Happenstance, Rachael Yamagata’s first full-length release in 2004, is the perfect way to describe the way I initially discovered her music. As most new experiences in my life, stumbling upon Yamagata was due to my rather unhealthy obsession with Ryan Adams. With a stalker mentality and the power of Wikipedia on my side, I learned that Yamagata provided backup vocals on several of Adams’ tracks off Cold Roses, including “Let It Ride” and “Friends.” In my opinion, an endorsement from Adams is the equivalent of Yamagata wearing a target, emblazoned with my name, on her back; the next obvious step was for me to get my hands on her solo music.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” Norah Jones took the one with the most wear, and on her first effort, Happenstance, Yamagata took “the one less traveled by.” She takes the basics of piano-backed ballads and then flips, turns them upside down. Yamagata isn’t afraid to use this instrument sparingly; the empty space she incorporates into songs like “Reason Why” at times speaks louder than anything words or music could possibly convey. Her minimalist vibe communicates nostalgic reflection and doubtful hesitation. It almost seems as if Yamagata is thinking, “Do I really want to say this out loud? To all of these people?” Ultimately, she always takes the plunge.
Yamagata’s voice is blanketed with intrinsic smokiness that sets the tone for her signature sound. Set against lavish compositions, her velvet voice drapes the scene with hazy opulence. Her lyrics frequently dwell on relationships, particularly the art of the break up, but she’s careful not to let devastation consume her. “I see it more as a fascination with human relationships and behavior,” she says, “the struggles we create and the strength we gain.” However, this music is so perfect for melancholic moments of much-needed alone time, you might find yourself killing a good mood on purpose to allow it to resonate at full strength.
Yamagata, after a series of personal and professional obstacles, released her second full-length album in October 2008. Inadvertently, Elephants…Teeth Sinking into Heart became a record in two parts. “I didn’t set out to make a two part album,” Yamagata says. “We just followed the songs’ lyrical lead and built them up with textures and sounds that served the story. The beautiful ones were darker and worked with lush arrangements. We used the sounds of rain, tree branches falling on the roof — whatever kept the mood true to this haunted studio in the first stormy days of spring. The second part became more anthemic, like a reclaiming of personal power. There’s something raw about it. To me it sounds weathered, but not broken or cynical.”
Yamagata has honed her strongest suits on Elephants… The sounds of silence continue to articulate a particular mood, notably on the aptly titled match up with Ray LaMontagne, “Duet.” Her voice bends and breaks to fit any song; it ranges from crackled whispers to hearty roars, sometimes all in one outing. Her songwriting has evolved into true poetry, providing an alternate lens to inspect and describe what’s going on around her. On the title track, she creates a beautiful metaphor that compares spurned lovers to elephants, animals ill fated to never forget the transgressions of others. On the second part of the album, Yamagata finds a new voice in a series of electric, edgier tracks like “Sidedish Friend” and “Pause the Tragic Ending” that many critics are dubbing the second coming of PJ Harvey.
Yamagata is a veteran of Los Angeles’ Hotel Café scene, an intimate venue where singer-songwriters are made and collaborations among artists are frequent. It’s with this mindset that she has lent her unique vocals to Adams’ work, along with LaMontagne, Bright Eyes, Rhett Miller, and many others. However, after five years of passionate labor to fully establish herself in the industry, Yamagata has proven that she can stand alone as a solo artist…and one with much respect from her peers to boot.
It might have been simple happenstance that led me to Rachael Yamagata. But for her, success has come because of something much more powerful than that.
Rachael Yamagata TV on YouTube:
She and her mother said it: “My mother said recently that ‘Happenstance is the beauty of your ‘20s, this one [Elephants…] is the richness of your ‘30s’ – of someone who’s been through the mill and is trying to make the choice between optimism and defeatism.”