Rachael Yamagata: piano songstress goes full-throttle 

Rachael Yamagata had her share of accidents and physical ailments in the year that preceded last fall's release of her long-awaited new CD, (A Record In Two Parts): Elephants ... Teeth Sinking Into Heart.

She took a fall off of a ladder and cut open her chin and broke a wrist.

"I literally plummeted down 15 feet, and there was a wood floor at the bottom of it, so I just dented the floor, tore up my chin and got eight stitches and broke my wrist," Yamagata said in a recent phone interview.

On vacation in the Dominican Republic, Yamagata and a friend went diving, determined to touch the floor of the ocean, and she blew out an eardrum.

"It was just one of those I-will-do-this [challenges]," Yamagata said. "On the seventh try, as I finally got down far enough and grabbed some sand, I heard something pop, and I got real dizzy. It was like, 'Oh God, I've just done something really bad.'"

The injuries don't have much to do with the music Yamagata made on Elephants. But they seem to say something about Yamagata's nature and how she approaches making her music, as well as living her life.

"I guess when I do things, I do them full throttle," Yamagata said.

That full throttle ethic can be heard on Elephants.

When Yamagata started writing for the album, she really dove into the process, secluding herself in a loft in the woods of Woodstock in upstate New York. There she spent nine months writing and demoing some 160 songs - a number that even she knows was more than necessary for the project at hand.

But she simply couldn't help but immerse herself in the writing and demoing of the songs.

"I really just love production," she said. "I got so into it, like they're fully fleshed out demos."

Yamagata also didn't hold back when it came to creating whatever types of songs she found inspiring. In the end, this approach helped Yamagata make a CD on which she pushes much more to the extremes in her musical range than on her full-length debut album, Happenstance.

That 2004 album followed a 2002 self-titled EP for Yamagata, who spent about five years in a Chicago-based funk/R&B band called Bumpus before going solo. On Happenstance, she focused mainly on a mix of emotionally expressive piano-based ballads and mid-tempo songs that moved easily between pop, jazz and soul.

Happenstance received strong reviews for its compelling and darkly hued melodies and incisive lyrics about relationships.

That introspective side of Yamagata's music continues to be well represented on Elephants, whose release was delayed for about 18 months by label problems at Yamagata's former label, RCA, and the time it took to finalize her new contract with Warner Bros. Records.

As the title says, the record is divided into two parts: nine songs allotted to Elephants and five to Teeth Sinking Into Heart. The Elephant section is pretty much in character with Happenstance, although the music is more muted and intimate in its presentation.

The Teeth Sinking Into Heart portion of the CD, though, may surprise those who know Happenstance. While that album had several full-band songs that had rocked along pleasantly, Yamagata's sound is far edgier and harder rocking than ever on Teeth Sinking Into Heart.

"I knew that if I were going to do kind of up-tempo, guitar-driven rock, the things I'm drawn to are not slick and sheeny and beautiful versions of a rock song," Yamagata said. "I wanted them to be gritty and gutsy, and the lyrics were, they had this kind of sassiness to them. So I really wanted to make sure the match was right with the production sounds and not shy away from something that borders ugly at times because some of the emotions behind it are really raw.

"And the lush ones, kind of the dark ballad ones, [there was] kind of much more poetic and introspective point of view for those songs," she said.

Yamagata said she has been able to easily navigate between the varying styles of songs in her catalog in a live setting. She noted she has always had several guitar-driven rockers in her set.

"I've always really appreciated a broad dynamic for the live show," she said. "I've never wanted to do just a monotone beautiful ballads set. So even when we were starting out, we really made a conscious effort to change up songs or really just extend songs to an extreme to allow us to have kind of something more up-tempo and very lively. Now I just feel like I have a more complete body of work from which to do that thing."

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