Q&A with Rachael Yamagata

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Rachael Yamagata released her critically acclaimed debut disc Happenstance in 2004 only to be dumped by her record label, RCA, shortly thereafter. Last year the singer-songwriter and pianist finally resurfaced, on Warner Bros., with the wonderfully ambitious double album Elephants...Teeth Sinking Into Heart. Richly textured ballads dominate the first disc while the second CD features fierce, lean rockers unlike anything heard on Happenstance. Yamagata checked in from Woodstock, New York, where she splits her time when she's not in Philadelphia. The highly talented artist spoke at length about a variety of subjects including the breakup that inspired two of her best songs. On record, Yamagata has a powerfully sonorous voice. It sounds simply charming on the phone -- especially when she unleashes one of her frequent, infectious laughs.

Westword (Wade Tatangelo): Your tour kicks off in two days. Are you all packed and ready to go?

Rachael Yamagata: No! You should see my place right now. It's like a tornado hit it. I've got equipment, I've got merch, I've got clothing, everything is everywhere [laughs].

WW: Any cool music, book, movie, etc. you're bringing on the road with you?

RY: DVDs, no, because my computer is broken.

WW: That sucks.

RY: I know! Let's see. What am I reading? I've got this really random book I'm reading it's like the Harvard Business school story or something. Some guy who went to the business school I guess gives away all the secrets of what life was like. Here it is, it's Ahead of the Curve: Two years at Harvard Business School. I just thought it would be interesting, I don't know why [laughs]. Music, I've been listening to the Bat For Lashes CD, I really like that, and the new Regina Spektor, I recently picked that up.

WW: Didn't your dad attend Harvard?

RY: He did.

WW: Does that have anything to do with why you're reading Ahead of the Curve?

RY: No, it's just that I'm so curious about the boys club business world -- and life in general (laughs). I thought, "Maybe this will give me some insight into how they're approaching things."

WW: Yeah, I think maybe I need to read that book, too.

RY: (Laughs).

WW: You recently covered Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" for the newly released album, The Village -- A Celebration of the Music of Greenwich Village. What drew you to that song?

RY: They're not easy songs to cover from that time period because they were just so iconic and done so well. This one, I grew up with it. My parents loved it. That song is so beautiful but I felt that maybe I could bring something different to it. You look for something you can bend and stretch and bring a little of your own take to it. There was a darker side to the song that I wanted to explore.

WW: I think Joni Mitchell, at least to some extent, has influenced virtually every artist who has come after her.

RY: Sure.

WW: How considerable of an influence do you consider Mitchell on you as an artist?

RY: She was definitely steeped into my conscience. That beautiful writing; the kind of melodies you can write that are so inspired and out of the normal range of what you hear in straight ahead, typical music. I was just telling a friend the other day that while I was listening to, probably Blue, I realized there are so many of her songs that don't have drums. It's just voice and like a guitar or piano but they're so rich in melody that you don't even notice that the rest of the production is missing. It made me look at production and songwriting in a new way. So she kind of influenced me in that way. I didn't grow up as a religious follower of anyone in particular but definitely her melodies and lyric writing Is really appealing to me.

WW: Any chance of "Both Sides Now" being performed at your Denver date?

RY: You know? It's funny, I just thought of that the other day, "My God, that's fun to play!" I tried to relearn the song and then caught the flu and it kind of trumped getting it under my fingers before going out. So, I don't know if it's going to make it on this tour, but definitely on future tours.

WW: Damn flu. Going to cost us a cool performance!

RY: I know! I got the flu shot and everything, too. I don't know what happened? I took all of my precautions.

WW: Touring as a duo with only an accompanying guitarist, has it been difficult performing the full-band rock numbers from Teeth Sinking Into Heart?

RY: As long as it is a solid song it makes sense that you should hopefully be able to pull it off in a really stripped down version. I haven't had too many problems, so far. There are certain songs that I'll probably favor from the Elephants side, more of the ballads. I want to take advantage of the audience and the quiet room and the setting of the theatre. It's a nice venue to really do some vulnerable stuff. But he's a pretty kick ass guitar player who can cover a lot of ground.

WW: I love the lyrics to the title-track of Elephants. It's such a striking metaphor about memory pain -- the kind that comes from good love gone bad. What inspired that song?

RY: That was one of those strange, kind of gift-from-above sort of songs. I really was at this crossroad of being at a very vulnerable place initially because of a heartbreak and feeling, I don't know, all this longing and depression and all those feelings that come after a breakup. But I was taking this run outside here in Woodstock and it was just this amazing spring day and there were different animals about and the trees were beautiful and the temperature was amazing. It was the kind of day that just made you feel stupidly giddy to be alive. Somehow that, mixed in with where I was emotionally, produced these lyrics that almost felt like they were out of nowhere. This person that I was kind of thinking about had sent me a card with elephants on it. He was the one who had told me about their capacity to always remember things. And I was playing around with that idea and it just spring from there. I literally wrote the whole song on my down this mountain and had it. Yeah, I don't know where that came from [laughs].

WW: Another favorite of mine is the throat-grabbing "Don't," which closes the second disc and includes the line "don't fuck me in front of me". I'm going to go out on a limb here, and guess that song was inspired by the same bitter breakup.

RY: That's funny. It did actually [laughs]. Yeah, that was kind of the less lovingly reflective one. A bit more threatening, I suppose.

WW: When you write a song like "Elephants" or "Don't" what kind of response do you get from the person who inspired the song? Are we talking nasty texts and emails?

RY: No, because I pick and choose from different things. There might be a central relationship that inspired it but it always exaggerates certain things. It goes to the deepest point it ever was or the highest or lowest point. I think I've been lucky to maintain friendships with most of my exes. I think they've always known me to be a pretty truthful writer. If I'm getting nasty, I also get nasty with myself at the same time. There's nothing that I've written that I don't think I can defend in court (laughs). I've definitely had people think songs were about them and they weren't. But I haven't gotten into too much trouble -- yet.

WW: You surprised a lot of people with the more rock-oriented songs of Teeth Sinking Into Your Heart. Have you always been a rocker at heart?

RY: I got into that later. I was always into really emotional music and powerful singers. My tastes were all over the places. The first cassette, yeah, a cassette [laughs], was a single for Aerosmith or something. I have this love of early Rod Stewart and everything from Fleetwood Mac to Joni Mitchell. My tastes span around. I didn't ever think of doing this myself until I actually started playing music live. I loved the dynamic of the stage, the energy and how it lifted things up a bit. So, that's where that's coming from. And the lyrics for that record, some of them, they were so gritty it seemed right to put that kind of music to them.

WW: Let's back up a few years. How did you react when RCA dropped you?

RY: I had already gone through five permutations of my career there through five different changes at the label. I was more surprised I lasted as long as I did. So, it was not too shocking. Doing this latest record, it was drastically different than the first record and a lot of people I had originally worked with at the label were gone. It was a new regime. I was changing and they were changing. There was all this talk of what kind of record I was making and how they weren't hearing a single. All the signs were pointing toward, "This might not be the right partnership." I think it was a relief for everybody. It was not a nasty split (laughs). I have a lot of great people there rooting for me. I'm pretty damn lucky in that respect.

WW: Four years is a long time in between albums. I know you stayed busy touring and working with other artists but it must have felt like an eternity for you.

RY: It felt like forever! It really did. It's one thing I wish could've been different. It would be six months and then another six months and kept going. It definitely felt like a very long time.

WW: Were you hesitant about resigning with another major label (Warner Bros.)?

RY: Yeah, I had tremendous reservations. There are so many ways to release records now. If there had not been such a time lapse I may have done it different. But they have been tremendous to work with. I really could have gone the other way and then I met with Warner Bros. and fell in love. There are a lot of inspired people there that know how to do things right.

WW: How did Warner Bros. react when you told them you wanted to release a double-album, something that's becoming increasingly less common?

RY: Surprisingly great. I have a great A&R guy who is very open to things. I presented my case, why it should be that way and they actively listened and came to the same conclusion. There was never really a battle on that front. And it gave me the encourage to go forward with it.

WW: I recently interviewed your pal Rhett Miller and he said being on 30 Rock as part of the "I Need a Kidney" supergroup was pretty wild.

RY: Oh, Rhett Miller! I love him.

WW: He's great. What was your take on the 30 Rock experience?

RY: Oh, it was amazing! The show is awesome so we were all of the cast and the show itself. And it was a different environment so it was very, very trippy. Then to be in awe of each other. The musicians they had for that show was insane! To have everybody kind of mesmerized to have all of us in the same room was unbelievable. And the cast was just as enamored by us as we were with them. They were all in the studio watching as we taped, and vice versa. It was definitely a highlight.

WW: Do you have any crazy Denver stories to share with the readers?

RY: Ool! Crazy Denver stories. Let's see. Nothing too crazy. I nearly passed out when I went running and forgot about the altitude. I don't have any drinking and didn't know how it was going to hit me kind of stories [laughs]. Let's see. That's all I can think of. The rest are kind of stupid. Make one up for me!

WW: How about you drank too much and got up on the bar and started dancing?

RY: Yeah, do that [laughs]!

Rachael Yamagta, With Swell Season, 8 p.m. Sunday, November 29, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, Denver, $30. 303-832-1874.

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