vendredi, avril 08, 2005

Rachael Yamagata

The stories so far

Rachael Yamagata has plenty of tales to tell. It must be all those past lives, she tells Kevin Harley

Published : 08 April 2005

Many people would regard making career decisions according to a tarot reading a somewhat high-risk, space-headed way to proceed. Not, however, the otherwise down-to-earth 27-year-old singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata.

"I love all the metaphysical things," she says. "They said I'd have an insane year this year and a crazy next seven years. They predicted my separation from my other band, and they've been pretty right-on about certain relationships I've had. They said I was a musician in a past life, and that I was meant to be a songwriter, even if I didn't tell them what I did. And that in this life, it would be easy for me to learn instruments, because it would be about remembering them as opposed to learning for the first time. Just funny things."

Not cranky things, then? "Well," she says, a little sheepishly, "they said that I was a rebel leader who died at 19 in one of my past lives. He got stoned and hung. The woman who did the reading said that when I find myself in front of crowds it would be a bit odd, because I'm going to remember being stoned!"

Rocks? Critics and audiences haven't seen fit to throw any yet, but otherwise, the cards sound right for Yamagata. The US music press has been drumming up a swell of interest in this multi-instrumental mystic of moody music, on the back of support slots to David Gray and Liz Phair, and a richly textured album of part-languid, part-piano-bashing jazz-pop in Happenstance. The fact that some of this has been of a "next Norah Jones/next Fiona Apple" flavour won't do her publicity any harm, but closer reference points would be storytelling singer-songwriters such as Carole King, albeit with added cabaret flourishes and the husky soulfulness of a Jeff Buckley. Like Buckley, Yamagata's dusky vocal pipes sound designed to drawl and growl through late-night laments and itchy-feet confessionals, where the suitcase is always by the door in case a sharp exit is needed.

Indeed, Yamagata is of no fixed abode right now, due to constant touring. Being on the move is something she's used to, though. Her German-Italian mother and Japanese father divorced when she was two, and she lived between them while she switched studies as a "painfully shy" teenager. The "chequered academic career" her press release speaks of took in French at Northwestern University, Italian at Vassar, and then acting classes back in Chicago, from which she was kicked out. Piano lessons proved no less short-lived: she quit to teach herself after her teacher told her to sit still while playing.

The inadvertent teenage drop-out threw her lot in with a Chicago-based electro-funk band called Bumpus from her late teens onwards, graduating from tambourine girl and back-up singer to one of three lead vocalists. Her songwriting took a back seat, though, when her shyness and fear of stoning crashed into some band-members' negative reactions to her songs. "People had this condescending attitude towards them," she says. "That shut me up for five years."

Half a decade down the line, though, it was clear that, even if Yamagata's songs didn't suit Bumpus, she had a calling to pursue. Luckily, and "literally, the next day" after Yamagata left Bumpus, she bumped into a fellow Chicago-based songwriter who she had met years before. He referred her to a talent scout, who recognised the material's worth and had her put together a showcase. It only took Yamagata a year to get signed from there, during which time, the rise of female singer-songwriters such as - yes - Norah Jones gave her a sense of urgency. "I heard her record and thought, this is going to be huge, we have to get mine out quick, because there'll be a wave of women getting signed. Then it just grew and grew."

That wave of women has gone on to include the likes of Jem, Katie Melua, Nellie McKay and more besides, but the comparisons to, say, Jones sit awkwardly. "I think it's limiting," Yamagata says, affably, "just because I have dark hair and play piano. The songs I write are split between guitar and piano, and my show is more rock than hers. I'd be more comfortable being compared to someone like Jeff Buckley or Elton John, who have rich orchestrations. Her thing lulls you, whereas mine is meant to secretly lull you and then smash your head into something."

On Happenstance, the energy that Yamagata puts into peppering her smoky balladry distinguishes her. "It's more interesting for me," she says, "to hear someone compare it to, say, Roberta Flack's 'Ballad of the Sad Young Men'. It's essentially a piano ballad with an emotional lyric, but it does a different thing to it. Or Rickie Lee Jones or Carole King, who I'd say my lyrics are more like than Norah Jones's." She sighs: "I think it's unfortunate, all the comparisons. I'm worried that Fiona Apple is sitting there saying, 'Damn this Rachael Yamagata!'"

Maybe that's where those past-life fears of a stoning now linger. After all, when it came to facing crowds, Yamagata leapt in at the deep end. In keeping with her run of luck, her agent was scouting for a support act for David Gray when Yamagata visited one day. After a debut gig to an audience of 40 on an out-of-tune piano, her next two shows were solo support slots to Gray, the first to a crowd of 4,500 and the second to 18,000 at a sold-out Madison Square Garden. "I'd never played in front of that many people. I was petrified, I didn't wanna go on. And it went great!" she says, brightly.

"I think enough of those experiences have happened to me that I'm not fazed any more. It's probably the little rooms that freak me out now, with about 10 people in them."

Predictions? At the risk of sounding flakier than a high-street mystic, she won't have to worry about the small venues for too long.

Rachael Yamagata plays The Enterprise, London NW3, next Thursday (sold out); 'Happenstance' is out on 9 May on RCA

© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.