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Rising Stars [Issue #9]
Rachael Yamagata: A Paper Doll With A Soul To Burn
By Ken Micallef
Happenstance (CD RCA)

Twenty-six-year-old 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.

“I don’t 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 bittersweet.”

Happenstance is a slow burner; songs like the jazzy “Letter Read,” the plaintive “I’ll 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 Yamagata’s 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 don’t 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 Chicago’s 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 ideas.

“I worked with Bumpus for years but I had written about 200 songs that didn’t fit. I didn’t have any faith in my songs. Some people laughed at them so I went into a shell for five years and didn’t show anyone anything. Then I had an emotional breakdown; I knew something was missing. I wasn’t 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 don’t 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 other day.”


A Paper Doll With A Soul To Burn Rachael Yamagata Happenstance

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