Rachel Yamagata has broken the chains of big-label bureaucracy
Friday, November 18, 2011
If you go
What: Rachael Yamagata in concert
When: 9 p.m. Nov. 23
Where: Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E. Burnside St., Portland
Cost: $13-$15 through Ticketfly, ticketfly.com
People who want to see Rachael Yamagata perform with a full band will get a rare chance this Wednesday.
She’ll have a guitarist, drummer and bassist, and her opening artist, multi-instrumentalist Mike Viola will pitch in on guitar, keyboards and other instruments.That’s no small accomplishment considering Yamagata is now self-releasing her albums and self-financing her career. Like many other artists who have gone the do-it-yourself route, that means she may not be able to tour with a band again for a long time.
“It’s definitely sort of like a math puzzle trying to figure it out,” Yamagata said of the financial part of her career. “Definitely for this first run, I hadn’t been out for a while, so I wanted to try and do it up as full as possible, and then maybe follow up with maybe a duo situation or maybe it’s me solo.”
Yamagata didn’t intend to become a do-it-yourself artist at this point in her career. She started work on the new CD while signed to Warner Brothers Records, but ended with a frustrating case of major label déjà vu.
She came to Warner Brothers after being on RCA Records, which signed her after her first release as a solo artist, a 2002 release simply called “EP.” Before that, Yamagata spent about five years in a Chicago-based funk/R&B band called Bumpus.
At first, being on a major label worked fine for Yamagata. Her first full-length CD, 2004’s “Happenstance,” was greeted with critical acclaim and respectable sales, and it produced a modest hit with the song “Worn Me Down.”
But things went sideways with the next CD, “(A Record In Two Parts) Elephants … Teeth Sinking Into Heart.” Originally RCA indicated it would release the CD in spring 2007. But then Yamagata’s artist and repertoire representative at RCA left the label, meaning a new team had to be assembled to handle the release and promotion of the CD.
Then, just as things appeared to be getting organized, the label changed presidents and restructured. Yamagata got caught in the upheaval and was one of many artists dropped from the RCA roster.
It took until 2008 for Yamagata to zero in on a new label deal — with Warner Bros. Records — which released “(A Record In Two Parts) Elephants … Teeth Sinking Into Heart” that fall.
Yamagata expected to remain on Warner Bros. In fact, she had started work on “Chesapeake” in early 2010, submitting five initial demos before label issues threw the project into limbo.
As with RCA, she saw her Warner Bros. A&R representative leave the label and a replacement come on board. With things not progressing, she asked for and was given a release from her Warner Brothers contract.
Yamagata didn’t spend any time wallowing in her misfortune. She immediately went independent and start her own label, Frankenfish Records. And she quickly got the ball rolling on “Chesapeake,” and got a lot done — including the CD — in short time.
She started a campaign through PledgeMusic to raise money to fund the recording, and contacted John Alagia, who produced “Happenstance.” She also recruited her “dream band,” as she put it.
“Within four months, we did a pledge campaign,” Yamagata said. “I signed with a distribution company, MRI. We’re working through RED (http://redmusiconline.com), which they did a great job on getting me press. I called my agent and said, ‘Book me everywhere you can that will take me.’ … And we turned it (the CD) out. It was amazing to sort of have all of that done in such a short amount of time compared to, on labels it takes six months just to get a decision made sometimes.”
The CD that emerged in “Chesapeake” falls closer to the mix of emotionally expressive piano-based ballads and mid-tempo songs of “Happenstance” than “Elephants … Teeth Sinking Into Heart,” a CD that felt polarized between dark, stark ballads and fuller, more rocking material.
“Chesapeake” has a brighter mood than the first two CDs, and the songs range from quiet ballads to a couple of sprightly rockers. There are still some downbeat moments (such as the lovely pleading ballad “You Won’t Let Me”), but the more cheerful songs (a prime example is the sweet ballad “Saturday Morning”) are a new twist that Yamagata said grew out of figuring out how to write lyrics that didn’t feel shallow, forced or less than authentic.
That emotional balance, Yamagata said, helps “Chesapeake” to more closely reflect her personality, which has never been as dark as her earlier music might have suggested.
“I think yeah, it probably captures my personality a lot more, absolutely,” she said. “I’ve always been an optimistic, kind of hopeful person, even with a sense of humor … but I’ve never really captured it so much on record until now.”