Photo: Laura Crosta

20 Questions: Rachael Yamagata

After a four year break since her last album, Rachael Yamagata reveals a love of spreadsheets, a love for Streisand, and why it's totally OK to suck at playing guitar.
Rachael Yamagata
Tightrope Walker

It’s been a long four years for Rachel Yamagata.

For fans of the once theater-bound singer songwriter, the PledgeMusic campaign that helped create her 2011 effort Chesapeake was godsend, having survived two rounds of major label action. “PledgeMusic saved me,” she told PopMatters back in 2011. “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.”

And now, for a songwriter who has collaborated with everyone from Mandy Moore to Bright Eyes to Ryan Adams, Yamagata takes new kinds of risks with her latest set, Tightrope Walker. While her half-ballad/half-rock 2008 hybrid Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart showed a songwriter that was comfortable in multiple genres, Tightrope Walker showed a stronger integration of electronic elements to Yamagata’s sound, pushing her into new, emotional territory.

To mark the occasion, Yamagata sat down for PopMatters’ 20 Questions, revealing a love of spreadsheets, a love for Streisand, and why it’s totally OK to suck at playing guitar.

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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

I just picked up a book in the airport You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living An Awesome Life. Inspired by said title I took my new badass self over to the United lounge and got turned away because of my not-great-enough-yet status. I suppose I cried a little inside over that — does that count? The Way We Were usually leaves me a heaping mess. Jaws is a close second if I’m thinking of the worst way it could all end, although that involves a lot of screaming.

2. The fictional character most like you?

I’d say I’m part Mother of Dragons and “Little Edie” Beale. The latter is a real person of course, but she’s so beautifully odd and outrageous I’m putting her in anyway. My heart is at home with a bunch of cats, dressed erratically (writing this is a bathrobe, sweater coat and snow hat even though it’s summer). My spirit is fiery though and just when you think you can burn me alive, I’ll come back … with a bunch of mutha-friggin’ dragons!

3. The greatest album, ever?

Oy. Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Carole King’s Tapestry, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In the Key of Life, Roberta Flack’s First Take, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Rufus Wainwright’s Poses — there are too many. Can’t choose: anxiety level high now …

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

My mind immediately jumps to imaginary date nights with Chris Pine, William Shatner, or Harrison Ford. I think Yoda would get me best.

5. Your ideal brain food?

I love a good challenge across the board. Hand me a Tetris situation with gear, a budget conundrum, a relationship derailing, the best place to put your couch … The Sociology of the Criminal Mind was my favorite class in college and I’m obsessed with interior design and a sucker for a well laid out spreadsheet.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I don’t know if “proud” is the accurate description of this for me. Obsession for order comes to mind. I wish I were a more ruled by emotions type actually. I’m always trying to make sense of mine which gives me lots of songwriting content at least.

7. You want to be remembered for …?

I’d like to be remembered for getting people through something: articulating their heart’s ache into something enriching and powerful that allows them to feel lighter.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

My family have been the most inspirational people in my life. Patti Smith, Steve Jobs, and Barbra Streisand are also some I look to for a quality check.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

When someone invents that thing that will allow us to fly without a giant pack on our back, it will be that.

10. Your hidden talents . . .?

I can make strange spectacular basket shots when no one is looking. Seriously, it’s very odd. I’m a really good personal shopper for other people. Galaga.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

Someone once told me not to play guitar, that I was a pianist and should focus on that. Not following that advice led me to finding a new expression in my songwriting and started me on the right track of following my instincts rather than ever allowing another person to direct me creatively. That muscle develops and years later I’ve got the guts to run my own company, self manage, produce and so forth: all things I’ve been told I shouldn’t do. However they all play out, I’m comfortable owning my choices and have grown immensely from all of them. One’s own instinct is sometimes the best advice to follow. P.S. I still suck at guitar, but wouldn’t change a thing.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

I once stole a cool thing: Nick Cave’s little bottle of honey off of his restaurant table after he’d left. Best thing I ever bought was a trip to Paris for my mom, myself, and my aunt.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?

See answer #2. 😉

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Lucille Ball, Allison Janney, Bill Nighy, and a spiritual medium to tell me how we were connected in a past life.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

The future — planet Earth — so I can come back and give intel.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?


17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . .?

Having two of those vices right now. They’re essential to my mornings and aren’t anything I tout as good for you. Love would be the good one on my essential list.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Upstate New York in the woods really does it for me. Also love a Parisian cafe or waterside in the Dominican Republic.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Integrity and kindness: lead with it.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

After this interview I’ll become my own shipping department for 300 LPs. The new record Tightrope Walker comes out in a week and tour starts in three days. Working on staying sane would be about right.