Southern Views: Rachael Yamagata

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Singer, songwriter and musician Rachael Yamagata is no stranger to the lows of heartbreak or the mountaintop highs of success. She’s collaborated with Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne and Jason Mraz, toured with Liz Phair and experienced her share of loss. Her new six-song EP, Heavyweight, releases on Nov. 20, and her current live tour dips into the Southern states in mid-December. Here, she shares her thoughts on making music, life, family and her love for an ironic name.

How did you arrive at the album title?
Rocky. Philly. Relationship. How’s that for a nutshell answer? I lived in Philadelphia for three years and used to run the Ben Franklin Bridge to the Rocky soundtrack (I’m obsessed). I was in a relationship that really had this dynamic of boxers – two people who just kept dancing around a ring with each other and striking out at one another. I loved this idea of a “heavyweight” champion as someone who got through life on their bravado, but really inside they were a complicated mess of feeling. It was more of a universal idea as well of how we all carry this heavy “weight” around when we are suffering and blocked from expressing ourselves because of pain and fear. All of that led to the song itself and seemed a great word to capture the essence of the EP. I also got a kick out of naming something with only six songs such a substantial thing.

How has playing your own piano parts shaped your sound?
There is something very physical about creating music. You can do much with your voice as a singer/performer, but to be able to express emotion through an instrument takes things to another level, I think. I’m not the greatest technical player on piano or guitar, etc., but it helps me frame the bigger picture of what I’m writing.

How do you describe your style and your sound? 
There is something classic, nostalgic and cinematic about what I’m drawn to. I love the storytellers of the 70s and the romance of strings. At times I plug into a harsher sound if I’m writing something gritty or painful, and the soundscape reflects that. I tend to go back and forth between lush production and a bare-bones presentation.

Who are your biggest musical influences?
I feel like a mixture of the 70s’ storytellers – Stevie Nicks, Carole King, Roberta Flack, Elton John, Ricki Lee Jones, Cat Stevens, etc. – that all meet up with Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Nina Simone and maybe Tim Burton on occasion.

Have there been any major life events that have influenced the songs in this collection? 
There have been breakups, breakthroughs, passing aways, but it feels like a general sinking and swimming flow of songs. Some are more intense than others and “Keep Going” is much more broad than I’ve ever written – somber, but reflective.

How does this release represent an evolution for you as an artist? 
I think it’s a continuation of being comfortable in my own skin as a writer. I’m owning my tragedy a bit more without suffering from it, if that makes sense.

How have your roots influenced your music?
My stepmother from North Carolina had this Southern belle charm and warmth and sassiness that was a big influence on my upbringing. She married my Japanese father and they both had a different reserve to them with respect to expressing pain – what was talked about and what wasn’t etc. My mother is German Italian and very boisterous, and my stepfather is Jewish and grew up in the rougher parts of New Jersey. All of these influences, combined in these wonderful hearts, made me feel very well-rounded with respect to connecting to many types of personalities.

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