A Sad Girl Gets (Sort Of) Happy

On her third album, Rachael Yamagata finally takes angst and heartache in stride

October 31, 2011

Arlington-born singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata’s reflective, emotional pop has earned her a bit of a reputation. Her songs have soundtracked sad moments on shows including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The L Word,” “The O.C.” and even “One Life to Live.”

Her debut disc, 2004’s “Happenstance,” and its 2008 follow-up, “Elephants … Teeth Sinking Into Heart,” were filled with “some real, raw anger,” the Philadelphia-based singer admits. But now, at age 34, Yamagata — who’s also worked with Jason Mraz, Ryan Adams and Bright Eyes — has mellowed out the Mistress of Heartache bit.

Her new album, “Chesapeake,” is “almost a digestion of those years,” she says, likening herself to an old woman “laughing at the hilarity of life, telling her grandchildren, ‘Don’t worry. It’s sad. It’s heartache. It’s beautiful.’”

“Chesapeake” — a reference to producer John Alagia’s Easton, Md., home, where the disc was recorded — is Yamagata’s first album without the backing of a major label. (Her first two were on RCA and Warner Bros., respectively.)

This time out, she wanted “to be in control of writing the song, pressing record and finding people who want me to play it for them.” She went DIY, putting the project on PledgeMusic, a microfunding website that lets fans donate directly to artists. “[PledgeMusic] makes it a collective,” she said. “It’s a ‘we’re building it together’ process.”

She offered pledgers such incentives as signed artwork, personal Skype chats, journals and even her own clothing. “I’m such a pack rat, and I’m very sentimental about this stuff,” she says. “I realized these things were going to the best people possible. It was an exercise for me to transform something that had been special to me then into something that’s special to my life now, and that’s ‘Chesapeake.’”

It worked: Yamagata released “Chesapeake” in October as the first disc on her own label, Frankenfish. The swag has been sent out to supporters, and Yamagata will be on the road promoting the record through the end of the year.

Yamagata says that with “Chesapeake,” “It feels like I’ve grown up” — and this evolution shows in her new songs and her new outlook.

“The center of my soul is [no longer] a longing of heartache — of, ‘Why did this happen to me?” she says. “On ‘Elephants,’ I was saying it with tears. There’s a feeling of … experience in this record. Now I’m saying it with a wink and a smile.”

Basics by the Bay

Rachael Yamagata recorded “Chesapeake” at the home of producer John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer) in Easton, Md., with a dock out back that went right out onto the Chesapeake Bay. “We really did camp out in the house,” she says. “We slept on air mattresses in tents, jumped in the water every day. When you only have a few hours to get a song down, it’s just a different vibe. You really feel like you’re in a sea town.”

Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria; with Mike Viola; Tue., 7:30 p.m., $25; 703-549-7500.
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