The day I talked to Rachael Yamagata over the phone, it had been a shit week.
Being a freelancer, jobs come and go. I had taken a month off to travel–in Sierra Leone with a non-profit I recently started working with and in Kenya alongside a crew of social workers documenting stories for an NGO I had worked with in the past.
Upon my return, I was feeling pretty good. A bit anxious getting back into the swing of things, but it had been a stellar few weeks; I was doing the kind of work that I felt passionate about. But then, I received some abrupt news. One of my main contract gigs pulled out.
At the risk of making my past writing professors cringe, I have to say… it sucked. It really sucked.
Anyone that has taken the freelance plunge, you know the feeling. And, queue the floodgates for the stream of “I don’t know’s,” and “not good enough’s.”
The days following I talked it out with my dad over the phone– my go-to when I find myself in a “well, shit” situation. I shrugged it off and told myself “Alright, I gotta look for a new gig.” I spent little extra time on my eye shadow that next day, painted on some lipstick to appear to “have my shit together,” and poured my time and energy into miscellaneous things that had been sitting on the back burner.
When those things tapered off and I wasn’t being so productive, I moped a little, and I did what I always do when I’m in a shitty mood: listen to music. A lot of it.
Bon Iver and Wild Belle, some Black Keys and Bright Eyes, and Leon Bridges’ “River” on repeat until it made me cry. Rachael Yamagata was on my radar already, with her show coming up. And, naturally, I found myself re-listening to this distressed songstress as well.
It’s funny how one thing falling through–doubts seeping in–can unravel you. Your mind starts wandering–raising questions and recalling people and things that only pollute this cloudy, distorted image of yourself.
Rachael Yamagata has a way of plunging into those emotional depths and resurfacing with sad music that consoles and comforts. “Tragically beautiful,” that’s how I would describe her music. She brings out the storm in people, because I think she knows that wherever there are dark skies and wild winds, lies a truth. When you embrace the storm, you dare to love the parts of yourself you don’t like.
I was lucky enough to get some time with her over-the-phone a week before her performance at Icehouse this past Wednesday. And our conversation, it turned my week around.
Interview with Rachael Yamagata
MIM: “Hey Rachael! How are you doing?”
Rachael: “I’m good! A little cold, but nothing you’re not used to”
MIM: “Haha yeah with the Superbowl, part of me, out of spite, kind of wants it to be even colder this weekend for the out-of-towners that can’t quite handle it. But, I mean it’s a fun weekend to be in Minneapolis, for sure. Where are you now?”
Rachael: “I’m in Ann Arbor right now.”
MIM: “Nice! Well thanks for taking the time out of your day to chat with me!”
Rachael: “Of course!”
MIM: “Before we get going, I should mention this. When I started taking photos at shows, just at small venues in Minneapolis over two years ago, my first one ever at Triple Rock, you were performing.”
Rachael: “Oh no way! That’s amazing!”
MIM: “Yeah, that was the first show where, just by myself, I got a press pass and was like ‘alright, I get to take photos.’ And I realized, ‘I wanna keep doing this.’ So, I’ve been doing it ever since your show.”
Rachael: “Congratulations Kathleen! That’s so awesome”
MIM: “Thank you! So, it’s really cool to see things come full circle. I saw your name come up in the calendar. And I was like, ‘guys I got dibs. I’m covering her.’”
Rachael: “Haha oh my God I love that.”
MIM: “Yeah, so obviously psyched to have you come into town. And just wanted to ask you some questions in general, about the vulnerability that is so palpable in your writing and also, I’m curious about how you’ve progressed as an artist, what you’re working on right now. I saw that birthday video that came out, which was really cool and an intimate insight into your personal life and what you were working on. You, deconstructing that house and rebuilding it, and in the process also recording.”
Rachael: “Oh yeah!”
MIM: “Can you tell me more about that, how you’ve been creating this environment to shape the sound of the music you were working on?”
Rachael: “Sure! So that was for ‘Tightrope Walker,’ the record that came out, I think it was 2016. It was a bit of an experiment, it was my first house, and it was definitely a work in progress. That was a really fun record to do that way, because it really did feel like everything was a new experience that I was creating from scratch and re-inventing a bit. Being a producer for the first time, the environment of the house and reconstructing things, and feeling at home and making music… who knew what was going to happen because it was all at play. It was really exciting. I loved making a record that way. So, we’ll see if the next one makes sense to do that way as well. But, that one, I loved it.”
Rachael: “Thank you!”
MIM: “A lot of grit, you know, I kind of liked that. It had an edge to it and it was kind of dark. But, I think everyone could relate to a lot of those tracks. At least me, personally.”
Rachael: “Well, thank you. I love that”
MIM: “Can I ask you what you’re working on right now? Are you just focusing on the touring, are you creating? What’s in the works right now?”
Rachael: “Kind of. I did a summer where I wrote eleven songs. I just sat down and was like, ‘here you are!’ I have to sit with them a little bit and see what I think of them. After I get off this tour in mid-March, that’s what I’m going to do and think of what the next record is looking like. But, I do a lot. I’m like a full-throttle business woman during the day. So there’s a lot of logistic planning and stuff like that going on. Yeah, self-managed, DIY girl over here in this hotel room between shows, haha.”
MIM: “Haha, I like that. DIY girl. One-woman-show, you can do it all.”
Rachael: “Hahaha, oh yeah. All across the board. I mean, I was pulling a projector out of my backpack at the airport yesterday, going “what am I doing?”
MIM: “Do you like taking that on? Self-managing?”
Rachael: “I mean, I have a love-hate relationship with it. I never intended to do it and now I’m going on year six, I think. I would love to delegate more stuff. And I do have various teams of people that save my butt and really lock in and help me work through everything. I would always envision having a manager again, if I found the right one. But, I’ve been doing it for a while now. I wouldn’t say I love it, haha.”
MIM: “Yeah, you have the independence and freedom to do what you want and when you want, but that is a lot of work. That’s impressive.”
Rachael: “Yeah, a lot of artists I know, they’re trying to find a way to make the financial part of it work. How do you do it, and still manage to stay on the road and make records. I mean it’s a business decision more than anything else. Your creative side being in control is a mega benefit if you want a bird’s-eye view of your career. A lot of things can be planned in a way, to just take all aspects into account, which is nice. But, yeah it’s just like small businesses at times. Figuring out how to function most efficiently.”
MIM: “So, aside from all the busywork logistically I’m sure you do on a day-to-day basis, how would you characterize some of those ‘magical moments’ where you’ve been hit by songwriting that just came to you? Like you mentioned just now, last summer when you just sat down and churned out eleven songs. Where does that come from, can you explain that?”
Rachael: “I think with the touring and travel, it’s kind of like a rollercoaster. You’re kind of just hanging on, but it’s a big, incredible ride. You find a lot of highs and lows, that’s a good metaphor. And when you get back to stillness–that’s why I like to live up state deep in the woods–then it becomes, ‘okay, now I can take a moment and process, and articulate. Where’s my emotional power? What scrap of paper did I write that lyric on? And then, I kind of just dig in and take all those experiences and shape them into individual songs. So, that’s kind of my process. I’m not a great writer on the road, I mean maybe a lyric or two, but that’s about it. I’m reading this book called, ‘The Artists’ Way’ right now and it’s really true, you kind of have to fill the well. And that’s what this traveling does and what all these experiences do. ‘Elephants’ was a song, when you’re talking about writing and sort of just getting that magic from the heavens. That was one of those songs. It was so purely channeled, I love that song for that reason”
MIM: “Yeah, that’s definitely one that’s up there for me. Yeah, I can relate to that. I’m an artist in a sense, I mean I don’t have anywhere that I sell my work, but I sometimes sketch or paint. I freelance, and I have jobs that come and go. And unfortunately, recently, I had one that fell through. It was for a non-profit that couldn’t afford to keep me on. So, suddenly I have like 10 more hours to fill in my week and I’m like, ‘oh shit, what do I do?’ Because I gotta make sure I can pay the bills. But, I started to use that time to just create and, like you said, the stillness is sometimes all you need to spur something. You know?”
Rachael: “Oh yeah”
MIM: “Yeah, and you know I’ve grown to appreciate that time now. And you just kind of take the highs and lows as you go, haha. So, there are always good opportunities that come with the stillness later, after you can decompress.
Rachael: “For sure, I totally know the feeling.”
MIM: “So, the last time that you came to Minneapolis. Did you play at Icehouse last time you were in town?”
Rachael: “No, this is my first time at Icehouse actually. I was in a group tour over the summer. We were at Triple Rock maybe? I can’t remember. But, I was with [ ] and Joshua Radin, that was the last time I passed through.”
MIM: “Oh okay, so maybe it was at The Fine Line or Triple Rock. Unfortunately Triple Rock closed this past fall.”
Rachael: “That’s what I heard!”
MIM: “I know! I was kind of bummed about that. That place has been there forever, right off Cedar. Yeah, that was a little sad. But, there are so many great venues here in Minneapolis. What do you like best about coming into town, to the Twin Cities?
Rachael: “It always makes me happy. But, when it’s cold and I go into the tunnels and get completely lost in there, that’s like what always happens when I come. I venture in, then I’m lost for hours.”
MIM: “Haha, in the skyways?”
Rachael: “Yes. I’m like, ‘where am I?’ haha. Yeah, but I love Minneapolis. I have fond memories of not only playing, but also writing… the people are very sweet. I mean especially when you’re coming out in this cold weather and making an intentional effort to go see live music. It means the world when you’re freezing. I know they are coming to see the show haha. It’s not like you just wander out”
MIM: “Haha, yeah. You gotta commit.”
Rachael: “Yeah, for sure”
MIM: “I’m pretty psyched to see you at Icehouse, I think you’ll like that venue, it’s a cool space”
MIM: “Yeah, I feel like you have this kind of cabaret croon, smokey voice. And that venue totally suits that. It’s kind of a swanky restaurant with the little tables, you know, and the little candles. Then, this huge back bar and the balcony up top. It’s a cool place, I think you’ll like it.”
Rachael: “I love that, that’s kind of what we were going for in terms of the type of show and the type of groups we wanted to play for. So, that sounds perfect”
MIM: “Yeah, it’s got good vibes for sure. Is there anything else you’d like people to know, about how the tour has progressed this year, what you’re looking forward to these next couple months?”
Rachael: “I would say this is probably my only U.S. tour for this year. So, if you wanna come, this is the one you gotta come to. And I would also say, come early. Because there’s this great artist, Hemming who’s opening the shows. I’ve played with her before. She won this reality show that Katy Perry did a few years ago. She’s just developed into this really compelling songwriter and she’s just really heart-wrenching, and funny, and all of these good things.”
MIM: “Nice! I’ll have to look into her more before coming. So, this is your first time touring with her?”
Rachael: “I did a tour with her a few years back actually, when she was first starting as a solo artist. And just had a blast with her, so invited her on some shows. This entire tour has been a revolving door of different support acts because traveling alone and doing all this solo, I wanted to make it like a road trip. So, every couple cities I pair up with a buddy and then travel on. So, it really has that vibe to it”
MIM: “Nice, it’ll be cool to see her play. So, where are you headed after the U.S.?”
Rachael: “Well, I’ve got Georgia, the country haha. And, working on getting some Asia dates lined up. Yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of touring over the years so I need to take a little bit of a break. And especially to go back to the studio. I’ve got some international stuff, but this is pretty much winding down my U.S. stuff for this year”
MIM: “Gotcha. Are you kind of craving that a bit? Retreating to the studio for a length of time?”
Rachael: “I am actually, I’m looking forward to it. I think it’ll be a nice, bookend way to put these songs to bed for a little bit and then dive into some new stuff. So, I’m happy with how the schedule is forming.”
MIM: “Yeah, that’ll be a good way to bookend it. For sure. Do you plan on playing a lot from ‘Tightrope Walker’? Or, a certain emphasis on a certain album this time around?”
Rachael: “It’s actually kind of all over across the records. And I think there are certain songs that really lend themselves well to this solo mentality, you know the one’s with me in that smokey room, you know that kind of thing. And others are ones that fans have been requesting that I haven’t played that much. Then, of course there are definitely the familiar ones, the ones people would riot if I didn’t play. So, a nice selection.”
MIM: “I’m looking forward to it!”
Rachael: “Well, thanks Kathleen! And I’m excited for you! Keep doing your art too, it sounds wonderful. Don’t let it go, it sounds beautiful”
MIM: “Well, thank you. Yeah, I look forward to the photos at Icehouse. I’ll have to dig up the photos from Triple Rock from two years ago haha. That’ll be kind of fun to look back on”
Rachael: “Totally! I love it, I love it”