Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Romance, Circumstance, and Happenstance: A Look at Rachael Yamagata

Photo By: R.H. Levitin

Singer-songwriters are a dying breed in the commercial world of popular music. Look at the Billboard charts and check how many singer-songwriters are in the Top 200 albums. There aren’t many. Why is this? It’s because they gain little exposure when compared to the Brittney’s and Miley’s of the pop planet and are often overlooked. Enter Rachael Yamagata.

Yamagata is no ordinary songstress. She’s a small name signed to a major label and a cult favorite of the independent music scene. Her unique approach to the craft of songwriting can be attributed to a few features that standout from the most listened to singles on the top 40 airwaves.

Yamagata, who says she can't believe how easy it’s been creating a career by making bad decisions and having her heart broken, has a way of commiserating with people about the most common human condition – love ... or lack thereof.

Her influences include some of the best singer-songwriters though out recent pop music history. James Taylor, Stevie Nicks, Carole King, Cat Stevens, and Jeff Buckley are all atop Yamagata’s list of artists who continue to inspire her style. Although it’s been made quite clear in various interviews that she’s more apt to recall a particular song by an artist as opposed to an entire repertoire, Yamagata’s voicing in a given song remains a story that expresses an emotion rather than an emulation of a specific musician.

rachael on guitar Photo By: R.H. Levitin

The 31-year-old singer-songwriter got her start in music as the lead singer for the Chicago based funk-fusion band Bumpus. The band spent six years on recording three full-length albums and touring until 2001 when Yamagata got the itch to perform her own songs. Her style differed from that of the band’s which is why she took the risk of leaving the band behind to start a solo career revolving around her song-style.

The sweet soulful jams Bumpus produced with and without Yamagata sound like something straight out of the 1970’s. Imagine Joss Stone’s funky pipes serenading a crowd over Sly and the Family Stones’ band. According to The Urban Wire, Yamagata joined Bumpus at 19 but then left a few years after when she broke up with her boyfriend and fellow band member.

As a result of a broken heart, Yamagata picked up a guitar and sat down at the piano to document her relationship gone sour – and the kick-off of a solo career.

After consistent play time at Chicago-land area coffee houses, bars, and various open mic nights, Arista’s Private Music offered Yamagata a two-record deal in September 2002. Her self-titled EP, produced by Malcom Burn was released in October of that year.

Reviews of the EP were mixed among the music criticism community. Some said she was nothing special, just another “raven-haired cutie who struts and sways as she tickles those lucky ivories.” Some said her unique vocals make Yamagata standout as a MTV2 “You Hear it First”-type of musician. The five-track acoustic EP is as basic as basic gets – Yamagata, a guitar or piano, and a few studio musicians. Her use of string instruments – namely cello and violin – is one major trait that defines Yamagata’s distinct sound as an artist.

Good luck trying to define this songwriting jack-of-all-trades, her style has yet to be pegged. She’s fooled fans and non-fans alike into thinking she’s a folk singer mixing the vocal tenacity of Janis Joplin and musical prowess of Carol King. She’s been compared to jazz crooner Norah Jones due to her delicate flower of an EP released in 2003. She’s been penned as mopey gal who packs a punch and doesn’t quit by Spin magazine. But here’s the question – who’s right?

There are no exact contemporary comparisons to the Yamagata style but a few names do come close. Emily Haines, daughter of Canadian poet Paul Haines, strikes a slight resemblance to Yamagata if comparing their performances of self-composed songs.

Both Haines and Yamagata thrive off of presenting themselves as vulnerable yet strong women with stories to tell. They’re able to do this because of their unmatched ability to write exactly what they’re thinking – both lyrically and musically – and channel that emotion in every recording and live performance. Haines 2006 debut album “Knives Don’t Have Your Back” is a perfect example of what she has in common with Yamagata.

Stylus magazine music critic, Liz Colville, said the songs on “Knives Don’t Have Your Back” have such a precise contextual feel with a lingering sense of displacement, “The instruments are the enclosures in which the message resides, not imprisoned, but hovering and spectacular in their isolation and as a thematically linked group.” Yamagata does the same in her own right.

Yamagata has the ability to capture an exact moment in time and pinpoint a feeling via songwriting. That’s what sets her apart from the Tori Amos’, Lisa Germanos’, and Haines of the female singer-songwriter spectrum. Haunting melodies linger in the ear drums when Yamagata glides her fingers across the ivory keyboard, strum a six-string, or growls with her raspy alto voice. She’s captured what it feels like to always be in a smoke-filled room straight out of the beat poetry era – according to writer and music critic Gentry Boeckel – and she does it well.

Boeckel thought she figured Yamagata out with her 2003 release of her EP. Boeckel, who gave Yamagata a C- for her efforts, retracted her poor review with high praise with the singer-songwriter’s 2004 full-length solo debut. Happenstance, which received an A- by Boeckel, demonstrated Yamagata’s mastery of song.

"After hearing her new debut LP, Happenstance," Boeckel said, “I feel wholeheartedly penitent for ever calling her ‘just another female singer/songwriter....who struts and sways as she tickles those lucky ivories.’”

on piano
Photo By: R.H. Levitin

Boeckel admits that Yamagata is no heir to the throne of Amos or Apple, but that “she is the natural progression in a long line of female singer/songwriters.” Yamagata won Boeckel’s approval due to “wearing her influences on her sleeve and being unafraid of accessibility and radio friendliness.”

Don’t let Yamagata’s soft vocals confuse you. Her delivery is delicate with a punch that would drive any vocal teacher crazy due to a cigarette induced rasp. The range of Yamagata’s tone is consistent when it comes to live and studio performances, leaving fans pleased that there is no discrepancy between belting a ballad out on stage or rocking out on a recording session. Her range has yet to grow but it’s Yamagata’s consistency that sets her apart from the other women attempting to do the same job within the industry.

It’s obvious that Yamagata knows her stuff. The amount of musical history that she applies to her own work on a consistent basis proves her mastery of the art of songwriting. But, if there’s one thing she’s mastered besides songwriting, it would have to be her use of instrumentation and lush arraignments.

Happenstance was the first opportunity for substantial involvement in the arrangement of instrumental contributions to her work. The majority of everything from horn lines, to strings, clarinets and oboes was composed by Yamagata herself. She would track most of the parts on a BR8 recording machine and then transfer them directly into the sessions.

The differences between arrangements on Happenstance and the EP have a great deal to do with the varying stylistic approaches of the albums’ producers. Malcom Burn’s work on the EP focuses on what Yamagata calls an intense drive to capture things in a very raw and passionate live setting, while John Alagia’s view on Happenstance takes on a perfectionist-based approach that is based on an overwhelming attention to detail.

A few notable tracks on her first two releases include: “Collide” on the EP and “Worn Me Down”, “I’ll Find A Way”, and “I Want You” on Happenstance. On each of these songs Yamagata uses ambient sound, in-studio recording deception, or instrumental arrangements as stylistic additions to her compositions.

opens with a piano track run backwards. This audio technology trick captures the ear of the listener right away. It’s abrupt and somewhat unnatural, making it a perfect transitory piece of music to shift between verse, chorus, and bold lyrical statements.

“Worn Me Down”
features an on-going, single guitar line throughout the entire song – more notably in the chorus, but underneath the verses as well. This winding road of a guitar line sounds reminiscent of a single note being strummed and echoing itself in a giant cave. That haunting sound can be musically linked to the work of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp in the early 1970’s

Multi-layered ambient music made its debut on the 1973 album “(No Pussyfooting)” and was the first of its kind. Eno developed a tape tracking system that utilizes two tape recorders that allowed tracks to lay on top of one another. This new recording technique redefined how a piece of audio was layered. After working with Fripp on composing the first tracks recorded using the new technique, the duo coined the style’s title as “Frippertronics.”

Yamagata pays homage to Fripp’s electric guitar playing teamed with Eno’s new multi-layered audio when she has a single guitar to play underneath her written melodies, serving as a tone setting player in the song as a whole.

“I’ll Find A Way”
also uses this guitar-line technique as a tool to strength the bass to strengthen the overall melody of the song. Yamagata also applies string arrangements, flutes, horns, and auxiliary percussion instruments to the mix to take the very empty first verse with little instrumentation and transform it into a vibrantly orchestrated masterpiece. The track closes with Yamagata’s whisper of a vocal track, sparse piano chords, drum brushes against a snare, and a very soft yet ever present humming of that single-guitar line that was used in “Worn Me Down” and throughout the entirety of the song.

“I Want You”
is a perfect example of Yamagata taking the reigns on tracking her arrangements for the first time on “Happenstance.” The clarinet and trumpet styling’s of the Klezmer backing back emphasize the light-hearted tone of this feel-good, upbeat pop jam.

Enter the fall 2008 release of “Elephants … Teeth Sinking Into Heart”. This two-part, double-disk album is the best example of her instrumental artistry and trickery. Yamagata and her recording team used natural sounds including rain, tree branches falling on roof tops, and what she deems “darker, lush arrangements” to set the first half of the record’s tone. Then, she grabbed the bull by its horns for the second half of the double album with what she calls a “raw, reclaiming of personal power” through crunchy, guitar driven rock anthems.

“The two discs work nicely together,” Stylus music critic Caitlin Pollard said when reviewing the album. “Yamagata has not only grown musically, but creatively, as well. She uses the two discs to allow the mellow, sad songs to dig deeper into her broken heart, but sets it off with a powerful rock 'n' roll disc that shows her musical talent and emotions.”

Photo By: R.H.Levitin

The cynicism Yamagata demonstrates is straight from the eyes of a post-relationship survivor. Her aim is to prove that hope exists but also that life is always determined by happenstance. And according to a 2007 interview with Eva Ellinghausen on The Urban Wire, as long as her words are truthful and she’s captured them in music with her whole hearted intention of getting those words down no matter what – it doesn’t matter how painful any of it was at the time.

If there’s any message Yamagata wishes to share with her adoring fans or those who have yet to discover her, it would have to be the final line of the title track on “Elephants”.

“Throw yourself in the midst of danger, but keep one eye open at night,” sums up her vantage point and entire musical career. Push toward the unknown but be weary, you never know what will come next.


Gentry said...

I enjoyed the piece. But for the record, Gentry isn't soley a women's name, or a man's, but in my case, it is masculine.
- Gentry

R.H. Levitin said...

Thanks for the clarification. This piece was a music journalism research project for a course I completed during my final semester at American University. I appreciate your comment!