Virginia-born German-Japanese twin Rachael Yamagata has done a lot of living for a relatively new face upon the scene. The singer/songwriter got her start as the face of Chicago funk band Bumpus. Over the course of that six years, Rachel gradually morphed from funky diva to melodic songstress. She launched her solo career in 2001 with a self-titled EP through Arista Records. However, it was her full length, Happenstance, which propelled Rachel into the mainstream. Seeing her music featured on such hit television shows as Charmed, How I Met Your Mother, ER, Nip/Tuck, One Tree Hill, Brothers and Sisters and The O.C. (the last of which she guest-starred,) Rachael saw her newfound success lead her to a tour with Mandy Moore. Rachel also contributed a song for Mandy’s 2007 release, “Wild Hope.” Her latest double disc set: Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart was produced largely by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley, The Faint), and also John Alagia (John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band, Happenstance), Elephants is darker and more vulnerable while the more guitar-driven Teeth Sinking Into Heart is grittier and more defiantly cynical. With a double disc on her mind, Rachael had a lot of other stuff to let loose with Glide…
Hello Rachael; I understand you’re in Germany today.
We just got to Amsterdam, actually; we were in Hamburg last night. We have been all over the place!
Is that your first trip over there, by the way?
It’s my first trip in a very long time; I came over here about four years ago. So, we’re making a pretty healthy round of Europe. It’s been great so far.
Are you being well-received right now?
Yeah, it’s been really surprising, actually, because we’re playing mostly the new record right now. It’s almost a different impression – I don’t know how much of my old record they know, but they’re really responding to the new record very well. The clubs have been filled with people singing along.
Rachael, you’ve stated that you write from the heart – namely, a broken one, like most of us (both laugh.) Have any of your exes actually tried to win you back since you’re doing well?
Um, no (both laugh.) I mean, I’ve certainly had rounds of separating and getting back together with people, but certainly not related to anything that I’m doing professionally.
Nobody’s drunk dialed you?
No, never! People have gotten in touch and said hello, but no one who I think had that intent, so I’ve been lucky with that.
That’s helpful, yeah. Do you find that you garner more respect on the solo front than you did as female lead of a mostly male band?
Oh, the band Bumpis that I was in, in Chicago? I wasn’t really fronting it. There were three singers: a guy singer, a girl singer and a guy who did hip-hop, and actually, I took over the girl singer’s parts when she left the band. I really more of a backup singer, and then became one of the primary writers, but still was singing collectively and maybe doing two solo songs. I almost feel like it’s apples and oranges… I feel like what I’m doing now as a solo artist is a much more complete vision of my own thing, so that makes it more personal, I guess, in a way.
Mm-hm; if you could say something to that kid you once were starting out, what would it be?
Oh boy! Um, to not be such a chickenshit! Yeah, I spent I think five years just hiding my own solo songs and not showing anyone, feeling very reserved, not thinking they were worth anything. I did an open mic and showed one or two people. I was terrified at the open mic and got some less than brilliant reactions from some friends, so I shelled up for five years. Literally, the moment that I got up the guts to show people again, it was like label showcasing immediately, so I would just say go for it without hesitation.
Do you still get the criticism, and does it get any easier to deal with?
Oh, sure! Well, I learned stay away from reviews and to give a healthy, full-of-integrity presentation of myself and my stuff as much as people will allow me to. You can’t control what comes out or what people will think. I tend to take it all with a lot of grains of salt and try and remove myself from it, just because there were definitely times where I was so in it. It lifts your ego to unexpected places and then it can shoot you right back down, so it’s almost too much of a rollercoaster, and it distracts you from your own instincts. So, I try and stay away from it. I know there’s been both praise and criticism of recent work, but I don’t ask many questions (both laugh.) Fortunately, it seems like things are going well – you know, everyone’s human after all!
Absolutely; are you your own worst critic?
I hope so (both laugh.)
How different is a tour like Mandy Moore from the smoky club runs you started out doing?
Well, it’s hard to say. You know, I’ve done van tours and bus tours and driven myself to the show. They’ve been smoky clubs and they’ve been beautiful theaters. It’s really run the gamut of different kinds of things, you know? My first time in New York City was at The Living Room and my second was at Madison Square Garden.
It all keeps me very humble, you know? You never quite know where you’re gonna be. I’ve played bigger rooms in the U.S., then coming over here to Europe where you’re dealing with questionable situations at times, and they’ve been amazing at other times. It really changes more record cycle to record cycle in some ways. I definitely love a beautiful room – like, it’s amazing to have luxuries of sound or lights or people loading your equipment. You know, I spent seven years in a van with Bumpis, and it’s been I think six years since I started my own thing, and I’m still doing a combination of them, so I’m still pretty humble (both laugh.)
You sound it.
I’m pretty grateful; I’m still hanging up tee shirts on occasion.
You gotta keep it humble, that’s important. Tell me about the R.E.M. song you’re covering, and why you chose it.
Oh, “The Great Beyond” is the one that I chose. I love the whole vibe and of course the music and melody just has a really cool feel to it, but also a lot of the lyrics, in particular, are just perfect for my own situation. It’s somewhat ironic that of course one of the lines is “I’m pushing an elephant up the stairs…” (both laugh.)
I was like “Oh, that’s perfect” and then “Over my shoulder a piano falls, crashing to the ground” and “I’m looking for answers in the Great Beyond.” I’m like “This is so excellent.”
You should do like a cabaret version of that, with props.
Right? (laughing) Yeah, it’s like a lyrical reference to anything I seem to be doing.
Well, you’ve mentioned that you’ve played Madison Square Garden, and now we’re talking about the Carnegie Hall show. Is it intimidating playing venues of that magnitude; like, how do you combat the inevitable butterflies you’re gonna get?
I fortunately, my business manager’s office is right next door to Carnegie Hall, so I’d been getting some practice at least by going up to the building.
Maybe a valium or two…
You just let the adrenaline take over and hope for the best. The Madison Square Garden thing was so surreal that I almost bypassed the nerves; I was so naïve, I didn’t even know the historical reference of that venue whatsoever. When they asked me if I could do the show, I asked how many people it holds (both laugh.)
Weren’t you sorry you asked that!
Exactly! I was like “Whoa, that’s awesome.” That caught me at a really interesting protected point. I think I was starry-eyed and naïve; I didn’t know enough to be truly frightened.
“Elephants” was recorded with over 25 layered tracks; that’s really ambitious! Tell me a bit about the recording process.
Well, we did it in this upstate New York studio, which has unfortunately since been closed down. It was called Allaire, and it was stunning. It was called the Pitcairn Estate; that was a family – super rich – who owned like metal factories. It had these really epic forty-foot ceilings with sunrise and sunset rooms and it was perched on top of this mountain. It was released in the spring, so the setting was absolutely amazing. I had Mike Mogus from Bright Eyes come in and produce most of the tracks on the record, and a combination of people from his Saddle Creek world. I had the drummer and guitarist from Rilo Kiley and the string arranger from Bright Eyes. Then I had some of my own crew, who I’ve been playing with for years, Kevin Salem. On violin and cello, I had two of my English friends, who I’ve also toured with. Everybody just piled up there and ran after these tracks. It was a challenging experience; it certainly it got stressful. I was much more involved in ideas on production this round. We really just pushed through and got some beautiful stuff; did everything from mixing string sections with my own cellist and violinist to having a smorgasbord of musicians come up and just add their thing. The actual record-making process was very fulfilling; very stressful, but fulfilling.
It is an amazing piece of work. With the double disc, you’re kinda showing us that you can’t be pigeonholed; is that a trap that you’ve strived to not fall into?
You know, it’s funny, because I think I’m still learning how to really come across as a full picture on record during the live show. I think, up until now, they’ve been very different. For my first record, it was piano-based songs, but as I was touring, I got a lot of guitars under my belt just by writing songs. So, the dynamic of the shows were always surprising to people who’d only ever heard the record, because they really did stretch into this rock territory (when I say rock, I mean like Jeff Buckley rock, not anything hard.) It’s much more of a dynamic show, you know, like maybe a Ryan Adams with fluid, in-between ballads and more straight-ahead up-tempo songs, and I think that surprised people from what I’d recorded on the first record. Now this record is more of a representation of the different moods of music, so the pigeonhole thing I think it comes and goes, you know; there’s no way to avoid it. I think the most I’ve ever heard here is “The Troubadour of Heartbreak,” or something like that (both chuckle.) Things like that don’t bother me, though – if what I’m doing is potent enough to get its own title, then I don’t mind that at all.
That’s an excellent point – at least it’s yours; you created it!
Yeah! It’s frustrating though, on occasion, because there have been swells of piano-playing singers. There are female artists that have been out there, and to avoid those comparisons is difficult, but, I definitely feel like I’ve been doing this for a long time – even longer than it’s been in the public eye. So, if I ever do get pigeonholed, it only rubs me the wrong way if I’m like “Well, I’ve been writing these forever!” I get over that, though, it’s not a big deal.
You did a guest spot on The O.C. a few years back – is acting something you’ve considered pursuing more of?
I would, if the right thing came along and matched up. I studied theater when I was at Northwestern; I actually graduated with adegree in acting. It’s something that is kind of a hibernating interest of mine. I think that I’m really in love with songwriting, and I’m really enjoying making records and experimenting with production. I think it would have to be something that would tear me away from that. You know, if Lost came calling and wanted me to be one of the others that washed up on the shore, I would do it in a heartbeat.
Well, you heard it here first (both chuckle.)
In love with Lost! I watch in on my little iPod.
How long can that last, though? Eventually they’re going to have to figure out why they’re all trapped on that island.
I know! That’s why I figure I’m going to have to get moving.