Who's that girl?

March 20, 2009


Chicago fans who've followed her career from fronting the funk-pop band Bumpus to striking out on her own as a solo artist know that Rachael Yamagata has always had several sides to her musical personality.

Unfortunately, Yamagata's 2004 major-label debut, "Happenstance," largely was devoted to positioning her as the next Norah Jones -- a polite female songstress at the piano, perfect for the coffee-house set.

"I've definitely been called that on occasion," Yamagata says, laughing. "My friend Kevin Salem, who's played guitar on my records and who's been a sort of mentor, is always telling me, 'The record company signed you and they didn't actually know what they ended up getting in terms of the spectrum of things.' And I definitely feel like if somebody is calling me that, they just haven't seen a live show.

"I could see how that perception could come maybe from the first record, but if they were saying that about me based on the first record, they'll probably be really surprised by this record."

Yamagata is referring to her new album, "Elephants ... Teeth Sinking Into Heart," which actually is two CDs in one -- the first a collection of quiet, intimate ballads, and the second a set of more aggressive pop-rock songs, both linked via an emotional story arc and mostly produced by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley).

"I wanted this record to be different from what I'd done before, to have real intimate, haunted ballads -- coming from an almost fairy-tale land -- as well as big, gritty rock songs. I wanted the ballads to feel as if they were a secret being whispered in somebody's ear, and I wanted the rock songs to be gritty and in your face and kind of not safe. And I wanted the whole album to feel a little otherworldly.

"At first, I tried sequences that had all the songs together; I thought, 'I should structure it like I would a show, mixing them all in together.' But then I changed my mind, thinking, 'These are really different experiences, and on a recording, you can't feed off the energy the way you would in concert.'"

Born in Arlington, Va., Yamagata split her time between divorced parents, a Japanese-American father who worked as an attorney in Washington, D.C., and an Italian-German mother who was a painter in New York City. She wound up in Chicago after spending time at Northwestern University, and she fronted Bumpus for six years before launching her solo career in 2002 with a self-titled EP.

Now based on the East Coast, Yamagata seemed poised to break nationwide when she signed to RCA and released "Happenstance." Instead, she wound up in limbo for four years, thanks to problems at the label. The new disc actually was recorded in 2006, but it remained unreleased until last October, when Yamagata moved to Warner Music.

"When I went in to write for this record, it took, like, nine months and there were 160 songs. I filled up a hard drive and demoed everything, so I had this kind of huge outpouring from my travels and what not. But the business side became so frustrating, and I literally just had to change my whole brain to switch over to reading more about record contracts and booking tours. I almost felt like I was stunted writing more songs until these songs could get their life, because as soon as I write a new song, I'm excited about that instead of the old ones.

"Now, I really feel like I'm coming back to life with traveling and getting back to the real reason I signed up to do this in the first place: playing music. And, hopefully, a new flood of songwriting is going to hit me any day!"

Did the 31-year-old musician ever consider abandoning music altogether during that long and frustrating wait?

"No. I always knew that it would work out eventually. I'm pretty optimistic about that kind of thing. There's really nothing else aside from being, like, a spy that would interest me as much as songwriting, so I never wanted to give up. But I did have moments of thinking that I would go insane, and I did wake up at 6 in the morning with those kind of thoughts. I just put them in a bag.

"Twelve years ago, I would not have envisioned music in my future, but I'm so happy that it's here now. There's just nothing else that makes me so happy or relieved as writing music and performing music, and I can't imagine not doing it."