Raya Yarbrough opens up about her album 'North of Sunset, West of Vine' and what makes the theme song of 'Outlander' special
The singer is famously known for the song 'The Skye Boat Song', and it was all created from a childhood memory.
Raya Yarbrough may be best known to audiences around the globe as the singer of “The Skye Boat Song”, the theme for the hit STARZ television series ’Outlander’, and the female singing voice on the sci-fi hit ‘Battlestar Galactica’, however, her talents are incredibly vast. Her new album ‘North of Sunset, West of Vine’ which dropped on October 5 showcases her stunning vocal range.
This new album had been two years in the making and contains ten original songs (as well as two covers) inspired by Raya’s memories of performing in jazz clubs throughout Hollywood, initially with her father, beginning at the age of seven. With soulful and layered vocals, strings, and multi-textural soundscapes, this album is her stories brought to life. Simply stated, the record is poetic, unexpected, sexy and bold. It features drummer Tony Austin, from Kamasi Washington’s groundbreaking album “The Epic”, jazz pianist John Beasley, and Steve Bartek of Oingo Boingo, on guitar.
Raya’s career includes an international debut on Telarc (Concord) in 2008 with her self-titled album, ‘Raya Yarbrough', produced by Steve Bartek. She has released a total of three independent albums, and her bands have also included members of Kneebody, and Zappa Plays Zappa. She recently collaborated with pianist Billy Childs and Van Dyke Parks and frequently sings with Grammy-winning rock band, Portugal. The Man. In an exclusive mail interaction with Meaww, Raya shared about a memory that inspired her to write the song, her collaboration with Tony Austin, John Beasley, and Steve Bartek, and her experience while working for 'Outlander'.
What was your inspiration behind writing 'North of Sunset, West of Vine'?
'North of Sunset, West of Vine' began as a collection of stories from my childhood. When I was six years old, my parents divorced, and my dad went back to his job of singing in clubs. My dad is a singer-songwriter in the acoustic R&B and folk vein, and he went right back to it – but this time he had me in tow. So that’s when I began my performance career. At the age of seven, he brought me up on stage with him, in a dive, Thai-themed bar on Hollywood Boulevard, called Thai Ice Cuisine. Over the next several years, until his apartment building burned down and he moved, we performed in many clubs in and around Hollywood. This album is about the people I knew, and the Boulevard itself as an old, crumbling, consciousness unto itself. The track “Dolly” is specifically about a woman who was a regular at Thai Ice Cuisine.
It took you almost two years to get the album ready. Why do you think it took you so long?
Two reasons. Firstly, this album had a long evolution from being a collection of short stories to being a one-woman cabaret act to being a musical with a cast of six people, to returning to purely musical form, as the concept album it is now. So essentially, we spent a year recording music which didn’t end up on the record – partially because I was weeding out music which didn’t stand apart from the stage show, and partially because I was courting a record label which wanted me to make a more “traditional jazz” record. Historically, I’ve been a jazz singer, so this was not a crazy idea, but THIS record wanted to be something else. The second one, I had a baby. These take a lot of time. She likes the record though! All worth it.
What was it like working with such brilliant musicians as Tony Austin, John Beasley, and Steve Bartek? How did you guys get together for the collaboration?
So, Steve and I produced the album I released on Telarc/Concord records in 2008. It was a wonderful creative experience, and he is a magical human. So openly experimental, and kind. When it came time to do this record, I wanted to include him in some way, and he is a wizard with that Django-old-timey-jangly guitar sound, so he was the obvious choice for the guitar solo on “We Three”, my arrangement of a song from the 1930s. John Beasley is a man on the jazz scene and that is how I know him. He is one of the most incredible and instinctual pianists I’ve ever worked with. He brings such unexpected layers of beauty and lyricism. I’ve known Tony Austin since we were both kids. When we were in high school, we were both parts of a program called The Spotlight Awards, through the Los Angeles Music Center. Through that program, we wound up playing at all sorts of Music Center functions and meeting other musicians who we continued to work with as we grew up. It’s pretty special to have Tony on this record – because he is incredibly badass, and also because it’s important to continue to work with people who have shared your journey.
You have released a total of three independent albums since your 2008 debut. How different was the experience then, and what do you think was the best thing about it?
Well, they were all very different experiences. I recorded my first album, “Waking at Twilight” my first year of college. We recorded it guerilla style. Getting into empty classrooms after the end of the school day, and basically taking over the entire first floor of the USC music school building. We recorded between 9 pm and 4 am, running a cable out of the recording engineering room, down the halls, into classrooms, and stairwells… all to achieve certain sound qualities, certain reverb. One night, we lacked a pop filter for my microphone, so I took off my stockings, we cut out the foot, and made a pop filter. My stocking-pop-filter remained in the USC music department for a long time. I have no idea how many people sang into my foot!
We were kids trying things out, and a guy named Zac Rae was my keyboard player, and producer on that album. Zac now plays for Death Cab for Cutie and produces all sort of interesting things. On this album, I also did my very first-string arrangement, on a song called “Flair for Life.” I would not revisit string writing again for a decade. The second record was really an EP, a few of my arrangements of jazz tunes, and few originals. I went to a place called Private Island Tracks, down in Hollywood, on Sunset Boulevard. There was a shawarma place across the street which my drummer, Nadir, took full advantage of. That was my first time producing something myself. The third album is called “Raya’s Mood.” This came out during my senior year of college. Kind of bookended my experience of songwriting and arranging in my music school years. I went to Private Island Tracks again, wrote some with horn arrangements, played with tape-recorder playback. The hard part about producing something by yourself is that you have nobody to bounce ideas off. It’s not always best to get your way all the time. Especially when you do your own writing and arranging, it’s helpful to have somebody around who does not live in your head, and who can tell you if your concepts are getting across.
The fourth album is called “Raya Yarbrough.” Creative title, I know. My first record on an actual record label, Telarc (part of Concord). This experience was different because I wasn’t the only person with a say on which songs got on the record. At the end of the day, I was happy with the choices. Steve Bartek produced this with me, Kaveh Rastegar played bass, and Nate Wood played drums (both these musicians are part of a great group called Kneebody, and Kaveh has just released a solo album). We were pressed for time on this, which was also a new thing for me, so we spent long days in Steve’s eclectic studio, under a giant, Mexican doll head, and an ominous painting of bumblebees. And SO many guitars. I really like this album, and I hope Steve does because I drank all his tea and ate all of his flavored almonds from Trader Joes.
The next album is the one I just released, “North Of sunset, West Of Vine.” Because this album took so much time to find itself, it’s been a completely unique experience. I didn’t feel like I was simply compiling all the stuff I’ve written since the last record (not even close), but that I got to create a world. This is an independent album, so I didn’t need to convince anyone about what I wanted to do, or how I wanted to do it. I produced with Brendan McKian, and we explored electronic stuff which I’ve always wanted to get into. Loops and beats and samples. I think the difference with this one was the clarity of vision, coupled with the time to explore the way I wanted to tell this story.
Could you tell us about your collaboration with 'Portugal, the Man'? How did you get on board with them?
My friend Paul Cartwright has played violin with PTM for many years. This summer they went on tour and wanted a small choir of singers – so Paul rang me up! PTM is a great group because not only are they fantastic musicians, but they stand behind what they believe in and promote positive social change.
Let's come to 'Outlander' now. Did you come up with 'The Skye Boat song' specifically for the show or was it already in hand when you were given the offer?
I was brought in after it was already decided that the opening of the show would be The Skye Boat song. Bear McCreary tapped me to sing it, and I did (at 8 months pregnant, no less)! It’s funny because that song has been with me my whole life. When I was nine years old, I was in a children’s choir, and we sang an arrangement of that song. I’m still friends with four girls from that group, and all through our childhoods, our teenage years, and straight through to our adult lives, we’ve sung that song together. We still remember our parts. It’s extra magical that this song, which has always been with me, has come to mean so much to others, through me, and that I can now sing it to my daughter.
The show, 'Outlander', has been doing pretty well. What do you think of it?
I heart 'Outlander'. It’s incredible to be part of a show that I’m a fan of as well! And the Outlander fandom is glorious people. They have been so supportive of me, and my music outside of the Outlander world. I’m truly grateful.
What more are you planning next?
Well, I just filmed three more music videos! There’s already one online for the song “On The Rocks” – which can be seen on my website or on YouTube. And I have another group I’ve started, a string quintet (with aforementioned Paul Cartwright, who also plays on Outlander), and I’ll be doing some shows with this group in the spring!
AlternaJazz released a new album from singer-songwriter and multi-faceted artist Raya Yarbrough, “North of Sunset, West of Vine” on October 5, 2018. The twelve song record is available with :