Taking charge of her sound
By Moira E. McLaughlin
Friday, December 7, 2012
Rachael Yamagata’s new EP, “Heavyweight,” is rich with beautiful, slow and deep tunes that showcase her dark alto and gentle piano playing. It’s both subtle and complicated, and the melancholy tunes feel familiar and comfortable, like a visit from an old friend.
Yamagata has come a long way since her days at Bethesda’s Holton-Arms School, where she fed her love of musical theater before graduating in 1992.
She performs hundreds of shows a year -- including one Sunday at U Street Music Hall -- and has made the transition from big record label to independent artist.
Yamagata’s sound, while it remains solidly in the Fiona Apple/KT Tunstall camp, has matured. Her 2004 debut album, “Happenstance,” features catchy melodies and strong rhythms. But it also has a feeling of frantic desperation and youth. “Heavyweight,” on the other hand, reveals the confidence, acceptance and wisdom that comes from a few years of living.
“The songs reference a thread of a relationship,” Yamagata says of “Heavyweight,” which she released on her own Frankenfish Records label. The title is ironic, she says, because there are only six songs, but the ballad-centric and moody EP feels substantial and, well, heavy. “There’s sort of a part of life that’s happening there,” she says.
Yamagata grew up in Arlington in the 1980s. She started playing piano when she was 12, though she never took formal lessons. In high school, she performed the role of the ingenue in musicals.
“I was so backwards with things,” she says. “My brother, he has the good musical tastes. I was listening to ‘Les Mis’ and trying to learn the parts.”
She attended Northwestern University to pursue acting but “basically got kicked out of acting class,” she says. It was about that time that Yamagata became fascinated with the Chicago funk band Bumpus.
“I was like, ‘I have to be up there and play tambourine.’ So I started stalking [the band members] and bringing them coffee and doughnuts,” she says. “I think I was just around enough that they asked me to fill in on a harmony, and a year later I joined the band and that changed everything.”
Yamagata spent about six years with Bumpus, rehearsing late at night and balancing class with her work at a sushi restaurant. She also started writing her own songs. “I had a lot of fun in that band,” she says. “It was really a master class in doing a lot of shows.”
In 2001, Yamagata’s solo career began to take off, and she appeared in showcases and received interest from record labels. “I was never looking for a solo deal,” she says. “It totally took me by surprise.”
By 2002, she had a deal with RCA and officially left Bumpus. Songs from “Happenstance” appeared on such television shows as “One Tree Hill” and “The O.C.,” but life on a major label proved frustrating for Yamagata.
“It was hard,” she says. “I couldn’t get records out for four years at a time, and it was really depressing. It’s like working on a painting for four years, and it’s not that you don’t want to show it to anybody, it’s that nobody’s allowing you to come out of the room and show it.”
She released her second full-length album, “Elephants . . . Teeth Sinking into Hearts,” in 2008 on Warner Bros. Last year, she released “Chesapeake,” her most recent full-length album, on Frankenfish.
“On the [major] record label, I had teams of people around me and advising me and all these things,” Yamagata says. “Now that I’m able to do all this stuff on my own, I’ve learned an exponential amount about every aspect of the entire industry in a way, and it’s helping me open these doors for my creative side.”
The tough part now, she says, is carving out time to write music. Yamagata is busy reading accounting and music law books, taking marketing classes online and figuring out which artists she wants to appear on her records. She is running her own little music business and learning as she goes.
“I do [have to] allow myself the safety zone of completely zoning out and being an artist and having days that have no structure to them,” she says.
Yamagata is proud of her survival in the industry and the evolution she has made: from back-up singer in a funk band, to recording with a major label, to now taking real ownership of her music.
“I feel like I’m in a pretty good place right now in terms of being the visionary for my own career in a way that I haven’t been,” she says.
“In terms of highlights, there’s been a million, touring with people I admire, playing giant venues. . . . The list is endless, but what really satisfies me is getting better as a writer and being brave enough to set out on my own.”