Over the past decade, singer/songwriter Rachael Yamagata has become a well-known name in the indie/adult alternative scene with a slew of recognizable tunes like “Elephants” and “Starlight.” Her songs have appeared on many popular television shows such as The O.C. 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother and Smallville, as well as films like Elizabethtown and Definitely, Maybe. She’s also collaborated with many other well-known artists such as Ray Lamontagne, Ryan Adams and Jason Mraz, to name a few.
After spending time on a number of record labels, a couple of years ago Rachael joined the growing number of artists who have “gone indie.” Her 2011 release Chesapeake was released on her own label Frankenfish Records, having been fully funded in three days’ time by her fan base through a Pledgemusic campaign. Starting this month, she is launching a fall tour in support of her upcoming EP Heavyweight, due out later this month.
We caught up with Rachael by phone as she was traveling through areas impacted by Superstorm Sandy last week. The following interview took three conversations over two days to complete due to the sporadic phone service, and she eventually phoned in from a neighbor’s landline to complete the interview. We are grateful to Rachael for pushing through the hardships to talk to us.
MIMO: Thanks so much for being willing to talk with us.
MIMO: You are getting ready to hit the road with a new tour here over the next couple of months. How are preparations going for that, and what can we expect to see at the shows?
Rachael: Well the preparations are good, I am actually on the highway now, going back to the hurricane ravaged area of Woodstock, where there is no power, there hasn’t been for a couple of days. I’m hoping I get to do some laundry before heading out because I actually leave for tour a bit early on Tuesday, so the actual physical bundling up of the equipment could be by candlelight. [laughter]
But I’ve had a couple of rehearsals with various people that are coming, and I’m very excited because the band is entirely a new formation. I’m trying something different for this round, and taking two new string players, a cellist and a violinist, and having a friend of mine who plays drums, bass and guitar sit in on various things. The two openers I’m bringing are also going to join in, so there should be a lot of great background vocals going on and a bit of a string-heavy, stripped down set; so it’ll be a sort of lush ballad, evening type situation…just a different flavor. I’ve gone out before with full bands and sort of the rock show, and it’s been a certain type of energy that’s been awesome, and this just seemed like something I hadn’t tried in a while. So I’m pretty excited about the lineup and the sound arrangements we’ve got going.
MIMO: You also have a new album coming out, is that this month?
Rachael: Yeah, I have a new EP, actually, called Heavyweight. It’s a six-song EP that will come out November 20th digitally and then on the 27th with physical copies. I’m putting it out through my own record label that I set up.
MIMO: When you described the sound of the tour, is that a sound that is reflected on the record?
Rachael: It is. A lot of the songs on the EP have that same string-heavy sort of whisper-like quality to them…It definitely sustains a certain mood through the whole thing, and maybe answers the call of my last record that didn’t have quite as many ballads on it as usual, so this is a nice little dose of sad songs.
MIMO: You have been on major labels, but a couple of years ago you joined the ranks of the many musicians who are deciding to go independent. Can you talk a little bit about what prompted that decision?
Rachael: Sure, well I mean it was a mutual decision. I got dropped so it worked out well for me. [laughter] I think with the extreme changes that happened within the industry of music, the record label industry over the past ten years was just creating so much red tape, and it’s a highly anxious society to work in because the pressure of trying to find ways to make it financially worthwhile to stay with an artist is severe. It really handcuffs the artist unless the business is set so that it can take really take some chances and have a long-term career investment, which used to be the philosophy of record labels, which was great, but I know that it’s not sustainable in their eyes anymore. There’s no room to fail or have a record that doesn’t sell well because everything on the business side is crumbling so much.
So what I was running into was so many changes and mergers. I’d have A&R people who I was drawn to because they were such great musical minds and veterans to the business, and really understood me as an artist, and they’d either leave the company or get fired. I’d have presidents that really backed me and kept me going through the label, and then they would get let go as well. So what happened to me twice were these four-year delays between releasing records, which is ridiculous. For me, it’s like a career span of that time where you should be releasing a record a year and growing and touring and having this steady outflow of music, which is what I wanted to do in the first place…there’s certainly a shelf life for new artists. My fan base was in high school and college, and then they graduated, and now they have kids, and it’s like, I need to be growing with them and releasing records and staying current in their eyes, as well as for my own creativity. So it was a combination of all of those things that led to me saying, “You know what? The only way I can go is up, because what I’m doing now is not releasing music.”
The good thing now is that [the labels are] not as needed because artists really are becoming their own functioning labels, and they have the reach of the Internet, and they can still tour…If your fan base is there, then they’ll even find your record; there will be a way to do it. So it makes a lot of sense for me, certainly, and it’s been exciting so far.
MIMO: Well, tying into that, obviously your job description is a little different as an independent artist than as a label artist, because you’re having to manage a lot of other aspects. So what is the best part of your job as an independent artist, and what is the worst part?
Rachael: The best part is—it’s funny because I’m sitting in my loft, and there’s no power [because of the hurricane], and I’m about to turn on a lantern and light some candles; but I’m literally packaging special bundles I’m creating for my online store, and folding vinyl record boxes, and taping up and de-lint-ifying the bags that are going in it, and putting the bubble wrap around the vinyl records. But what’s so interesting is that I was talking to somebody and telling them how much I really loved Steve Jobs’ book, and the philosophy behind something like an Apple product where the inside and the outside and the entire idea has such a through line, and the entire experience is navigated from the creator, and the kind of quality that you get when that is the case. And I think that ability is now what I’m really enjoying, because I’m literally doing so much more than I ever did. And it’s overwhelming at times, and your workload is insane…but [designing] the products, finding a graphics artist and a poster place, and getting the posters in the mail, and envisioning this whole kind of campaign that goes with the songs that I’m writing… that’s the best part for me, being super Type A. [laughter]
The worst part is maintaining. You do let go of [the mentality of] “I am the artist, I’m going to walk around in a daze and just be creative in my brain and then write a song,”–which is a lovely way to exist as an artist because all of your senses are up they are always high-tuned, you’re translating everything as art. And so the worst part is the danger of losing that. I’m constantly figuring out internally how to balance the two things which are very necessary to do great music and then to run a business, really, to get the music out there.
MIMO: Almost like left brain versus right brain.
Rachael: It is, it is. I read Patti Smith’s book Just Kids, and it was a real kick in the ass for me, to get me back to the importance of wholeheartedly living as an artist, and everything that she writes about and that she did, and her experience–just every kind of action that she has during her whole day, and every page is devoted to an expression of creativity and art. And so I have to sort of try and live two lives at the same time.
MIMO: One more quick question for you. Who is on your playlist right now? Who are you listening to?
Rachael: Oh, it’s all over the place. I really love the Milk Carton Kids. I’m really enjoying them. They are sort of like a, almost like Simon and Garfunkel for modern day, but they have this real classic sound. And Keren Ann is a French artist that I’m always into, especially when it gets cold and rainy. She’s got beautiful, beautiful lyrics, and she’s somebody I met years ago and have kept in touch with here and there. And there’s a band, Late Cambrian, out of Brooklyn, that has some really awesome, catchy stuff. And let’s see, MC Sniper, he’s a rap artist in South Korea, [laughter] who I absolutely just adore and fell in love with. I was watching television and couldn’t understand anything—it was K-pop, and this guy comes on and does the hip hop stuff…You saw that big video that’s going around, Gangnam Style…it doesn’t have the spoof quality that that does; but I’m like, gotta get some MC Sniper here because I think it’d take off. It’s like, amazing production and really beautiful melodies. So I guess my playlist is always pretty eclectic, it just goes all over the place.
Photo credits: Laura Crosta.