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by Dan Grunebaum




SPEAKING OVER THE PHONE TO HER AT HER MANAGEMENT COMPANY’S apartment in New York, it’s easy to imagine Rachel Yamagata as she draws a mental picture of herself. She’s recently finished her first headlining tour, and she’s having her first cigarette after a bout of stomach flu. Band members are hanging out in the background; guitars are strewn about.

It’s been a heady year for the sultry 30-year-old, one that’s seen her rocket from a virtual unknown to supporting British folk star David Gray before 18,000 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The gig came with the success of her debut album, Happenstance, one of last summer’s critical and commercial smashes, which elicited comparisons to singers like Norah Jones.

So how did the Madison Square Garden gig come about? “I had just signed with a new booking agent and he had a pile of CDs by people who wanted to open for David Gray in his office,” says Yamagata, one word tumbling over another. “I was joking with him, ‘Why don’t you put me on? I’ll open for him,’ and at that point I’d never done a solo tour, so it became this big joke between us. But a week later he called and said David Gray needed someone to open for him in Detroit at a 5,000-seat theater.”

Gray was so impressed with Yamagata’s performance that night that he asked her to open for him later in the week at the legendary New York venue. The hitch was she had to play solo as there was no time for a set change. “I was like, ‘Cool, how many people does that hold?’ and he was like, ‘Well, about 18,000.’”

Yamagata says that when she got in front of the audience, everything clicked. “I think the first one scared me so much that even though it was three times as big, it was so new that I almost didn’t know enough to be intimidated. I wasn’t concerned about it being Madison Square Garden. I was just like, wow, if I make it and don’t throw up all over the stage, I’ll have won. As it turned out the audience was awesome and it was totally cool.”

A stream-of-consciousness talker, Yamagata has the ability to connect with people quickly. The lyrics on Happenstance tend to treat relationships with an immediacy that draws the listener into her world, and she’s not shy in talking about herself, even to a stranger.
But it wasn’t easy, she says, to get to this point. Getting her feet wet in music as a singer with Chicago funk band Bumpus after a brief and unhappy period during which she wanted to be an actress, Yamagata had to steel herself to test her songs in an open-mike night.

“I don’t think it killed my career that night, but it froze me in a way,” she recalls. “I showed the songs to my friends early on—this was when they were all 15 minutes long and like a dirge.

“The initial reactions were like, ‘Rachel, you’re so depressed, those belong in a piano lounge.’ The comments shut me down. I didn’t show songs to anyone for like five years after that. But it turned out OK, because the moment I did everything started rolling. Once I made that decision to try and conquer my fear and go for it, everything fell into place so instantaneously. It made me believe that once you make the choice to give up everything and do what you know inside of you is right, it will all fall into place.”

While the comparisons to Norah Jones hit the mark in terms of both singers’ smoky voices and mixed Asian-Caucasian ancestry, Happenstance shows Yamagata going in a more up-tempo, rock direction. “It’s flattering that people would rank me in that category, and I can see why, if you catch me in a piano ballad,” she offers.

“There haven’t been that many lower-voiced girls that have had the chance to get their stuff out there lately, but I think my songwriting is totally different, my live show is totally different. I don’t stay in that range of performing that she’s so good at. I go to other places when I’m singing and in the songs that I write.”

With her song “Worn Me Down” on the charts here this summer, Yamagata has already visited Japan twice on promotion junkets. The child of a second-generation Japanese-American and a mother of German-Italian ancestry, she says that the Japanese take great pride in her. “I get the sense that people would love to have someone with Japanese heritage to be a representative out in the international pop world.”

She says she gets a lot of questions about the role of her Japanese ancestry in her sense of identity. “I’ve grown up with aspects of the culture, my grandparents speak the language—the work ethic—but just as much I’ve grown up with the in-your-face Italian culture. I wouldn’t want to be represented as any kind of artist, but just as Rachel, she’s got all these parts to her.”

She did, however, observe the phenomenal response of Japanese to music in general. “Everything is formal in some respects, but there is a great outgoing thing that bubbles underneath that especially comes out when you’re talking about music. Japanese fans are so into music and so unreserved about their reaction to it. I’ll have fans come up with tears in their eyes after I’ve played something.”

While Yamagata’s songs tend to deal with relationships, they don’t often have happy endings. It’s partly a result of the current trajectory of her career. “There’s one song where I talk about the challenges that arise when you have a passion for a career, some kind of dream that tugs at your soul that you can’t give up, and how that can work at odds with a romantic relationship that you would want to devote all your energy to, and you have to choose, and how you react to that situation.”

She also hints at man trouble, saying she just “wrote one that pinpoints the signs of a person who has patterns, and you fall for those patterns, and then you realize you have to walk away because you’re never going to change that person... maybe the way women relate to each other would be better for me than how I relate to guys.”

In any event, relationships now take a back seat. “It’s all so new to me. I haven’t answered my phone messages since February. No one can find me. I’ve got 3,000 unanswered emails, but if I have a new song idea that’s where I go. I’m in a selfish stage of testing my limits musically and trying to learn as much as I can and completely fucking up my personal life. That’s not where I want to be but that’s where I have to be.

” Club Quattro, Jan 31 & Feb 1. See concert listings for details. M

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