I still remember the first time I heard Rachael Yamagata sing. It was through the speakers of a friend’s car radio.
While lying on our backs near the ocean and watching the clouds drift by on a summer afternoon, Happenstance softly streamed through the air and I was instantly captivated. Her lyrical honesty and smoky, sultry voice, like the ebb and flow of the tide, pulled me in closer until I was neck-deep in contemplation.
Despite often being compared to other female artists, such as Norah Jones, Fiona Apple, and Sara Bareilles, this soulful, “troubadour of heartbreak” is in a league all her own, separating herself from the shadow of their talents with insightful and candid representations of her experiences.
But make no mistake, this acclaimed singer-songwriter wears both her influences and her heart on her sleeve, bearing the weight of her hope and suffering for all to hear and see. Comfortable with a variety of styles, her vibrant and striking ballads, along with versatile piano melodies, adorn the majority of her songs.
On stage, she moves her audiences through both tears and laughter almost simultaneously. Her sense of humor and transparency tear down the invisible wall often found between fans and an artist. After watching her perform, it’s almost as if you can feel what she has gone through and relate those experiences to your own struggles with life and love, sharing in the loneliness-togetherness.
What makes her work so groundbreaking isn’t just the deceptive simplicity and directness of the arrangements, or even the sheer quality of writing. Her work provokes wonder, inspires thought, and serves as a catalyst for personal growth. It’s no surprise that Deepak Chopra is a fan of her music. Growing up listening to the likes of James Taylor, Carole King, and Roberta Flack, she is no stranger to surpassing personal intimacy and reaching out to give audiences everything she has.
“I think I have this inherent sense of loneliness and desire for connection, but loads of optimism and hope at the same time," Yamagata explains. "Life is never without it’s tragedies, so I’m constantly trying to see the silver lining of things. I’ve always been fascinated by our human struggle to be authentic and what motivates us to interact the way we do in life. A lot of my inspiration comes from watching others take the challenge of just existing honestly and openly. ‘Keep Going’ has a special place in my heart because it’s one of the most lyrically literal/positive songs I’ve ever been able to write. They’re much harder than the dark ones!”
As a solo artist (before she got signed), her first professional booking was playing a 4am to 7am time slot in an underground piano bar in Chicago, Illinois, for a “very sketchily scary audience.” From there she went on to play tambourine and provide backup vocals in Bumpus, a hip-hop, funk and soul-influenced band, performed in front of a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden in New York, and by June 2004 ended up recording her first full-length album Happenstance with producer John Alagia in the Bahamas, which was released on RCA Victor.
The album conveyed a maturity that defied her back catalog and featured a collection of her eloquently-written piano ballads and soothing hits, including “I’ll Find A Way” and “Be Be Your Love,” and as a result of her steady touring schedule and the raw emotional power of her songs, became a steady seller. Conviction and commitment are the life blood of her success. Of course, commitment alone means nothing; but commitment fixed with the musical talents of a genuine pop artist mean everything.
“My bio rhythms/writing schedule is very early morning. I typically write around 4:30am and I do it in spurts versus everyday, which I should! I tend to catch phrases on napkins or in my iPhone over time and I’ll return to them for inspiration. I’ve had the occasional dream where I wake up with a song in my head and write it then. I also need a lot of alone time and it’s a battle to not serve as my own distraction with the business side of music,” she adds.
Her two follow-up albums, Elephants…Teeth Sinking into Heart and Chesapeake, also achieved the kind of eloquence that comes with new beginnings and endings. Her constant need to observe, interpret and create is evident in each slow, sparsely chorded song. When Yamagata sets out on a journey for something that is seemingly beyond attainment, she returns with treasured gold, often times expressing an engagingly sentimental generosity so extraordinary that it can only be given one name: passion.
This year, she will be celebrating the 10 year anniversary of Happenstance.
“Where does the time go? Approaching the 10 year anniversary of this record has made me reflect on how I’ve broadened my production styles and brought more depth to my writing,” Yamagata adds. “Ten years is definitely a big jump in terms of life experience, but I feel I’ve got that ‘settled into myself’ knowledge now.'”
Recently, she moved into a new home upstate in the woods, where she spends most of her days taking in the peaceful landscape of nature, treating herself to healthy doses of red wine, cheese, HGTV and horror movies. She’s the kind of woman who would choose good coffee and no work on a Saturday morning over anything else in the world.
“I’ve always loved a hideaway when I’m not on the road. I only get cell reception when out on the porch, which makes working in winter less than ideal. However, I have a bit a phone phobia, so it suits me. Life here in the woods is serene and full of deer and feeding birds. I’ve spent many weeks cleaning up the cobwebs and painting and fixing. As my mother would say, there are blessings every day and even though we were out of hot water for two weeks and had no kitchen sink, I needed to be grateful. I’m super particular about my space and have needed to sort that out for a bit,” she says.
As of right now, her upcoming record is still to be determined. But there is no doubt that the acclaim already assured by her previous work will shine through once again.
“I never know what I’m going to do in the studio. Every time I try to define a record beforehand, I go some other direction by the end,” she says while sitting comfortably in her fur bathrobe and snow hat. “My next full-length tour of the US will be in the fall. We’ll be doing a full run of new works, but also an extra show in some cities of just Happenstance. Since it is the 10 year anniversary, I want to pay some tribute to it.”
This year, Yamagata is focused on making beautiful music infused with a sense of artistic purpose and giving herself permission to just relax.
“I’m learning to balance it all. I think that’s my quest in life. A never-ending search for balance. Also, to be patient and to explore options. I don’t know if it’s a continued teenage rebellion, but I’m much more likely to work on weekends and holidays and treat Monday like a Saturday. It’s difficult to turn off sometimes when you are self-employed.”