JUGGLING RELATIONSHIPS AND SUDDEN SUCCESS HASNT BEEN
EASY, SAYS THE AMERICAN SINGER-SONGWRITER
SPEAKING OVER THE PHONE TO HER AT HER MANAGEMENT
COMPANYS apartment in New York, its easy to imagine
Rachel Yamagata as she draws a mental picture of herself.
Shes recently finished her first headlining tour, and
shes having her first cigarette after a bout of stomach
flu. Band members are hanging out in the background; guitars
are strewn about.
Its been a heady year for the sultry 30-year-old, one
thats seen her rocket from a virtual unknown to supporting
British folk star David Gray before 18,000 at New Yorks
Madison Square Garden. The gig came with the success of her
debut album, Happenstance, one of last summers 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 dont you put
me on? Ill open for him, and at that point Id
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 Yamagatas 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 didnt know enough to be intimidated.
I wasnt concerned about it being Madison Square Garden.
I was just like, wow, if I make it and dont throw up
all over the stage, Ill 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 shes not shy in talking
about herself, even to a stranger.
But it wasnt 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 dont think it killed my career that night, but
it froze me in a way, she recalls. I showed the
songs to my friends early onthis was when they were
all 15 minutes long and like a dirge.
The initial reactions were like, Rachel, youre
so depressed, those belong in a piano lounge. The comments
shut me down. I didnt 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. Its 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 havent 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 dont stay in that range of performing
that shes so good at. I go to other places when Im
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. Ive
grown up with aspects of the culture, my grandparents speak
the languagethe work ethicbut just as much Ive
grown up with the in-your-face Italian culture. I wouldnt
want to be represented as any kind of artist, but just as
Rachel, shes 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 youre talking about music.
Japanese fans are so into music and so unreserved about their
reaction to it. Ill have fans come up with tears in
their eyes after Ive played something.
While Yamagatas songs tend to deal with relationships,
they dont often have happy endings. Its partly
a result of the current trajectory of her career. Theres
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 cant 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 youre 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. Its
all so new to me. I havent answered my phone messages
since February. No one can find me. Ive got 3,000 unanswered
emails, but if I have a new song idea thats where I
go. Im 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. Thats not where I want to be but
thats where I have to be.
Club Quattro, Jan 31 &
Feb 1. See concert listings for details. M
with METROPOLIS readers at http://forum.japantoday.com