4 To Watch For: Rachael Yamagata

Summoning the Nerve to Shine

Music Features Rachael Yamagata
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Huddled in the darkest corner of San Francisco’s Café Du Nord, sultry songstress Rachael Yamagata shivers as patron after patron shambles in, gradually filling up every inch of sold-out floorspace. Somewhere in that audience, she whispers, stands her father, who just happened to be in town. Proudly, he’s brought several business buddies down to see his daughter—currently the most talked-about young artist in her native Chicago. But can the kid KO out-of-town crowds? Right now, a full hour before she takes the stage, Yamagata seems a tad uncertain.

Naturally, the keyboardist-guitarist’s fears are unfounded. Relying on songs from her just-issued Private Music “EP” (like the galloping “Worn Me Down,” the techno-diva-ish “Collide” and the smoky pop ballads “Known For Years” and “The Reason Why”), plus selections from her upcoming full-length bow, the smoky-throated singer positively slays. Another skirmish won in the confidence wars—a battle, Yamagata frowns, that she’s been fighting for an eternity. In the past eight years, she’s secretly composed over 200 songs. And she knows because she’s kept them meticulously catalogued. “I started writing in my old band Bumpus, but I didn’t show anyone for ages,” Yamagata confesses of her years spent fronting a popular blues-funk combo in the Midwest. “Well, I showed the members once, and they kind of appreciated the music I was doing but they didn’t necessarily like it. And it was at that vulnerable time where—if you get any reaction at all—it’s hard to take. So I went back to my room and hid my songs away for four more years.” Only recently, “It was totally by chance that I finally got ’em out there. I was very lucky. The minute I showed ’em to somebody else again was when fortune dropped a bunch of things in my lap. But it took me six years to show anybody again.”

Yamagata swears that she had no real close friends during her teen years, so she turned songwriting as therapy. Ergo, she can claim such repertoire embarrassments as “When A Woman Leaves A Man,” a lengthy dirge detailing an unrequited love. “And it goes on for over 20 minutes because I had so much to say,” she shrugs, rolling her eyes. “I’ve written some horrible, just horrible lyrics. And the length of a 20-minute song says it all—I’d just go on forever.”

During several Chicago-club residencies, Yamagata gradually found her own decidedly spooky voice, as well as a minimally modern take on traditional Top Forty that’s as quirky as it is sing-song. And don’t get her wrong, she warns—Bumpus wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was just what her solo career needed. “They would write from a guy kind of perspective—it was harder for me to get them to write for me, so I had to write for myself. So it was difficult to get to where my heart was at, in terms of songs to fit in with that band. It wasn’t anyone’s fault—ultimately, my vision just didn’t work with that type of music.”

And now—knock on wood, smiles Yamagata—all that gutsiness will finally pay off, in packed clubs across the country. But after 200-plus tunes, “right now my biggest fight is trying to put together a well-rounded album with songs you won’t get sick of. It has not been easy....”