Yamagata pursues success beyond “Happenstance

Christine Beaderstadt

Somewhere between the back roads of Oregon and a truck stop, Rachael Yamagata hops off her tour bus, stretches, and talks into the mobile phone her publicist hands her.
Yamagata has been on the public’s musical radar for the past two years. The world has gotten to know her heartfelt music from appearances in Teen People and Rolling Stone, and as a featured performer on Fox’s hit TV show “The OC.” Although many rising stars often feel the media’s pressures, Yamagata feels life without a permanent address is worth her accomplishments and musical goals. “I’m fascinated about [music] production and writing. I [eventually] want to start my own label that is not dependent on anything.”
Her songs on her first record, “Happenstance,” released in June 2004, are primarily focused on failed relationships and lost love. She says of this consistent theme, “I’m fascinated by human relationships. It all comes down to the core emotion of desire, what you can get out of a push-and-pull relationship. The pitfalls we create between ourselves are concepts that come out for me.” This statement and her introspective songs appear to be a window into her personal life, and some fans feel they know her solely through her music. “It’s beautiful that people can connect with my music,” she says of these awkward encounters, “but [I do] cock my head in that weird dumb way a dog does.”
Her recent television appearance on “The OC” raises questions about musicians using television as a gateway for heightening success. “At this point in my career,” says the 28-year-old singer, “it’s just about getting my music out there. I don’t shy away from recognition. I don’t want to be a transitory thing.”
What is it, then, about Yamagata’s music that draws listeners in? While her lyrics are melancholy and distraught, the songs as a whole are upbeat and catchy, especially her harmonious piano playing. Her smoldering, raspy voice differs from most female musicians and is one of Yamagata’s defining features., “I’m never satisfied. Every other day I hate myself, my songs,” she says self-deprecatingly. “Every time I jump up, I fall down harder.” This outlook, she feels, leaves room for improvement and great songwriting. “There’s pressure to follow what’s seen and proven successful,” she says in response to the difficulties she finds in her unique musical sound. “The only way to come out of it is to work with people whether they sell millions or nothing. [You have to have] integrity with it.”
However, in “Happenstance,” Yamagata can push herself farther past the borders of formulaic pop songs. This first album lacks the drive to break through these barriers and this timidity is clearly evident. Hopefully, on her second record this shyness will have dissipated and revealed the edge listeners are looking for. Nevertheless, Yamagata’s outlook on the music industry and the creative process decreases this faith in her follow-up album. Unfortunately, Yamagata fails to recognize that commercial success does not necessarily equal musical success. “Everything is dependent on commercial success and radio play,” she says. “It’s something commercial mixed with something artistic.” Taking this into consideration, her upcoming album will determine whether or not Yamagata will choose to jump over the media’s hurdles only to confine music into the pop framework.