Rachel Yamagata is perpetually bubbly. It rings true in her playing and in her her voice. You can hear the smile creeping around the edges of her mouth and stretching towards her ears. Her demeanor during our conversation, on a shockingly warm day in January, was jubilant. And with new music on the way, why wouldn’t she be? We covered so many things that quite frankly, it’s best that we dive in. Let’s do this.
GSLM: You’re currently out on your 2018 “Songs – Stories – Solo” tour. Tell us what is going through your mind?
Yamagata: 47 days ago (at the time of the interview), I started marking down my calendar. That is when I got back from Europe. The first shows are always nerve-racking, but I’m really excited to play. The tour is just me as a solo artist, which I have never done before. The whole thing is a new concept for me. This is for the super fans. It is living room style and will be something special that I haven’t offered before in a live performance. And Tracy Bonham, my good friend, is opening. She is such a spitfire and general badass.
GSLM: It has been two years since Tightrope Walker. Do you have any new music coming our way?
Yamagata: I do. I got home from summer tour and wrote a bunch of new songs. I think I may play one or two on the road just to see how they feel. After this tour I am going to focus on hunkering down and writing. I have to live with them for a little while to see what kind of themes are starting to take shape.
GSLM: Jumping back to 2016, We love how you begin and ended the album with the same theme. First, it’s a guy who is sure of himself, confident in his moves. By the end, all of that is gone. “If you’re going to feel like a tight rope walker, start looking up and don’t look down at your feet.”
Yamagata: Tight Rope Walker wasn’t a relationship break-up album. It was more of a human struggle, retain your personal inspiration, follow your passion kind of a record. It was channeling the human condition. How do we reset ourselves to keep going? To be our authentic selves and find out what moves us? To keep going in the crazy world? And stay focused? And stay positive? It was almost a cheerleading section.
The music is so angular and dark at times that it is almost a direct opposite of the actual lyrical message of the record. Looking back, it is empowering. About finding what keeps you strong. And working in spite of all the things that make you doubt yourself. Or make you want to give up. Or want to quit.
GSLM: Did you set out to make the record about that?
Yamagata: I did a lot of free journaling to write the record. The themes wove themselves into one another. Some songs started as one song and became a new song. I love the bookend of that record. It’s almost a positive song at the end. Remember why you are dong this. You are doing it because you love it. It’s not the money or the fame or the thunder. It’s the journey. (Laughing) I could be a bumper sticker right now.
GSLM: It’s funny that you say, “It’s not the money or the fame or the thunder.” Everyone has that moment when they say, “This is what I am going to do. It’s not about money. It is because I love it. I was meant to do this. When did you know that this was your calling?
Yamagata: I was on a plane from New York to LA or Chicago to LA, I can’t remember. And it occurred to me that somebody else had paid for that ticket. It was to go and showcase for a record label. And that was the first moment where I thought, “maybe I could make a career out of it.”
Every day I question, “Should I find a place where I can stock shelves in the middle of the night, because I am a good organizer. (Laughing).
GSLM: (Laughing) We love that that is option number two for you.
Yamagata: (Laughing) Or how long will it take me to be a vet? Could I work on a farm? It’s never ending. I have lots of friends that are so talented that can’t get a booking agent, or the money is not there for them to hit the road. I am very fortunate.
GSLM: Our friends are always trading stories about our 1st time on stage. It usually has heads in hands and laughter at the end. When did you first step on stage?
Yamagata: I did an open mic in Chicago. I was so nervous that my mouth literally dried up and I couldn’t open it. And it was awful. (Laughing) I must have squeaked something out. I didn’t have beginner’s luck and have the “This is my life now” moment. But each time got a little less terrible.
I was in a band once. I was wearing a white shirt and some guy came to the front of the stage and started lobbing beer on me as I was singing, and you know (Laughing) that wasn’t fun. But you learn to handle a variety of situations. They are tools. You are paying your dues, and something still happens. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for action.
GSLM: Let’s pretend that you are sitting around with friends talking about your life in music. What is your “I can’t believe this happened to me”, Or “I can’t believe that I got to be a part of this” moment?
Yamagata: I have a terrible memory. If people didn’t take pictures, or tour with me and tell me what happened, I probably wouldn’t know what happened. I do remember playing this huge room opening for David Grey. (Laughing) This will make me look like such a name dropper, but I don;t care. It’s the first thing that came to my mind. We were playing Madison Square Garden. The thing that I love to remember is that I didn’t have anything for my hair. I was in way over my head. It was my second show ever as a solo artist. I had no idea what I was getting into. (Laughing) I remember asking, “How many people does that hold?”
I was deathly sick the night before and had a terrible flu. People were like, “If she doesn’t throw up all over the stage, it’s a win.” They didn’t know what to expect. And everyone is being really gingerly around me because they were so nervous for me.
I remember not having anything for my hair, but I had this bath mat.And it had all of these plastic flowers in it. So I cut them out and bobby pinned them in my hair. I don’t think that a picture exist from that show. And looking back, I was thinking, “Nobody took a fucking picture of me on that stage?” (Laughing) I’ve been working to get back there.
It’s just so funny to me. I had bath mat flowers in my hair, and there’s no picture to prove it.
GSLM: And when you do get back, you’ll have the best story ever!
NOTE TO READERS: If you have a picture of this, send it our way and we will get it to Rachel.
Rachel Yamagata is currently on a very exclusive “Songs – Stories – Solo” tour. Make sure and check out this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see solo renditions of your favorites and her brand new unreleased material. A full set of dates can be found below.
Rachel Yamagata Tour
2/7 Minneapolis, MN – Icehouse
2/9 Cleveland, OH – Music Box Supper Club
2/10 Louisville, KY -Headliners Music Hall
2/12 Nashville, TN – City Winery
2/13 Atlanta, GA – Eddie’s Attic
2/20 Boston, MA – City Winery
2/21 Fairfield, CT – StageOne at FTC
2/22 New York, NY – City Winery
2/23 Philadelphia, PA – The Ardmore Music Hall
2/24 Annapolis, MD – Rams Head On Stage
2/25 Washington, DC – Union Stage
2/28 Denver, CO – Globe Hall
3/4 Salt Lake City, UT – The State Room
3/6 Seattle, WA – Columbia City Theater
3/7 Portland, OR – The Old Church Concert Hall
3/12 San Francisco, CA – The Independent
3/13 Los Angeles, CA – Moroccan Lounge
3/14 Los Angeles, CA – Moroccan Lounge
3/15 Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up
Photo Credit: Laura Crosta