Interview: Rachael Yamagata talks 10th anniversary of ‘Happenstance,’ breakup songs and revisiting old emotions
Breakup records are nothing new in music. Any singer/songwriter worth their secondhand bought guitar has almost certainly penned a handful of songs about a lost love if not an entire catalog full of them. In that sense, it takes something extraordinary for one to stand out amongst the masses or stand up against Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Ryan Adam’s aptly titled Heartbreaker and even Blur’s 13.
Rachael Yamagata’s Happenstance has to be considered in the same house with them; maybe not all the way in the basement, but at least through the front door. Despite the lush production on a few of the tracks, which sometimes tends to leave the lyrical bounty getting buried, the 2004 effort has some gut-punch delivering lines.
“Everything will be alright/if you just stay the night,” she sings on “Be Be Your Love,” which turned Yamagata into a CW network favorite after its appearance on One Tree Hill. “But now I find that when it comes to you/I’m the winner of cards I can’t play,” goes a line on “I’ll Find a Way.” Even the hidden track, “Ode To…” carries “oof” moments like, “My blood, my hand, my soul/I’ve thrown them onto you without control/The things I freely give…you stole/And now I’m left in pieces.”
Yamagata is celebrating the 10th anniversary of Happenstance by playing the album in full at certain dates on her current fall and winter tour. Some cities, like Philly tomorrow and Saturday and New York Monday and Tuesday, will get both a Happenstance show and standard gig, though both will contain new material she is working on for a new album being funded by a PledgeMusic campaign. Unfortunately the closest Yamagata is coming to Boston will be a free show tonight at the Wolf Den at Mohegan Sun.
Vanyaland caught up with Yamagata to talk about the challenges of revisiting a decade old recording, what’s she’s learned since it came out and the positives that come with being a true independent artist.
Michael Christopher: It’s the 10th anniversary of Happenstance. When you look back at yourself then both as an artist and as a person, what are some of the biggest differences and similarities that you see?
Rachael Yamagata: There was definitely the wide-eyed innocence of going into the music industry back then. Now I have an ability to sort of smile at all I’ve learned I suppose, so there’s been an education that I’ve had over the past 10 years. I love that there’s still the passion for writing songs; I still love writing them as much as I did then and I still love taking risks with changing up my sound or themes. As much as I’ve learned from the rollercoaster ride of what the industry is on the goodness side, I feel like the world is still my oyster on the music creativity side.
How did you decide on which cities would get the full Happenstance live experience?
We doubled up on certain cities that I’ve had a strong history in and scheduled both shows over the course of two nights. I’ve lived in Philly, L.A., D.C., Chicago and New York, so there is definitely a base of folks that I know would want to try and see new and older songs. I’ve done residencies in those cities and the fans have been with me for quite some time. I wrote many of the Happenstance songs in those cities as well so there is that significance.
What do you think it is about breakups that bring out the most in artists, particularly writers?
I think many artists and writers are romantics – trying to constantly express their passion through music or words or whatever art form. They are keen observers of the human condition and the world around them and I believe we are all trying to connect with one another on a deep level. When that doesn’t happen [and the breakup does] I think we try to figure out why and have our ‘art’ to process the pain of it. It’s a rich source of inspiration when it all goes awry.
Lyrically, like all of your material, Happenstance is such a personal record. When you’re doing some of the songs live, especially the ones that you haven’t done in a while, does it stir up any emotions?
Not about what I wrote them about. There are universal emotions that I cling to when I’m writing that I think you apply to different stages of your life. No two people are going to get the same thing out of a song that I’ve written and I don’t get the same thing out of it either over time, like my impression of what it specifically means to me will change just because 10 years is a long time and you change a lot as a person. I don’t need to go back to the angst of the album in that period of time…but I will apply that same emotion to something that I’m going through now.
That kind of falls right into my next question; how has revisiting the album affected the writing of the material for the new album?
It hasn’t really. It’s been more of a celebration of where I was so that I might let it go in a beautiful way now. I wrote the new record this past summer before I really started going back into the Happenstance world so I had my new ideas down without crowding it in any past influence. They feel very separate to me in approach and arrangement so I’m experiencing them the way I’m hoping the fans are in the double shows – as two distinct nights of music.
You know, I feel like it’s a fun and joyful celebration if it, and now I can let it go. It’s been really interesting to do these songs on the road and have a new band do them and do the full record, which I’ve never done – it’s so joyous.
What can you tell me about the direction of the new music, both sonically and lyrically?
The lyrical themes are more centered around one’s inner quest for peace of mind, satisfaction and so forth rather than a romantic outside love that is having all the impact. They are slightly more optimistic and somewhat of a cheering section for those having challenges, but because the music is dark and rich they don’t come off as a happy pop song by any means. There is a dreaminess and edge to the new sound that I’m still figuring out how to put into words. I’m using ladders as drums on certain tracks, rain falling on metal stools, French translated letters underlying certain music, piano, banjo, mandolin – less typical instrumentation then where I’ve been before. I’m self-producing so I’m working very much on instinct and it’s really exciting for me.
How far along into it are you?
I’ve got about 14 basic tracks down. I haven’t listened since we left for tour. Because we are playing some of the songs live now, I want to go back fresh to the recordings and see how they strike me when I return.
I think it’s a brilliant way to connect on a deeper level with fans. There is so much music out there now and everything is up for grabs – venue availability, money for funding – an artist has to distinguish themselves more creatively than ever. The fans want more of an experience I think – something that includes them in a deeper way than just the record. Pledge is a mutually beneficial way to deliver that connection. I’ve always thought touring, word of mouth and just working it was the most solid and organic way to gain a support system of people that love your music.
I was talking with your fellow singer/songwriter Joe Arthur a good deal last month while on the road with him and the Afghan Whigs for a few dates and he thinks that it is the best in terms of getting music to the fans quickly, without all the label b.s. and takes at least some of the stress off the business side.
I definitely agree. There are certainly other stresses that come with being independent, but the basic ability to get music to fans quickly and engage on a real time basis is priceless. I’ve had fans come up to me after shows saying they’ve seen me 11 times. That’s huge. There is a reason they are coming back and I’m trying to live up to what’s drawing them in. I love not having anyone get in the way of creative inspiration on that front. I do miss a team structure and have worked with amazing people on the business side, label folks etc., but the inherent troubles of a music industry that is grappling for how to sustain itself – that’s a pressure cooker that I don’t want to become lost in. I’m definitely trying to strike my own balance on that front.