Interview: Rachael Yamagata discusses recording Chesapeake on Maryland’s Eastern Shore
Sleeping in tents in between tracking sessions at a makeshift studio on Maryland’s Eastern Shore might not sound like the best situation for recording an album. But, for Rachael Yamagata, it was absolutely ideal. After years of being under record label control, the singer decided to take things into her own hands. She recruited a dream team of musicians, set up shop in her producer’s home, and independently funded her new record, Chesapeake. In 2004, Happenstance—Yamagata’s first full-length album—allowed her sultry ballads to nestle their way into the hearts of listeners. She gained further commercial success with her 2008 sophomore effort, Elephants… Teeth Sinking Into Heart. But, despite releasing two winning records on major labels, Yamagata grew tired of the limited artistic control and music industry obstacles. So she undertook an independent project that would allow her to assume authority over her work. By the end of her recent DIY rollercoaster, the fundraising and camping were merely entertaining perks. Prior to Rachael Yamagata’s performance Monday night at World Café Live, The Key spoke with Yamagata about her recording experience, releasing Chesapeake on her own label, and the influence of relationships in her songwriting.
The Key: You recorded Chesapeake in your producer’s house on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Why did you choose this location?
Rachael Yamagata: Well, it’s such an amazing spot to get away from the normal everyday life. We were all together in the house; we really just submerged ourselves in making music and didn’t have a situation where we were driving to a studio and ending a work day, then going home and having distractions of any sort. So that was a big motivation to do it at the producer’s house. It’s also right on the Chesapeake Bay, so it’s a beautiful, inspiring area to go. It just lent itself well to the kind of DIY nature of this entire record. We literally did sleep outside and have air mattresses and that kind of thing, which is much easier in a house than anywhere official, I guess.
TK: Recording Chesapeake involved converting a house to a studio, shipping gear, and pitching tents. In what ways did this setup feel limiting and in what ways did it feel more freeing?
RY: [Laughs.] Um, there was a lot more laundry involved. But I loved it. I thought it immediately set the tone for everybody coming in. It was sort of like a shelter; there was nothing to fight over. I mean it was still a beautiful place, but it was like camping. Everyone would be in our kitchen; we enjoyed cooking meals for each other and making music. So I felt it was freeing. We didn’t have to worry about the studio costing $5,000 a day, or whatever it is. So it took a little bit of that pressure off and it just made for a fun adventure. I think it’ll loosen everybody up, actually.
TK: What caused you to release Chesapeake on your own label, Frankenfish?
RY: The why came about because my history with labels has just been, on the one hand, incredibly great because of the people I’ve gotten to work with. And then, on the other hand, incredibly frustrating because of the industry itself, and needing to get through the different levels of regime in terms of approval to get the record out. That just really never worked for me. So that was certainly part of why I was doing it on my own.
TK: Why the name Frankenfish?
RY: The Frankenfish Records title came along because I was actually going to name the record that and it was this inside joke between all the musicians. There’s this fish that exists in the Chesapeake—was it real, was it not real? It was this thing that could swim and also sort of walk on land. They’d find these fish washed up or dead on golf courses and places where you wouldn’t find fish normally. I just thought that was such an interesting idea, this like ugly fish that could come out of nowhere and you weren’t sure what it was capable of. So when I switched the record title from Frankenfish to Chesapeake I thought it would be a suitable record label name. That’s where that came from.
TK: Was releasing the album on a larger label ever an option?
RY: Um…I mean, not with Warner Bros. That was the record label that I was on. We kind of split amicably, in a way; everybody I worked with is now gone from the company. It was sort of like, “I’ll release it with you if [the label executives] really believed in it, if they wanted it. But don’t do us any favors.” That kind of a thing. That kind of pressure. So after that went away I didn’t even entertain the idea of joining with another label to release this record. I had had my fill with things that are somewhat uncontrollable, no matter how great the people are that you’re working with. It’s just how the industry is changing and the pressures the labels are under. I don’t think I would ever go back.
TK: So you found the whole DIY experience just more rewarding?
RY: It is. It’s a lot more work but it’s also a lot more gratifying because I can see much faster results. I really feel like I’ve earned everything each step of the way, whether designing it or editing it, being a part of the team, making it, raising the funds. It’s a very empowering situation for me. Which is nice.
TK: The most common evaluation of Chesapeake is that it is more upbeat than your previous records. Did anything personally or otherwise cause this change?
RY: I think it has a lot to do with…getting back to really enjoying making music with people. We didn’t have any requirements other than we all felt inspired as we were recording. There is a certain lightheartedness, upbeatness to some tracks and those were certainly really, really fun to record. I’ve got an EP in the works right now, which will satisfy a little bit of the darker ballads that we didn’t have so much on this record. But I think just being able to make music again felt so fun, this was a different writing style for myself that was a little more directly positive. Where I don’t think I could pull that off before, it always sounded forced to me if I wrote happier songs. So I plugged into something a little different this time, I think.
TK: You have said that you’re “addicted to the dynamic of relationships.” Why is it that you find relationships so fascinating?
RY: Um, I think that we’re all connected, I really believe in that. I feel like all of the challenges of life, everything that we’ve got going between any relationships, can all come down to…a more concentrated version of emotions and fears and love and all of the stuff in an intimate relationship. But I always think that those different things are present in all relationships, no matter who it is—if it’s a stranger on the street or the mailman or your brother or the person you’re in love with or your boss. There are universal themes. So I’m fascinated in that because I’m fascinated in that sociology, and what we’re reaching for.
TK: Do you ever write about working relationships with other musicians and band members?
RY: Oh yeah, totally. Absolutely. I write a bunch of different songs that people always think are about romantic relationships and often times they’re not about romantic relationships at all. [Laughs.] But I think it’s funny. I don’t want to ruin things for people, but there are certain things—like, for example, a song that’s called “Reason Why” from my first record, it’s a classic ballad that people talk about and love but it’s not about a romantic relationship at all. But that’s the way that it reads, so I think it’s interesting. It’s always open to everybody’s own interpretation.
TK: What were the benefits to releasing a fan-funded album? I heard that there was a dowry involved at some point?
RY: Oh, I know. [Laughs.] That’s such a funny word. That was part of my contribution to raising funds, whatever I had I poured in. Whatever I could get from my family, which my dad always said he was saving for my wedding, he helped. Then Pledge Music was great because it lets you keep your music, you own your masters, which is fabulous because I feel like you should own your masters as an artist. You created it, so why can’t you own it? It’s a great way to keep those rights and also involve your fans in every step. You can show them, “Here’s the studio, here’s what we worked on today and here’s a clip of what it looked like.” It really gives fans a behind-the-scenes look into what you’re doing, which I think is really interesting for them and fun to show on the other end of it. So that, as well as all of the incentives that you offer. I think all of it is mutually beneficial, you’re engaging your fans on another level. They’re basically fronting you a healthy portion of the funds to be able to do this record.
TK: Was there a downside to financing the album that way?
RY: I wouldn’t say there’s a downside; I would just say it’s definitely a lot of work. They have fabulous people who work for the Pledge team that help you in a million ways in terms of structuring your campaign. But it is a lot of work to also do your project as well as do all these other things. It’s definitely a handful, but I’m certainly happy that I did it this way, absolutely.
Rachael Yamagata performs with Mike Viola at 8 p.m. at World Cafe Live; tickets to the show are $20–$40. —Caitlyn Grabenstein