Singer-Songwriter Rachael Yamagata caught up with National Rock Review ahead of her North American tour.
Rachael Yamagata‘s musical career began as part of the band Bumpus. After touring and writing with them for six years, she then stepped out on her own and has a catalog of four EPs and three studio albums to her name. Rachael took some time out to discuss her US tour, songwriting, and life in the music business.
NRR: New York is one of the first shows tomorrow, are you feeling ready? Is everyone there ready to go?
Rachael: I mean, you would laugh if I could send you a picture. I have taken all the furniture and I have up-ended it in my living room, putting up a mock stage which I have been doing all over the house. I am working with a projector which I have never done before, so I’ve got projectors on different levels of keyboard stands and things I know I’ll have with me. And I’ve got a mannequin that’s standing in as me so I can see how it will look. So I think I’ve prepared as much as possible.
NRR: You’ve toured pretty relentlessly, looking back over your schedule over the past few years. Are you comfortable doing that? Is that part of being a musician that you really enjoy?
Rachael: It’s sort of twofold, some of its necessity. You know it’s a somewhat reliable source of income and sometimes it at least helps predict certain things. Other times, one is usually feeding into another one – like the prep for one. You know, I’ll be on the road doing the US tour but I’ll be also planning Europe or Asia. Or I’m in Asia, but about to start in Europe. So I don’t even consciously realize I haven’t had a break in five years. But they all, you know, come one after the other so Asia might feel like I haven’t been there in a year so its time I came back whereas I’m like, I’ve been on the road for a long time my head’s going to explode. I really have to get in the zone of, like getting more centered in that world of touring and recording. So this is the last run of the US that I’ll do for probably this year unless something incredible comes my way!
NRR: You’re playing Space in Evanston soon. It’s a club I love because it’s very up close and personal. Have you played there before?
Rachael: I’m so excited about that, that’s exactly what we’ve been trying to do for this tour, is that kind of show. Everyone kept calling me about that venue, telling me that I had play there. So this is my first time and it’s one of the ones I’m really excited about, for sure.
NRR: I’ve been listening back through your whole catalog. I’ve noticed that your latest album, Tightrope Walker, is a lot different to what you’ve written before. Did you start with a vision and then you wrote using a stream of consciousness and then came back to what you’d written later and worked on turning it into songs? Are you writing again at the moment and has that sort of method stayed with you? What does the process normally look like for you?
Rachael: I wrote a lot, I did some touring this summer and I was back home for a week or two and I wrote like 11 songs immediately. So that was a really fruitful time. And that was no structure. That was just me grabbing paper wherever I could and they just poured out. And that’s been it, so far. I kind of need to…I’m one those people who needs to hole up and write and I’ll take notes every now and again or quote a good line that I think of, I’ll hear a good word and scribble it down and I’ll get back to it. Yeah, I’m not sure how this next one’s going to come about. I think once I get some breathing time that I’ll really dive into it.
NRR: So do you write at all when you are on the road or do you always need to lock yourself away for it?
Rachael: Usually I have to be locked away. I’ll get phrases on the road. Sometimes when I go out and see other shows, those are really inspiring to me. I used to sharpie on my arm. Particularly back in College, I’d end up with Sharpie all over my arm. But now I use a pen and paper! But I really like to dedicate a particular lifestyle to writing and, on the road, it’s sort of just all about survival!
NRR: Your music is very personal but it leaves a lot of space for people project onto the songs what they want, so it leaves room for interpretation, rather than it simply being a straight story. Is that the way you naturally write or is it something that you consciously go for?
Rachael: It’s pretty natural. I think that what I’ve learned is that we are all so unique in terms of we each have something different to offer the world, but we’re also all connected in respect of emotional reservoir of life experience. That – what I go through, even as specific as I can get, is pretty relevant to other people. I feel like we go through a lot of the same stuff on our life journey. So I don’t intend to try to become universal but I think that I’ve found even being really pinpointed on my own experience tends to be universal. With Tightrope Walker there was a little bit more of an outward look for me consciously looking at the human condition and how we all try to get through and survive. So that one feels a little bit more open in that way. But for me, I’m always reminded of how connected we are because of how people resonate with some of these songs.
NRR: I was interested to hear how you recorded that at home. I was reading that you had amps set up in bathrooms, and it made me think of Exile on Main Street when The Stones were recording in the basement of that house in France and they had stuff set up in different rooms to get the reverb and things like that. Is that how it felt? Was it refreshing to do it in that way?
Rachael: Oh for sure. I actually prefer it now. We had drums in our backyard. For Tightrope Walker there were sheet curtains all over the windows, microphones hanging from the railings upstairs and I love that. I’ve recorded insanely gorgeous studios and I’m not knocking that because if I had the budget to do that, that’s just heaven. But, there’s something really communal about making a fire pit in the backyard with all of the musicians and maybe pulling out an iPhone and catching the sound of the fire you know.
NRR: Yeah I think, reading the Led Zeppelin biography, you know, John Bonham’s drum track for When the Levee Breaks, was just recorded in the staircase of Headley Grange when their engineer realized the space had great acoustics. And since then, everyone tries to reproduce that sound. So I guess sometimes things like that which would never happen in a studio.
Rachael: It’s amazing, totally true.
NRR: I’m guessing for the new album would you be looking to go down the same route in respect of recording
Rachael: I think so, I’m not sure. I would certainly be open to it. I’m sure that would come down to the musician’s that seem right and where they are located. I do like that house stuff, but I also like new experiences. I’m not one to go on vacation and return to the same spot so that side, I’d have to make sure I was inspired. You know I might just pitch a tent in my backyard and not go into my home.
NRR: So you are an artist who in the past has been signed to a major label but has moved to be independent and Tightrope Walker was funded through Pledge Music. Do think that’s going to be the norm for a lot of musicians going forward?
Rachael: I think the DIY approach is definitely something that more artists are experiencing. I’ve been self-managed for six years. I’ve been working with like, distribution companies and MRI, and they’ve been great because they have teams of people that do help with your plans and project management. The work is overwhelming so those resources have been really helpful. It’s been incredible to find a connection with your fans throughout the making of the record. It’s a lot of work, depending on how you structure the campaign so that’s something you have to take into consideration. But in terms of energizing your fanbase to go on the journey with you, it’s been an incredible way to do it. I think the movement is going towards how can we streamline and do it to our benefit but do it on a budget and do it really creatively and cost-effectively. You know, I have a lot of friends who are incredible artists who don’t have the gas money to get out on the road. Or can’t find an agent to help book the shows or can’t find a manager. So I’m always looking at that aspect of it, that’s for sure.
NRR: I try to go and see local artists whenever I can in Chicago. It always amazes me how much talent is out there and how difficult they find it to get out there and bring their music to people. I feel like on the one hand, it’s a lot easier to get your music out there now, but it’s probably a lot more difficult to live from it these days. That’s the issue we’re dealing with.
Rachael: Oh absolutely. You have to be really creative. I’m been somewhat lucky in that I’ve been able to make a career that sustains me. I’m really careful, I’m really smart with money. I had to learn to do that. For years I wasn’t. You have to be equal parts business person, I think, unless you have a really good support system around to help you.
NRR: So I don’t want to keep you much longer, just one more question. I noticed on your Pledge campaign that you donated 5% of the money raised to Music Heals. And that’s something that’s really close to my heart. I know Music Heals use music to help people who are dealing with Parkinson’s and I’ve seen some really amazing videos of the effects of that. I actually also volunteer for a charity called Musicians On Call. And I just wanted to ask whether that is something important to you and is that something that you’re still involved with?
Rachael: That’s something that I haven’t done anything with for quite a while, and it’s one of the reasons I’m trying to reconfigure my business side to allow for that. Honestly, so much of my time is dedicated the logistics of staying on the road. I think if I can, that’s one of the good goals that I think helps me redefine how I want to spend my days. Music Heals – I think they’re incredible and music does actually heal. It’s the universal language.
NRR: I couldn’t agree more.
NRR: I couldn’t agree more.
You can find Rachael’s upcoming tour dates here.
Photo: Laura Crosta