Rachael Yamagata is about to look into her future. She’s perched on an unmade bed in her messy Venice Beach, Calif., apartment, shuffling a well-worn deck of tarot cards. ”I’m on a tarot binge,” she confesses, shoving aside an open suitcase full of dirty clothes to make room for today’s reading. ”You’re not supposed to do this more than once a month, but I’ve done it four times this week.” She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and taps the deck. ”Ohh-kay,” she sighs deeply. ”What does the future hold…”
Actually, we’re willing to make a few predictions without consulting magic cards. For starters, we see critics falling in love with this 26-year-old singer-songwriter’s debut album, ”Happenstance.” What’s more, we predict that they’ll laud Yamagata’s husky voice and emotionally raw lyrics, her scratchy-piped single ”Worn Me Down” will be blessed with oodles of prerelease buzz, and she will endure countless references to fellow angsty pianist Fiona Apple. Indeed, so powerful are these visions, they have already come true — especially that bit about Apple.
”One part of me is really flattered by the comparison,” says Yamagata. ”But then there’s this other part of me that feels weirdly jealous. It’s like being with someone new and they keep comparing you to their ex-girlfriend. You know, that beautiful ex-girlfriend who was, like, a genius and amazing in bed. At a certain point I think, I can’t measure up to that. Can we stop talking about her? Maybe we can just keep talking about me?”
Since she asked: Yamagata’s story begins in Maryland, where she was raised, and moves to Chicago, where she went to Northwestern University and spent five years playing tambourine and singing backup for a local funk band called Bumpus (she started out as a groupie but quickly moved up the ranks). Between Bumpus gigs, she sketched out hundreds of her own tunes onto a tape recorder. ”I wanted to sing the stuff I wrote,” she says. ”I just wanted to stand up at some open mike and be horrible.”
Didn’t quite turn out that way. In fact, Yamagata’s open-mike performances attracted so much attention, she decided to mail off a demo of her darkest, grittiest piano-driven ballads to record executives in Hollywood. Within months she was jetting to L.A. to play a showcase at the Viper Room. By spring of 2003, she had signed with RCA and was touring with Damien Rice, Liz Phair, and Ed Harcourt. She even found herself opening for electro-folkie David Gray at Madison Square Garden, singing in front of thousands of people — two of whom turned out to be her mom and dad (divorced since Yamagata was 2), who had never been to see their daughter perform. ”I was like, `I’m playing Madison Square Garden…can you make it?”’ she recalls.
Oh, they could make it — although they may have suffered a few uncomfortable moments listening to their daughter’s intensely intimate musical confessionals. ”Ninety-nine percent of what inspires me is romantic trauma,” she explains. ”I’ve actually been in the middle of breaking up with someone, and while I’m crying — completely destroyed — I’ve thought, This is going to make a great song. I write when I’m sad and sometimes I worry, what if I get happy? For all I know, in five years I’ll be writing about my cats.”
For now, though, Yamagata is alone in her tiny Venice pad, polishing her solo act and preparing for her first headlining tour (a three-week cross-country whirlwind that begins June 11 in Louisville, Ky.). What happens after that, of course, is anybody’s guess. A platinum CD? A spot on ”SNL”? A happy relationship? Perhaps there’s a hint of things to come in one of those tarot cards Yamagata has just flipped over. ”Right on!” she almost shrieks, pointing at what looks like a picture of a big yellow blob. ”It’s the star card!”