STORY WRITTEN BY JOE SZCZECHOWSKI
For 21st Century Media
“It’s slightly crazy to do two sets on one tour,” the 37-year-old Arlington Virginia native said in a telephone interview last week. “The ‘Happenstance’ show is a straight-up, full, in-order experience of that record. The Union Transfer show is going to be a different set entirely. We will do a couple of songs from ‘Happenstance,’ but the show will feature a much wider selection of songs from the back catalogue, as well as a lot of new songs.”
Yamagata started her professional career as a vocalist for the Chicago-based soul-funk group Bumpus. She went solo in 2001, and was signed to Arista’s Private Music label a year later. Her self-titled EP was released in October 2002, drawing favorable comparisons to the music of artists like Fiona Apple and Norah Jones. The critically acclaimed “Happenstance” followed in June 2004. Yamagata’s second album, the two-disc set “Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart” was released by Warner Bros. in 2008. She moved to Megaforce Records for the 2011 album, “Chesapeake,” and released the EP “Heavyweight” independently in 2012.
Like “Heavyweight,” Yamagata’s forthcoming album (unofficially being referred to as “Tightrope Walker”) will be funded mostly by fans through PledgeMusic.com. Yamagata considers herself fortunate that she was able to start her solo career on a major label and was afforded the broad exposure that allowed her to build her fan base.
“I was extremely lucky to get the push that I did for the first record,” she says. “If I didn’t have that push, I think it would be really difficult. Coming out now as a new artist is so much harder. There are so many bands. Venues are being booked over half a year in advance, because everyone wants to tour. There’s no income stream from just selling music anymore. I always knew that touring and live shows were a big part of my reason for doing music in the first place, just because of the experience that you can have with people. It’s been my saving grace to be a touring artist in this day and age in the music industry.”
Fans who come to the Union Transfer show will get to hear several brand-new songs, even though the album is still a work in progress.
“The songs are still being tweaked and there will be stuff to add,” Yamagata says. “I think I have about 14 down. I did a lot of work over the summer trying to see where they’re at. Since we’ve been playing them live, some things have changed and grown. The plan is to finish recording when we get off tour in November and December, and then release the album in March.”
While the songs on “Happenstance” were mostly candid, first-person narratives centered on personal relationships, Yamagata says that the new material tends to focus on broader, more spiritual issues and themes.
“Lyrically, it’s more about the things that we go through individually within ourselves that block our peace of mind, or our balance, or our happiness,” she says. “There are a couple of metaphors that weave through the record that allude to that. There’s also the theme of the tightrope walker that kept coming up while I was writing these songs. It’s about that point in your life when you start questioning the dreams that didn’t come to pass… Sometimes you’ve just got to keep looking straight ahead, be courageous, and find the joy in the journey, as opposed to trying to control everything. It seems like it’s going to go in that direction, although I’m not sure. At this point I’ve got three songs entitled ‘Tightrope Walker,’ so I’m going to have to figure that out.”
The album is being recorded in Yamagata’s home studio as well as at Applehead Studios near her Woodstock, New York home. In terms of instrumentation and production, Yamagata says it’s her most unorthodox album to date.
“Production wise it’s risky,” she says. “There are definitely some interesting choices that I’ve been making. I’m becoming comfortable with experimentation. Now that the reins are off in terms of a record company needing to approve any of that experimentation, the world is my oyster. I’m using things like banjos and saxophones and mandolins and piano together, and drums that are in fact 20-foot ladders and metal ironing boards – things that are not typical compared to what I’ve done before. I’m self-producing and I’m going straight on instinct.”
In the past, Yamagata has collaborated with a variety of artists, including Jason Mraz, Rhett Miller, Ryan Adams, and Ray Lamontagne. Thus far, Yamagata has written all of the material for the new record herself, and hasn’t planned any guest appearances, but she doesn’t rule out collaborating before the album is finished.
“I definitely have ideas, but I’ll have to see where they fit,” she says. “I love doing duets with people and matching up with other artists to write. There are peers of mine that I would absolutely love to do something with. We were hanging out with Kenneth Pattengale from the Milk Carton Kids the other night. I think both Kenneth and Joey Ryan are phenomenal artists and musicians. Maybe if I have enough tequila I’ll ask them tonight about doing something on the record. I do a lot of work with Rhett Miller – I love him and he’s up in Woodstock. And Tracy Bonham’s up there, and she’s fantastic. There are definitely some ideas floating around. If the song lends itself to it, then I’ll certainly be making the call.”