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Friday, Jan. 30, 2009

Yamagata paints a broken heart

Staff writer

I 've never met Rachael Yamagata, nor spoken to her or even e-mailed her before. Yet here I am, on a long-distance phone call, asking her about her love life.

News photo
Lovesick blues: Singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata, 31, paints lucid tales of love lost on her new album, "Elephants . . . Teeth Sinking Into Heart." HILARY WALSH

It's a phenomenon she accepts as her own fault.

In the lyrics to songs from her new album, "Elephants . . . Teeth Sinking Into Heart," as well as interviews surrounding its release and her official artist biography, Yamagata is brutally open about a heartbreak that served as the album's primary influence. However, it wouldn't be polite to ask about specifics. And anyway, she surely gets sick of strangers like me prying into her personal life . . .

"I don't mind getting asked about it so much," replies Yamagata, her voice never far from an infectious laugh. "Either I'm really boring and that's the only thing that people can pinpoint to ask me about, or maybe I'm doing something really well and people are interested in my take on things. It's somewhat ironic that people ask me about it, because I'm not sure I'm the portrait of success in those realms. But it's kind of fun."

Yamagata, 31, an American singer- songwriter of Japanese descent, is no stranger to heartache. Yet her new album is far from maudlin: A set of thoughtful guitar- and piano-led ballads offer dexterous lyrical analysis delivered in hushed tones, punctuated by harder songs originally intended to evoke a separate mood. Indeed, the album was released in the United States as a two-CD set, with "Elephants" compiling the slowies on one disc and the shorter "Teeth Sinking Into Heart" containing the rockers. In Japan, however, the tracks are muddled together on one CD.

Talking about the "Teeth Sinking Into Heart" tracks, such as the wiry, ragged "Accident," Yamagata says, "Those particular songs are much more the gritty, defiant, anthemic side of things. There's a couple that are very tongue-in-cheek. "Elephants," though, is very internal and heart-wrenching and introspective and all that good stuff, while the second part is kind of about standing on your own two feet again and processing versus wallowing, you know. Not that I think the first side is wallowing, but I think it could very easily go there, ha ha."

Speaking from Salt Lake City in Utah, where she's just arrived for two live appearances at the Sundance Film Festival, Yamagata is extremely personable. Born in Arlington, Virginia, to a third-generation Japanese-American father and a mother of German and Italian descent, she has moved around several states and currently lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She says she's keen to live abroad someday, citing Spain, France and Japan as potential habitats. But despite her love for languages and her family heritage, Yamagata says she speaks only a little Japanese.

"I have Japanese tapes that I listen to and I learn a little bit when I go there, and then it's gone. So I have to always refresh myself. My grandparents are fluent, but even my father doesn't speak Japanese."

Yamagata has relatives here, but she says they are "really distant. I actually met a few when I was last there; they came to a show and it was beautiful. They didn't speak English and I didn't speak Japanese, but we knew we were somehow related and just cried and hugged."

Yamagata fell in love with the piano at an early age. An introvert at school, she threw herself instead into her pastime. But at that point, she saw it as a hobby rather than a career path.

"It wasn't until college that I was pursuing theater, and I saw this band play," she recalls. "I had never really seen live music done by peers before. It got me in this crazy way, and I felt like I needed to be on stage. I ended up almost stalking this band, and hung around so much that they just threw me on a harmony one day. And I started writing songs with them. Something about the writing part of it really, really snagged me, at which point I just couldn't stop."

Yamagata released an EP in 2002, then the album "Happenstance" in 2004. Her songs evoked such classic female singer-songwriters as Carole King and Cat Power, with Yamagata described by some critics as a more sparing Norah Jones.

The next two years were taken up with touring, but at some point alarm bells started to ring. Yamagata was switching management; the staff at her label, RCA Victor, were reshuffling; and then RCA started slashing its roster, and Yamagata was dropped. It became obvious that "Elephants . . . Teeth Sinking Into Heart" would face severe delays.

"It was like two years of tremendous anxiety for me," she admits. "I definitely felt like, oh my God, everyone's gonna forget. How will I keep it fresh for myself by the time I tour these songs, and will they be too old? When I had downtime I just learned everything I could about business management or tour routes or contracts. And then I got on things like MySpace because it was a direct way that I could communicate with people. It was very frustrating to not be able to get it out there."

The album was eventually released by Warner Bros. in October 2008, exuding a lower-key tone than "Happenstance." The touchstones this time are more masculine, with echoes of Elliott Smith and Tom Waits.

A video released online as a teaser for the album shows scenes from the recording sessions at Allaire Studios near Woodstock, New York. The now-defunct studio, a beat-up and organic-looking place, was a million miles from the modern digital wonder-studios considered the norm today. This, Yamagata says, was key in realizing the album's sumptuous sound.

"This particular set of songs, they are very whispery and personal and subtle, and it lends itself very well to a certain romantic isolation of the studio," she explains. "It was really kind of otherworldly on top of this mountain. There was a lot of rain, a lot of fog, and it felt very mystical. It was kind of a whole . . . experience, which I really, really loved."

Perhaps the most affecting production element is the closeness of Yamagata's vocals, creating an atmosphere for which the descriptor "intimate" seems an acute understatement.

"I love the sound. We went into it wanting it to sound like you were in the room at the same time as it was being recorded, almost like it wasn't intentional to record it. We kept some background noise, even people in the room talking, and it's really like . . . almost like a secret. It's like a storytelling secret from the singer to the listener."

Yamagata is aware that her public confessions may scare off potential suitors.

"Sometimes I'm like, I don't even know if I'd touch me with a 10-yard stick," she laughs. "But I think there's a sense of humor to it too. If I were bitter and angry and all of that stuff, I'd probably be wary of interacting with me on that level."

Since Valentine's Day falls on an off day on her Japan tour next month, perhaps her fortunes will take an unexpected turn. She jokes that she'll be making the most of the captive company afforded by her touring party.

"I'm just excited to be there and not my apartment, drinking by myself," she laughs. "Sounds amazing. My plan is just to drink with other people, and that's as far as I'm planning."

Rachael Yamagata plays on Feb. 13 at Blue Note, Nagoya (5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.; ¥7,500; [052] 961-6311); Feb. 15 at Motion Blue, Yokohama (4 p.m. and 7 p.m.; ¥6,300; [045] 226-1919); and Feb. 16 and 17 at Blue Note, Tokyo (5:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.; ¥8,085-10,500; [03] 5485-0088).

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