Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Cover Story: Rachael Yamagata

| October 1, 2016


The truth is out there, believes Rachael Yamagata. For any young artist curious enough to ask the right questions, rethink the major-music-label power structure, and ultimately willing to do the legwork involved in reimagining yourself as an independent DIY musician, the life-changing answers will become self-evident. For her inventive new fourth full-lengther, Tightrope Walker, she broke so many rules of conventional recording wisdom, she can barely remember them all. After playing the major-label game via her Private Music/Arista-issued 2004 debut Happenstance, she partnered with PledgeMusic to fund her third, 2011’s Chesapeake, then teamed with the crowd-sourcing company again two years ago for her latest. And she auctioned off virtually everything but the kitchen sink.

Why beg some big shot A&R executive for the money to underwrite your latest collection of songs? she reasoned. A Sword-of-Damocles advance that you’ll eventually have to pay back, no matter how well said record should sell? Through sites like PledgeMusic and KickStarter, performers can tap directly into their fan base and offer one-on-one premiums in exchange for album-financing donations. What can you put up for sale? “I think it’s just up to how creative you want to be with your ideas,” says Yamagata, 39, who was a local star in Chicago band Bumpus. “The world is your oyster.

“And in terms of what fans want to be part of, the more you can put into that initial stage of setting things up, the better,” she adds. “I see some people offering a dinner, and the artist will cook for you, and if I could cook, I would do that. But there are so many interesting ways to connect with people, and it’s a great system to invite someone into your world, and also, they’re there to become part of your ability to pull something off. And you learn as you go.” The premiums for Tightrope Walker were like platinum-card premiums for serious Yamagata fans, and certainly must-owns for any completist. Depending on your donation amount, you could get your greedy mitts on: A coveted collection of covers, including Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” and 10CC’s “I’m Not In Love”; A 17-track anthology of demos, outtakes, B-sides, and alternate song versions; Or a quiescent re-recording of Happenstance, with all cuts done acoustically. And that was just for starters.

“By the end of this Pledge process – if you count the new record itself – I delivered almost five albums’ worth of material,” the singer says. “It’s been intense, and it’s been the most extensive campaign I’ve ever done, for sure.” But there was one high-priced item that sold out within hours of being posted – ten ‘Songs for You,’ wherein she would compose a number specifically about the purchaser themselves, who were asked to submit a one-page biography for Yamagata’s inspiration. “I’ve written them all, and I’ve recorded seven out of ten,” she says, proudly. “And sometimes, the songs include very specific items from their particular story, sometimes I went a bit more broad. But there were always these really interesting kernels of phrases or ideas for just beautiful moments.”

People would apologize to their idol for not being that imaginative, she sighs. “But I never believed them – it’s just a matter of finding the channel that you’re best at, because the beautiful things that people would just say when they were telling their story were really inspiring. And I spent a ton of time – maybe four to five hours – on each writing, and then a full day in the studio, trying to figure out the best presentation of it.”

How would the tunesmith cope with, say, someone named Aloysius? “Oh, my God!” she guffaws. “Easy – ‘Aloysius/ Liked the fishes!’ But there was a lot of passion behind people’s stories, and they were very honest and vulnerable. And particularly with my fans, things aren’t always easy in what they’re trying to express.” That’s why they are drawn to her music in the first place, she thinks – she’s always been equally intrigued by both the dark and light sides of topics, issues. “So my hope is that I took the best wishes that everybody would have in a difficult situation, and presented them truthfully without adding fuel to the fire. I think I found a way that that worked, for all of our best selves to come out in these ten songs. Because there were some situations that were heated or emotional. But for me, as a songwriter, it made it all the more interesting.”

Yamagata says that she hasn’t sent these coveted prizes out just yet – she’s working on the legal copywriting/publishing ramifications, should said folks proudly start uploading their ostensibly private material. And it’s tricky, she confesses. She stands firmly behind these unusual works, and has thought several steps ahead, as in, would it be possible to one day assemble them all as a full-fledged, fan-blessed Rachael Yamagata album? And will her subjects insist that she play them their songs live, when her tour hits their town? All good food for thought, she muses. “In general, the response to this idea has just been pure excitement, though,” she says. “Just knowing that an artist they admire is paying them that kind of concentrated attention to do their story. It’s one of the coolest things. So if there’s a way to do more of this, I will. I mean, can you imagine I could call up Barbara Streisand and go, ‘Hey – can you write about me?’ I, for one, would be really, really excited.”

But wait. There’s more! The shrewd songstress also auctioned off handwritten lyrics to her various anthems. And not dusty old scrapbook tatters of original, hastily scrawled snippets from the original sessions, she clarifies. But all-new, carefully-drawn exercises in calligraphy that took her nearly an hour to ink, per songs. One of her cuts was so wordy that she was crossing her cramped fingers that no one would request it (they didn’t; bullet dodged). “The handwritten lyrics, I think, have become a really nice keepsake for the fan to have, especially if the lyrics are really speaking to them – plus, they look nice,” she explains. “But they really hurt your hand, so you’ve got to stagger them a little bit. But I did each one individually, and there were hundreds.”

The multi-instrumentalist won’t pinpoint exactly how lucrative this venture was for her. It was quite a healthy amount, is all she’ll confess. But it came with some harsh realities that newcomers should be aware of. “It was very fruitful, but it’s also very expensive to handle the shipping and the manufacturing,” she elaborates. “I’d like to contribute something more in-depth that lays it out a little bit, because I’m not sure everyone understands the realities of just how expensive it can be to market and promote and tour. I’ve talked to a lot of artists (post crowd-funding) who are like, ‘God – I made all this money, but then where did it go?’ So I’ve learned a lot over the past couple of years about budgets.”

Somehow, though, after spending time in Chicago, Yamagata managed to purchase a house on 12 woodsy acres in Woodstock, NY, which she and her sound engineer/boyfriend converted to a home studio. This allowed for even more creative freedom, leading to Tightrope, her most experimental effort to date. It opens on the bluesy, skeletal title track, which relates the story of an aerialist drawn to the inherent danger of his craft. “Some people think he’s crazy/ Some people want him to fall,” she sings in her signature smoky, sultry murmur, in a metaphor for her own acrobatic career as a self-reliant singer-songwriter. The stomp-clanking “Nobody” follows, with her voice descending into darker, more sinister love-as-addiction territory, leading into a jittery “EZ Target,” a Leonard Cohen-forlorn “Break Apart,” the symphonic dirge “I’m Going Back,” and a straightforward folk ballad written for her Japanese-American father, who just retired, “Black Sheep.” “Money Fame Thunder” closes the set out in classy processional style, and – as it reprises certain key lyrics from “Tightrope Walker” itself — plays like a case study of those three subjects on an average aspiring Joe, who may or may not be prepared for any of them. And it brings the record full circle, back to its cynical beginnings.

Yes, Yamagata agrees, it is her most inventive work, to date. “And it comes from, well, not having a plan,” she snickers. “We’ve created this home studio where there are no time limits, and we have an amazing group of musicians up here in Woodstock, and we just called them in. So in a very organic setting, we could be very experimental.” Talents like Kevin Salem, Owen Biddle, Ben Perowsky, and Russell Simins dropped by the foresty sessions, as did her old chum John Alagia, who co-produced the album with her. Then, like musical chairs, she would have players switch to instruments with which they were less comfortable, just to give an added edge to the sound. “Ben is this amazing drummer who I knew from playing with Rufus Wainwright,” Yamagata says. “But we made him go out in the backyard and hit a bunch of ladders and metal ironing boards. So we had the liberty to have time and no pressure, and no preconceived notions about what direction this record would go in.

“And this is the first time I can honestly say that I actually did co-produce,” she continues. “I think my talent is having good instincts on who to get together in a room, and then knowing what I like when the song gets there. So I took on this new role of investigating sound. Like a saxophone or a mandolin – I wouldn’t typically or intellectually think to put those on my music. But we just followed our instincts, and the musicians were extremely creative.” “EZ Target,” for instance, features the dissonant tones of clanging cowbell and chains hitting planks of wood, all distorted through reverb, with additional percussion part edited in from Victor Indrizzo and Matt Chamberlain. The cut exemplifies the lyrical spirit of the album, as well.

“The original demo of “EZ Target” was just me on guitar, and it was a rebuttal,” the singer explains. “Someone said something outlandish to me, and there was no easy way for me to respond without making things ten times worse. So I was screaming inside, but I had to just sit there and take it. And I thought, ‘Well, I know what I could say back – I know how to pierce somebody’s heart with my verbiage.’ But I made that conscious choice not to. And the theme of consciously not engaging in that was interesting to me. So rather than me feeling like the easy target, I switched the perspective and they became the easy target. I would have lost all of my grace if I had just snapped back.” And that’s the gist of Tightrope Walker, she adds. “Moving beyond our initial reactions to things and getting through the emotional excess that can weigh us down, just going through daily life. How do we wash ourselves clean from that and stay positive?”

Is Yamagata herself the tightrope walker? Working without a life-saving net? She considers this for a minute. “You know what? I think so, I do, yes, affirmative,” she replies, giddily. A friend had just E-mailed her, urging her to change the working title of her autumn cross-country jaunt. “Because right now it reads ‘Tightrope Walker Fall Tour,’” she giggles. “But my favorite thing is to just do it, and then figure it out as I’m starting to fly. So I’ll either plummet straight down or soar up into the trees. But yeah, that’s kind of been the route of my last few years – just working on things and making records and finding money for it and staying on the road and the whole shebang. And the thing is, it’s going great. So I’m intrigued by that idea of the kind of focus, balance, and concentration needed to pull this off. So you also get to experience this great perspective and height that leads you to great views of the whole damned thing. So that image came into my head, and I just started writing.”

Yamagata can’t believe that 12 years have passed since Happenstance, a fact hammered home on her when she re-recorded the stripped-down version of it. Which she will be selling on tour, she says. “I’ve got a box of 1,000 of ‘em, just sitting here in my guest room,” she sighs. The covers and rarities discs will additionally be available. “I honestly don’t know where the time goes,” she says. “I gauge my time by my nieces and nephews – I’ll think, ‘What happened? How are you talking like a person now? When did you grow up? When did you start walking?’ My niece is a little volleyball star, and she’s 5’8”. And I’m like, ‘How did this happen?’ People have kids in the equivalent time that I do records – that’s my new measuring stick.”

But this vagabond – who swears she’s had no place to truly call home for the last decade – is happy to finally have roots in Woodstock. That’s where her family originally hails from, she says, plus she’s a huge nature lover. Well, to a point. “For the past two days – I kid you not – I’ve been sitting on my front porch with my computer, and the biggest bear I have ever seen has been seven feet from me, just walking across the lawn,” she shivers. “And at first, I freaked out, grabbed all my cats, and yelled, ‘Run!’ But the second time it happened, I was like, ‘I’m getting a picture of this damn thing!’ And he just sauntered off, and the cats didn’t even wake up.” How many cats does she have? Just three, she says, reassuringly.
“Don’t worry! We’re not in any danger of me drifting into “Grey Gardens” territory. Yet….”

-Tom Lanham

Appearing 10/4 at Thalia Hall, Chicago.

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