Singer-songwriter Rachael Yamagata released her latest album “Tightrope Walker” (Frankenfish Records) on her birthday Friday. It’s her fourth full-length release, and, over the course of ten songs, Yamagata takes you on a journey that’s orchestral, stirring, stunning and moody. She’ll be playing songs from it and her three previous albums at Port City Music Hall on Thursday night, Sept. 29.
I’ve seen Yamagata live about six or seven times since she released her debut, “Happenstance,” in 2004, and, with each record she releases, I’ve sunk deeper into the abyss of her music. When people ask me who some of my favorite musicians are, Rachael Yamagata is always high on the list. The Woodstock, New York-based singer has a smoky, gorgeous voice that could sing tax returns out loud and keep you riveted. But what’s more is that she writes songs about love, heartache and relationships in a way that isn’t cliche or tired but rather enthralling and heart-rending with lay-it-on-the-line honesty — sometimes wearing kid gloves and other times skinning you alive.
Yamagata pleads (“Let Me Be Your Girl,” “Break Apart”) scolds, (“EZ Target”) and drops scathing truth bombs (“Black Sheep,” “Rainsong”). And she does this all with superbly crafted delicacy, fire-breathing fervor and the musically precise instrumentation, which, on “Tightrope Walker,” features Yamagata on piano and a first-class studio band.
Check out the video to the album’s first single “Over”
The album was produced by Yamagata, John Alagia (John Mayer, Dave Matthews) and Pete Hanlon.
After falling madly in love with “Tightrope Walker” almost immediately, I did what had to be done; I got Yamagata on the phone and started our chat with a question about how she chose “Tightrope Walker” as both the name and running theme of the album. Her response didn’t disappoint.
“This is going to sound crazy, but I kind of had this mystical vision, which I’ve never had. I have no way to frame this that doesn’t sound off the rocker, but that’s what happened,” said Yamagata.
That vision was of something resembling a sweat lodge where several strangers converged.
“Everybody was retracing all of their emotional traumas in life, whether it was the day somebody died or something challenging, a heartbreak, whatever it was, and then, by doing that, could leave the experience refreshed and released from that pain.”
The other image that kept popping up was that of a tightrope walker. “I kind of connected the two because my theme of the tightrope walker is really about the strength and the flexibility and sort of the beauty and art of what that person is doing, and they’re able to do it with a combination of total focus, total calm and total freedom, and I love that idea and I kept tracing it.”
One of the album’s most sublime tracks is “Rainsong.”
“Ice on my wounds/a fatal disease/let’s play with them all/one final walk in the park … for your infamous heart.”
For some of the song, Yamagata’s vocals are layered atop words spoken in French. “When I was writing that song I started getting inspired by writing a very direct letter to a particular someone. So I did a free-form, stream-of-consciousness letter, and then I had my French friend translate it into French, and that is Paloma Gil reading it underneath the song,” said Yamagata.
It’s just a little wink without being too specific, she said. “It became an instrument and that was sort of a fun experiment that turned out well for the song.”
“EZ Target” is one that’s almost too personal for comfort for Yamagata.
“We all have this capacity to flay each other with words, and we have to be careful because it can really have an effect, and this was an example of when someone said something to me in such a way that took me very aback, and it was in a social situation where I could either have a response or not,” she said.
The song is about realizing that the role could be flipped to make the other person the target rather than herself but choosing to remain quiet instead. “We lose our grace if we fight with words in a way that destroys somebody. Not to say you shouldn’t have great arguments, but, in some way, this was my rebuttal, and it was my way of retaining my own integrity to not fight back even though I could.”
Yamagata said that “I’m Going Back” is a lullaby of sorts about losing a loved one, and the innocence we’re robbed of when that happens. It opens with a minute and a half of mellifluous strings, courtesy of a happy accident.
“That intro is all Oliver Kraus,” she said. “He’s one of the best string arrangers and cellists. We started the recording a minute and a half too early so there was all this blank space.”
When Yamagata sent the track to Kraus, he assumed the gap was meant to be filled, so he worked his magic. Yamataga said she was moved to tears by it.
One thing that wasn’t a happy accident was the fact that “Tightrope Walker” was released on Yamagata’s 39th birthday. “That was a very intentional choice,” she said.
It should also be an intentional choice to get tickets to this show because Yamagata’s an extraordinary musician and “Tightrope Walker” is high on the list of favorite albums of 2016. It – and she – really are that good.
Here’s another new video from Yamagata. Behold…”Nobody”
8 p.m. Thursday. Port City Music Hall, 504 Congress St., Portland, $15 in advance, $18 day of show, $30 preferred seating, 18-plus. portcitymusichall.com