[2 November 2011]
Rachael Yamagata has been off the mainstream music radar for the past three years. After her most recent studio album, Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart, in 2008, she’s parted ways with her record label and seemingly disappeared. She wasn’t really gone, though. In the time since her most recent studio album, she’s been courting fans on the road and writing songs that were more her than anything she’s written before. The result of all that writing free of studio influence is her latest musical offering, Chesapeake, a self-produced album from her own Frankenfish label.
The fact that, at 34, she’s producing her own album is surprising considering that for most of her youth, music wasn’t even something she was considering as a career. Yamagata grew up in the suburbs of Maryland and Washington D.C where her father was from, and spent a lot of time in upstate New York, where her mother grew up, near Woodstock. She studied piano at 12, but that was the entirety of her formal musical training. When she went off to college—Northwestern, then Vassar for a year—she was studying theater. Throughout that time, however, writing songs was always something she did. It was the way she got things out and expressed herself.
And she wasn’t the only musician in the family. It was something that was always around her, but that no one really talked about as anything special. One of her uncles is a concert pianist. Another uncle is the tenured French horn player at the New York City Ballet and the NY Philharmonic. And it is reputed that her grandfather, who died when she was two, could pick up any instrument and play it by ear instantly. “Music has always been around,” she says. “And my family is from Woodstock on my mother’s side, so even the location of where I’ve grown up was pointing in this direction. So, it’s funny that it took me so long to wake up to it! It finally dawned on me, ‘cause there were several things that were like ‘Music, Rachael! Music…’”
It wasn’t until she was almost finished with college that she realized that performing songs was something she’d enjoy doing. “During my junior year in college, I met [the band, Bumpus] and saw them play live in a bar and fell in love with the whole experience of it, and was just desperate to play tambourine or sing back up or whatever,” Yamagata says. “I was completely drawn to it. It may have been like a pool hall or something, but I just could not get over the energy of this band, and I just loved it. Eventually I did get to sing with them!” The structure of being a part of a band forced her to focus on her songwriting craft; something she’d never had the chance to do before. “That’s when I really started focusing on songwriting and Could I do it? and reining in my songs, which were 12 minutes, and trying to figure out, you know, not every song should be 12 minutes! [laughs] I really started working on the craft of it in those years, and I was in the band for seven years, writing songs on the side.”
She caught the attention of a talent scout from Maverick Records, which started her on an entirely different path: that of a solo singer-songwriter. It is her naturally driven, workaholic nature that she credits with the success she’s achieved, despite the fact that she wasn’t specifically ambitious about her music. “I’ve always had this sense that I’d do something grand somehow, on whatever level, you know? I’ve never really worried about it. I think what evolved was the confidence to actually pursue it and see the right channel for it. I’ve always been pretty restless and driven as a person. Like, I always have to keep moving and keep working, so that was always sort of there. But definitely the first time someone flew me out to do a showcase, I couldn’t get over the fact that someone actually paid for a plane ticket for me! And they’re putting me up in a hotel! And I was so mesmerized. I was like, something I did musically, just because it makes me feel better, someone is actually flying me out to see it. I was hooked! I was like, ‘Maybe this could be my life! Maybe these little songs can do something.’”
Those “little songs” led to a self-titled EP and two studio albums, Happenstance, and Elephants…Sinking Teeth Into Heart. After that second studio album, which is darker in tone than its predecessor, she left what was her second record label after being frustrated with how their corporate troubles—they deconstructed and reconstructed several times while she was there, as well as after she left—were affecting her music by making the approvals process much more difficult.
Her new album, Chesapeake, was different, she says, “in the sense that we didn’t have any requirements. There was sort of a ‘There’s nothing to lose here’, because we don’t have to pass it by anybody. There’s no label, and there’s no intention for radio, you know? There was no preconceived goal for the music. It was more about what felt fresh and fun to the people in the room playing it. So I think the most important part of this whole record was getting the right people together. And knowing that I had a lot of trust with them, and that they were really passionate about what I do. We’d been mutual fans of each other, and had worked together, so I knew that if they were in the room, whatever we did would have magic to it. And if I could just get songs that were strong, we’d come up with something great. So that was the most important formative factor to the record.”
As for choosing the tracks that made the final cut, Yamagata says, “If I’m writing something and it makes me cry, like if there’s a point where I tear up—and I never ... I’m not a sappy person—then I know that I’ve hit on something, and I know I’ve gotta give that one a shot, there’s something there. So it was sort of just picking songs based on having that experience while I’m writing them.”
Chesapeake stands as a testament to a music industry entirely supported by fans. Yamagata produced the album by raising funds on Pledge Music, a fundraising site for musicians who provide incentives to fans—exclusive versions of the album, autographed memorabilia, etc—in exchange for the funds to produce their projects. This model provided her the freedom she needed to experiment with her sound and capture exactly who she is in this moment. When you hear tracks like “The Way It Seems to Go” or “Even If I Don’t”, despite the sad subject matter, there’s also an exuberant hopefulness that is “authentic to a new optimism that I’ve never been able to get down on a page.” The process of recording this record was different, too. Yamagata basically hosted a campout at a house in Upstate New York, and everyone hung out in sleeping bags and just jammed, leading to an organic sound. She saw the entire process as an adventure and loves the result. “I’ve always written for me, and thankfully they’ve resonated with people,” she says. “But this truly was Success, failure, whatever ... I just wanna have fun with everybody, and get ‘em down, and press record. I wasn’t predicting the outcome in any way.”
So, does she see making albums this way as the beginning of the end for the music industry? Yamagata doesn’t want to add fuel to the fire. She feels “pretty blessed to have lasted as long as I did within the major label system. I feel fortunate to work with the people that I did, because they’ve always been super-awesome people and very creative, and I just think the snags that I ran into had more to do with the system than anything else.” However, she is inspired by the way that something like Pledge Music brings artists and fans closer together, removing the middleman and allowing fans to have a direct say in the kind of music that gets produced. “For me, something like Pledge Music saved me. It was something that allowed me to make instinctual decisions about how the funding would be used, and I didn’t have to get clearances from anyone. I’m sitting here now writing hand-written lyrics for people who supported the album. I love that fans can support something in advance they would’ve supported anyway. And I get to share behind-the-scenes stuff with them! It’s a great way to get more authentic music.”
Now, with Chesapeake finished, Yamagata is gearing up for a whirlwind tour in support of the album, and she’s excited to be going back out on the road. “I mean, it’s gonna kick my butt. I’m not looking forward to the fact that it’s gonna be so much work!” she says. “But I haven’t really stopped since we started this record process. I am sort of a workaholic, so even if I weren’t on the road, I’d be reading accounting books—I mean, if I’m gonna take all this over, I’d better know how to do it! Or I’m listening to entrepreneurial radio shows so that I can keep myself energized and inspired about how to navigate business waters. So I’ve always been trying to school myself in all the ways necessary. I basically said to my agent, put me on the road, run me ragged! I still have the energy and the desire to do it. It’s been too long between releases and I haven’t been out there, so work me like a dog! Get me as many places as you can, ‘cause people have been really loyal fans, and I haven’t been able to do a very significant amount of touring, which to me is half the fun, and half the process! I mean, talk to me in three months and I might just be like ‘what did I do?’ [laughs] But I’m super excited about it!”