Rachel Yamagata Gets Happy / Milwaukee Shepherd-Express, March 19, 2009

Photo by Hillary Walsh

On the phone Rachael Yamagata is chatty, almost dangerously so. She repeatedly gets so overexcited by whatever she’s giggling about that she walks straight into people on the street. This time, she is plowing into an unsuspecting man on the sidewalks of Germany while talking about her love of the Style Network show “Cleaning House.”

“I have these weird tendencies toward designing furniture and rearranging furniture, and cleaning. If you give me a vacuum, I’d clean your whole house,” she says. “And I’d do it for 10 hours. And I’d do it for free.”

Yamagata is as upbeat as being hip allows. You’d never guess how many soul-crushingly devastating ballads she has written. The answer is somewhere north of 160. At least, that’s how many songs she wrote in preparation for her sophomore release, the double-album Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart. The project took nine months and self-inflicted seclusion. In the two years after her debut, Yamagata broke with her label, floundered in love and suffered the loss of her stepmother. She retreated to the wooded mountains outside of Woodstock, N.Y., to channel her woes into what was ultimately a whole lot of songs.

“We picked a place where there are no streetlamps at night, so you go to bed at 7:30 because you feel like it’s 11:30 at night,” she says. “I’d wake up at four in the morning and start writing.”

It was a unique departure for Yamagata. Her first album was written between shifts as a waitress in Chicago, a far cry from living on the other side of the window from deer, foxes and at least one bear. Nature saturates the new album. Birds chirp as guest vocalists on one track, and the songs abound with animal imagery. Yamagata says that, if she quarantines herself for her next record, she is strongly considering Paris. This would, perhaps, lead to the rare despair-tinged songs with croissant imagery.

The two discs of Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart split the songs by emotion. Elephants is sad, filled with the piano-accompanied heartache that made Yamagata’s music a staple of melodramas like “Grey’s Anatomy.” Teeth Sinking Into Heart is angry, built around Yamagata’s first forays into defiant guitar rock. The two-part album perfectly captures two stages of grief.

On paper—or on a lyric sheet—all this anguish seems mighty depressing. Yamagata estimates that half of the people who meet her expect someone much more miserable. She is anything but—a perfect argument for the cathartic power of music. In the 18 months since she purged those two years from her life, the only song she has written was Christmas-themed.

“They expect to find someone very sullen and dark and shy, living their depression 24 hours a day, and are surprised when they find me lighthearted or cracking a joke or surprisingly, normally social,” she says. “I think there are artists who live their music and their expression all of the time. It’s part of me, but I don’t think it’s all of me.

“I don’t sit there with a bottle of Jack and a carton of cigarettes writing about how much I hate life,” she continues. “I’m really optimistic. And I love to clean.”

(Milwaukee Shepherd-Express)