Lake Street Dive: On A Rocketship to Fame

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Gigging with Elvis Costello, an invitation to play Carnegie Hall, appearances on Letterman, Colbert and Ellen—Lake Street Dive owe it all to Reddit. Or at least, says their frontwoman Rachael Price, to some anonymous fan, who posted a six-month-old video of the band on the forum. The song—a bluesy, soulful cover of “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5—went from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand views overnight; soon they had over a million views, and Kevin Bacon was tweeting about them.

“Reddit’s a weird site,” says Price, her wide lips parted in a knowing smile. “And I certainly don’t recommend musicians reading their comments on there…but there’s a nameless faceless hero of our band who put it on there and everything changed overnight. The Internet is a rocketship to fame!”

Price’s rich, sultry voice, which has earned her comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, is the first thing that hits you when you listen to Lake Street Dive’s songs—”You Go Down Smooth,” their signature track, is certainly aptly titled. The second thing you notice is the band’s ability to make you get up and dance; it is almost impossible to listen without wanting to get your groove on. It’s only when you’re already boogying away that you’ll stop to listen to the instruments—a trumpet, drums and stand-up bass—and think: what is this music?

Working out where Lake Street Dive sits in the genre lottery is something the band itself hates to do. “It’s a really hard question,” says Bridget Kearney, their virtuosic bassist and former founder of alt-bluegrassers Joy Kills Sorrow. “I hate genre questions,” says drummer Mike Calabrese. “It doesn’t make any sense anymore. There are so many genres out there that people are recombining the words and adding hyphens. It’s just confusing the topic. I think it’s over. Genres are done.” Instead, the band define their pop songs—rich with any number of ‘60s, rock ’n’ roll, Motown and swing influences—by the effect they want to achieve.

“We want it to be pretty fun,” Price says.

“We’re trying to write ear-worm numbers to dance to,” Calabrese says. “We’re ear-worm-dance-music!”

Their new album, Bad Self Portraits, suggests that they’re succeeding. Many of songs have witty conceits that make for good repeated listening—“If You’re Married Baby Wear a Wedding Band” was “inspired by a specific instance,” says Kearney—but more than anything, this is an act that demands to be seen live. Last year, T Bone Burnett put them on stage alongside Marcus Mumford, Justin Timberlake, Elvis Costello and Patti Smith for his New York concert celebrating the music of Inside Llewyn Davis. At the start of the night, no one had heard of Lake Street Dive; by its end, the combination of Price’s charisma and her colleagues’ incredible musicianship was all the audience was talking about.

It has, however, been a surprisingly long journey to fame. The four have been playing together since they met studying jazz at college in Boston 10 years ago, brought together by their somewhat reclusive guitarist/trumpeter, Mike Olson. Olson goes by the stage name McDuck because of his rather grumpy outlook: “I remember Mike coming into my room and saying ‘Hey!’ And I was like, ‘Oh God, another enthusiastic freshman.’”

“You didn’t want to be anybody’s friend,” Calabrese remembers.

“That’s putting it kindly,” Olson replies.

It was an inauspicious start for many reasons. Price began school with a stye that caused her eye to swell shut; she wore sunglasses for the whole first week. “This is probably wrong,” says Kearney, “but I remember Rachael going”—and here she puts on her snootiest voice—“‘I have other interests beside music.”

“Stuck up!” teases Calabrese.

Perhaps Price had just wanted to make it clear; she has, after all been singing since she was five years old. Her father is a composer and choral conductor, and she was one of four sisters who sang together as a harmony group. “The music was constant,” she says now. “I never considered another profession.”
At a young age, she signed to the jazz label her father was a partner in.

But Lake Street Dive did not, despite their shared roots, begin as a jazz band.

“The original impetus for our band was…well, we started as a ‘free country’ band,” Kearney says. “It was supposed to be avant garde meets pop country.”

“Essentially,” explains McDuck, who was playing keyboards at the time, “we were an art band.” Calabrese giggles. “We were art.”

It was not a success (“we were so serious, it was just silly,” says McDuck) but two events combined to improve matters. McDuck graduated from college and no longer had a piano, but only knew a few chords on guitar, which sent them in a ‘poppier’ direction. Then Kearney won a songwriting contest, with which she funded their first album and tour. The more time the band spent together, the more their music changed. Their pared-down instrumentation has also shaped their sound—in the absence of keyboards, they achieve texture through inventive harmonizing.

At Carnegie Hall, Price made reference to an ‘exciting year, but a tough year.” Fans of Lake Street Dive are well aware that the band was tied up in legal dispute with Price’s previous record label, who refused to release her from her contract. It put her dad, a partner in the label, in a difficult position, and forced the band out onto the road. “It was stressful, but it unified us in a lot of ways,” says Price, who was eventually bought out of her contract by the other members.

“We definitely got the better end of the deal,” Kearney says.

Now those troubles are behind them, there’s time to work on new songs—and add some new covers to their repertoire (their version of George Michel’s “Faith” is a must-listen). What’s next for them?

“We’re thinking a lot about the Dirty Dancing soundtrack right now,” Kearney says. “We’d like to make an album that sounds like the ‘80s doing the ‘60s.”

Calabrese leans in. “What would Patrick Swayze dance to?” he grins. “That’s my current muse.”

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