Rachael Yamagata gets ready to release her new album

ry

 Audrey Magazine:

The year was 2004 when a 20-something Rachael Yamagata released her first full-length studio album, Happenstance. It proclaimed to the music-listening world that a talented singer-songwriter had arrived, one who could compose and record simmering ballads, as well as slow-burning rockers, with her breathy vocals expressing emotionally truthful lyrics. It led to her songs being featured in films like Hope Springs and Definitely, Maybe and television shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, The O.C. and How I Met Your Mother. Her tunes also caught the attention of other musicians and would result in collaborations with the likes of Jason Mraz, Conor Oberst and Rhett Miller.

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of her debut album, Yamagata performed Happenstance in its entirety on select stops on her recently completed fall tour. “It’s crazy. It’s almost like a double tour,” she says, a few hours before hitting the stage of the Bluebird Theater in Denver last October.

“When Happenstance came out, it was very much about the struggles of love and partnership, and being focused on another person,” says Yamagata, explaining the circumstances that fueled her early songs.

But now, a decade of experience behind her, and two more studio albums and four EPs later, her perspective has shifted towards the “internal battles that we are fighting with ourselves and the struggle to find balance and happiness,” she says. Her more recent lyrics — she’s finalizing her as-of-yet untitled album for release in spring 2015 — are “less about a love-centered partnership and more about an internal struggle.”

To get to this point, Yamagata had a relatively late start. At Northwestern University, she was studying acting, but one night she went out and saw a local funk band called Bumpus perform in Chicago, and it changed her life. Yamagata says, “I never went out to see people performing music before, and the whole experience got my attention.”

It went both ways, because Yamagata got the band’s attention, too. She ended up joining Bumpus, singing and helping to write songs. “I have always played piano or made up songs, but I never turned to music as my focus. I didn’t think I’d ever do it as a career,” she says.

She also discovered that songwriting came naturally to her. “It caught me in a way that reading a script or trying to understand acting hadn’t yet,” she says. For the self-described introvert, the process allowed her to express her vulnerability and to work out “a greater understanding of things.” She adds, “It’s easy for me in the music. It almost comes more naturally than daily life. The songs are always personal and intimate.”

So when she left Bumpus to embark on a solo career, she had gained the songwriting skills to cultivate a following. With her frequent and extensive touring across the U.S. and worldwide, her bold onstage persona captivated many a fan. And yet Yamagata believes she is “not a very outgoing person, naturally.” She says, “The performance part is a stretch for me, though I seem to know how to do it. People are surprised when I tell them that, but I’d be just as happy sitting in the woods writing songs.”

And that is literally where she calls home. Yamagata settled into a house she describes as a “cabin in the woods” about a year ago (she claims she’s “very good at yard work”). Located in Woodstock, New York, her mother’s hometown, the home-slash-studio is filled with musical instruments and some rambunctious cats. She divides her time between recording at home, still in various states of “DIY renovation,” she laughs, and a full studio in town. “We recorded some music to see if it could be done in the house,” she says. “There’s a looseness and a comfort about recording at home, and you know your surroundings.”

A younger Yamagata, who had grown up with a twin brother in the suburbs of Maryland, was less inclined to such domesticity. Dreaming of the world beyond, her travels took her across Europe, as well as living solo in the Dominican Republic. Her own family is a veritable United Nations. “My dad is third-generation Japanese. My mother is German-Italian. My stepmother, who’s since passed away, was the southern belle, and my stepfather, who is Jewish, was a music rebel who grew up in the streets of New Jersey,” Yamagata explains. “Growing up, I learned different cultural identities from each of them. The love was unconditional.”

Now, as she matures as a musician and songwriter — she says her aesthetic is “grittier, a bit darker, but still with romantic elements” — Yamagata’s also dealing with a quickly changing music business, working as an artist self-managing her career and running her own independent label. “I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody,” she says. “You really do have seven jobs. It’s time consuming and difficult on many levels.

“But for me, it works really well right now,” she continues. “I spent a number of years on major labels, and the record industry itself is so unpredictable. And it was taking four years between every record, which is crazy. To have to wait four years every time you want to put something new out is incredibly frustrating.”

Though she does miss having a team behind her (“When it works, it can be great”), “at the end of the day,” she says, “you’re going to care more than anyone else about your own art or your own career.”

These days, going independent necessitates getting creative to further musical goals. Yamagata is currently running a Pledge Music campaign, a crowd-funding program that will allow her to produce her next album as well as record a new acoustic version of Happenstance. “Pledge is a fan-based, connected platform to help artists show the behind-the-scenes process of making a record or going on tour, and the fans preorder the new album that they are helping to fund,” she explains. “You can offer different incentives and make it really cool with items that fans would enjoy but normally have no other way of getting. We’ve been running that simultaneously with the tour, and then, when I get back from tour, I’ll finish making the new record. So it’s a very busy time, that’s for sure.”

From major label complete with a “team” to independent running your own crowd-funding campaign, Yamagata’s definitely spent some time in the musical trenches. And yet her advice to up-and-coming musicians today is something she’s always done. “Play live, as much as possible,” she says. “Put yourself out there doing music, and build your fan base. Pay attention to your fans. The other stuff is unpredictable, but you can do great music that you love and other people will start loving it, too. It all starts with people who love your music.”

 

Was 2014 a banner year for Asian on network television?

141219-year-ender-kalig_40f8efa1efa155512216c3dd0c8a2a70.nbcnews-fp-1360-600

NBC News:

On paper, it looked like a rough year for Asian-Pacific Islanders on network television: The Mindy Project was on the verge of cancellation. NBC axed Community, and confirmed the end of Parks and Recreation for 2015. Sandra Oh officially left Grey’s Anatomy. Glee edged closer and closer to the end of its run while slowly pushing its Asian characters out of the credits.

According to an annual report on television diversity released by GLAAD, the number of Asian-Pacific Islanders on network television had been on the rise.

In the 2013-2014 season, 6% of broadcast series regular characters were Asian-Pacific Islander, but in the upcoming year, only 4% of characters will be Asian–the only ethnic group to see a decrease in diversity from the previous year.

Image: Ken Jeong, Danny Pudi
Ken Jeong, left, and Danny Pudi attend the “Community” panel on Day 5 of Comic-Con International.

Aside from the need for more representation despite the real progress we’ve made, I was disappointed that we lost some really great Asian-American representation this past year,Philip Chung, co-founder and blogger at YOMYOMF, said, listing Oh and Community’s Danny Pudi and Ken Jeong as examples.

But while the number of Asian characters appears to be shrinking next season, the quality of roles, Chung points out, has noticeably changed. Asian-Pacific Islanders in 2014 were cast in more prominent roles than the previous year, giving actors like John Cho, Ming-Na Wen, and Nasim Pedrad (who previously made headlines as Saturday Night Live’s first west Asian cast member) opportunities to step beyond smaller supporting and guest appearances on TV.

Image: John Cho
John Cho’s casting in a romantic, male lead on ABC’s “Selfie” was revolutionary. But the show was cancelled after just seven episodes.

The leaps forward in casting choices have not come without their setbacks. After months of anticipation among critics and bloggers about the casting of John Cho, an Asian male, to play the lead in a romantic sitcom, his show Selfie was canceled after just seven episodes.

It’s rare to see an Asian-American male as a lead in a comedy, especially one that has romantic possibilities,” said 8Asians editor Joz Wang, who called Selfie’s cancellation the biggest disappointment for Asian Americans on TV in 2014. “While the show didn’t catch on as quickly as the network would have wanted, many Asian Americans watched the show specifically for John Cho.”

“Getting [a show] about an Asian American family on the air is a frickin’ miracle.”

Even though Cho never received top billing in Selfie, many felt ABC’s choice to cast him as the show’s male romantic lead was long overdue. His elevation to “leading man material” appeared to be the first step in seeing more Asian-Pacific Islanders as true television stars, not just supporting characters.

To date, few Asian actors have ever been cast in lead roles on a network level. The first to break through was Pat Morita, in the 1976 show “Mr. T and Tina” (it was considered a flop, and went off the air after five episodes).

PAT MORITA
Pat Morita led the way for Asian Americans on television. Four decades later, how much has changed?

Today, Lucy Liu plays a prominent character in Elementary, though not the lead, as does Kal Penn in the upcoming CBS drama Battle Creek. Even Hawaii Five-O, which Wang noted has been “great because it’s set in Hawaii and there are many opportunities for Asian-American actors,” stars two Caucasian leads. “All the Asian Americans still play second fiddle in terms of billing,” said Wang.

The last network show to cast an Asian male with top billing was CBS’ Martial Law starring Sammo Hung in 1998. Hung, who spoke little English, had just a few lines in each episode, and was reportedly paid half of what his co-star Arsenio Hall made.

Image: Lucy Liu
Lucy Liu plays Joan Watson on the CBS drama “Elementary.”

Currently, the total number of Asian actors to receive top billing on a network primetime series is one: Mindy Kaling. Since the 2012 premiere of The Mindy Project, Kaling has received praise for being the first woman of color to write and star in her own show since Wanda Sykes in 2003.

But Kaling has come under fire for what some see as her failure to leverage her influence for push for more diversity on network television.

In a letter to Fox, Media Action Network for Asian Americans President Guy Aoki said the show lacked diversity–particularly when it came to romantic interests. “We are concerned that in the course of two seasons, [Kaling’s] character, Dr. Lahiri, has had a ‘white-only’ dating policy involving about a dozen men,” Aoki wrote. “And except for this season’s addition of African American Xosha Roquemore the cast continues to be all white…She’s creating the impression that by surrounding her character with mostly white people and dating only white men that Lahiri’s become more accepted by the white population.”

Kaling defended the show at a SXSW panel early in the year, saying, “I have four series regulars that are women on my show, and no one asks any of the shows I adore — and I won’t name them because they’re my friends — why no leads on their shows are women of color, and I’m the one that gets lobbied about these things.”

Despite any criticism and low ratings, Kaling herself saw a year filled with successes in her own career, from being named a Glamour Woman of the Year to the announcement of her second book, Why Not Me?, which will be released next year. In November, Fox also added six episodes of The Mindy Project, stretching the season from 15 episodes to 21, and fueling speculation that the show will be renewed for a fourth season.

Kaling won’t carry the mantle for Asian network primetime leads alone much longer. She will soon be joined by Korean-American actor Randall Park, who will star in ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat–the first network show to feature an all-Asian American cast since Margaret Cho‘s 1994 series All-American Girl, which was canceled after one season. Following a slate of recurring roles on television (including The Mindy Project), Park will receive top billing when the series premieres in 2015.

Getting a television series on the air is an incredible feat,” Park wrote in a post for KoreAm Journal online in June. “Getting one with no bankable name stars in today’s television climate is damn near impossible. Getting one about an Asian American family on the air is a frickin’ miracle.”

Image: Randall Park
Randall Park plays the father figure in the new ABC comedy “Fresh Off the Boat.”

The series, based on the memoir of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, has received its share of praise and criticism since ABC added it to its mid-season lineup. Park is one of the targets of the early backlash because his character is Taiwanese (not Korean like Park is) and speaks with an accent (which Park does not naturally have).

But in the same KoreAm post, Park acknowledged he raised that same issue himself, but was repeatedly assured he was the right actor for the role.

Hopefully audiences and the network will give it a chance.”

In an ideal world, I would never have to play a character with an accent,” he wrote. “But this is a character based on a real person. So it’s something that I have to honor and try to perfect as the series moves forward.”

Early viewers of the pilot have been defensive of the series, hoping to save it from suffering the same fate as All-American Girl and Selfie. “I thought it was very funny and despite some of the early backlash from people who haven’t yet seen the show,” YOMYOMF’s Chung said. “Hopefully audiences and the network will give it a chance.”

11

‘Grey’s Anatomy’ alum Sandra Oh lends voice to new animated film

 

Rosie Ming is not your average animated heroine.

The two-dimensional stick figure, voiced by former Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh, is the star of Window Horses, an animated film about a young Chinese-Iranian-Canadian poet who goes to Iran for a poetry festival and is confronted with new languages and a challenge to find her own voice separate of the world she grew up knowing.

Window Horses was written by Ann Marie Fleming, an independent Canadian filmmaker of Chinese and Australian descent. The film, which Fleming also directs, is inspired by her time during an artist residency in Germany where she met international artists who shared their stories of immigration, mixed cultures, and the re-discovering of one’s roots.

It was a revelation,” Fleming said, “because they had always been an ‘other’ in my world, and now I was that ‘other’ in theirs.”

Fleming said she was moved to use poetry to tell Rosie’s story because it was a medium that connected people across cultures.

It’s not just the words, it’s the spoken word. Even in the cacophonous babble of many cultures and languages, we can still hear beauty and longing through the human voice,” she said. “Writing poetry can be the most solitary of practices, but then it goes out there into the world and it brings us together.”

Screenshot from "Window Horses," an animated film about a young Chinese-Iranian-Canadian poet.
“WINDOW HORSES”
Screenshot from “Window Horses,” an animated film about a young Chinese-Iranian-Canadian poet.

 

The film stars Oh as Rosie and Nancy Kwan — one of Hollywood’s first major stars of Asian descent — as Gloria, Rosie’s overprotective grandmother. Much of the film’s cast has yet to be officially announced, and in an interview with CBC Radio earlier this month, Oh, who also serves as executive producer, said she was searching for actors who would help keep the authenticity of the story.

I would like to see…the people who are actually the central storytellers be people who are not white,” Oh said. “Look at the call sheet and number one, two, three, four, five, and that’s what I’d like to see change.

The project is currently in development and seeking funding through Indiegogo.

Image: ELLEN POMPEO, SANDRA OH