Interview with: Rachael Yamagata

Rachel Yamagata

Rachel Yamagata

With her recent album drop and run on the “Hotel Cafe” tour, Rachael Yamagata is quite busy, our very own Joshua had a chance to catch up with her and find out first hand what Yamagata is all about. Check out his interview where they discuss kittens, albums and life:

Rachael Yamagata: Hello Joshua.
Joshua, Popwreckoning: Hey! How are you?
RY: Great! And You?
PW: Things are great here. I feel I need to preemptively apologize for the potential meowing you might hear in the background. I’m interviewing at home today, and I have locked the kittens out of the living room. They’re not pleased.
RY: Aw! I love kittens. Are you kidding?! I actually have to go get mine from my mom’s house tomorrow. I’m all for cats. Aw. How many do you have?
PW: I have two. Patchikins and a five week old kitten named Chubb-a-saurus.
RY: Oh my God. That’s totally cute.
PW: I think they are, yet I’m sure our readers don’t care as much as you and I do.
RY: (Laughs)

PW: So, I guess if it is okay, I’ll go ahead and start with the real questions.
RY: It’s a plan.
PW: Let’s start in chronological order. You wrote your first song at age 12. Do you remember the inspiration for said song?
RY: No. Um.. it was either about teeth or a boyfriend. I remember that I wrote one about losing my front teeth, but I was really young. It must have been a crush song. I don’t remember exactly who, but it must have been a little love song.

PW: That’s really cute. Your early life of teeth-inspired songwriting lead you to a band called Bumpus. How much of a role did Bumpus prepare you for your outing as a solo artist?
RY: Basically, we just played and played and played. We were a three person fronted band, so we had to be strategic about the way that we designed the set lists, to make it dynamic and interesting, and so it would flow. So I kind of credit them with a great education on how to play a live show, but musically we’re different in terms of what I am doing now but they introduced me to stuff that I think would later interest me like Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn and John Coltrane. It’s kinda opened my world to different music.
PW: I could definitely see that. I can see how those artists would have influenced your sound.
RY: Definitely.

PW: Following that, you’ve recently released Elephant…Teeth Sinking Into Heart, which is your first album since you released Happenstance a very long time ago. How does it feel to have something on the shelves again after a four year wait?
RY: Oh, just a big kinda giant and quiet relief. It was a long, long road to try to get this record out so it’s very very welcome on my part. I’m really really pleased that it’s out and available because I’ve been living with the songs and the mixes and the recordings myself for so long that it’s been frustrating that no one else has gotten to hear them.

PW: How do you feel that your writing and musical abilities have changed from the age of 27 to 31? Like what themes and topics have surfaced in your music and which have softened or vanished?
RY: I think just a more, like a more enriched take on relationships. With writing I feel like I’ve stretched and have been more poetic; using characters to an integer that I haven’t before. I feel very, very fascinated with the dynamics of relationships as a theme. And I’ve certainly have kinda grown in the “It’s Hard Driven Rain”, touching on kinda Pulp Fiction first guitar rock element as well, which I hadn’t done before.

PW: OK. I did notice that in the new album there was more guitar than there had been before and I found that pretty intriguing. On the new album, you recently worked with Ray[LaMontagne] I will botch his last name if I even try….
Ha ha!
PW: …on the beautiful track, “Duet” and you’ve also worked with Rhett Miller, Ryan Adams, Jason Mraz and Conor Oberst in the past. However in the future if you could work with any person, just hand pick a handful of people to work with on your future albums, who would you choose and why?
RY: I think I’m going to, and this is a stretch, but Bruce Springsteen is an amazing writer and he’s got these quiet kinda intimate songs as well as these iconic rock anthems. I feel like in some way it would just be huge and magical to collaborate with him. You know there’s definitely a long list but he’s one of the top people.
PW: I can definitely see that meshing together well, too. I never would’ve thought of it until you mentioned it, but stepping back and looking at the two projects and putting them together, I can see where it would fit.
RY: Yeah, someone gave me his record Tom Goad a couple of years back and everything changed because I had only known him from his radio hit songs and it’s just very fabulous, very cool.
There’s an album that’s he’s released that I think a lot of people overlook, but it’s one of my favorite albums ever. It’s called Nebraska and it gets overshadowed by Born in the USA so much, but I think it’s one of the greatest albums released during that time period by far.
RY: That’s excellent.

PW: You were recently joined on tour by one of PopWreckoning‘s favorite artists, Kevin Devine, and how was it touring with him and having him as a member of your backing band?
RY: I love him! He’s just an amazing writer. He’s so electric when he performs. He can hush a room in any way, with a soft song or whatever.
He’s just an awesome guitar player so whether he’s rocking out or doing something real hushed, it’s just great watching a crowd respond to him. He was just so instinctively perfect for my stuff that whatever he would pick to play was just seamless when he would play with us so I loved it. We’re looking and figuring out more ways to get him playing with us.
PW: That would be amazing. We keep looking for him to just take over the world and it keeps getting pushed back and not happening. I mean, he keeps progressively getting bigger but we just think that there should be so many more people who love him, we just don’t understand.
RY: Absolutely.

PW: Very soon you are leaving for the “Hotel Cafe” tour. I recently spoke with Joshua Radin on the subject, just yesterday actually, regarding how tight knit you “Hotel Cafe” kids really are. So I guess what I’m going to ask is, what is it like traveling with such a family style environment and how does it differ from a simple regular tour?
RY: Well when you’re on tour you pretty much become a family with anyone you’re on the road with, you know, especially if you’re out for a while. But something that is so… I want to say sweet but that is such a lame word… haha… there’s something so familiar with a bunch of artists getting together because everyone’s bringing their own music to the table and kinda broadening the prospective.
The unique thing about it is that I’ve done them a couple of times, and there’s never any egos. There’s just these great great artists, in their own rights, completely jazzed about playing together. So you get these really rare moments where four or five artists you’re fans of individually and they’re all playing together on stage and singing with each other. It’s really a kind of magical experience.
These other artists have also gone through the same great highs or lows of road life of putting records out, so they understand you in a way that is perhaps different than musicians who are in your band. They kinda know where you’re coming from which is a really satisfying experience, being able to bond with someone on that level and share it. You just get close to them very quickly.

PW: That was a great answer. That was very in depth and I think it will highlight the heart of and idea behind the “Hotel Cafe” tour very well. We’ve been trying to promote it as much possible because we completely believe in what you guys are doing with that. We think that it’s great that you take it to other cities so it’s not just in that cafe. Like we look forward to it coming every year because Kansas City lacks everything that the “Hotel Cafe” is so it’s great to have it for one night.
RY: Excellent.

PW: Following that, I’m going to hit on a question that I ask a lot of people lately and I didn’t realize until yesterday how much I’d been asking this, but your songs have been featured on television shows; I have a whole big list that I won’t list for you because you already know them. In your opinion, how has visual media altered music and do you think that television is becoming like the new radio?
RY: It’s gone backwards, yeah I do think that television has become the new radio. You can see it happening with the amount of attention that artists get, unknown artists will get a song on a show and it can blow up overnight. And there’s definitely a huge response that can come from having your song mixed in on a show, I’ve seen it happen with friends of mine.
I guess in this world, there’s something beautiful about creating like an amazing visual scene and collaborating that with a lyric, you know, it makes it very cinematic. I mean finding the perfect piece of music to something that’s great writing on screen can be really, really special.You know it works the other way, too. Like sometimes, you know I’ve run into a problem where people seem to know me as the soundtrack for television shows which is like you want your own experiences and them listened to with headphones and like closed eyes and I think that can be really intense.
So I think it can go both ways. I think it can get you lots of attention, absolutely and that’s a positive thing. But for me, in particular on this record, if I had my wish of how I wanted people to listen to it as well, I’d certainly include something very unique to a very solo experience like listening to it in headphones, taking a walk or the first half is so sort of internal and intimate, I feel like getting lost in your own world, letting only the music and lyric really speak to you, I think that would be really intense.

PW: I totally agree with you. The first half of your new album, I feel is definitely way more intimate than anything I’ve heard released with the exception of maybe, “Wore Me Down”. But it was just, I was just impressed. When I reviewed it I went from the angle that the four years waiting for the album was rough but once you hear the opening set of lyrics to “Elephant” you understand why it took so long to be constructed.
RY: [giggles]
PW: It was being constructed as it should be. You were taking the time to put your emotion into an album rather than just putting something out.
RY: Exactly.
PW: And I had a lot of respect for that.
RY: Thank you.

PW: It’s no problem. Thank you for putting it out. I’ve got two questions left for you. This next one is semi personal, I don’t know if it crosses the line. If it does just don’t answer. Your songs sport lyrics on highly personal subjects, such as “Wore Me Down,” “Reason Why,” and “Elephants.” When first taking these songs on the road, are they ever hard to relive emotionally, due to the magnitude of the fingerprint that their content left on your life?
RY: It’s kinda simple because I feel like, I’m not so special that I’ve experienced something that others haven’t as well. So it’s almost like a shared… um what’s the word? Like expulsion, is that a word? Ha ha.
That’s not really the word I’m looking for. I’m like the grammar, not grammar, like vocabulary challenged. It’s kinda, well it can be, healing in a way to let them out in front of other people who are willing to go there with you. Does that make any sense?
PW: It does make sense.
RY: I’m not always thinking of the particular experience that I wrote it about because over time, things do change for me. I don’t weather it so harshly. But I always plug in my sort of present day view of the world into those songs and then when I can’t talk to a friend about it or make sense of it to myself then I kinda channel into a fitting song, that sort of lyrically embodies that same thing just in my present day. Because for me, it’s very kinda therapeutic.

I did not look at it in that way. That would make sense. You’re being able to get it out of your system in another way. Yeah that makes sense, that makes perfect sense. My last question is very very generic. What can we expect in the future of your career?
RY: Well for the immediate future, life wise, we’re going to do some more dates in the States before the end of the year and then we’re going to do some international stuff and then circle back around in the US.
I’m excited to get writing again, and to release another album, hopefully no later than by the end of next year, or at least get started on it. It’s interesting because I felt really stunted in a way just until this album came out and now that it’s out things are starting to flow again and I’m just kinda excited to get back to writing.

PW: Sounds great. I am actually highly disappointed because I’m not going to get to see you in Lawrence. This will be the third time that you’ve come through that I’ve missed you.
RY: Oh no!
PW: I’ve never gotten to see you live and it’s heartbreaking every time. I have to cover Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin the weekend that you’re here. I mean we’re going to have staff there, someone’s going to cover it but I’ve been really stingy. Like up till this point, I’ve been like, “No one can cover Yamagata! I’m covering it.”
RY: Ha ha. You’re so great.
PW: Yeah, and then I’m not even in town when you’re here.
RY: Aw, well I’ll come back next year.
PW: Seriously, if you would do that, I would be there and would bring everyone I know.
RY: Aw, thanks.
PW: No problem. But I’m going to let you get back to your life but I will send someone from our publication to say “Hey!” in Lawrence.
RY: Alright, thank you and kiss your kitties for me!
PW: I absolutely will. Have a great day!
RY: Thanks, you too!

Rachael Yamagata: website | myspace | Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart review



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