Dive to the Top

Lake Street Dive’s decade-long march finally struck a nerve with its breakthrough album, Bad Self Portraits

click to enlarge Lake Street Dive originally intended to have more of an Avant Garde Jazz sound, but ended up finding its successful Soul/Pop formula in the band members’ varied influences.
Lake Street Dive originally intended to have more of an Avant Garde Jazz sound, but ended up finding its successful Soul/Pop formula in the band members’ varied influences.

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t’s been a year and a half since the stratospheric breakout success of Lake Street Dive’s Bad Self Portraits album and its ubiquitous title track. In a heartbeat, the Boston-born/Brooklyn-based quartet (vocalist Rachael Price, guitarist/trumpeter Mike “McDuck” Olson, upright bassist Bridget Kearney and drummer Mike Calabrese) was getting face time on every late-night/morning television show, notching adds in every conceivable radio format and scoring prime real estate in every music and entertainment magazine.

Much of this attention was framed within the context of Lake Street Dive as a “new” band, which was ironic since it had formed in 2004 and had released four albums before hitting with Bad Self Portraits. That kind of scantily researched media coverage could make a hard-working and long-neglected band feel just a little bitter, but Lake Street Dive preferred to be grateful for the breaks that propelled them to the top rather than dwell on the inordinate amount of time it took to get there.

“It was a little funny to keep hearing people say we were an ‘overnight sensation,’ because we’d been at it for so long, but at no point did we feel entitled enough to take it as, ‘Hey, you should know who we are by now,’ ” Calabrese says. “It’s the way the business works, and there are no guarantees, even if you have over a decade of playing under your belt. Any pride we feel from it comes out of the knowledge that we did it by writing and playing the best songs we could. Sometimes schtick can advance the process, and it’s nice we never went that route.”

The other ironic element of Bad Self Portraits’ success was that the album had been recorded two years before its eventual release, and was held up while Price jumped through legal hoops to extricate herself from a prior contract. More than three years has passed since Lake Street Dive’s last studio excursion, and Calabrese says a new album has been recorded and will be ready next year. 

Lake Street Dive’s “overnight” climb began in 2004, when all four members attended the New England Conservatory of Music. Coalescing around mutual influences and inspired by their distinct differences, the four musicians navigated around work schedules and other band commitments to tour consistently with the new outfit. Calabrese recently noted that Lake Street Dive wanted to sound like “The Beatles and Motown had a party,” but that wasn’t always the band’s sonic raison d’etre.

“Originally we were committed to coming more out of the Jazz tradition, specifically the Avant Garde, as odd as that may sound,” Calabrese says. “The Beatles and Motown were two very strong influential denominators for each band member, but we didn’t know it for years. Glad we realized it at the time we did.”

It was in the members’ significant influential differences that Lake Street Dive found the lightning for its bottle. By utilizing those disparities in the writing process and surfing those tensions in performance, Lake Street Dive found its unique Soul/Pop approach.

“In our truly democratic way of doing things, we are only incorporating elements we all find inspiring, at least on a basic level,” Calabrese says. “We can really understand what Donny Osmond was getting at when he said, ‘She’s a little bit Country; I’m a little bit Rock & Roll,’ because there are certainly albums that some members listen to that would never be on another’s radar. Raffi, the Grease soundtrack, Mannheim Steamroller … these exist on but one of our collective phones.”

Lake Street Dive signed with the Signature Sounds label in 2010, which released the band’s self-titled label debut that same year, and Fun Machine in 2012. After its fourth album, the band returned to the studio and recorded Bad Self Portraits, but Price’s legal issues surfaced, putting it in limbo.

While the legalities were being hammered out, Americana impresario T Bone Burnett invited Lake Street Dive to join his Another Day, Another Time show at the Town Hall in New York City, a concert that featured music from and inspired by the Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis. Like fellow performer Rhiannon Giddens, Lake Street Dive became a sensation as a result of its appearance in the show, which was broadcast on HBO and released as an album. After nearly 10 years, Lake Street Dive was one of music’s hottest properties.

“The immediate impact (of the appearance) was that we were suddenly on several pivotal radars,” Calabrese says. “There were representatives from top publications, record labels, TV productions and the like attending the show. This was a great help in growing our fan base and public recognition.”

Clearly one of the qualities that attracted Burnett to Lake Street Dive and has endeared the group to its legions of fans is the members’ uncanny knack for inhabiting other people’s songs. Perhaps the best example is the band’s soulful, torchy take on the Jackson 5’s perfect Pop single, “I Want You Back,” which is slinkily turned into a Lake Street Dive song while remaining true to the original. The rendition is indicative of the band’s process for finding and translating cover songs.

“The songs we choose to cover usually start simply as songs we not only like, but say something about us as a band,” Calabrese says. “Whether it’s the artist we respect, the melodic content, the nostalgic value or the irony of it, it represents who we are in some way. In the case of ‘I Want You Back,’ Bridget learned the bass line and, in the process of practicing it, it slowly became clear it worked well in a different way. The bass line immediately hooks the listener, and we’re a stripped-down band in which the bass plays a very significant role, so it seemed a perfect match. If the song we’re choosing to work on lacks a specific imitable quality, it takes a lot of time to come up with the right arrangement, but usually a good song translates easily into the new format we envision for it.”

The band is working fresh covers and songs from the impending new album into its current set list. Calabrese notes the band has become more unified, retaining some important qualities from its early days while simultaneously moving forward.

“We’re still energetic and searching idealistically for the sound that will define a generation, so in that way we’re the same,” he says. “Also we still make fart jokes. The biggest exception is that this has finally become a career. Lake Street Dive in 2006 would call their parents to crash while on the road, and maybe ask for help with the cell phone bill. No more! We’re boring adults now.”


LAKE STREET DIVE plays Tuesday at Newport’s Southgate House Revival. Tickets/more info: southgatehouse.com.


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