When Lake Street Dive settled in to work with producer Mike Elizondo on the band’s new album, “Obviously,” it might not have seemed like a completely obvious choice — at least not for those who think of him primarily as a hip-hop producer, not the jack-of-all-trades that he really is, and for those who identify the group more with its jazz roots than an omnivore pop group. But the Lake Street Dive members wanted to know how he achieved those modern drum sounds. And Elizondo, for his part? “He plays standup bass!” points out singer Rachael Price, sharing a phone call with Bridget Kearney, the woman who plays that very instrument full-time.
Lake Street Dive has long been a musicians’ musicians band that you hardly need to be a muso to love. Originally formed as a guitar-less, trumpet-flaunting combo out of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in the 2000s, the quintet doesn’t wield its jazz-honed chops as a weapon, but in the service of flagrantly pop-embracing, genre-transcending songs that incorporate the feels of Motown, ’70s soul and classic rock. Price and bassist Bridget Kearney, got on the phone with Variety to discuss the creation of “Obviously,” their characteristically spry and infectious seventh studio album, a tonic for hard times that covers everything from ennui in a relationship to the end of the world.
You finished this album before the pandemic kicked in. Was it frustrating to put it on ice for a while?
KEARNEY: We had planned initially to release it in the fall of 2020, and we were really hustling to meet that date. So I guess we can be thankful that we were hustling, because we did manage to get it done before we were separated from one another. I’m glad that we did (postpone its release), because we’re in a moment now where things are still strange and sad, and the crisis is still upon us, but there’s definitely a light appearing in the distance. So it feels comfortable in this moment to put this music out that has some buoyance and light to it — and also has some crisis and reality in it.
Mike Elizondo is an interesting choice as producer. You had previously said you were happy that you self-produced your last album. Was there any particular aspect of what Elizondo had done before that made you think, “This is what we need right now?”
PRICE: There were a few things. We got to know Mike because he expressed interest in working with us, and when we looked at his catalog, we were really struck by the how versatile he is as a producer, working on a lot of hip-hop music, but also producing a Fiona Apple record, and working with bands — and he plays upright bass! I got to know him a little bit better because he was the music director on the NPR show “Live From Here,” and sometimes I would guest on it. I became very aware that he, in a lot of ways, approaches music the way you hear Quincy Jones philosophize about music, which is that there is no such thing as genres. We don’t ever feel like any genre suits our music, and we don’t want to play a specific genre of music. We just want to write songs that we like that feel good that come from our hearts. That is broad, but then the specifics are that, sonically, we are very inspired by the sounds of current hip-hop music. And we wanted a producer that could produce really nice-sounding drums, basically. We could point to a specific hip-hop track and be like, “How did they create that drum sound?” And he knew.
Your newest member, Akie Bermiss, who joined shortly after you finished your previous album, has a surprising number of co-writing credits on this one. It seems like you were enjoying having him not as the new guy any more, but a crucial part of the band.
KEARNEY: Absolutely. This was the first album where we started writing with Akie. One of the ways that we wrote for this record was in duos, in various partnerships — all sorts of different configurations of the five of us writing in pairs. And each pairing of writers created its own sound, and sort of its own character that wrote in its own style. We all wrote with each other, and maybe not all of those combinations made it onto the album, but we each got to experience what it was like to pair up with every other member of the band and work on writing a song with them. And to speak more to Akie’s contributions, he has many talents that he brings to the table and contributed a lot to the writing on this record and also of course to the character of the recordings, not only with his keyboard playing, but with his singing. And he’s also singing a duet with Raechel, which was like the funnest thing ever to get those two voices to be in the studio together, calling and responding to each other.
PRICE: I was gunning for a duet. Akie was one of my favorite singers, before he joined the band. I was literally starstruck when he joined. I was like, I cannot believe somebody of this caliber of voice is sitting behind me playing piano, if I’m being totally honest. Akie wrote “Same Old News” with (Mike) McDuck (Olson) — not as a duet. I just was like, “This is a duet, right? We’re doing this together.” And in the first run-through of the song that we ever did, we started doing these humorous call and responses back to each other, trying to make each other laugh, and it was just like: Done.
To ask about a few individual songs, working backward from the end: Was “Sarah” always meant to be a group a cappella effort? That’s something you’d never done before.
KEARNEY: It was not a cappella in its original format, but in workshopping it, we decided that that was the way we wanted to do it. Mike Elizondo, with ideas that we had which are kind of challenging to execute, was so helpful in just his confidence that we would get it done and that we would get it done greatly. That was one of his talents as a producer, to be able to help us make our wildest dreams come true. With that song, he helped us get a great recording of us singing those parts, And also there’s an additional layer that’s some vocoder versions of Rachael’s part singing harmonies to itself. We said, “Hey, can we do this thing where it’s a cappella but it also has vocoder?” And he said, “Oh yeah —which of my three vocoders would you like to use?” And he brought them all out.
“Making Do” is just your average pop song about the fate of the globe.
PRICE: That’s a song (mostly) by Mike Calabrese, who is in every way is a climate change activist. He’s extremely informed. He teaches us about it. He’s personally taken it upon himself to make sure that our touring outfit operates in as green a way as possible. We carbon-offset and make sure that we’re not being wasteful with our food and recycling and every way we can just doing our part. I know from personal experience that he’s very affected by this, and he’s worried. When I received this song, I was very inspired to hear just him baring his feelings, being very like vulnerable and expressing that he’s super-stressed about this topic. To approach it from a personal level, I think, makes the song really effective.
KEARNEY: It’s very, very hard to write a three-and-a-half-minute pop song about a subject as complex and contentious as this. And Mike did such a great job of it, because of what Rachael’s talking about, that the song comes from a genuine, personal feeling and experience. It’s related to the way that you write a love song, because you are feeling extremely passionately about this subject, and he also feels extremely passionately about the climate crisis. And so that’s why he’s able to express it in such a genuine way.
PRICE: I should clarify that that song is a co-write with Mike and Bridget.
KEARNEY: I wrote the bridge.
PRICE: And it’s a great bridge.
You guys do have some epic bridges on this album.
PRICE: It’s true. I will second that. There are a lot of stellar bridges on this record.
You have a couple of songs about womanhood or girlhood on this album, “Being a Woman” and “Nobody’s Stopping You Now.” Did you think of those as kind of companion pieces of empowerment, where we can be a little bit angry and then a little bit sweet and wistful, kind of addressing some of the same things?
KEARNEY: Not necessarily, but I do think it’s nice to think of those two as companion pieces. And it’s important to remember both sides of that coin, that, A, women are treated unfairly, and B, women are amazing.
PRICE: Yeah, I love that. I hadn’t thought about that, considering them sort of like companions, like friends having a chat about their experiences. So that’s a nice way to think about those two songs.
For “Being a Woman,” was there anything that was happening in the world that was maddening that triggered it?
KEARNEY: Not a specific ,personal-to-me trigger, other than the realization that while there’s been a lot of progress made for women’s equality, and I’m certainly grateful to be standing in the position in my life that I am now, which wouldn’t have been possible for me 50 years ago or even less, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Rachael and I had a lot of dialogue going into that song about what kind of a feminist song we wanted it to be. And we were aware that we wanted to dig as deep as we could on it and not make it a sort of feminism-lite song. We wanted to really expose some of the starker realities and larger realities of womanhood in the world right now. So that’s getting into things like pay scale, and also, verse three gets into toxic masculinity as well; an aspect of the way that women are treated is also the way that men are treated. It was, again, a major challenge to try to fit these gigantic issues into a very short statement.
Rachael, you’ve said that “Nobody’s Stopping You Now” was kind of a letter to yourself as a young teenager, right?
PRICE: Yeah, I started it because I was reading an old journal of mine from when I was about 13, and was very struck by the insecurities that were still showing up in my daily life, of like: “Oh — haven’t worked on that yet.” But I also found some aspects about my 13-year-old self to be unrecognizable. And I was just really starkly remembering the switch that happened at that age when you’re like a junior youth, 13, 14, 15 — there being a real switch in how you move in the world as a girl growing into womanhood —and really not liking a lot of the things that I felt like I had to grow into, and wishing that somebody had been like, “That’s fine. You don’t need to listen to that noise. you don’t need to do that. You can just set that pressure down and be who you are.”
On the lighter side, you’ve had some diss tracks about unsatisfactory relationships before, and “Lackluster Lover” is in that tradition of dealing with someone who’s not up to snuff — not because he’s a cad, like in some of the earlier songs, but just dull.
PRICE: That song was fun to write, Especially when you’re in your twenties, or maybe in life in general, songwriters, we’re drawing a lot from our experiences with dating. And I was just like, “Oh, this is so great to have an experience where there isn’t really anything to write about, because it’s so boring.” [Laughs.] You’re like, there’s no struggle. There’s no conflict. It’s just really boring. And what would that be like if you tried to write a song about that?
In-between these last two Lake Street Dive albums, Rachael, you did a duo side project, Rachael and Vilray, that took you back to your jazz roots. There’s always a rhythmic playfulness that filters into your singing with Lake Street Dive. How conscious are you of that factoring in?
PRICE: Coming from a jazz background, that’s the first music that I fell in love with, and that I was singing from a very young age. What you’re saying about phrasing, it seeps into all the singing that I do. So when I think about a melody, I see it as a wide path, and I can zigzag on the path, or turn around … There’s a lot of ways to walk down a road, if that analogy makes any sense. So I do look at a set of lyrics and a melody as like a template, or a guide, for me to sort of create my own fun or journey as I do this night after night, so that I can change it up. So I started singing jazz, but I learned the most about myself as a singer with Lake Street Dive, because everybody writes so differently, and the possibilities are endless. It’s not like singing jazz where you’re dealing with people having heard these songs over and over again, so you have so much shared knowledge of what the song is supposed to sound like.
Bridget, how much do you switch between standup bass and electric? Given that you want this to sound like contemporary record-making or you wouldn’t be using Mike Elizondo, how does the stand-up sound fit into that?
KEARNEY: When we started the band, Rachael, Mike and I were in jazz school together. We were originally drums, upright bass, trumpet and vocals, and McDuck didn’t even play guitar at all at that time. He eventually taught himself guitar to play guitar in the band, because we were like, “We might need some chords some time.” [Laughter.] The band has continued to evolve and change course a lot from where we originally began stylistically, but meanwhile, I’ve continued to play upright bass in it, and I think there are some inherent challenges to that, sonically speaking. The drums and electric guitar are quite loud and dominant, so you need to find ways for the upright bass to also speak in a strong way that will join those elements well. But we keep just figuring it out. And I certainly, at this point, am playing in a much more electric-based style in terms of the lines that I’m playing, the notes that I’m choosing, the sort of way I’m articulating with my right hand — but I’m just doing it on the upright bass.
And I don’t see a reason to stop doing it. In fact, I think it’s become a part of our sound and a part of what makes us Lake Street Dive. I love playing electric bass, but I don’t even own one, actually. I was borrowing one in the fall from someone, when we made those Beatles covers for Halloween and a few other videos with me playing electric bass, and it was super fun. If it continues to be fun, maybe I’ll do it more in the future. There’s no rules. But I have enjoyed the process of trying to figure out how to make the upright bass work in this context, and finding different ways that I can play the instrument and different ways that we can treat the sound that make it hopefully seamlessly tie into the rest of the sounds that are going on. On (the previous two) albums, we’d go into a studio and they’d have a nice electric bass, and I’d be like, “Oh, maybe I’ll put this on a song or two.” But I think the upright bass has just become a sort of character that’s on the show that we’re producing called “Lake Street Dive.” [Laughs.]
There is no one else doing anything especially close to what Lake Street Dive is doing, even though all your influences are things that were or are a big part of music culture at one time or another. Does it ever strike you that you’re out there on your own, or do you feel like there’s any kind of scene you fit into?
PRICE: I think we sense a commonality and sort of a vibe (in common with some other bands). But I do think there are some inherent things about the way we’ve always been set up as a band (that are distinct). Like Bridget was saying, just with our instrumentation when we started, we didn’t even have a chordal instrument. And even though we’re playing a type of song that you would usually hear the electric bass on, it’s going to sound a little bit different with the upright, and therefore we have to play a little bit differently. And it’s like we’re playing rock songs, but we have this jazzy singer singing them and she’s messing with the melody and back-phrasing too much. [Laughs.] There are inherent things about the musicianship that no matter what we’re doing, it’s just going to sound a little bit different, even if we’re going for a genre that’s straight down the pike.
But when I reflect back on what we’ve done, part of it is that we haven’t really fought against it. We haven’t tried to align ourselves. We’ve just sort of let it be what it is and we’ve been ourselves — and we’ve been ourselves playing R&B songs or playing rock tunes. That combination, I think, has inevitably created a sound that isn’t really one thing in particular.
KEARNEY: I think we struggled, in some of our early years, especially, to find a place for ourselves in the music industry. It wasn’t an immediate thing where it’s like, “Okay, we are a bluegrass band, you can book us at your bluegrass festivals.” But I’m very grateful that we continue to make our own course, because it means that we can continue to evolve and change with each recording process, and when we write songs, because we haven’t committed to being one thing or another thing.
There is, in a way, a genre that consists of bands who make people really have a happy time when they come to shows, and it’s not any kind of guilty pleasure because the lyrics are thoughtful as well, and you’re in that good-time-providing genre.
KEARNEY: We call ourselves roller-skating music sometimes.
So that has been tested in the field?
PRICE: Actually, no. We should really plan a tour of roller-skating rinks and really put our money where our mouth is.
For a band that’s such a celebrated live act, what’s it been like living without that for a year? Your album was finished right before quarantining kicked in. Have you found creative ways to occupy your time?
KEARNEY: There was a point where it was almost an existential crisis of, if I’m not performing music, who am I now? And stepping over the cracks of that on the other side became a moment for reflection and gratitude and hopefully growth. One thing that we’ve all been doing a little bit of is teaching in various ways. We started this organization, Virtual Lessons for Actual Change, which was a response to the killing of George Floyd and everything that came after that, in terms of wanting to contribute to the fight for racial justice. We’re all teaching one-on-one lessons and sending all the money to racial justice organizations, and it’s been really great to connect with our fans in that way, one-on-one, and talk about songs with them. It’s something that’s built into my week every week, where I am able to do some work that contributes to this cause that I care about. That’s been one thing this year has brought to us that has been really special and new. All of us are doing it, and we’ve gathered a group of our musical community who wanted to get involved so there’s something like 35 teachers now that are joining forces, trying to make this a big group effort.
PRICE: I definitely spent a good part of last year in a state of not really knowing how to have an exciting, functioning life without performing. Because it’s just the majority of what I’ve done for the last 10 years. I have found new hobbies, like learning Spanish. Bridget convinced me to get an Oculus Quest, so we’re having a lot of good times on virtual reality. And I’ve become a morning person, to my surprise. It’s kind of this happy-and-sad-at-the-same time experience, where I’m super-sad to not be able to go out to shows, which have always been the place where I find the most inspiration for my own songwriting, going to see my friends play. Not being able to perform myself has been a bummer. But it’s also kind of a beautiful thing, to realize that there isn’t really a replacement for the thing that you do.
In February, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Carole King’s “Tapestry” album, three members of Lake Street Dive gathered to work up an exclusive cover of King’s “So Far Away” for Variety. Watch the video and read about it here.