that journey with me.”
The break with her label did not bring Yamagata down, but instead inspired her to get started as an independent artist, gathering finances for her records through crowd funding. “I was on major labels for about ten years and it would take forever to get records out. It took four years, which is a university career for a record. I was happy to leave that system, become independent and control my schedule a bit more,” she explains. “It is a tremendous amount of work but it is extremely gratifying. I learnt how to navigate the waters of staying on tour, doing production, handling contracts and budgets… I happen to be a good student so I studied a lot of things I do not understand. A lot of things with the labels are changing and maybe the balance is coming back thanks to these options.”
In 2011, the first result of this new way of working was ‘Chesapeake’, a record that returned to the breezier vibe of her debut album, but with a more distinct rock sound. “[It] was like a celebration of the release of freshness of my first independent record. You can hear this energy of fun happening,” Yamagata says. “People say that records are moments in time and there is so much truth in that.”
A new, crowd funded release is set to see the light of day very soon. “I am still not pretty good at explaining it and often cause more confusion because of it,” she admits. “I had these near visualizations before writing and one was like a sweat-lodge experience where strangers would come in and have healing events with visions of their past, present and future. Not sitting there talking about it, but more like some sort of life-changing event that sheds you of your pain and all this junk that you have accumulated, so that you can leave refreshed and see with clear eyes again.” Thematically, the album will be delving into broader territories than Yamagata has previously explored. “I had pieces of songs and they all seemed to fit inside of that. Certain ones were dealing with death, certain ones with heartbreak, some with self-confidence, how dreams come true… More universal problems than ‘he done me wrong again’.” The sound might also be richer than ever before. “Production-wise I have just been experimenting with certain electronic sounds, and yet still organic drums, rhythms with almost a tribal quality to them, textures that I have never used before such as banjos and saxophones. I am following the leads of whatever seems to inspire me,” she says. “One day the rain was falling on a chair outside and making this crazy and cool patterned sound, so I just took out my iPhone and looped it on a song that has a letter being read out in French underneath the actual music. It is a little looser, a little darker and a little trippier.”
Alongside her own records, Yamagata has frequently written music for, and collaborated with, some major names in the industry, such as Jason Mraz, Ray LaMontagne and Bright Eyes. “I have been so lucky because the people I have collaborated with were most of the time people I would have died to just meet, let alone work with.” She talks of the “enormous discipline” you need as an artist and how “fascinating” it is to observe the methods of others. “I always feel like I am going to school when I am working with somebody, and I feel confident that I bring something to the table as well. I loved watching Ryan Adams write because he is so intense and focused. When he hooks something and gets the line, to me it was like he just shot off and within five minutes he had it. He then went to the studio and just ran the band through the song,” she reveals. “Dan Wilson on the other hand is very methodical. We would lie under pianos with our journals for three days refining, editing, making what I thought were great lines and then going back to them. He taught me how to be concise and not waste any words.”
On her website, Yamagata confesses that she writes songs for people who have been run over by love, yet she also lists love as one of the primary values in life. “The main message is always hopeful if not happy. It has always been about healing people through pain or even only being an example for someone by putting it into a message they can relate to. To me now it is a broader thing of authentic connection. I am sort of shy and a people watcher so I do see how people interact. Sometimes you can see that someone is in so much pain with someone who is just locked, which means that things can only happen if one of them gets their defences down. Why can’t they just hug it out? Ultimately, what is the point of anything if it is not to love it? I think it is important to have a healthy perspective on things. Can you imagine if this were our last day ever? The things that you thought were so monumental would just become so hilarious. This probably sounds funny coming from someone like me, of whom people think, ‘she is always depressed’, but the mission is really to eradicate the pain.”
For more information and updates on the release of the new album and upcoming tour dates, check out Rachaelyamagata.com.
By Tom De Moor