Lake Street Dive Stand Out in Jazz World

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The band name Lake Street Dive came from a dingy bar district in founder Mike “McDuck” Olson’s hometown of Minneapolis, and there was a time when tiny, unglamorous joints like that were the best bookings the Boston-based quartet could get.

Just last week, Olson, who plays trumpet and guitar, vocalist Rachael Price, upright bassist Bridget Kearney and drummer Mike Calabrese entertained the viewership of the Late Show With David Letterman, after which Letterman invited them to “come back every night.”

Even if that was suave showbiz banter, as opposed to a serious offer, it’s an apt illustration of the big-time doors that are opening for the group. What these four have going for them is an intriguing back story — four jazz students meet at the New England Conservatory, take their unorthodox instrumentation and out-there musical ideas and run with them. Their truly fresh, stripped-down tweaking of retro-soul is captured on their new album, Bad Self Portraits.

As the frontwoman who grew up in a Nashville suburb once populated by country legends, cut her teeth on swinging standards beloved by her grandparents’ generation and now sings confessional songs supplied by her bandmates, Price has a perspective worth hearing about the ensemble’s evolution.

CMT Edge: When people learn that you grew up in Hendersonville, Tenn., outside of Nashville, do they seem to assume certain things about how you got started and what your musically formative years must have been like?

Price: Yeah, I get some questions about did I sing country, or is that part of the scene that I came from. Really, it’s kind of a coincidence. I was in a bubble when I was young of singing Judy Garland and Doris Day songs. Then I moved when I was 17 to Boston. So the first musical community that I ever understood and was involved in was the Boston scene.

The peculiar part of the band’s story — and the one that you all seem to want to escape — is the idea that you started out doing free jazz renditions of country songs. How did that particular detail get circulated in the first place?

It was just a PR mistake. I mean, the fact of the matter is that did happen 100 percent. The first time we ever came together, McDuck was like, “I want us to play ‘free country.’ Not as in ‘America’s a free country’ … but ‘free country.’” That’s how he put it. That’s what happened. But never for a second did we actually even attempt to do that, which is the funniest part about it. He said it, and we’re all like, ‘Cool. We like it.’ And then we just started playing songs.

That sounds like the sort of weird, high-concept thing musicians might attempt in college.

Exactly. That’s the type of thing that piques four college students who, like, want to be doing the most awkward-sounding thing. It piqued our interest, and then it sort of kept us playing together.

Is it fair to say that a stand-up bassist, a drummer, a trumpeter-guitarist and a lead vocalist is an uncommon lineup anywhere outside of, say, the jazz world?

Um, yes. Even within the jazz world. I mean, we originally didn’t have a chordal instrument. So we had very unusual instrumentation for a long time until Mike [Olson] started playing guitar. That was necessary. He started learning guitar sort of out of necessity to take the sound that we were making and be able to communicate it better.

But I think that foundation that we had of that odd instrumentation still exists, even when Mike is playing guitar. It informs the way that we all play together. Bridget and Mike fill out so much of the sound as a band. He kept the same aesthetic and applied it to different instrumentation.

What difference does the fact that you came up singing jazz and pop standards make to you singing your bandmates’ material now?

I was approaching it from a tradition of interpreting songs that I didn’t write. I have a lot of practice doing that, taking a song and interpreting it. I mean, I struggled with that. Before we really took off, a few years ago, I was trying to do the thing where I was writing my own songs. I took a stab at the singer-songwriter thing — not just within Lake Street Dive but outside of it.

I’m not a songwriter in the same way that the other members are. They’re very prolific. They write a lot, all the time. And while I do write, it’s just not the same as them. So I went through a little period where I came to realize that about myself, and I have grown very comfortable singing their songs and being able to interpret them. …

I feel a kinship to these songs, almost as if I had written them — like, almost. Obviously, I didn’t, but I feel so connected to them because I’m the first one [to sing them]. And we know each other so well. We’re best friends. I don’t need them to tell me what the song’s about at this point. When they write a song, I don’t really need to get too much of a back story.

I saw a video of you as a 12-year-old soloist on a choir tour singing a jazz number about romantic experiences that you couldn’t possibly have experienced yet. That’s got to be a significant difference between your role as interpreter in this band versus when you sang jazz as a kid. The songs you’re singing now are more in line with where you are in life.

Yeah, exactly. There were so many songs and jazz standards that I was like, “I might never experience this.” Sometimes [my bandmates] write songs and I’m like, “Did you read my diary?” …We’re the same age. We’re going through similar things in life. It’s just gonna happen that we’re gonna have these shared experiences.

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