MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Rachael Yamagata may not be a household name just yet, but her unique sound is getting noticed. She's opened for big names like David Gray and Liz Phair, and she's getting some critical acclaim. After spending her early 20s in a Chicago funk band, she went solo back in 2004. Since then, she's changed labels, and she's releasing a new double CD. Part one is called "Elephants," the second, "Teeth Sinking Into Heart." She's here with us now in NPR Studio 4A along with the band, and how about we start off with "Elephants"? SOUNDBITE OF SONG "ELEPHANTS"
Ms. RACHEL YAMAGATA: (Singing) If the elephants have past lives Yet are destined to always remember, It's not wonder how they scream. Like you and I, they must have some temper.
And I am dreaming of them on the plains, Dirtying up their beds, Watching for some sign of rain To cool their hot heads.
And how dare that you send me that card When I'm doing all that I can do. You are forcing me to remember When all I want is to just forget you.
And if the tiger shall protect her young, Then tell me how did you slip by, My instincts have failed me for once Must have somehow slept the whole night.
And I am dreaming of them with their kill, Tearing it all apart. Blood dripping from their lips. And teeth sinking into heart.
And how dare that you say you will call, When you know I need some peace of mind. If you had to take sides with the animals, Won't you do it with one who is kind?
If the hawks in the trees need the dead, If you're living you don't stand a chance. For a time, though you share the same bed, There are only two ends to this dance.
You can flee with your wounds just in time, Or lie there as he feeds, Watching yourself ripped to shreds And laughing as you bleed.
So for those of you falling in love, Keep it kind, keep it good, keep it right. Throw yourself in the midst of danger, But keep one eye open at night.
MARTIN: That's Rachael Yamagata from her new double CD, "Elephants," and she was playing "Elephants." Rachael, welcome. Thank you for coming.
Ms. YAMAGATA: Thank you so much for having us. Thank you.
MARTIN: Love to meet the rest of the band.
Ms. YAMAGATA: Yes. We have Jason Kanakis playing guitar.
Mr. JASON KANAKIS (Guitarist, Rachael Yamagata Backup Band): Hello.
Ms. YAMAGATA: And singing background. And Mr. Johnny Flower's on the upright basS.
Mr. JONNY FLOWER (Bassist, Rachael Yamagata Backup Band): Hello.
MARTIN: Hello. Hello. I read that the title track for "Elephants" was written in your head on a run. It must have been some run.
Ms. YAMAGATA: It was quite a run.
SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER
Ms. YAMAGATA: Like the universe was saying, well, she doesn't do it often. We might as well give her something extra today, but it did. It was on, you know, nice beautiful spring day in Woodstock, New York. I was running down this mountain and going through some very traumatic personal issues, so not in the best of moods and quite sad.
And that was mixed in with one of those moments where you're just inspired and in awe of nature. And it really just lifted me up, and the emotions mixed, and this lyric just started coming with all these images of animals and just layers of words that I had to repeat over and over and over until I got back up, and I could actually write them down and sing it into a tape recorder. So it was a gift of a song for me. I couldn't have imagined the lyrics on my best day.
MARTIN: There's kind of a duality there. I mean, the sweetness of the melody, and the lyrics are very, very vivid.
Ms. YAMAGATA: Yeah, I like the idea of taking almost innocent imagery, like that of zoo animals really, and morphing it into the darker side of kind of the pain we all go through on an instinctual level. And it's such a nice comparison in terms of what we can do to one another as, you know, in our human relationships and how, on some level, an unconscious level, we will instinctively react just as strongly as an animal might do once they're wounded, and somehow that, you know, it doesn't sound very beautiful when you explain it more, but when it comes across in the lyric, it has a weightiness here that I really thought was nice.
MARTIN: But a lot of this album, though, seems to address issues of break up and heartache. One review I read said your songs make you wonder, what the heck did this guy do?
Ms. YAMAGATA: Yeah.
SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER
MARTIN: So, you OK?
Ms. YAMAGATA: I'm OK. Thank you. I think I'm very sensitive, of course. And I've been in some particularly strange and overwhelming circumstances, like you almost wouldn't believe some of them. Last night, I sat down and said so - sometimes, I think my songs are even the lighter version of what actually happens.
Ms. YAMAGATA: Yeah, I just - you know. But unless some part of me must call it to me for whatever purpose. I mean, I don't regret any relationship I have ever been in, no matter how hard, I just - you know, you have to let it enrich you rather than floor you.
MARTIN: On the other hand, you've got a lyric in one song, "Faster," which, I have to admit, is one of my favorites, where you say, I don't want to give you another black eye. And I didn't know whether you meant that metaphorically.
Ms. YAMAGATA: Oh, yeah. No. I'm not, you know, I used to box, but after the - but I'd never intentionally give people black eyes.
MARTIN: You know why I'm asking, though, because if we were, if it was a man singing about a woman..
Ms. YAMAGATA: Right, right.
MARTIN: We would not think that was cool.
Ms. YAMAGATA: No, absolutely.
MARTIN: And so, I think it's only fair to say, as a woman singing about another person...
Ms. YAMAGATA: Sure.
MARTIN: Are we supposed to think that's cool?
Ms. YAMAGATA: It's - It's more like writing songs where. you know, a woman can be in just as sassy and defiant of places of a man can be, and so some of these...
MARTIN: As big of a jerk?
Ms. YAMAGATA: Well, you know, we can.
MARTIN: No offense.
Ms. YAMAGATA: Anybody, you know what I mean. Oh, don't even get me started. You know what I mean. No, but. you know. we're both - I've been on every side of relationship. And I have been on the, you know, the sides where I haven't been proud either. And you learn just as many valuable lessons through getting through that. And I like, you know, I like representing the whole spectrum of what can go down without casting judgments necessarily. So that leaves you open to explore that territory without feeling like somebody is condemning you for it.
MARTIN: And you talk about that, too. You talk about the role you played...
Ms. YAMAGATA: Hmm.
MARTIN: In things that went awry as well what the other guy did. It's what I brought to it.
Ms. YAMAGATA: Absolutely.
MARTIN: You talked about that. Is this cathartic to write songs, to put it out there, whatever it is?
Ms. YAMAGATA: Sure. The writing part is my - what I really need from my own soul. Like that is what makes me able to overcome heartaches or traumatic situations. I write much more openly than I ever do in conversation with a friend. It does make sense to me, mixing in a melody or a turn of your voice and that emotion and lyric. And like that just says it so much better than I ever do in conversation. So for me, it is very cathartic.
MARTIN: So let's have a little more catharsis. Why don't you play something else for us?
Ms. YAMAGATA: Yes.
MARTIN: What would you like to play and tell us about it?
Ms. YAMAGATA: I'm going to switch over to guitar, actually, and we're going to play a song called "Sunday Afternoon."
SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SUNDAY AFTERNOON"
Ms. RACHAEL YAMAGATA: (Singing) It's a choice to stay. A dream, I want to wake. You have blood on your hands and I'm feeling faint. And honey, you can't decide. I'm a drug you don't wanna give up. Smoke your cigarette and make your love. You poured blood in my heart and I can't get enough. I'm drowning, drowning and you can't decide. It's not about geography, or happenstance You need to fly, and take a chance. You don't need to shine to emptiness. And float on high, and forever dance alone. I have blood on my feet as I walk away. Rivers are red. It's starting to rain. I'm not gonna live for you or die for you, Do anything anymore for you, Because you leave me here on the other side. You leave me here on the other side. I won't be there for you, die for you, or do anything anymore for you, Because you leave me on the other side. You leave me here on the other side. I won't live for you, or die for you, Do anything anymore for you because you leave me on the other side. You leave me here on the other side. I won't live for you, or die for you, Or do anything anymore for you because you leave me on the other side. You leave me here on the other side. I won't live for you, or die for you, Or do anything anymore for you.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're listening to the music of Rachael Yamagata, her new double CD is titled "Elephants" and "Teeth Sinking Into Heart." What gave you the idea for the double CD? Just had a lot to say?
Ms. YAMAGATA: Hmm. You know, it wasn't planned. I kind of went in with the collection of songs and went through the normal process of choosing my favorites, and when we were halfway through the recording, almost kind of when the premixes are coming together and you're hearing a fuller formation of each song, it actually became evident there were these dark, lush, beautiful ballads that we had really taken to an extreme with, you know, making the listener feel like they're in the room and keeping it very intimate. And, you know, you can hear rainstorms in the background and branches hitting the roof and things like that. And I had written some more up tempo songs, and through my live performance I've really developed this fondness for kind of a pulp fiction surf guitar driven experience.
MARTIN: I was thinking about that because I was thinking about dualities, and thinking about your own background because I understand that you're half Japanese, you're a forgive me prep school girl who is trying to make it in the Indie rock scene, which is very Braille.
Ms. YAMAGATA: It is.
MARTIN: And so I was wondering if those - be part of it that there really isn't - maybe you don't live in a blended way, you got to sometimes you have to do you're - at least give each thing, as you said, its own space to breath?
Ms. YAMAGATA: Yeah. I like the - I like the idea of just I 'm so - such a believer of us all being so much more the same than we ever are different. I mean we are very unique, but I feel like emotionally and kind of what really resonates with us we're all just, you know, we've got such great potential to connect on this great level if we just didn't have so many walls. And I guess from my background I've always, you know, I'm a twin so that's kind of another double half in a way. I grew up with four parents, my parents divorced when I was young so I did have the Japanese background. My mom is actually German-Italian, and my stepfather is Jewish, and my step mom was kind of Southern Belle. So always felt like I could almost relate to anybody. You see these facets of people and potential stereotypes, and yet they're so close that you love them for them. And so there is something about - I was like the mix it up. I mean we're all just so interesting. I know I'm a little off base, you know...
MARTIN: No, but some music it intentionally like fuse, it's like I'm going to take a little from this element...
Ms. YAMAGATA: Right.
MARTIN: A little from that element.
Ms. YAMAGATA: Right.
MARTIN: In a way you're saying you can be both but you don't have to be both at the same time.
Ms. YAMAGATA: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I think so. I mean thematically I stay in the same waters, but I think that a listener and all of us, you know, it's just like emotions we have several during the day and they are equally as powerful and equally as unique to ourselves. And, you know, musically, I don't shy away from trying new things or loving the ballads as much as the rock songs.
MARTIN: Loved to hear one more thing. What do you want - what are you going to leave us with?
Ms. YAMAGATA: Let's leave you with a little gritty rock diddy.
Ms. YAMAGATA: We have rhymes.
SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER
MARTIN: What's that going to be?
Ms. YAMAGATA: This will be "Faster."
MARTIN: Alright, "Faster" by Rachel Yamagata. Her new double CD is titled "Elephants" and "Teeth Sinking Into Hearts." It's in stores now. She and her band joined us in our Washington D.C. studios. Thank you all so much for joining us.
Ms. YAMAGATA: Thank you.
MARTIN: And "Faster." Rachel Yamagata is touring for her album now. To see a video of her performing her song 'Faster' right here at our NPR studios, check at our website at the Tell Me More page of npr.org. And that's our program for today, I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
SOUNDBITE OF SONG "FASTER"
Ms. RACHEL YAMAGATA: (Singing) You think I'm lost inside my mind. You're like an old tattoo.