Yamagata releases second album despite label's refusal to back it

New CD displays two distinct musical styles

Posted: Thursday, October 09, 2008

You've probably heard the music of singer/songwriter Rachael Yamagata even if you're not aware of it.

Her elegant, lilting pop songs have been used in a host of TV shows including "ER," "The O.C.," "Nip/Tuck," "Brothers & Sisters," "Men in Trees" and "How I Met Your Mother." Likewise movies such as "In Her Shoes" and "Definitely, Maybe."

Yamagata's debut album, "2004's Happenstance," drew comparsions to Norah Jones and Fiona Apple. The follow-up, "Elephants ... Teeth Sinking Into Heart," which comes out Oct. 7, is a dramatic double departure for the Philadelphia resident.

Accurately subtitled "A Record in Two Parts," it begins with nine emotional, notably intimate tracks. The last five songs shift startlingly into raucous electrified rock.

"The first half is very vulnerable, very open. It's dark with lots of lush arrangements," Yamagata says. "The second side is different on a lot of levels. The lyrics are very biting and the sound textures are raw. It's more PJ Harvey-esque or Tom Waits-esque."

The real challenge for the singer, who turned 31 Sept. 23, lies in fashioning a live set that encompasses this disparate material while reprising familiar favorites like "Be Be Your Love" and "Worn Me Down."

"I want to show a mix, but I think people will totally get it," she says. "Everyone has that mixture of energy in them."

According to Yamagata, "Elephants ... Teeth Sinking Into Heart" has an overall unifying theme: It traces a complicated romance from its first stirrings to its angry aftermath.

The topic, if not the musical style, sounds familiar. Over two albums, the songwriter has established herself as the poet of breakups.

Yet in person, the heartbreak kid is surprisingly buoyant. "I'm pretty happy-go-lucky," she says, smiling.

The singer moved to Philadelphia 15 months ago, after two creatively prolific years in Woodstock, N.Y. During her time in bucolic Ulster County, she wrote 160 songs, 14 of which made it onto the new album.

"Elephants ..." was actually completed two years ago, produced by Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes.

Yamagata's label, RCA, wasn't happy with the finished product. "They said, 'We want you to go back in the studio. We don't think you have a mass-appeal single.'"

She tried to comply, but her resistance to reshaping the album in a more commercial direction gained the upper hand.

"I listened to the record and thought, 'I'm standing behind it 100 percent. It's dark but it's beautiful.'"

RCA dropped her. "I was broke," she says of the period that followed. "I had to get creative about life in general and keep my chin up about this record.

"I took a tour with Mandy Moore for a month. I became my own manager, tour manager and business manager. The whole thing took forever."

Anyone who knows Yamagata would expect artistic integrity to win out over sales considerations.

It's been a tumultuous few years. But with the tour starting and the record about to drop, Yamagata is confident it was all worth it.

"I'm very energized," she says. "Things are coming together in a way that feels right. I feel like I'm on the cusp of something."

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