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 features fierce, lean rockers unlike anything heard on Happenstance. Yamagata called us from Woodstock, New York, where she spends 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. On the phone, it's simply charming — especially when she unleashes one of her frequent, infectious laughs.
Westword: You 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?
Rachael Yamagata: They're not easy songs to cover from that time period, because they were just so iconic and done so well.... 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.
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?
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.... 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 sprung from there. I literally wrote the whole song on my run down this mountain and had it. Yeah, I don't know where that came from [laughs].
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.
That's funny. It was, actually [laughs]. Yeah, that was kind of the less lovingly reflective one. A bit more threatening, I suppose.