Rachael Yamagata – Right On Target

Rachael Yamagata

Since her debut album “Happenstance” in 2004, Rachael Yamagata’s uniquely reflective music has set her apart as one of the rising talents of her generation. George R Vaughan caught up with the singer-songwriter following her latest release, “Tightrope Walker”.

US singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata has forged out a reputation as a creative talent of note and her music has been heard everywhere from the Billboard Charts to TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The O.C.”. As her new album, “Tightrope Walker” is released we caught up with her to find out a little more about the woman behind the music.

Did you always want to pursue a career in music?

“It actually never occurred to me that I could have a career in music. I was pursuing theater, French and Italian in college and happened to see a band one night in Chicago of fellow university students. I was hooked immediately and in awe of their chemistry onstage. I trailed them for months and brought coffee and donuts to their rehearsals. I knew I just wanted to be up there with them having a blast.

“Eventually, I joined the band as a backup singer and that led to me discovering my own love for writing songs. I stayed for six years as a member of the band, but my solo demos got noticed and it wasn’t until someone actually paid for me to fly across the country and showcase my songs that it dawned on me ‘Maybe I could do this’…”

What kind of music influenced you as you were growing up?

“I first fell in love with the singer songwriters from the 70s. Although, music around the house was eclectic and ranged from Carole King, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Elton John, Roberta Flack, Rickie Lee Jones, Barbra Streisand…I’ve always loved musical theater as well so I think I get a touch of the dramatic in my own music from that. In college, the band introduced me to Nina Simone, Tom Waits, Miles Davis, Prince, Donny Hathaway, Pharcyde and as time went on I got into Led Zeppelin, E.L.O, Daniel Lanois…”

Were your parents supportive of your decision to make career in music? 

“They were always supportive of anything I wanted to try, but felt very strongly that I should finish school above all else. None of us were really thinking along the lines of music becoming my career so when it began going that way I think they were as excited and surprised as I was.”

How difficult was it to get into the music business for you?

“It took about a year of showcases to finally get signed to a record label. I think I was lucky in a sense because I was just in a band, loving music and doing all I could to just enjoy that experience. Because I wasn’t looking to get into the music industry, the pressure was off and I could just focus on doing what I loved. 

“The business side rollercoaster ride took off after a first meeting with a label scout that ‘wanted to hear more’. That led to multiple trips, meetings, showcases and so forth and was equally exciting and frustrating.  I’d get really far within a company and then the president wouldn’t go for it, or in some cases, I’d be signed and then the person who signed me would get let go from the label.  I learned quickly about the instability of the industry so it became my ‘normal’ in a way.”

Can you tell me some details about your new album, “Tightrope Walker”?

“It’s quite different from my previous work both sonically and thematically.  It’s a journey of the human spirit really and a sort of cheering section to all to go for what they want and not give up.  The messages are very positive and empowering and focus on perseverance and healing and truth telling.  The music has a definite edge to it on many songs and we had a lot of fun incorporating new instruments like banjo, mandolin, saxophone, spoken word even…It’s the first record I can truly say I co-produced and I work very much on instinct and providing a soundscape that follows the lyric’s story. There are dark lush ballads that sort of haunt you and then power houses that are more abstract and intense.”

Do you enjoy the writing process?

“I do very much so. Figuring out a song can be like detective work, strategizing, or digging for treasure. The emotion is your light and darkness – you are feeling it and it’s leading you somewhere. Finding the right words to express that feeling and creating that map of words and melody to articulate it is endlessly fascinating to me.”

How would you classify your music? 

“I can never do it when it comes to genres because I think I float among so many. It always has to do with the heart and spirit for me. I dive in and out of struggle to find the hope and the beauty.”

Do you enjoy touring?

“It’s both wonderful and very taxing at the same time. I love the new experiences, places and people I get to see and meet. It’s an incredible ‘job’ to have, to travel the world and get to do art in front of supporters.  The actual planning and physical travel can be hard. Most of my time is spent on the logistics of the tour so the shows are like my vacation. We’ve learned to live out of suitcases and your band becomes your family. Often times it’s a very surreal reality. I long for the peace of my front porch, but then I get home and want to get on the road again. It’s a perfect career for the restless and adventurous for sure.”

Do you have any tours or gigs lined up in the UK?

“Yes, we’re doing four shows in November and then going back in the spring.”

How important is social media to your project? 

“Social media is a great way to have a direct voice to your fans for sure.  It’s a way to stay connected as you do all parts of music making and invites people in to see who you are outside of the records. It can be a huge effective tool in spreading the word about your music and tours. I think balance is key in sharing, but also understanding that it doesn’t define you.  Ultimately it is a tool of connection, but not the entirety of who someone is.”

Is there any artist you would like to perform or write with at the moment?

“There are so many and I have a bucket list of artists that I think would be inspiring to work with – Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Carole King, Kanye West…”

What are your main interests outside of music?

“I love interior design and I have an entrepreneurial spirit. Problem solving and thinking out of the box whether in business or just around the house is really fun for me. I’ll rearrange the furniture for better flow and have as much fun as strategizing a budget. Working in my yard and being in nature is a favorite pastime.”

What is your pet hate?

“I appreciate when people can take ownership and accountability of their choices and actions and I hate unkindness. I think we need to respect one another more and remember that we are all in this world together doing our best. Compassion is a beautiful thing.”

What’s your favourite film?

“It’s a tie between ‘The Way We Were’ and ‘Jaws’.”

What’s your star sign? 

“I’m right on the cusp of Virgo and Libra – I think it explains my love for beauty and spreadsheets.”

Do you have a favourite food?

Salt over sweet.  

Tightrope Walker is out now on CD and digital download. For more information on Rachael Yamagata visit her website here.

George R Vaughan