A few rounds of heartbreak … a broken wrist … eight stitches … a blown-out eardrum … and label realignment.
It wasn’t easy getting here for Rachael Yamagata. Three years after she began to appear on the public’s radar with her self-titled debut EP and full-length album Happenstance, Rachael released Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart, a single record in two parts, on October 7th, 2008.
“I didn’t set out to make a two part album,” Yamagata says. “We just followed the songs’ lyrical lead and built them up with textures and sounds that served the story. The beautiful ones were darker and worked with lush arrangements. We used the sounds of rain, tree branches falling on the roof — whatever kept the mood true to this haunted studio in the first stormy days of spring. The second part became more anthemic, like a reclaiming of personal power. There’s something raw about it. To me it sounds weathered, but not broken or cynical.”
The nine tracks on Elephants are darker and more vulnerable than the five gritty, defiant rock songs on Teeth Sinking Into Heart. Taken together, the two halves present a complete timeline of the emotions that revolve around complicated relationships and the accompanying fallout. “Elephants is much more intimate,” Yamagata says. “It’s about being willing to take a risk even if it’s not going to end up well. Teeth is like rediscovering your backbone after you’ve gone through the loss.”
Yamagata sometimes worries that her need to analyze heartache in her songwriting is too often mistaken as depressed obsession. After all, her songs are famously populated by breakups. “I see it more as a fascination with human relationships and behavior,” she says, “the struggles we create and the strength we gain.” Her lyrics display an ability to draw new wisdom and confidence from every devastating experience in the hope that the next time will be different. Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart, reveal a woman not only undaunted by such losses, but smart enough to know she deserves a lot more than she’s been asking for.
“My mother said recently that Happenstance is the beauty of your ’20s, this one is the richness of your ’30s – of someone who’s been through the mill and is trying to make the choice between optimism and defeatism,” she says.
Of the two CD’s 15 tracks, 12 were produced by the Nebraska-based multi-instrumentalist and producer Mike Mogis, known for his work with Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley. Two tracks, “What If I Leave” and “Horizon,” were produced by John Alagia (John Mayer, Dave Matthews Band), who also produced Happenstance. The bulk were written during the two-year touring cycle that followed Happenstance and, especially, the nine months afterward that Yamagata spent holed up in her Woodstock refuge — a period that saw her turn out some 160 songs. “I wasn’t being very social, so I didn’t have many distractions,” she says, laughing about her ridiculously prodigious output.
Twenty-five tracks were eventually recorded for Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart, most of which Yamagata demoed herself in Woodstock on various instruments. It was clear to her that the title song “Elephants,” as well as “Sunday Afternoon,” “Horizon,” “Don’t,” and “Duet” (with Ray Lamontagne) would make the final cut.
“Elephants” opens the first part; she ran down a mountain in Woodstock and, by the time she ran back up, the song was written. “I don’t really know where it came from,” she says. “When I went back and reviewed the lyrics, they said so much more than I could have wished for. “Elephants” also sets up the record, its lyrics pinpointing the potential for heartache when entering a relationship, and metaphorically relates us to the base natures of animals and their reactions. “Horizon,” by contrast, closes out the first part. “Somewhere along the way, the love died, your world has turned upside down, and you’re left searching for balance again,” she explains.
“Sunday Afternoon” is about accepting your part in the demise of a relationship and allowing yourself to be depressed and maybe even obsess a little, “but don’t stop your life because of it,” Yamagata adds. The song was written at the tail-end of recording her first record and she’s happy to have given it time to grow by playing it live on tour. Another highlight, “What If I Leave,” is one of the first songs Rachael ever wrote, more than ten years ago. “Everybody has that purgatory where you know in your gut it’s not right, but you haven’t mustered the courage to leave yet,” she says of it.
By the end of Elephants, Yamagata’s ability to find hope in anguish is feeling taxed, maybe verging on cynicism. Teeth Sinking Into Heart’s up-tempo grittiness is the answer to that. “Sidedish Friend” takes on the perils of being someone’s part-time lover, while “Pause The Tragic Ending,” is about “a vampire who knew me so well, it almost drew blood from me,” Yamagata says. “I could probably name every album Pause The Tragic Ending.” The second part closes with “Don’t” — a calling-out and warning, but tongue-in-cheek at the same time. Again, an epilogue to lost love, but this time from someone who knows what she wants, who acknowledges her responsibility in all that’s happened, and who will go on.