Lake Street Dive, the four piece band formed ten years ago whilst students in the New England Conservatory of Music, take their name from a street of dive bars in Minneapolis. A strange combination – classically trained music and dive bars – but combinations are at the heart of this exceptionally talented band, whose third studio album Bad Self Portraits has had critics justifiably excited. Each of the band members is a talented songwriter contributing to the band, and combined they make a sound that is classic and yet hard to define. It has elements of pop, jazz, soul and blues all mixed in together, but there’s something else there too – perhaps the personalities involved – which makes it excitingly fresh.
For many people their first encounter with the band came through their cover of the Jackson 5’s Want you Back, showcasing their main format of trumpet, bass, drums and vocals (though trumpeter Mike “McDuck” Olson also plays guitar). A very fine version that tips its hat to the quality of the original song, whilst allowing Lake Street Dive to shine. The band’s live performances have won them plenty of notable fans – T-Bone Burnett invited them to play at the one-off show Another Day / Another Time: Celebrating the music of Inside Llewyn Davis, which featured the likes of Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Jack White and Gillian Welch.
Band member Bridget Kearney, the bassist who wrote five of Bad Self Portraits eleven tracks, was kind enough to agree to this TMO Interview (via email).
Tell us a little bit about Bad Self Portraits in relation to your other albums. How would you characterise the differences? Are Albums as a format important to you?
We like to think of albums as a snapshot of a period of time. We are a band that writes new songs constantly, not just leading up to a the making of a record, so the snapshot for us is usually a period of a year or more. A lot can happen in that much time! We try to pick the songs from that period that share some coherence, but enough diversity to keep the listener engaged for the whole record. I love the format of an album because it is just a bigger canvas to paint on. It’s too hard to get it all in to one or two songs! With an album, you can really take the listener on a journey. I also love the way you can hear the passage of time by going through a band’s discography. Someone like The Beatles… they go through so many phases from Please Please Me to Let it Be! You can actually hear when they’ve learned a new chord, or picked up a new instrument, tried a new drug, fell in love… I think that’s really cool.
Thinking about Bad Self Portraits in the evolution of our band’s discography, I think we’ve evolved into a phase where we’re comfortable in our own skin, as a band. Compared with some of our earlier albums, this one is a lot more coherent, a lot more of a statement. We’re also really maximizing the full possibility of sounds that the four of us can make with all of us singing on almost every track and some choice additions of fun sounds and instruments that sit on top of what we play live–icing on the cake.
I’m more in the camp that says songwriting is a muscle and you need to work it like anything else. You can’t force creativity but you can encourage it by making time for it
Music, good and bad, gets under your skin like nothing else; If there was one song in the world you could forget, what would it be and why?
I sometimes come up with hooks for songs that I know are REALLY dumb but I still find myself humming them months later. That’s the worst because it’s this terrible thing that you can’t get out of your head and you know YOU created it!
From the Beatles through to Charlie Parker, I’d argue that, in the modern culture, there’s a tendency to prize natural musical ability over ‘trained’ musicianship. Would you agree? You’ve all been trained in classical/jazz – do you ever feel the need to downplay that technical and theoretical training, to be taken seriously as writers of Pop music (pop music meant in the best sense)?
I think in any creative field, be it music or engineering, science, literature or what have you, it’s important to maintain an eternal childlike curiosity and enthusiasm. Getting too caught up in the technical side of things can be a barrier to looking at the big picture–“not seeing the forest for the trees,” as they say here in the US. But if you can manage to still love music and constantly be excited about it and curious about it, you’re at a real advantage when it comes to executing your ideas if you have the technical training. We all have our own techniques that help us block out our conservatory perfectionist side from time to time while we’re searching for something more innate–writing songs on an instrument you don’t know for example. It forces you to write with your ears instead of your brain. And we also use our technical training all the time to try and figure out what we love so much about music, even music that was made by untrained musicians. I think there’s a value to both sides of the situation and since we happen to be on the conservatory side of it, we try to make the most of it!
Chris Isaak once said ‘if you have to be miserable to write great songs, you should go drive a truck’, do you think he’s right?
I think you can be miserable doing a lot of things! And it’s a lot harder to write a happy song than a sad song. But I’m hoping we’re up to the challenge because we’d all like to be happy someday!
Some say the musical process is like giving birth while others shrug their shoulders (like Duke Ellington) and say ‘all you need to do is pout and you got a blues song’ Where do you fit on the spectrum?
I’m more in the camp that says songwriting is a muscle and you need to work it like anything else. You can’t force creativity but you can encourage it by making time for it and being open to it and having the skills and the work ethic to see it through when it strikes. I definitely feel really great and lucky every time I come up with an idea that I think is good, because they are few and far between! You’ve gotta always have your eye out for them.
The biggest music ‘industry’ story of the last couple of months has been the Apple release of U2’s latest album. What do you think of the way it was done? Does it worry you that more and more people are not buying music directly?
I didn’t follow the U2 thing very closely but it seemed like people felt invaded by having the album inserted automatically into their discography. We never want people to feel like they’re being force-fed our music. It’s so much more exciting to discover something on your own. In general, we are not very hands on with the business side of our music–we just try to focus on the musical side of it and hope that it will be good enough that people will want to pay for it and want to come out and see us live. That may be short sighted. As a listener, I stick to buying music directly.
One of the things we’re always interested in, here at TMO, is what drives artist to create; what makes songwriters move from singing songs they’ve learned, to actually writing songs. Can you remember the first song you wrote, and what drove you to write?
I’ve loved the creative side of music from a very early age. I took piano lessons as a kid and was always more interested in just tinkering around, coming up with my own melodies rather than bothering to learn what was on the page. I still remember the first song I wrote with words, it was to a kind of swing bass line in C Major and the words were “Walking along in the forest, singing a song, with a chorus.” Ha! So my inspiration was… forests I guess?? I think it showed early signs of a pop songwriter–just looking for a catchy little hook that people could sing along to.
You’ve done lots of covers as a band – perhaps most notably the cover of the Jacksons I want you back. What attracts you to cover a song – and is it easier to cover a song you consider flawed, or to cover a classic?
With cover songs, we almost always use our original instrumentation, which is the quartet of voice, trumpet, bass and drums, so no chordal instrument. So we NEED to pick songs that will work for that format. That means having a very strong melody. Because of how they function in our set too, we like to pick songs that people will know and recognize. It gives them a moment they can connect to and sing along with and I think hearing us play a song that they know helps them connect to our original music a little more. We also like to pick a song that we can put our own stamp on, a little bit. So it has to be a song that isn’t too dependent on the original groove or instrumentation or tempo of the song.
Amidst the amazing reviews you’ve been getting, there’s one reservation that keeps cropping up – that this is music that looks to the past, to nostalgia, rather than the future. Is that a valid criticism? Is it something you worry about / think about when you’re writing?
I think the evolution of music doesn’t have to be in one straight line. It’s more like a tree. Instead of building our branch off the very top, we’re starting somewhere in the middle and growing upwards and outwards. We also love music that is anachronistic. That uses a jumble of things from different eras in a new way. The Sturgill Simpson album that came out this year Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is a great example of that. Staring it’s own branch from early country music and Elvis and then throwing in a bunch of crazy modern sounds and modern lyrics. It’s really exciting for the ears!
All four of you write songs – how difficult is it to agree on what a Lake Street Drive song is, and isn’t? Are there four very different solo albums building up in the background?
I think our writing works pretty well together. We all are influenced by each other and we spend a lot of time together so we often go through phases together or what we’re into–Fleetwood Mac phase, The Zombies phase, Brazilian phase, etc. That said, we do already have a HUGE crop of songs ready for the next LSD record and I have no idea how we’re gonna pick which ones make the record! I hope that something happens with whatever songs don’t make the record, be it solo projects or passing them on to other artists.
If you could climb into the brain of anyone, living or dead for a day, whose would it be and how would you use it?
Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm….Paul McCartney. I feel like he could spit out about 200 perfect melodies in that one day and I could call them my own and pretty much retire after that. Although all I would want to do in retirement is write more songs. So maybe that’s not the best plan!