Posted October 15, 2011 by whopperjaw in Tunes

Singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata discusses her newfound optimism

You probably wouldn’t know it from the moody material she now plays, but singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata got her start playing in a funk band called Bumpus. She left that band to go solo in 2001 and eventually released her first, self-titled EP in 2003. After a short stint on Warner Bros., she left the label and self-released her terrific new album, Chesapeake, earlier this month. On it, she alternately evokes PJ Harvey (“Starlight”) and Fiona Apple (“Dealbreaker”) while never losing her own, distinct musical identity. We interviewed her yesterday via phone for a feature for the November issue of Hearsay Now, a nationally distributed music and film magazine. She’s really articulate and was really excited about her upcoming tour (and we’ve listed the tour dates at the end of this post). Per the publicist’s mandate, we only had about 15 minutes with her (which is standard), and here’s what she had to say.

I know you started your career with a funk band called Bumpus. Can you talk a bit about what you gained from that?

They were like the master class in entertainment. For me, it was all about those first lessons on how to structure a set list and engage a crowd. It was about the discipline of rehearsing and writing. It was all a bunch of firsts with them. It was such a powerful chemistry on stage that it really showed me how to work a dynamic show and not just have a one-tone musical experience. It was a lot of shows every week and rehearsing in the middle of the night and tracking records at 11 p.m. and going until 7 in the morning. Hopping in the van and getting paid twenty bucks a week. It was a lot of years just getting in there and learning how it works and the value of live performance.

After you decided to go the solo route, what was the transition like?

It was super painful, actually because I loved that band so much and was happy to be a part of it and be up on stage. I had no ambition to go solo. It never occurred to me. I just started writing songs on my own that weren’t right for the band. They had a very different tone. The whole separation was unexpected and took a path I did not know it was going to take. It was painful to leave the people who became my family. I am grateful that I honed my chops of sorts with them.

The 2000s were a particularly active period for you. You released several albums and collaborated with a number of terrific artists. What experience really stands out for you?

You know, it’s so crazy. It’s all over the board. Sometimes, I’ll be like, “Here’s a picture from when I played for the president.” Or here’s a note from Pete Townshend when I played with him. There have been so many things. My first gig in New York was at the Living Room, which is where I got my agent. He signed me after playing that show. And the second show in New York was at Madison Square Garden opening for David Gray. There were these amazing things that I’ve been able to do that I can’t even process sometimes. Last year, I had an appearance on 30 Rock and I’ve toured with amazing people that I’ve been fans of like Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne, Liz Phair and the Swell Season. I think I’ve been incredibly fortunate with some of my experiences. It’s been good.

Tell me a little about the genesis of Chesapeake. When did you start writing the songs?

I think over the last two years, this collection of songs developed. I tend to write in certain chunks of time, and I had about 160 songs to go through and investigate for this record. This has been colored slightly by my experience at the last record label I was on, and I split from them, so there was a holding pattern between records that balanced out some of the frustrating stuff. Once I was released and was able to make a plan to make a record and gather the musicians and go full steam ahead, it was very fast and freeing. We spent seven days tracking the basics. As soon as we got the word to go, it was very fast and unplanned.

Talk about what it’s like recording with producer John Alagia.

I love him. It’s funny because we both warned each other that we were feistier this time around. We prepared each other for laying down the line. But it wasn’t like that. I was totally smooth. We both have both grown so much in different ways over the years, but we’ve stayed friends and played several shows together. It was a really natural reunion of sorts. He can play every instrument. He’s such a generous guy in spirit. It’s easy to work with him but he also has strong ideas. In terms of a guide, he’s that right combination of experimentation and being sensitive to my mood. He has a great sense of the universal nature of records and what will be classic. He pushes me out of my comfort zone in a great way. It was a really nice collaboration. We had two other people who had been my producers so it was one big experiment. It could have resulted in confrontations but it was the best situation and the best ideas were followed. It was a complete love fest.

“Starlight” is so great because it’s rather gritty and sounds like nothing else on the album. Tell me about the sound you’re going for.

For me as a writer, it was one of the first ones that I thought I should write to a beat or tempo. I found a loop pedal and a big kick drum and keep this loop going. Something simple that made me write differently. It was a late night writing session where because of the percussive nature of what I looped, it made me feel a little flaky. The lyrics aren’t mind blowing by any means. I always meant to change them and make them more intelligent, but it’s sort of a vibe song. It was lengthy and needed to be rearranged and reconfigured but it had the vibe from the get-go. But when I brought it into the studio, people plugged into the vibe, especially the drummer Victor Andrizzo. He did these percussion loops that he played organically and he did them in like 20 minutes. Once we got that, it set the tone and we went with it.

You’ve said the album is filled with humor. I’m not sure I agree. Can you explain that?

Yeah, certainly compared to my last record, which was like a ballad for the suicidal. There’s such a different energy and some of the songs have a wink to them, especially something like “The Way it Seems to Go,” which is one big ovey to my life. Some of the other songs have what feels like to me is an optimism to them that’s more readily visible than anything I’ve written before. I always have hopefulness to what I write about, even if I focus on the dark side of a relationship. The reason I’m doing that is because I want to do it better for next time.

The final tune, “Dealbreaker,” doesn’t have much optimism.

That’s not too optimistic. That was a co-written with Mike Viola, who also played on the record. That I’m happy about being it’s such a simple phrase but it’s on the right side of simple.

I know you’re about to head out on tour. Are you taking a band?

Yes, five-piece band. Mike Viola is in the band. He’ll be playing guitars and keyboards and whatever. He is going to jump around. He’s also opening the show so it will be really fun. I’ve got drums, bass and guitar and I’ll go back and forth between guitar and piano. I’m really excited because the drummer and guitarist are new and are going to bring some great energy to things. Touring with Viola sounds like so much fun. The harmonies we’ll be able to pull out this round will be really fun. I have never had the whole band back-up singer thing going on. It will be a big, vibrant show and the set will fell really dynamic.

10/24                   Portland, ME                  Port City Music Hall

10/25                   Burlington, VT                Higher Ground Lodge

10/27                   Ithaca, NY                      Deliah’s

10/28                   Northampton, MA           Iron Horse

10/30                   Boston, MA                    Brighton Music Hall

10/31                   Philadelphia, PA                      World Café Live

11/1                    Washington, DC                      Birchmere

11/2                     Baltimore, MD                         Sound Stage

11/4                    Brooklyn, NY                           Knitting Factory

11/5                     Pittsburgh, PA                         Club Café

11/6                     Cleveland, OH                         Beachland Ballroom

11/7                     Detroit, MI                     St Andrews Hall

11/8                     Chicago, IL                    Logan Square

11/10                   Milwaukee, WI                        Turner Ballroom

11/11                   Minneapolis, MN             Fine Line

11/12                   Davenport, IA                          Redstone Room

11/14                   Kansas City, KS                       Record Bar

11/16                   Denver, CO                    Larimer Lounge

11/18                   Salt Lake City, UT           State Room

11/20                   Spokane, WA                          A Club

11/21                   Vancouver, BC                        Media Club

11/22                   Seattle, WA                   Crocodile

11/23                   Portland, OR                           Doug Fir

11/25                   San Francisco, CA          Slim’s

11/27                   San Diego, CA                         Casbah

11/29                   Los Angeles, CA                      Troubadour

11/30                   Phoenix, AZ                   Crescent Ballroom

12/2                    Austin, TX                     Parish

12/3                     Houston, TX                   Fitzgerald’s Upstairs

12/4                     Dallas, TX                      The Loft

12/5                     Tulsa, OK                      Cain’s Ballroom – 2nd Stage

12/7                     St. Louis, MO                          Blueberry Hill

12/8                     Nashville, TN                           12th and Porter

12/9                     Birmingham, AL                       Work Play


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