With the streaming premiere of her adventerous new album Tightrope Walker, we talked to alt-pop singer-songwriter Rachel Yamagata for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. Yamagata opens up about the larger inspirations behind Tightrope Walker, what it was like to record at home with a large cast of musician friends, and how connecting with her fans during the album creation process has impacted her during her last couple of releases.
Stream ‘Tightrope Walker’ in its entirety here: ‘Tightrope Walker’ by Rachael Yamagata
NoiseTrade: Where did the overall Tightrope Walker theme come from? Did you have it before the songs or did it emerge during the writing process?
Rachael Yamagata: I had a daydream, or vision of sorts, you might say. I still don’t understand it myself, but I was sitting on my front porch and literally saw in my mind’s eye a healing taking place – strangers gathering together and facing their past hurts of a relationship ending, someone passing away, a failed dream, and so forth. There were colors and images and guides and that sort of thing and that’s the day I began writing. I wrote this record very differently and did mostly stream of consciousness prose and free writing in the mornings and then I’d review what I’d done later and pick out certain phrases or themes. The tightrope walker idea came from one of those pages. I loved it as a metaphor to apply to my own life, but also as something I could study and grab onto as to how to persevere through what tries to break us in life.
NT: You’ve been quoted as saying “If you’re thinking about quitting -anything – this is your record.” What exactly do you mean by that?
Yamagata: The underlying message that came though the lyrics on this record is essentially to keep going and it explores many facets of passion and self-integrity. It’s very different lyrically than what I’ve done previously – less about what he did or she did and more about a new perspective on acknowledging hardship and transforming it into something richer and valuable. I believe we are connected and go through so many of the same heartaches and have big moments of questioning our abilities or choices. These songs became my way of saying ‘I get it, I see it, you’re not the only one going through it and you’re going to make it’.
NT: You’ve got an incredible cast of guest players – Owen Biddle (The Roots), Matt Chamberlain, Ben Perowsky (Rufus Wainwright), and others – on Tightrope Walker. What drove that decision and what do they bring to the table?
Yamagata: I was extremely fortunate to get the folks that I did on this record and they came together very organically. I’ve known Owen for years and he’s come on a few tours with me. Matt and Ben have been on my bucket list to work with for a long time. Ben actually lives in the area and we met through friends and my co-producer John Alagia had ties to Matt. We also had Zach Djanikian (Amos Lee) who’s a friend, my longtime mentor and many things, Kevin Salem, Michael Chaves (John Mayer, Adam Cohen), Oli Kraus (Sia) and a slew of other incredible musicians that I’ve either known or got introduced to very serendipitously. Many of them are multi-instrumentalists and producers in their own right and no one has an ego. It was always about serving the song and we all inspired each other. Pete Hanlon played a big role beyond just engineering the record and we’ve coined him “MVPete” because he always had the idea that no one else had thought of that fixed the missing piece of the puzzle.
I tend to believe that when you are on the right track of something, the things you need just show up – you just have to grab them and be aware. There was tremendous freedom and play while we were doing this record and everybody brought incredible heart and inspiration to it. I work so much on instinct and try to approach any limitation on gear or what not as a creative opportunity and it often leads to something really cool. Zach happens to play the saxophone, so I had to have it! He doesn’t usually play keys, but I love his inversions, so I threw him on that. Owen played guitar, as well as bass on a few. We had Ben in the woods playing a “kit” of ladders and metal chairs. Kevin picked up a harmonica lying around and did a brilliant one note solo on “Black Sheep”. I took a letter and had my French friends translate it into French and read as a backdrop to “Rainsong”. The record was truly created by all of us because we enjoyed ourselves.
NT: How did the ability to record at your home studio and produce much of the record by yourself compare to past recording experiences for you?
Yamagata: I think because I gave myself over to instinct and we were in a place that had no restrictions to it – time or a money clock – we could experiment as much as we wanted to. That led to a lot of the new arrangements and instrument choices. Something that might seem crazy if it were preplanned made total sense in the moment. I’ve also grown more confident in my ability to direct the big picture and to know when something isn’t right. I may not always know how to articulate getting to that place I’m thinking of, but I’m good at getting the right people in the room and working with textures and tones to serve the lyric. Being at home makes it easier for the backyard BBQ and music making becomes summer camp.
NT: This is the second album you’ve worked with PledgeMusic on and you also released an incredible sampler mixtape here on NoiseTrade back in 2012. As someone who has experienced both the major label and independent sides of the business, how does the ability to connect directly with your fans affect your outlook on the album creation process?
Yamagata: I love the connection that comes from sharing the process with fans. It’s this incredible window into our world and it’s fun for us on the other side. People get a chance to really know our personalities and see our struggles and our wins take on a different significance when people see how far we’ve really come. The enthusiasm of my fans, their patience and support – it’s my tonic. It’s a delicate balance to strike because I’m a private person in my life, but I write very intimately in my public work. There can be a sense of magic or mystery that gets lost if too much of the wall comes down, but it also creates an opportunity to really gain champions of support. Word of mouth has always been my best PR and as long as I stay true to myself in what I’m creating, I trust that my music will continue to get out there.
NT: You’re kicking off your brand new tour in Nashville on 9/19. What are you looking most forward to about getting back out on the road and playing live?
Yamagata: We’re actually just on our last day of rehearsals as I’m writing this and I really love this band. Every time we go out it seems to be a new take on the songs and this tour of course will be the round where we get to play all of the new songs in their full glory. I’m excited that people will now have the record and be able to sing along and the spontaneity of our shows is what really keeps me excited. It’s very dynamic and often people are surprised that we can crush their hearts with a ballad, but also take on this epic sound with other songs. We become a night in your living room with one song and a stadium anthem band on another. You never get the same experience twice and I think that’s why I have people who come up to me saying it’s their 14th time they’ve seen me and so forth. We do it because it’s hilarious and moving and fun and the exchange of energy with the live audience is infectious.
NT: Finally, your duet with Rhett Miller on the stunning “Fireflies” from his The Believer album is genuinely one of my all-time favorite duets. If you could record a new duet with any singer, who would it be and which song would you want to do?
Yamagata: Oy! So many come to mind. If Paul Simon and I could just hit that epic bridge note change together from “Still Crazy After All These Years”: ‘Four in the morning/ Crapped out/ Yawning/ Longing my life away/ I’ll never worry/ Why should I?/ It’s all gonna fade’… I mean I’d pass out and we’d need a string section of course, but hey, a gal can dream.