Music From 'The Mistress Of Heartache'

Dec 8, 2011
Originally published on December 8, 2011 2:31 pm

Rachael Yamagata's sultry, gentle voice has been featured in soundtracks of films and television series for years. That includes How I Met Your Mother, Brothers and Sisters and Grey's Anatomy on television, and In Her Shoes and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants on the cinema screen.

As a lyricist, Yamagata seems to have her fingers on the pulse of each heartache. Yamagata does not focus on separation or the challenges of a love affair, but on the process.

"Sometimes I describe it as a doctor fascinated with finding a cure for a disease. In some ways they are always focused on the disease, but the ultimate goal is to find a cure," she says.

The 34-year-old singer and songwriter says her fans embrace the sadness of many of her songs.

"Somebody had a really funny way of saying it. She said, 'Your songs make me want to throw up my own heart.' ... and I was like, 'What an interesting way of saying it,' but it was a compliment," she says.

Yamagata admits she is much happier in her daily life than her lyrics might suggest, and that she uses her songs as a form of therapy.

"With these songs, I get to play them, I get to release it. When I write them down, this is my personal therapy or exorcism of sorts."

New Album, New Label

Yamagata's latest album, Chesapeake, represents a new beginning for her.

She has a new label, one she created herself. Yamagata named it "Frankenfish" after a rare species of fish that can swim in water and walk on land.

"It suits the underdog feel of it," she says about the label name. "You just don't know where they are going to strike."

Asked why she split from major record labels, Yamagata says she got frustrated. She says that it took too long to get into the recording studio, and the process made her second guess her artistic instincts. Yamagata says the industry is changing, and major labels are not responding well.

"The industry is in trouble in terms of how are they going to sustain the cost of things and make money of the music they are dealing with," she says.

Yamagata's two previous studio albums, Happenstance and Elephants...Teeth Sinking Into Heart, were released by RCA Victor and Warner Bros.

Now, Yamagata is touring the country promoting her new album. She says she wants to continue to stretch herself as an artist, and that means reaching beyond writing songs for the broken-hearted.

She says, "Definitely as a songwriter, I'm growing and learning all the time."

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, we visit with an artist whose name you might not know, but whose songs you have most certainly heard, especially if you watch television. Her songs have been part of the soundtrack for some of television's most talked about shows. She's performed on "30 Rock." Her music has been featured in programs like "How I Met Your Mother," "Nip Tuck" and "Grey's Anatomy," and it might be because she is the total package.

She has a deep, sultry voice and her songwriting craftsmanship has her fingers on the pulse of every heartache.


RACHAEL YAMAGATA: (Singing) But you won't let me. You won't let me. I don't want to say goodbye. I just want to give it one more try and I'd do anything. Yes, I'd do anything if you'd only let me.

MARTIN: That is "You Won't Let Me" from her latest album, "Chesapeake." Now, Rachael Yamagata is touring the country to promote the new album and she was nice enough to take a short break to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C.

Welcome. I should say, welcome back. Thank you for joining us again.

YAMAGATA: Thank you so much for having us.

MARTIN: Do you mind introducing us to the folks you brought with you?

YAMAGATA: Sure. We have Dan Carlo and we have Erin Ficka, who's going to be joining us on some shaker. Dan is on some guitar. And then we have Brian Ewald, also on guitar, and Mr. Mike Viola, also on guitar, and he'll do some piano, as well.

MARTIN: Okay. Great. Well, thank you all for coming.



MARTIN: And I mentioned - welcome back - because you actually visited with us in 2008.


MARTIN: And a lot has changed since then. This new album, you put out on your own, without the backing of a major label. Talk a little bit about that decision. It can't be easy.

YAMAGATA: I spent quite a number of years on major labels and had a very interesting experience. We worked with a lot of creative people who I think really got me as an artist and I think part of my difficulties arose when the industry really started going through all of these changes, so I did have struggles in terms of the timeframe of my releases and things like that.

And to sort of get out of that world has meant, for me, I can structure my own recordings and tours on a much faster level than I was able to do within that system. So it's a lot of work. It's a lot of new hats to wear, but I'm having an amazing time doing it.

MARTIN: Okay. Translate that for me. I thought you were going to say that there was pressure to kind of get the product out there, get the product out there, even if you weren't artistically ready. What I'm hearing you say is actually the opposite, that it was...

YAMAGATA: There was a lot. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...too pokey.

YAMAGATA: It's really interesting. I think people are very fearful right now within the companies in terms of - they need sellable music. They need massive hits. The industry, I think, is in trouble in terms of how are they going to sustain the cost of things and make music off of money they're dealing with.

And the way that it would affect somebody like me is I think a lot of people step in and start - I was compared to, like, a painter. They start guiding your brush strokes and it starts morphing the outcome of this vision that only you, as the painter, can have. And as soon as those things started happening, it really got frustrating because you start to second guess your own artistic instincts.

So I'm very happy in the place that I am now, doing it myself.

MARTIN: Well, something's working because, as we mentioned, you're very busy.

YAMAGATA: Thank you. Yeah.

MARTIN: Thank you for coming in.


YAMAGATA: Of course.

MARTIN: But I understand that you call your new label Frankenfish.


MARTIN: The kind the fish that can swim and walk on land.

YAMAGATA: Yes, yes, yes. This is the crazy joke of our entire recording process. We did a record in eastern Maryland at our friend producer's house, John Alagia, and he lives right on the bay and he would tell these stories about this fish and how they would find it washed up on golf courses and it's a really ugly fish and crazy teeth. And I was actually - really wanted to name the record "Frankenfish." That was my original idea and the guys stopped me and they were like, no, no, no. These songs are very classic and have a beauty to them and you'll regret it for your whole life.

So I was like, okay. Throw out another name and someone yelled out, Chesapeake, and I was like, that's got a beautiful name to it. And so Frankenfish turned out to be the record label name, which I think suits the underdog feel of - you just don't know where they're going to strike kind of thing, so...

MARTIN: Actually, Frankenfish eat the other fish. That's why we don't like them. I'm not trying to say anything.


YAMAGATA: Do they, really? Oh, boy. Well, how can we make that work?

MARTIN: I'm just letting you know. So let's hear one of those songs from the new album.


MARTIN: What are you going to play?

YAMAGATA: We'll start off with "Even If I Don't." We're going to do kind of a different version than on the record but one of the first songs that made the record.

MARTIN: Oh, that's a treat. So "Even If I Don't."


MARTIN: It's from Rachael Yamagata's new album "Chesapeake."


YAMAGATA: (Singing) I miss you most in the morning. Most every morning. I wake up thinking. I could call. I could come visit. I could come running. We could relive it. But when I think of all that we've been through, going back to you seems such a foolish thing to do. I hope you know that even if I don't I wanted to. Who knows why two people perfectly aligned should ever have to find themselves apart, and I'll never understand my heart. I miss you most in the morning. Most every morning I wake up crying. Ah, ah, oh-oh. Ah, ah, oh-oh.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata. We're talking about her new album "Chesapeake," and whatever else is on her mind.

I have a question from one of our listeners. Actually, we let people know you were coming in. Big fan of yours for some time, but she wants to know why you sing more about separation than about finding love.


MARTIN: And is it really that hard to find the right guy?

YAMAGATA: Oh boy, these are big questions.


YAMAGATA: You know, I think I focus on, you know, the separation or those challenges within love just because it's a specific representation of that feeling. And sometimes I describe it like a maybe a doctor that's fascinated with finding a cure for a disease. In some ways they're always focused on the disease, but the ultimate goal is to find a cure. So I think I get very obsessed with what is and isn't working with the hopefulness that there's a better way for it to end up. So I feel actually very optimistic and hopeful and constantly studying relationships.

And I don't think it's that hard to find the right person. That would be - that's what I believe. As long as you trust your instincts and each relationship is teaching you something different and I don't have regrets of any relationship I've ever been in, so...

MARTIN: You know, that's a very interesting thought. You know, you're right, if a doctor were an oncologist nobody would accuse him or her of being sad all the time because he spent a lot of time thinking about cancer.

YAMAGATA: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: They can say why don't you lighten up?


MARTIN: But do you think of it as - but I'm just cracking up, though. I'm looking at some of the headlines and some of the reviews around the album. It's been very positive. I hope you're pleased.

YAMAGATA: Thank you.

MARTIN: Well, maybe you don't read them. But one of the headlines says a sad girl gets sort of happy.


MARTIN: And then there's another one that says that the Philadelphia-based singer admits that now at age 34 she mellowed out the mistress of heartache bit.


YAMAGATA: That's funny. Oh my goodness. Well...

MARTIN: Do you think you're a mistress of heartache?

YAMAGATA: I - god, I don't know. You know, somebody had a really funny way of saying it the other day. She said your songs make me want to throw out my heart. And I was like what an interesting way of saying it. But it was a compliment. She was saying it sort of like you really get to the, I don't know, the guts of something. But I don't feel that way as a person. I think it's very easy for me to write about those things because I'm passionate about it. But I feel much happier in my daily life than I think people would assume, partially because I think I get out all of this stuff that churns inside of me in terms of emotional content. And with these songs I get to play them. I get to release. So I write it down and that's my own personal therapy or exorcism of sorts of these things that may have kept me in that world if I hadn't had a way to get them out, so...

MARTIN: Okay. Great. So let's hear something else. I think you want to play...

YAMAGATA: We'll do "Dealbreaker."

MARTIN: "Dealbreaker." Okay. Here it is.


YAMAGATA: (Singing) I found that record you'd been looking for yesterday. The one I've been searching for forever. I played that record all night, you were right, the last song said it all. Even though it skipped a bit, it sounded better. I never, I never, I never knew the only way to listen to a record like that is to play it through. But all of this means nothing. All of this means nothing. All of this means nothing without you. You and I were partners in crime. Petty thieves in a line up. But somehow we wound up here.

MARTIN: Thank you. You may or may not want to talk about this, but there's a – you are of Japanese-American heritage.


MARTIN: And, you know, there was this terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan earlier...

YAMAGATA: Of course.

MARTIN: ...this year. And a lot of your work focuses on the interior world. I was just wondering if an event like that which is so far beyond any of us as individuals, does that find its way into the work at some point.

YAMAGATA: You know, yes it does. I actually - I wrote a song called "Keep Going" a couple months before actually, I think, but it was along the lines of me wondering if I could step outside of sort of, as you said, my internal world and make a bit of a commentary towards what the rest of the world is going through. And my biggest parameter for those kinds of songs for me was that it had to sound authentic. I didn't want it to sound preachy or not genuine. So, but, with all the things that are happening with sort of the world and the state of affairs, whether it's a natural disaster or something that we're creating for ourselves, I did come up with one song called "Keep Going," which is really more of an encouragement to anyone who has gone through tragedies of whatever magnitude and how we're all here to sort of help and guide each other and cure each through things at different times.


YAMAGATA: (Singing) Carry me, start over. It's your time to run again. Carry you...

And that's the only way we're going to make it and survive. So I'm exploring that further because it was a successful song for me as a songwriter and as an expression. It's kind of just that longing to provide something to people.

MARTIN: Well, that kind of is my last question is what's next? What's next? You've done this. You've kind of stepped out off the, you know, off the pier.


MARTIN: Jumped out there on your own.

YAMAGATA: Yeah. I think definitely touring and continual writing. Definitely as a songwriter I'm growing, I'm learning all the time and that example, I would love to kind of continue and stretch myself to into new territories and perhaps provide comfort for not just the brokenhearted in love relationships, but in a broader spectrum. So lots of writing and touring ahead.

MARTIN: Okay. Great. I think you've got something that you want to play for us as we go out. I think you've got one more thing?

YAMAGATA: Yeah. We got one more thing. We'll do "Starlight."


MARTIN: Okay. Rachael Yamagata's new album is called "Chesapeake." It's available now. It's on her new label Frankenfish, and she was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios to share a couple songs with us. Rachael Yamagata, thank you for joining us.

YAMAGATA: Thank you so much for having us.


YAMAGATA: (Singing) Couldn't see a thing tonight. Not one star. Not one star has shined for you. Couldn't see a thing tonight, not one star. Not one star has shined for you. Couldn't see a thing tonight, not one star. Not one star shines for you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And to tell us more, please go to and find us under the Programs tab. You could find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.