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Streaming finds new fans, but what pays the bills? Rachael Yamagata found a way

“My ultimate goal with any kind of streaming service is to gain a fan who’s going to go for the full experience of the art as I intended it.”

Some singer/songwriters wear their hearts on their sleeves. Some of them also make sure they’re dripping with blood. Case in point: the ultra-emotive singer/pianist Rachael Yamagata, who first broke onto the scene with 2004’s catchy but heartbreaking Happenstance, featuring the deep, dark lament of Worn Me Down. Yamagata has since released music at her own pace, both solo and as a key contributor to albums by the likes of Jason Mraz, Bright Eyes, Ray Lamontagne, and Ryan Adams.

Yamagata ultimately broke free of the major label system and began releasing albums on her own via PledgeMusic and her own label starting in 2011. With her new album Tightrope Walker (available now from Frankenfish/Thirty Tigers in various formats), Yamagata has taken even more control of her recorded legacy.

“I really loved experimenting as a producer on this record,” Yamagata told Digital Trends. “This is the most free I’ve been, and we made sure we took our time with it. We recorded it in my house. I had my friends from Woodstock playing on this record, and there was a lot of time to follow these strange trails of ideas.”

Said strange trails ultimately led to some mighty tasty aural treats, from the soul stirring of Let Me Be Your Girl to the smoky guitar groove of Break Apart to the endgame levity of Nobody, a song that also shows Yamagata wholly understands how to give the listener permission to breathe at the end of such a heavy track. “Definitely. Totally! That’s the perfect way to describe it,” Yamagata agreed.

The choice is always to capture the emotion, so that’s what we did.

Yamagata called Digital Trends before heading out on the road to discuss the recording process for Tightrope Walker, how streaming opens up a number of doors, and why going the PledgeMusic route positively serves both fan and artist.

Digital Trends: To me, it sounds like everybody was in the room and playing together while you recorded the songs for Tightrope Walker. Is that right? Were most of these tracks cut live?

Rachael Yamagata: Most were cut live, yes. We did it in my house in Woodstock [in upstate New York]. We literally were in the living room. We do have a separate room with doors, but it’s not an official tracking room. It’s sort of a side room, and then we stick amps in the bathroom, or in the closet.

On the first song, Tightrope Walker, we had one microphone set up for just the bass player [Owen Biddle] and myself. We were tracking vocals and bass first, crowded around the same mic.

We chose the takes that felt the best. You look back and you think, “Oh, I wish I had some isolation,” but the choice is always for the emotion, so that’s what we did.

Emotionality of performance is a hallmark of many of your songs. Speaking of Tightrope Walker, when you’re singing the word “again” in the phrase “do it again,” the way you decided to enunciate the syllables — was that a very deliberate choice on your part, in how you wanted those inflections to go?

You know, it is, and it isn’t. When I’m singing, I just try to feel as much as possible. My best performances come when I’m playing guitar and singing at the same time. I’m a terrible guitar player (laughs), and when I’m concentrating so much on getting the guitar part right, my subconscious opens up, and I wind up giving a better performance vocally. That might account for some of it, but I don’t sing too deliberately.

The vibe we get on Let Me Be Your Girl makes it sound like it’s a classic ’70s soul track.

I love hearing that! That was a really fun one to do. Everybody was singing backup, and we definitely had the feeling immediately that it was “classic something.” It started as a very different thing. It’s an unusual song for me. I had originally written a song called Be Somebody’s Love, a piano ballad, and on one of the days I was testing out studios to see if we wanted to track somewhere other than my house, I was with some friends, and we just experimented. I said, “Let’s jam on this song.”

And then my longtime friend, mentor, sometimes producer, and amazing guitarist, Kevin Salem, started noodling with the first two chords of that song, and I said, “Just loop that!” He was playing it in such a different way that I said, “Keep that going, keep that looping!” That was the beginning of Let Me Be Your Girl. I later took the track we were jamming on and added these other lyrics that had a completely different feel. That’s when I got the song’s direction renewed and revamped.

It was an interesting way that it came about. It was definitely like an almost joyous song, which isn’t very typical for me. So I was really happy to find that somewhere within me, and make it feel authentic.

It breaks my heart whenever I hear my music coming out of a compute speaker.

The guitar tone on that song is just fantastic. I remember talking to Kevin about his kickass [1994] solo album Soma City back in the day, so I hope when people listen to this album they’ll go, “Who is this guy?” and go look him up. 

He is like the goldmine that you come upon and go, “I can’t believe you exist!” He just has such a unique way of playing, and his energy is incredible. He’s been a huge part of my career from the get-go.

At the end of Nobody, when we hear all the laughing, was that a spontaneous, end-of-track kind of moment?

Totally spontaneous! Now that people are seeing the video, some of them feel it’s kind of creepy! (both laugh) I love those kind of things. I wanted to keep it in because it’s such a gritty and intense song. It’s a nice reminder that all of these things are emotions captured for the theme of the song, but they don’t invade my life. We can take some things a little more lightheartedly. (chuckles) Yeah, I like that laugh.

Is that a full string section on the intro to I’m Going Back?

Yeah, that’s Oli Kraus, who’s my go-to for everything. He is the one behind the string arrangements on most of my records, actually. He’s really a cellist, but he plays the violin like a cellist — he puts it in between his legs, and that’s how he plays his violin tracks.

There was one track where I did the piano and vocal first, and then we sent the track to him because he was in L.A., and he laid on this beautiful arrangement. It was a happy accident when we exported the file of my piano and the vocal, because we mistakenly left a minute and a half of blank space at the front end of it. Oli created that string arrangement to fill that empty space because he thought it was the start of the song, when we had just made a mistake and sent him too long of a file! (laughs) And then it turned out to be this beautiful moment that made me cry the first time I heard it.

And then on Rainsong, am I hearing somebody speaking French all throughout that track?

Yeah. It started as a letter I was writing to somebody in particular, sort of stream of consciousness writing my thoughts about a person and a situation. And because it’s so personal, I wanted to keep it broad, even though it has references here and there particular folk would know to pick up on.

But the one little secret to myself is the French spoken word, which is actually the translation of the letter I wrote that inspired the song. I took this band The Dove & The Wolf out on tour a few years ago, and the two of them, Paloma Gil and Loiuse Hayat-Carnard, translated this letter, and took turns reading it underneath the song. I thought it made a really interesting texture.

We’ve also got mandolin and piano on it, and that beginning rain sound is rain I got from my iPhone! (laughs) I recorded it from outside my window, and we just looped it. It starts out with some drum loops, and then [drummer] Matt Chamberlin comes in halfway through the song. So, a lot of experimenting there.

This is the kind of album I’d love to hear in a surround-sound mix where I’d really be in the middle of that living room of yours in Woodstock, with you here, and Kevin over there, and Matt way over there.

Streaming is one of the most powerful tools I have to get out there.

I love your take on it, because that’s a whole new world I’m eager to learn more about. It breaks my heart whenever I hear my music coming out of a computer speaker — it’s like, “Oh man!” It’s just heartbreaking.

We had a few different mixers on the record, but to me, some of the most mind-blowing sonics were definitely influences by Shawn Everett, who mixed a good portion of it. He was running things through a lot of analog equipment. He just has a special thing he does, and he brought another dimension to the songs. He just 3D’ed them for me in a very different way. Every record, I learn a new facet that plays such a huge part in the sound, and my mind got blown on the mixing side by some of the stuff that he did.

This all leads into my next question. There’s going to be a good portion of your audience that will stream this record. How do you feel about that as an artist if people listen to such a well-crafted mix through a streaming format?

My hope is that, ultimately, on a philosophical level, people want to support art and have a physical copy of it. Like, I can’t do Kindle. I love hardcover books. That’s what I gravitate toward, and especially if it’s a piece of a body of work, I’d rather have an experience that includes all of those layers: the artwork, the credits, the colors that were chosen to represent the music — all of those things.

My ultimate goal with any kind of streaming service, digital downloads, or whatever it is, is to gain a fan who’s going to go for the full experience of the art as I intended it.

In general, streaming — it’s epic. As an artist who needs the exposure on services like that, it’s one of the most powerful tools I have in order to get out there, especially if I’m not touring in the city that the listener is in. It’s a powerful tool to get exposed to those people. Those services are really helpful for me, because you get “suggested,” and people can find music they wouldn’t normally find in any other way.

But it’s the endless argument, because the reality is, the artist needs some kind of way to sustain all of their projects, which involves money somehow paying for art.

You’ve fully embraced going the PledgeMusic route to help get funded by fans. You must feel that’s been a successful avenue for you.

It is! And it’s a massive undertaking. It’s wonderful, and it’s a very unique and empowering way that can allow somebody to set up that mutually beneficial scenario where you can help get the materials you need to make the record in the first place from your fanbase that would have bought it anyway because they want to support you.

But then, it also takes work. My Pledge fans have been amazing and so patient and loving towards me. I mean, I started my Pledge campaign two years ago, in August 2014. I haven’t checked, but I might have been one of the longest-running ones (laughs).

I think fans understand that. They’d rather you get it right than get it rushed.

I’m hoping that’s the general consensus. At the end of the day, the people who support these kinds of campaigns want the artist to win, and do whatever it takes. You communicate with them, and they’re really understanding. Yeah, that’s been a really positive thing for me.