What this young, talented and immensely creative singer-songwriter is referring to is her amazing music journey, one that culminates on October 7 with the release of her debut EP appropriately entitled EP (Private Music / Arista Associated Labels). Rachael Yamagata’s remarkable odyssey would be difficult to summarize in any other way. How else to explain singing opera, fronting a funk-soul-hip-hop band, playing Madison Square Garden, opening for David Gray, or getting radio airplay before even releasing an album?
EP was produced by Malcolm Burn (Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith) at New York’s Kingston Studios. “Collide” was produced by Dough McBride in Chicago (Gravity Studios). The record reflects Rachael’s lifelong love for the music of the 1970s (Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Carol King, et. al.) as well as her admiration for contemporary songbirds (Fiona Apple, Norah Jones) and musical innovators (Bjork, Beth Orton).
Rachael Yamagata was born in Arlington, VA inheriting her exotic beauty from her father of Japanese descent and mother of German and Italian ancestry. When she was just two years old her parents divorced and she spent the next dozen years moving between upstate New York and the Washington, D.C. area. “It was really good practice,” Rachael says. “I’ve moved every year since being away from home, so I’m really comfortable with being uprooted and traveling.”
Throughout her U-Haul-filled years her parents indoctrinated her into the world of the musically fertile 1970s. “I grew up listening to stuff most kids my age probably weren’t even aware of,” she explains. “Stevie Wonder, Carole King, James Taylor, Roberta Flack, Cat Stevens, and Simon & Garfunkel were always on around the house. I think I get some of my story telling skills from these artists.”
But Rachael may have also been genetically predisposed towards becoming a musician: “My uncle is a freelance French horn player and has played with everyone from Madonna to Mariah Carey to the New York City Ballet. I also have a cousin who is the bassist in The Colby Prior band, an aunt who is trained in opera, and another uncle who is a classical pianist.”
Musical genome map notwithstanding, Rachael is largely self-taught. “I studied piano for a year in the seventh grade,” she says, “but I hated practicing and learning music theory. My piano teacher would tell me to stop moving around but I always move when I play. She would say things like, `sit up straight, don’t move, and let it come out through your fingers.’ I got restless and quit, but I still loved playing piano.”
At fourteen she began composing songs. “I wrote songs mostly about boys I had crushes on,” she says. “My first song was about this boy who gave me my first kiss — a stage kiss in a play.” Perhaps that explains why Rachael continued acting in plays, including “Anything Goes,” “South Pacific,” and “How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.” Rachael attended Vassar and later Northwestern where she majored in theatre and spent a year studying opera. I love languages and singing in Italian and French,” she says, “and I think opera helped with my range and things like jumping to falsetto, but the operatic influences on my music are mostly unconscious. What really opened my voice was live experience in a band.”
In her junior year Rachael went to see Bumpus, a band that forever changed her life. “They’re this Chicago funk-soul groove-oriented band with really well-crafted songs,” Rachael explains. “We were completely mesmerized by them and talked about auditioning. Before then it had never really occurred to me to be in a band. But I left on a trip the next day and when I returned my friend had joined the band. I was so depressed! I felt like I missed my chance.”
Luckily, Rachael’s story doesn’t end there. She befriended the band and attended all their shows and rehearsals until James Johnston, the band’s frontman, heard one of Rachael’s homemade tapes and asked her to sing backup in Bumpus. “Of course I said yes,” she says. “James was a huge influence on me. He saw something in what I was doing and pushed me to keep writing long before anyone else.”
Rachael sang backup and played keyboards and flute with Bumpus two to three gigs a week while attending school and holding down a series of random jobs including, secretary, sushi waitress, bartender, and dry cleaners clerk. After returning from a month-long trip, Rachael was asked to take over female lead vocals. “My first gig on lead vocals was at our first big show at the Metro in Chicago.” Talk about trial by fire.
Rachael was a huge success as a vocalist and went on to record two albums with Bumpus and tour extensively with them. “I have so many crazy stories from that time,” she recalls, “like running out of gas and skidding off highways. Once I inadvertently sang Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” at a college that turned out to be affiliated with the Catholic church. I started singing the chorus—’I want to fuck you like an animal’—and literally you could see jaws dropping around the room.”
After playing with Bumpus four-and-a-half years and feeling like she was unable to find self-expression, Rachael decided to go solo. “I learned a lot with them,” she explains. “I got a ton of live experience, learned how to work a crowd and structure a set, but the songs I wanted to write just weren’t right for the band.”
Rachael recorded a 5-song demo with Doug McBride and Joe Wolmouth at Chicago’s Gravity Studios. And in another fatal decision, brought her demo to a CD-duplication company run by Craig Winkler. “Craig is constantly around bands,” she explains. “A&R people looking at new bands call him because they respect his opinions.” But when Rachael picked-up her demo she wrongly believed Craig hated it. “He was like, `that first track is kind of cool,’ and I thought he meant he hated the rest. But then he came to my first solo gig at the Elbow Room and I was surprised.” Shortly after, Craig became Rachael’s manager.
Rachael’s second solo gig ever was held in November of 2001 at L.A.’s famed Viper Room. A hot performance at Chicago’s MOBfest followed in 2002 and led to her signing on Private Music, part of the Arista Associated Labels, by Executive VP/General Manager David Weyner and a team that included AAL Senior VP, Worldwide Marketing Jeb Hart and renowned A&R man Steve Ralbovsky (RCA). “When I met with David, Jeb and Steve I could tell by the way they talked about my music that they wanted to protect it – I felt really good about them.”
In January of this year Rachael had the performance experience of a lifetime. “My booking agent was joking with my manager about opening for David Gray and how it would be like ‘throwing lambs to the wolves,'” Rachael explains. Soon after a call came from the booking agent asking if she wanted to perform with Gray at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. But rather than a lamb, she played like a lion and was invited back for two more shows including the next show at the “World’s Most Famous Arena.”
“I played my first show in New York City at the Living Room and my second at Madison Square Garden — solo,” Rachael says laughing. “It was such a fantastic audience: They listened when I played and roared when the show was over. My family was there – it was the first time they’d seen me play really. It was a beautiful night. Every now and then I’ll be in the shower and I’ll be like, `Holy shit, I played Madison Square Garden!”
At the beginning of 2003, Rachael went into Malcolm Burns’ Kingston Studios to record EP with help from leading lights Kevin Salem (Yo La Tengo), Matt Walker (Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage), Aaron Comess (Spin Doctors) and Jane Scarpantoni (everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Adam Green). “Malcolm produced Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl, a gorgeous album,” she says. “He is just so earthy, real, and raw and a lot of that came out on this EP.”
Indeed, witness Rachael’s mellifluous vocals riding atop “Collide’s” stunning string swells and organic beats or the melodically-infectious “Wore Me Down” buoyed by a guitar that sounds like it was recorded underwater or the raw power of her exposed pathos-fueled vocals on “These Girls” (Hidden track).
But how does the young piano-playing thrush answer lazy critics who will inevitably compare her to latest crop of flash-in-the pan female singer-songwriters? “I just try to be the best writer/performer that I can be for myself,” she says. “I have over 200 songs I’ve written. It’s easy for me to see the distinctions between the present female artists in the market. I have a lot of respect for them. However, my repertoire was developing long before the current wave of singer/piano-playing/dark hair gals came out.” In fact, Rachael is already working on her debut full-length follow-up to EP with John Alagia (Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, John Mayer) as well as planning a nationwide tour for later this fall. In September she will be playing with one of her favorite new artists, Damien Rice.
When asked to put into words what the last couple of years have been like, Rachael pauses for a second and replies, “If I think about it too much it freaks me out. Throughout this whole process I’ve been incredibly lucky. If I had been too conscious of what was going on I would have freaked out.” Now, with the release of her stunning EP you too will soon be fully conscious of Rachael Yamagata whose prodigious singing and songwriting talents, if anything, are certainly “freak-out” worthy.