Lake Street Dive: Rising in Reverse

Matt Inman on April 25, 2016

In late 2012, the four members of Lake Street Dive hunkered down at a farmhouse studio in rural Maine to record the songs that would make up Bad Self Portraits. With no cell phone service or Internet to connect them to the outside world, the band found the solitude necessary to focus on what would become their breakthrough album. But when they returned to civilization, they discovered that their world had changed while they were away from it.

“That’s when the ‘I Want You Back’ video went viral,” lead vocalist Rachael Price remembers, enjoying a kale salad at one of her favorite Brooklyn cafés. The video in question was of the quartet performing their stripped-down, jazz-club reimagining of the Jackson 5 classic on a street corner in a Boston suburb. Showcasing the band’s musicianship and tight harmonies along with Price’s powerhouse vocals, the video had recently been rolled out in support of their EP of mostly covers, Fun Machine. Though originally envisioned as a fun between-albums project, the EP and subsequent video served as surprise introductions for many new Lake Street Dive fans.

“We get out of the studio and we’re getting all of this attention on the Internet,” Price says. “Then we look at our shows that are booked, and our manager’s like, ‘All your shows are sold out for the next month.’”

“We were like, ‘Thank God, ‘cause we all just quit our jobs!’” adds bassist Bridget Kearney from across the communal café table.

Lake Street Dive wasn’t always the four musicians’ main focus, however. Each member hails from a distinctively different region of the country—Price and Kearney are from Tennessee and Iowa, respectively, guitarist/trumpeter Mike “McDuck” Olson grew up in Minneapolis (the city that inspired Lake Street Dive’s name) and drummer Mike Calabrese hails from Philadelphia. The group coalesced at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music in 2003 and formed Lake Street Dive the following year. They stuck together after graduating from their programs, but Lake Street Dive was far from their only artistic concern.

“There was definitely a commitment to the band continuing on as a creative venture, but we were all involved in other musical projects, too, and had jobs,” Price says. “We hadn’t had a conversation yet about it being our sole focus, or whether it ever would be our sole focus, but we were pretty committed to doing as many shows as possible.”

“Maybe it was because we were coming from the jazz world,” Kearney says about the members’ multitasking. The bassist, who served as the band’s booker in those salad days, moved to New York City just after college and commuted back to Boston to play gigs with the other members. She also pulled double duty as a member of the now-defunct bluegrass outfit Joy Kills Sorrow, which featured current Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist Jacob Jolliff. In 2012, she left the band before its ultimate breakup to devote her time to Lake Street Dive.

“We were still figuring out what it meant to have a career as a musician,” Kearney adds. “None of us would’ve said to ourselves right out of college, ‘Let’s all quit our jobs and be in only one band!’ That’s just not the way that we were used to doing it. In college, we were all in 15 bands and worked jobs, so it just kind of continued in that pattern. Then this group grew to the point where we were able to devote ourselves fully to it.”

It was only before the Bad Self Portrait sessions that the band came to the conclusion that this was the project to focus on. “It just started to feel like, if we didn’t commit to it wholly, we would never really see the full potential,” Price says. “I’d been doing a solo jazz thing, but I felt like I’d spent enough time pursuing that. I knew that Lake Street Dive was going to be the most creative outlet in my life.”

Spurred on by that viral video’s success, the band started to nurture a national audience in the months leading up to Portraits’ 2014 release, and they quickly climbed the venue ladder, translating their Internet fame into real-life success. “It was just really exciting, really affirming,” Price confirms. “Luckily, we’d been playing shows as often as we could, so our live act was really developed. We were ready to present what we had been doing for so long to a larger group of people. We were kind of like, ‘Hell, yeah, this is great! We’ve been practicing for 80 years and now people are coming to our shows!’”

“It’s kinda like if you were in love with someone and your parents didn’t want you to marry them, or you were a part of some conservative community that was like, ‘No, that’ll never work out,’ but you’re always like, ‘Well, I know this is my true love,’” Kearney says. “Then, eventually, down the road, it was like, ‘Wow, people are actually OK with this? I can just do this for my job?’ That’s what it was like to realize that it was possible to make a living doing this unusual, creative style of music that I never thought there would be a market for.”

Lake Street Dive faced a wealth of expectations from fans and critics alike leading into the sessions for their latest album, Side Pony, and, luckily, they had the songs to back them up. Their fourth studio album, which they unveiled in February, is a powerhouse collection of tunes that range from dance-floor disco to cocktail-lounge crooning. Each member contributed their own compositions to the release, a tribute to the fact that, while Lake Street Dive might be a “greater than the sum of its parts” situation, each of those parts carry significant weight.

With new label Nonesuch in their corner, the band upgraded pretty much all aspects of the recording process for Side Pony. “We were able to pick the producer we wanted, go into a pretty professional studio setting for us, get a very prominent engineer to do it,” Price says. “Those were things we never had considered before.” That producer is Dave Cobb, who recently helmed Jason Isbell’s Grammy-winning Something More Than Free. Cobb, in turn, brought on engineer Darrell Thorp. “That was kind of dreamlike,” Price continues. “We hear from Dave, and he was like, ‘Is it OK if we use this guy?’ And we were like, ‘Yeah! He made our favorite Beck records!’ It’s crazy that he’s the guy that’s in the studio with us.”

Besides his ample experience, Cobb also offered a game plan for the recording process, tasking each member of Lake Street Dive with bringing in their own songs in no-frills, demo-only versions, which turned Side Pony into the band’s most collaborative effort yet. “Even the ones that we had played live, we stripped bare of all of the elements of production and sent him demos that were just guitar and Rachael’s singing,” Kearney says. “We call it campfire style—just like the four of us sitting around a campfire, strumming the tune. That left us in the studio with a lot more room to build them as a band and be really collaborative about how the arrangements were going to come together.”

It was a decidedly different process than with Bad Self Portraits. “We’re doing everything in reverse,” says Price. “You [usually] get ready to go into the studio and you know the songs and play them live, and they’re just under your fingers, and then you go in and just lay ‘em down. So to reverse that process and create those songs in the studio—playing them for the first time all together in a room with just two other people— it’s going to change the way that you play because you’re inventing these songs in a completely different context.”

Despite the collaborative studio process, almost all of the tracks on the album were developed out of the band member’s individual ideas, giving Side Pony a multifaceted perspective throughout. “There are four writers, so if we’re writing an album that heavily features love songs, and songs about being in love and not being in love, and wishing you were in love, you’re going to get a lot of varied perspective on it,” says Kearney. “It’s coming from the same voice, but it’s four people that are experiencing things in different ways. Also, just having two guys and two girls in the band is a strength in perspective for us, as far as writing lyrics and getting everybody’s side of the story. The album probably could be a little bit jarring, back and forth sometimes ‘cause we’re definitely all in different situations. But that’s part of the beauty of it.”

This dynamic can yield interesting songwriting results, like “I Don’t Care About You”—a rocking tune with dismissive lyrics written by Calabrese— juxtaposed with “So Long,” a yearning ballad penned by Kearney. And then there’s the title track, which, judging by the name, seems like it would have come from Kearney—who frequently rocks a side ponytail hairstyle herself—but was actually written by Olson. “It was inspired because his wife had a side pony at their wedding— which happened right before the second recording session,” Price explains.

“Dave Cobb, at one point after we recorded the song, was like, ‘Man, why’d you write a song about a side pony?’” Kearney says. “And McDuck was like, ‘‘Cause my fuckin’ wife was wearin’ one at my fuckin’ wedding!’”

“He was an inspired man deeply, deeply in love,” adds Price. “He was a blushing newlywed that couldn’t help but write a song about a side ponytail.”

Lake Street Dive’s influences are plentiful, to be sure, but the band’s sound, while frequently described as indie pop, has always leaned heavily on classic soul and R&B for inspirations. And with acts like Alabama Shakes, Sharon Jones and Leon Bridges leading a soul revival over the last half decade or so, Lake Street Dive are coming up at just right time.

“As far as us playing soul music and that revival, it was definitely a lucky coincidence that they overlapped and happened simultaneously because, all of a sudden, there were these artists in the forefront, and people were getting into that music again. People like Amy Winehouse,” Price says, mentioning one of the artists who began the whole new-soul movement.

“I love that style of music. I grew up listening to it and it’s a big influence for me, vocally, which helped turn the band in that direction—I so wanted to sing in that style,” Price continues, citing Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke as some of her biggest influences.

“It’s funny how styles and musical gestures go in and out of fashion,” says Kearney. “It’s like, what’s the most awesome music if you’re sitting in your living room and you’re like, ‘What’s gonna be so good and make me feel awesome?’ It’s gonna be, like, a Sam Cooke record or something. And then, all these Jackson 5 songs have these amazing, melodic basslines that are integral and part of the song, and why doesn’t anybody do that? So you take these little ideas from everything and make them your own.”

On Side Pony, however, the band mixes in a new style, too, nodding to disco most notably on lead single “Call Off Your Dogs,” which has a very Jackson 5-esque verse—complete with one of those melodic bass-lines that Kearney mentioned—that builds to a chorus taken straight from the ‘70s.

“We love dance music. We love to make people dance. But we definitely didn’t go into the studio like, ‘Guys—disco. Disco’s gonna be the next thing we try,’” Price says. “More than that, we went in being like, ‘Nothing is not in our wheelhouse. Let’s not tether ourselves to any sort of groove or type. Any song can be a Lake Street Dive song for this album.’ That’s kind of how the disco snuck in.”

“I love disco!” says Kearney. “But I’m also surprised how specific people’s associations with disco are. To me, it’s just a really awesome beat. It’s just a drum beat! People have this association with pop culture, when it was popular, how it killed rock music and whatever. But it’s just upbeat!”

And Lake Street Dive aren’t about to let others’ opinions stop them from making the music they love to make. “Whatever is exciting to you in the moment,” Kearney says. And exciting is as good a word as any to describe the music that this band produces, both in the studio and on the stage.

“There’s some quote of someone being like, ‘Your job as an artist is to stay excited about art,’” Kearney says. “That’s gonna drive your creations to be really genuine and original—if you’re really, fully psyched about what your tools are and what you’re making with them. That’s going to make the product the best it can be.”