RACHAEL YAMAGATA: Threatening Cynicism

Rachael Yamagata is one of those sensitive, literate songwriters who regularly plumbs her emotions in an effort to expose the pain her lyrics convey in such detail. Her new album, Elephants… Teeth Sinking Into Heart, is another ache-filled vessel nearly overflowing with expressions of longing, hurt, loss and resignation, expressed slowly and carefully in her whispery, shadow-filled alto.

Rachael Yamagata is one of those sensitive, literate songwriters who regularly plumbs her emotions in an effort to expose the pain her lyrics convey in such detail. Her new album, Elephants… Teeth Sinking Into Heart, is another ache-filled vessel nearly overflowing with expressions of longing, hurt, loss and resignation, expressed slowly and carefully in her whispery, shadow-filled alto.

Because she draws from such a deep well of heartache, it would be easy to assume she’s a tortured Pisces, a creative soul struggling to stay afloat in a cold, harsh world.

“I’m not. Honestly, I’m not!” protests this practical Virgo when people inquire as to why she’s so depressed. “I’m extremely optimistic and hopeful. But I’m fascinated by everything that stands in the way of the happy-go-lucky attitude of life and love.”

She admits wishing she had been born under the sign of the fish, however, because then she could “plug in even deeper.”

“You guys are psychic,” she says to this interviewer, a Pisces. “But life is so hard for you!”

Oh, don’t get us started. But let’s just say life hasn’t been too hard for Yamagata, the daughter of a Washington, D.C. attorney with Japanese-American ancestry and a Harvard degree, and a New York artist mother with Italian-German roots. Her parents, both life-of-the-party types, were born on the same day, and split when she was two years old. As divided upbringings go, however, she’s thrilled with hers.

“They’re amazing parents,” she says. “And so were my step-parents. I really feel like I grew up with four very strong influences.” She knows she got a lucky draw there; it could have turned out much differently-which makes the dark tone of her songs even more curious. Plus, it’s not as if she doesn’t already have a psychic connection; she’s got a twin brother. So one might question how much deeper she thinks she can go. But that would be like asking a miner how much more coal is left underground. You just don’t know for sure until you dig it out.

Yamagata actually regards herself as more of an anthropologist, excavating clues that might explain our seemingly universal tendency to suffer recurring cycles of trampled expectations and damaged emotions, like a doctor fascinated by how a disease progresses even as he looks for a cure. (Yes, she has watched House; the TV series was considering using one of her songs in an episode.)

She happens to be in a relationship that’s going well. “Defying my track record,” she jokes (she is full of clever asides and witticisms that belie her rep as “the heartbreak girl.”) He’s the reason she’s living in-and in love with-Philadelphia, the latest stop on a nomadic journey that has included addresses in Chicago, L.A., Woodstock, New York, and the Dominican Republic…well, that last one was only for a month, but she suspects she lived there in a past life because she barely knew where it was on a map when she got there, and by the time she left, they thought she was a native.

Yamagata loves languages and other cultures, though she hated college (Northwestern and Vassar) and actually made a promise to her Italian professor that she would get therapy if he’d give her a passing grade. She had told him she was going through an emotional time. “I was sitting there the final month and I still couldn’t sing the ‘Volare’ song, which we sang every day,” she admits with a laugh. She was also asked not to return to a theater class at Northwestern. “I thought I was gonna be a theater major but I can’t stand actors. I hate that world….I obviously wasn’t showing the dedication that I needed,” she says.

She did better when it came to harmonizing with Bumpus, the Chicago funk band that became her obsession, then her employer.

“As soon as I saw them onstage, I said, ‘I don’t care how I do it, but I have to be in this band,’ and I trailed them, I brought them coffee and donuts. I was the ultimate stalker,” she confesses. One day, they asked her if she could sing.

Though she wasn’t wild about her voice and hadn’t considered a career in music, it was the in she’d been waiting for. And singing with Bumpus, she had at last found her passion. That led to songwriting, and eventually, a solo career.

And that led to collaborations with Bright Eyes, Rhett Miller, Jason Mraz, Ray LaMontagne, Mandy Moore, Ryan Adams…it’s quite a list.

Adams simply sent an e-mail. “He was a fan. He liked my stuff. And I flipped out,” Yamagata recalls. At that point, her “stuff” consisted of her 2003 self-titled EP and her 2004 debut album, Happenstance. “I was like, ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me!’ because I’m such a fan of his. And it was one of my first experiences, like, ‘OK, am I a peer now to these people I’ve looked up to forever?'”

Then there was her “surreal” experience with Pete Townshend, who invited her to perform with him for In the Attic, a series of club shows he and girlfriend Rachel Fuller organized for live Internet broadcasts.

“I guess they had their ear out for off-the-radar artists,” says Yamagata. “That was just trippy.” She also calls it-with a phrase only kids of divorce would use-“a crowning moment for all of my parents.” All four were knocked out by her hobnobbing with a legend of their generation.

He likely won’t be the last. Her songs frequently accompany scenes in films and TV shows, earning her the kind of attention that perks up her peers’ ears. “What If I Leave,” “Sidedish Friend” and other cuts on Elephants are certain to show up soon. The album has 14, including one titled “Pause the Tragic Ending.”

The album is thematically divided into two segments: Elephant’s dirge-like arrangements define the word “atmospheric”; the Teeth Sinking into Heart section rocks more and has a more, well, biting edge. Its title is from lyrics in the song “Elephants,” which didn’t reveal their meaning to her until after she studied them. The song, she says, was written while she was running down a mountain in Woodstock, where she lived with her mother before moving to Philly. “It was very much this non-thought-out, channeled experience,” she explains.

She couldn’t figure out why she was conjuring elephants and tigers in upstate New York, not exactly their usual habitat. Then she noticed her words expressed “all these layered takes on relationships.”

“I didn’t intellectually grasp it at the time,” she admits. “It turned out to be this great setup for the rest of the songs on the record, because it’s just talking about somebody who’s obviously more weathered, more experienced, apprehensive about being vulnerable again but still willing to do it, and it just brought emotions down to this base, almost animalistic level.”

Then she started researching elephants, learning about their incredible memory, their families and how they mourn when a member dies. And she learned that the younger ones have witnessed so much slaughter at the hands of poachers and had so much damage done to their family units, they’re not developing the necessary psychological tools to cope with upheavals in their environment. As a result, they’re becoming more violent toward humans and other species.

It struck her as a commentary on human behavior as well. “I just kept thinking about how it would be so easy to become cynical if you’ve been in relationships of any kind that have almost,” she pauses, “shocked you, and how, if you don’t heal from that, it really starts shaping humanity in a way. So I loved that comparison.”

The song’s tiger imagery includes the vivid lyric, “I am dreaming of them with their kill/tearing it all apart, blood dripping from their lips/teeth sinking into heart.”

“When I was thinking of this double-disc idea, those particular songs that are on that ‘side’ (the second half) are darker, grittier, more penetrating-like you’ve moved on from the vulnerability and gone to a deeper, painful place. You get rebellious…It’s still coming from the same place, but it’s a different emotion about the same thing. It’s almost an evolution of that experience.”

Fans who catch Yamagata’s live performances are often surprised at how lighthearted she is. But she says she searches obsessively for lightheartedness, because she sees the endless number of ways people manage to screw up opportunities to experience their own lightness of being. “I think my biggest strength is being able to hone in on my own experience with such detail that it becomes universal. …I’m not judging, and I’m not afraid to put myself in the role that’s not commendable.”

“So it’s an endless supply of things to write about,” Yamagata explains, adding, “I haven’t become cynical yet. I just threaten it.”

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10/23/08 The Dears @ Hiro Ballroom, New York, N.Y.