Born In Arlington, Virginia, in 1977, Rachael Yamagata plays beautiful piano-driven pop music full of emotion and style. To call her a modern-day Carole King may not be that far off the mark. Her songs have appeared in dozens of TV shows ranging from “How I Met Your Mother” to “The L Word,” “Nip/Tuck,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and many, many more.
On “Tightrope Walker,” her first album since 2011, Miss Yamagata creates a soundscape of beauty, sadness and hope. In advance of her appearance at the historic Howard Theater in DC on Saturday, Miss Yamagata, from her home in upstate New York, discussed the emotions that inspire, the strangest place she has ever heard her music and what it’s like to play an “almost” hometown gig.
Question: How old were you when you started playing piano?
Answer: I think I was 12. I had lessons for a year, but then I quit the lessons. Still, I fell I love with it. I don’t know what drew me to it. But I stuck with it because it’s such a romantic instrument.
I used to find places in high school and college, empty rooms or spaces with pianos. Instead of going to a party, I’d play alone for hours. It became my buddy. [laughs]
Q: Your songs have been in so many TV shows and films. Have you been watching TV and suddenly heard one?
A: Oh sure. It happens. You forget you have songs in things, then you’ll be watching something and it comes on. The best one was this independent film called “Bella.” I loved the storyline so much. It was the very final scene of this intense storyline, and my song came on. I didn’t recognize it at first. I just started crying. It was probably the most perfect placement of a song of mine I’ve ever heard.
Q: What is the oddest place you’ve heard on of your songs?
A: People always say, “I was in Home Depot and I heard your song.” For me, it was maybe in an elevator.
I once heard someone doing a karaoke version of my song. That was pretty funny.
Q: This is your first new album since 2011. Why the five-year gap?
A: It always seems that way. But it isn’t quite five years of quiet. I released an EP in 2012. Then I toured for about two years on the back of that release. That took me up until August 2014, and that is really when I started writing this record.
In between then and now there have been 12 tours and about three other separate releases tied into the Pledge campaign, including a full record of acoustic versions of my first record, “Happenstance.” I also did a covers EP.
It has always been busy. It seems to take a long time between albums, but there is always something going on for sure.
Q: Why is it called “Tightrope Walker”?
A: When I was at home in Woodstock, I had these strange influences. Almost mystical daydreams. It was a healing situation where I had to face my fears and let go of emotional baggage. This image of the tightrope walker was something I grabbed on to as a cool theme. A symbol really of perseverance and of strength and balance. A symbol of how to get through life’s challenges and motivate yourself to keep going. I started really looking into this idea of how do you retain such dedication and concentration to something you are pursuing while there are risks all around you.
Q: Is the theme of the album “Don’t quit”?
A: If you have to really boil it down, yeah. It’s “Keep going. You can do it.”
It’s a very strangely optimistic record for me. I don’t really usually write sort of a cheerleader-type lyric. Yet this record has a lot of positivity to it in the themes. The message coming through is about perseverance, empowerment and re-inspiring yourself. And letting go of what emotionally holds you down in life.
Q: What makes better inspiration for songs, sadness or joy?
A: Sadness I can sit and dissect for hours, and then write 50 songs about. I always find that inspiring.
Conflict is a great thing to start with. For me as a songwriter, I am constantly trying to solve problems. I immediately target sadness and conflict and disruption in life. What tries to break us is endlessly fascinating to me. Joy is a whole different game to express. I think that’s why this record is fascinating to me, because there a few songs on it that sound quite joyful. That’s just strange for me.
Q: How does living in Woodstock, New York, influence your music?
A: There is certainly a lot of history and magic up here, and I have to think that some of it has gotten into this record for sure. It is the perfect place to be creative and write.
Q: What can people expect when they come see you in D.C.?
A: The show is very dynamic. It takes you on a roller-coaster ride of the heartbreak ballads, but also huge rock numbers with anthemic vocals. I think we’ll certainly play the entirety of the new record. But we’ve also got such a catalog to work with now that it should satisfy everyone.
The shows are always much more hilarious than people assume they are going to be. People who know my music think I’m the most depressed girl on the planet. If you haven’t seen a show, you will be pleasantly surprised.
Q: Is there extra pressure with that show because it’s a bit of a hometown gig?
A: I just have to watch my language because my dad will be in the audience. [laughs] It does feel like a hometown gig, and that makes it a lot more fun. It’s usually a reunion of sorts.
Rachael Yamagata plays The Howard Theater Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 by going to Ticketmaster.com.