Artist Raya Yarbrough‘s talents extend to television audiences, including her musical audiences, and anything she feels drawn or led to accomplish. She’s best known as the singer of “The Skye Boat Song,” the theme for the hit STARZ television series, “Outlander,” including the sci-fi hit, “Battlestar Galactica.”
Her new album, North of Sunset, West of Vine, released on October 5, and features ten original songs, with two covers, inspired by Raya’s memories of her father, with layers of soulful and poetic tunes, showcased by her incredible voice. She also enlisted some of the most sought out musicians in the industry for her album. Raya’s talents are endless, and we discussed these with her in our interview, along with the making of her new album, her precious memories with her father who is still her favorite musician, and what she wants women to know about their own talent.
Your new album, North of Sunset, West of Vine, is two years in the making. Was that intentional or just how it came about?
Raya Yarbrough: Nothing artistic ever comes out the way you planned. If you do it right, you will make the correct mistakes, based on honest exploration, and then you will adapt to them, and end up with something better than you planned.
This group of songs began as a group of stories. I was considering a book, and then it turned into a song cycle, and a spoken-word piece. I preformed this show in many wonderful and awful clubs around Los Angeles. Then I developed it into an actual staged reading, with a cast of seven people portraying my father, and several other people I knew, while living and singing in clubs on Hollywood Boulevard, as a child.
After that show, I just wanted to focus in on the music itself. I did some re-writing and re-shaping, and I realized I wanted an electronic and soundscape element to this recording – something to place the listener in a place and time, like one can do in a theatre piece. I’d never included these elements in any of my other records, they were all done with more of a jazz-recording aesthetic. So, before we recorded, McKian (my producer) and I dabbled with sounds to loop and stretch and smash and chop. Some sounds we used are things I recorded on my iPhone: scratching a pen cap on my desk, recording a cranky hinge in my door. It took time to make the sound pallets, but it was worth it, because Hollywood Boulevard was a hell of a place to be a child, and the auditory information was both sparse and harsh. I tried to re-create the grit, and the lush textures, the dreamlike quality of a part of Los Angeles which has been lost to its own myth. The Hollywood dream, on the boulevard level, is full of ghosts. Beautiful, crumbling, empty, and full of the past.
And of course, some of the other time spent is just life happening. I made a person, who is now four years old. You could say that took some of my time. It’s a constant challenge, as a female human, as any artist-parent, to feed both your career, and your child. Balancing two loves.
This album was inspired by memories of your father performing in jazz clubs with him…what are your most special memories with your father that you recall, and don’t mind sharing?
Raya: I think there are three songs on the album, which translate directly to stories. In truth, every song on the album is a story from my life – that’s the concept of this concept album – but some are a combination of memories.
“Dolly” is about a woman who was a regular at a club called Thai Ice Cuisine. That was the first cub where I ever performed, I was seven years old, and I had just started playing guitar, but not on stage yet. Dolly was a tall woman, with a medium brown, shiny complexion, and long black braids. She was statuesque, tended to wear long, draping, fabrics, claw-like orange nails, and orange lipstick too. Dolly had a lilt to her speech, high-pitched, but not squeaky. She fluttered when she laughed, spoke in quick bursts, and all of these affectations seemed an effort to minimize her stature. But she was no shrinking violet. She chaperoned me to the ladies room, one Saturday night, and pulled a cigarette lighter on me. I was frightened, and although I knew she didn’t mean to hurt me, she was amused by my discomfort. There was a frenetic duality within her, like an inner aura of static electricity. I told her I could handle the rest of my bathroom concerns myself, and that she could go – although my feet did not yet reach the ground, and I could not reach the toilet paper roll.
“On The Rocks” is a story about a man who was another regular at Thai Ice Cuisine. I referred to him, in my mind, as “The Captain.” I never knew his name, and he was always drunk. Mostly he hung out at the corner of the bar, leaning into swampy, man-talk conversations. Sometimes he chatted with Dolly. One night, after I’d gotten off stage, he dragged his shadow over to my table. My dad was on stage singing, and The Captain leaned in, breathing alcoholic atmosphere onto me. “They don’t want to hear you sing.” I leaned away, and made words against him, which seemed to do nothing, I was still small. This was the first occasion when I wondered if I would have to use the orange-handled screwdriver my father always gave me for self-protection. Finally, Dolly swooped over, and pulled him away.
“Racecar 49” is a dystopian Christmas song. After my parents divorced, I didn’t get to spend Christmas with my dad for a few years. This was hard on both of us, so we did Christmas a week early, in his studio apartment. Dad had no money, but somehow he scraped enough together to get a tiny tree, some take-out food, and this remote control car I’d wanted, from Radio Shack. It’s these little moments, these little lights in the dark, that carry you through everything.
I love that you enlisted a diverse trio of musicians, including John Beasley, Steve Bartek and Tony Austin. How did you get involved with them, and what were these collaborations like?
Raya: John Beasley is a wonderful human being, who is endlessly creative and receptive, and chill AF. Also, his wife taught me how to make dumplings, so that wins. I met John though the “Jazz scene” which is an amorphous portal of chance exchanges, and spontaneous bonding, which can only be understood from within. Essentially, I met him on a gig. I think. Either way, he is one of the best jazz pianists on the planet, and I am so honored to work with him whenever it’s possible.
Steve Bartek is a wizard, disguised as a guitar player, who can also play flute, and who emanates the most beautifully weird sounds around. He also played with a little band called Oingo Boingo. Steve and I share a love of early jazz, and early jazz guitar: the twangy, raw, grit of Django Reinhardt, and the pulsing simplicity of Freddie Greene. Steve produced my last album with me (on Telarc Records) He is so openly creative and has an eclectic collection of ties.
Tony Austin and I go way back. We probably met when we were around 17. We were both part of this competition called the Spotlight Awards, a high-school, scholarship competition, which takes place at the Los Angeles Music Center. The competition was only part of the program, the real deal was playing Music Center events with other young musicians. These were some of my first gigs with a full band, and I made a lot of progress, and a lot of early mistakes with Tony in earshot. But we were kids, and we stayed in touch, and he is a MONSTER drummer now, touring with Kamasi Washington, who I also knew in high-school. As a side note, it’s a beautiful thing to see these kids (now adults) from the Leimert Park jazz scene, touring the world, sharing the stage with pop stars. It was such a South LA, local vibe, and now it’s international!
Since your self-titled debut album in 2008, you’ve released a total of three independent albums, and have worked with a variety of musicians as your band members. How have those experiences encouraged and influenced you to this day?
Raya: My 2008 album was actually my third album. I released two independent records before that one – which are VERY expensive now on Amazon. (laughs)
Wooo this is a big question. I must look back to high school, if I’m to be honest with my answer…
My first band (that is the first band I assembled to play my original music) was made up of guys I knew in high school. I gathered them together, piano, bass, and drums, to play three of my songs for a senior project. It was daunting, because high-school guys, especially talented ones, can be cocky, and judgmental. Luckily, these guys were not, they were very encouraging, but others weren’t.
Later, when I was in college I found myself in all kinds of ensembles with both supportive, and unsupportive dudes. Now, you may notice me using the words, “guys,” and “dudes.” That’s because there were almost no female instrumentalists in my circle of musicians. I’m getting into this topic here, because this is Guitar Girl Magazine, and being a girl-human, is not a non-issue in music. It is hard on a young woman, to try and discover both her musicianship, and her validity as a songwriter, without any other women to lean on.
Even with the most experienced, patient, giving, musical, young men to accompany me, there is something about sisterhood which is automatic, and silently understood. There is a struggle we all deal with, as women, because, until a woman has proven herself exceptional, she is assumed to be lacking somehow. Now, I want to emphasize that some of my greatest supporters and teachers have been men – my father is my musical sensei, and no one has ever believed in me more than him – but if I could give any advice to my younger self, and to any of you reading this: do not accept being talked down to, or marginalized. Anyone who does that to you is revealing their own insecurities. Male or female. Believe. In. Your. Work. It will not always be perfect the first time, but it is yours, and your mistakes are yours, and your answers are yours. Listen to advice, but when you question yourself, do it with the goal of exploration and self-improvement, not out of doubt.
Work hard, ladies. And play hard.
….. Okay so, where was I? Did I answer the question? Whatever, that’s what I wanted to say.
You frequently collaborate with one of my favorite performing bands, Portugal. The Man. What led to your involvement with them?
Raya: My friend, Paul Cartwright, is a wonderful violinist, and he has played with Portugal. The Man. for years. When they decided to involve a small group of singers for some of their bigger shows, he hit me up! I wouldn’t say I “collaborate” with them, but I certainly sing my butt off! It’s been fun.
I have a lot of respect for the PTM folks. Great musicians. SO many tattoos and hoodies. But really, all of them are a good hang, and they also stand behind what they believe in. They speak up about social justice, and use their platform, as a highly visible band, to support indigenous people wherever they perform. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s what all artists should be doing now, in my opinion. The world needs bravery more than ever, we need to lift each other up.
You’re mostly known for singing the theme song to STARZ’s, “Outlander.” What has it been like working with the show?
Raya: Amazeballs. “Outlander” fans are so lit. I’ve sung on other shows, but “Outlander” people are the most supportive, kind, and involved. Also, what a gorgeous song I get to sing! Thanks to composer, Bear McCreary.
Who was your first concert, and who has been your favorite so far?
Raya: My first concert was listening to my dad play guitar and sing. Probably on the couch. With me propped up on a pillow. In a diaper. He is still my favorite.
What was your first album on vinyl, cassette and/or CD?
Raya: Jeez, I want to say the original Star Wars soundtrack on cassette? I got it from somebody’s older sibling, but honestly, I think I heard it before I saw it, and I was too young to know what it was…initially. Now I am a sci-fi nerd. My first CD was a Best of Duke Ellington compilation, which got played down to slivers.
Which five bands or albums would you not want to live without?
Raya: I must say five artists, albums are too restrictive!
Steely Dan, Bjork, Duke Ellington, Debussy, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa. Sorry had to do six.
Honorable mentions: PJ Harvey, Sam Phillips, Bird and the Bee, Metric, America, Tori Amos, The Beatles (was a FANATIC for them in High school), and Jon Brion’s only solo album Meaningless … find it if you can!
Do you have a guilty music or entertainment pleasure?
Raya: I am not guilty about anything.