Singer, songwriter and multiple instrumentalist Rachael Yamagata took time out from her Songs – Stories – Solo tour to give the BIRN a very revealing exclusive interview.
BIRN: What was the idea behind the tour and what is the experience you want the audience to have?
RY: I really wanted to do something that felt like an intimate, rare occasion, almost living room style show between the artist and the audience. Take down the fourth wall and just perform the songs in a really stark, vulnerable, “how I wrote them” way. It is also something that I have never done before. I’ve done a lot of touring in the past three years and this is the first time in the past 15 that I’ve done a solo tour. I often have fans come up and say, “man, we love it when you just sit down at the piano,” and that’s what I was trying to tap into for this run. That has been working out really well so far. People are really enjoying it, and it’s something different to offer fans who’ve come to see a lot of shows and I think it’s a nice introduction for new fans. If they like it in this format, their going to love it with the band.
BIRN: You started off in Chicago. You were in a band called Bumpus and then you went solo in 2001. What did you learn from the band experience that was really helpful when you went solo?
RY: I got all of my, sort of, showmanship chops from that band experience. It was three different lead singers of which I was a backup singer for initially, and it was very different genres of music in one band. So there was a hip-hop element, there was a funk element, there was a soul element, and because of that and because there were three front people we had to be very strategic on set creation and dynamics and how to guide a show so that it carries the audience on this roller coaster that they enjoy, that is, you know, frenetic.
So I really learned a lot about putting on a show from that band as well as getting used to (a lot of) music that I hadn’t heard before that I absolutely still love. So (learning) that was really key for me because when you do music like mine, you know I sort of defy particular genres depending on what you’re listening to. You think of a girl with a piano or a guitar and you automatically think jazz or folk and I wouldn’t put myself in that category at all. So it gave me sort of the confidence to know that magic comes from not being defined in a genre. There is something really beautiful about that, especially when any kind of music industry label will scare you in the other direction. That experience also let me know that I could freely try whatever I wanted to in my own music.
BIRN: I had prepared almost the whole interview and then someone told me that you took classes with Berklee Online.
RY: I did!
BIRN: What made you decide to do that and did you get out of it what you were hoping for?
RY: I did, I think it was after my second major label record, which came out on Warner Brothers in 2008 and shortly there after I left, I got dropped and um, had to figure it out. I booked myself an apartment in the Dominican Republic for a month over a Christmas holiday just to just sit, you know, and figure out like, OK, what now? And then I just made a decision. I was like, well I’ve gotta start educating myself on all the realms of this industry if I am in this particular state.
So, one of the pieces of that was learning marketing, I did a Topspin marketing class online through Berklee one summer and I just studied up. I did everything from reading music law books to starting to understand the contracts and the logistical side and publishing, sync licenses and anything business related. How does a contract look when you’re doing a show? What are strategies for touring around the world? I basically have been my own manager for six and a half (years). I think I’m going on year seven now. So it was a deliberate attempt to figure out the next step when the beloved music industry started imploding for artists like me. I got some great knowledge out of it. I got some great connections with the Berklee world and I’m actually working with somebody that I met through the program. It gave me tools to know that if I didn’t have a manager, what is the stuff I would need to hire out? What were the elements that I could delegate and make my own paradigm of how to run my own business? It was really valuable.
BIRN: One more music business type question. You have worked with Pledge Music for at least two releases that I know of, Tightrope Walker and Chesapeake, so what are the positives of using crowdfunding, and what are the more difficult aspects of funding a project that way?
RY: The first thing is, it is and it isn’t crowdfunding. I think the perception of it is crowdfunding but I look at it much differently because the value of it for me, and I think for a lot of artists is really more about the connection with the fans, letting them in on the process as you’re doing it, and an incredible pre-release marketing campaign because you’ve got your fans cheering you on, they’re talking about it, they’re ready to go when it comes out. You’re almost your own label in that way. People are interested. They see you in the studio, they see you in your pajamas talking about how stressed you are. There is a great inter-connection that happens.
Financially, yes, it does for certain artists that can have the right environment to take advantage of that, it certainly does help. Initially with Pledge I think there was some perceptions that “it’s like asking for a handout” and what I learned was, it is the exact opposite. You’re making items, you’re offering exclusives, you’re doing things that your fans finally have a place to go to, to get that they absolutely, A, would pay money for because it is such a unique thing and B, in terms of the record, it’s almost like pre-buying the record that they’d buy anyway. It might be coming as an advance but it’s not really the “handout.”
Those are some of the great things. Some of the things to be careful of when you’re doing a Pledge campaign or thinking about it is that the time management of fulfilling the things you choose to do while you’re making a record, while you’re beginning marketing, while you’re shooting videos, while you’re staying up-to-date with your fans, is a huge commitment. You have to really measure the time investment of what you’re offering and realize that you’re also making a record. You might have a side job and there are a lot of other things. So that’s the challenge of Pledge that maybe people don’t know initially but I’ve certainly learned that lesson going through two campaigns.
BIRN: I heard you talk about using free writing as a technique for your songwriting. Talk about that a little bit and also, when did you start using it?
RY: I just would journal in the morning on my front porch. I sit out there and take my mornings and just to take the pressure off of having to write a song I just would free write and see what came out. A lot of it is gibberish and I’d go back and every now and then I’d get a line that was interesting or a word combination, or something that would spark an idea. And I did that because most of the time when I write records, I come home from tour and I write 200 songs. A lot of them are terrible, like me having a conversation with myself and then it gets difficult taking the best 12.
So I just wanted to try this and see if instead of just getting restless with something and needing to move on and write a new song, I really would try and take the kernels of a particular idea that I really loved and spite my own boredom and restlessness and try to develop and edit and refine and keep the idea and just stay focused. It was almost a challenge in concentration more than anything else. Just to see if I could refine the one idea, and keep making it better as I went versus trying just to write ten more songs about the same idea.
BIRN: You were quoted as saying “I’d like to be remembered for getting people through something: articulating their heart’s ache into something enriching and powerful that allows them to feel lighter.” Is there a moment that stands out for you when you realized that a performance or a song of yours could affect someone’s life that way?
RY: Um, yes! There are multitudes of moments and I can’t pinpoint one because people either write me or come up to me and tell me that some song they love got them through a divorce or somebody passing away and it’s really all about the look in their eyes which you really connect to. It’s such an extraordinary thing to find that somebody found something useful from something I did in the woods thinking only my cats would hear.
There is a writer, Bill Clegg who wrote, Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recovery, an incredible book. He contacted me and said that Happenstance (Rachael’s first LP) was his soundtrack going through rehab. I am very grateful that things like that happen.
Rachael wraps up the last few shows of her current tour in Los Angeles and Solana Beach, California this week and heads in to the studio to start recording her next record.
Here are some songs that Rachael suggests you add to your playlist: