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  • Interview: Rachael Yamagata

    Mon, 08 Dec 2008 13:12:39

    Interview: Rachael Yamagata - We talk elephants, evolution and education with the haunting singer

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    After making an arresting debut on 2004’s Happenstance, Rachael Yamagata seemed to be headed for a rapid rise in the ranks of young singer-songwriters. Her emotionally rich but easily accessible songs proved alluring to music supervisors, leading to appearances on influential TV shows like The O.C. and One Tree Hill, as well as a number of films, including Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown.

    Then she took an unwanted ride on the music industry’s 21st century roller coaster, getting dropped from her label and spending years in limbo, wondering when her second album would see the light of day. That time has finally come. The two-disc set Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart documents a period of personal and professional unrest—with one disc devoted to meditative ballads and the second disc giving Yamagata a chance to rock out a bit. The album earned a rare five-star review here on ARTISTdirect.

    After playing a few shows on the Hotel Café’s winter tour, Yamagata talked to ARTISTdirect about the evolution of Elephants, her unusual musical education and the surprising Parental Advisory sticker on her cover.

    It feels like you’ve been away a long time. I know that you’ve been touring and weathering industry b.s. and working with other people—but does it feel like a long time coming for you, too?

    Ages. It does. Even just playing shows—I’m like “Oh, yeah, that’s what it’s like.” I try to keep busy in other realms and I feel like I’ve been doing something all that time, but being out of the public eye and all of those things, I do feel like it’s been a while. There were points where I was ready to tear my hair out. I always knew I could release it somehow—but it was like “Come on! Let’s go!” There was a long period of getting really excited like it was going to happen and then getting let down that it didn’t—many cycles of that. It’s almost anticlimactic that it’s out. [Laughs]

    So you recorded and finished this quite a while ago, then?

    We went into the studio in the spring of 2006 and really had it finished by the fall of 2006. So it’s been a while, absolutely. I knew it was going to be a tough thing for me to be able to perform it; I warned people “It’s going to get old for me.” The only thing I could do was stay away from it, so what I would do is take six months off from ever listening to it. Even at points when I really wanted to hear it again, I just wouldn’t. I think that’s the only thing of giving me any hope of now going out and performing it live with a new band and remembering that it’s new for other people, even if it’s been around for me for a little while. I’m glad I did that because I feel energized during shows and excited about putting together the formation of arrangements.

    You’re kind of like an actor who has to hit the publicity rounds years after wrapping a film.

    Totally. At least they have the advantage of it being someone else’s script and playing a character. For me, I’m not necessarily the same person I was when I wrote these, you know what I mean? I’ve evolved since then.

    I know you were conscious of your live shows when you were writing—and that you liked the idea of having some more rock-oriented, guitar-based songs. They’re on a separate disc with the new record, but they’re interwoven in the live show, right?

    Yeah, they’re mixed in together. The live show is much easier to mix together than the record; if you put “Elephants” next to “Faster” on the record, it would make a listener go “What the hell?” Yet I’ve gone out and started a show with “Elephants” a capella and people are totally with you, like pin drop silence, and then you give them five seconds to breathe and the full band comes in and does “Faster” and gets the crowd moving with a different energy. It can be an effective tool to have two different dynamics like that and to keep people guessing and to manipulate the energy in a room in a way that doesn’t allow for boredom.

    Speaking of rock, I have to tease you a little about Led Zeppelin being a new discovery for you.

    [Laughs] I’m terrible. People ask me “What are you listening to?” and I’m not the one to ask. My real musical education is so far behind most people in terms of the classics. The most important records can be new discoveries for me. I discovered The Band and The Who and even The Beatles really late. It’s been fun in some ways, just because I still have so many first-time experiences out there. But, yeah, Led Zeppelin was one of those bands. I go in phases. When I was growing up, my parents were listening to a lot of whatever was on ‘70s easy-listening radio, which happened to be a lot of singer-songwriters. I got Carole King, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Simon & Garfunkel—that whole mix. That was all really in my brain when I first started. My dad and stepmom used to always go to Beach Boys concerts, so I’d go to the Beach Boys. I had a boyfriend who took me to the Violent Femmes and PiL. Then I joined this band Bumpus in Chicago and they opened me up to Tom Waits and John Coltrane and Nina Simone and Sly & The Family Stone and The Pharcyde. P-Funk and Aretha Franklin, too. I don’t know what it was that captured me with Led Zeppelin, but my tastes had changed. I was like “What is that guitar solo?!? I can write twelve-minute songs!” I feel like a real novice in music in many ways. But it worked out. [Laughs]

    There’s a certain advantage to that, because I think for so many of us, it’s hard to divorce those classic albums from their nostalgic ties in our formative years—you know, “Ah, Zeppelin…it’s like I’m back in high school getting stoned again.”

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