Ask Rachael Yamagata about her musical trajectory, and she’ll tell you it was written in the stars. Though she took lessons (on piano and flute) as a youngster, the singer/songwriter is primarily self-taught.
“I stopped the lessons after a year but kept playing for fun and would make up little stories on the fly,” she explained in a recent email interview.
Take a look at Yamagata’s lineage, though, and it’s clear that the young songwriter had plenty of musical guidance. Her grandfather could play multiple instruments by ear; her stepfather was part of the ’60s rock group Spiral Starecase; her uncle plays with the New York Philharmonic; and her step-uncle is a professional sound engineer.
“Most of my family is even from Woodstock,” she writes, “so I guess in some ways it was all meant to be.”
Since making her debut in 2004, Yamagata has gathered her fair share of accolades, too. She’s played and recorded with Jason Mraz, Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst, and Ray LaMontagne, and her songs have been featured in numerous films (Dear John, Elizabethtown) and TV shows (ER, Grey’s Anatomy, The O.C., 30 Rock). She’s been signed to a major label, and, as of 2011, successfully toured and released records as an independent artist. Last November, Yamagata unleashed Heavyweight, her fifth EP and second self-release.
“I had these darker ballads that didn’t quite fit on my last full-length,” she explained, “but I don’t like to wait too long after writing something or I get bored.”
She describes the EP’s vibe as distinctly more intense than her other albums and says the songs are “devoted to stages of letting go and, ultimately, wishing for a more universal kindness among us all.”
Musically speaking, Yamagata’s songs are decidedly lyrical affairs. Pianos play prominently into the mix, but it’s Yamagata’s lush, lilting vocals that repeatedly steal the show. She attributes her songwriting approach to her love of musical theater and finds herself drawn to romantic production techniques and “setting a scene” with her lyrics. As such, her songs err on the side of heartbreak and healing, often punctuated by her mix of sultry and trembling deliveries.
Fittingly, when asked to describe her music, Yamagata retorts with a phrase that’s as succinct as it is telling. “[It’s] beautiful ache articulation,” she writes. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
Rachael Yamagata plays SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Sunday, June 23, at 8 p.m. with Sanders Bohlke. Call (805) 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets and info.