Somewhere on a highway between Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah, Rachael Yamagata is in a Chevy Tahoe traversing from one tour stop to another. For the veteran singer-songwriter, it’s par for the course in what’s been a nearly 20-year career in the industry. “Nine more hours to go,” she says, full from having stopped to chow down on some breakfast burritos.
Despite finding herself in the midst of the Rocky Mountains, Yamagata also has a Sept. 23 stop at Solana Beach’s Belly Up on her mind. The gig, which falls on the first day of autumn, is the latest chapter in a long history with the community. “I always love the way San Diego feels,” she says. “The air and the ocean. It always lifts me up. I actually filmed a lot of my video for ‘Worn Me Down’ along the coast (in the area) at sunset, so I often think of that (when I visit).”
“Worn Me Down” was a track from Yamagata’s self-titled debut 2003 EP which began a prolific career that has hinged on her lush voice, keen songwriting abilities and tender themes. Along the way, she’s released four albums and six EPs, the latest of which was last year’s Porch Songs. “EPs are a nice chance to pay some attention to stand-alone songs that you want your audience to have, but perhaps don’t fit the concept of an entire record,” says Yamagata of Porch Songs, which she bills as a series of “reflections of a younger self, full of longing and heartache.” Says Yamagata, “Some of these songs had a relaxed organic nature to them while others were fully orchestrated, but together created its own vibe.”
Yamagata, who can often be heard by a series of placements on a wide array of TV shows and movies, has also found herself collaborating with a variety of fellow singer-songwriters in a myriad of ways, such as San Diegan Jason Mraz, heartfelt crooners like Ray LaMontagne or even the Muppets. (She covered the classic “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” originally sung by Gonzo, for their aptly titled Green Album of Muppet covers).
The foundation of her career, however, has been built on a bedrock of crafting music and lyrics all her own, much of it personal. “I love the journey of a melody and the chord progression choices that can add emotional layers as a song develops,” she says of her creative process. “I tend to follow this with my lyrics and twist the dagger further in as the song goes on, so writing of music and words go together for me pretty naturally.” For Yamagata, sometimes inspiration strikes during not the most opportune of times. “I did have a song, ‘Elephants,’ where the lyrics and melody came to me as I was running down a mountain. Because I didn’t have any way to write it down, I had to keep repeating it and memorizing it until I could run home,” she remembers. “That song in particular took months to figure out the right chords to go behind it even though I had the melody.”
As for what keeps her continually interested in her work, Yamagata points to a raw passion for writing. “I’m continually fascinated by people and conflict and internal struggle and hope and resilience. I have so much to learn about music and technique and articulation that I think the search will never get old for me.”
It stands to reason that once Yamagata takes the stage in San Diego and subsequently wraps up her tour, she’s eager to put pen to paper again. “I have a tour in Asia after these U.S. dates and then it’s back to writing for the next record,” she says from that Chevy Tahoe. “I’ve been on the road for about six years straight and it’s definitely time for some new songs.”
Doors open for Yamagata’s Monday, Sept. 23 performance at 7 p.m. and her concert starts at 8 p.m. For more information and tickets, visit bellyup.com.