Rising Stars [Issue
A Paper Doll With A Soul To Burn By
Rachael Yamagata is a torch singer with a twist. Her debut album, Happenstance,
recalls a strange brew of Fiona Apple and Blue era Joni Mitchell awash
in the black-hearted noir of some 50s crime jazz thriller. For this actor
turned songstress, passionate attraction and the doomed romance that must follow
draws her like a moth to a flame.
write when I m happy, Yamagata explains while perched in front of
an abandoned storefront near Venice Beach. I am too busy enjoying being
happy to write. It is when I see the sadness between people and how they treat
each other that I am inspired. There are these bittersweet situations. So my
songs are not always dark because everything is sad, but because things are
Happenstance is a slow burner; songs like the jazzy Letter Read,
the plaintive Ill Find A Way, and closer Quiet
creating a mysterious persona of a gorgeous, perhaps psychologically damaged
vamp leaving a trail of brokenhearted lovers in her wake. This is a far cry
from Yamagatas bubbly conversation and girl-next-door beauty. She may
write songs like a sorrow filled tragic queen, but Yamagata has the personality
of a vivacious cheerleader.
People get thrown in the live show, Yamagata says. If I am
funny they dont get it. They figure I walk around with my hair in my face
and reading Sylvia Plath. But I am not an unhappy person. I feed off the greatest
highs and the greatest lows and write about them.
Happenstance shows a singer songwriter in full flower, the product of
a bohemian upbringing and an extended membership in one of Chicagos better
known local bands. Yamagata was for years the singer for Bumpus, an eclectic
jam band destined for local fame and national obscurity, but Yamagata had other
I worked with Bumpus for years but I had written about 200 songs that
didnt fit. I didnt have any faith in my songs. Some people laughed
at them so I went into a shell for five years and didnt show anyone anything.
Then I had an emotional breakdown; I knew something was missing. I wasnt
expressing myself. That night I knew I had to play my songs out, even if was
for an open mic night. The next day, I ran into [songwriter] Michael McDermott
and he handed me a card of a scout for Maverick Records.
Slowly, Yamagata attracted attention, her 2003 self-titled EP landing her svelte
frame in national publications which focused on her sparkling looks and her
equally impressive brains. Recognition continues to flow her way, as renowned
songwriters like Kevin Salem line up to collaborate with the fresh faced musician.
Still, Yamagata finds the darkness more enchanting than the light.
There is hopefulness in some of my songs; but mostly what is happening
happens to be sad. There is a truthful recognition of the fact that you can
be in love with somebody and someone else comes along and knocks you off your
feet and you dont know what to do with those emotions. There is that angst
where you know you might hurt someone but part of you wants to go the other
way, to the other person. These are things that punch me in the stomach every