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Lake Street Dive's Long, Slow Burn

Shervin Lainez

Formed in Boston, Lake Street Dive's original four members — bassist Bridget Kearney, guitarist/trumpeter Mike Olson, drummer Mike Calabrese and vocalist Rachael Price — have been performing together since 2004.

Taking their name from the large number of dive bars on Lake Street in Olson's hometown of Minneapolis, the quartet built its reputation at a steady pace before breaking into wider acclaim in 2012. In recent years, the original quartet has welcomed keyboardist and vocalist Akie Bermiss into the ranks.

In 2018, Lake Street Dive issued the album Free Yourself Up as well as the EP, Freak Yourself Out.

Kearney, one of the group's primary songwriters, recently spoke with KMUW about her band's music and determination.

Interview Highlights

What was it that initially brought the band together?

We were all students at the New England Conservatory, the original members. Mike Olson was the one who pulled us all together. We knew each other to some degree, but it wasn't like we were friends who would just hang out. We gelled really quickly, and if we didn't share stylistic preferences immediately, then just some aesthetic preferences. We like music that's fun, that you can dance to, and we wanted to write music with lyrics. We were probably in the minority at the time at New England Conservatory. Most of our peers were writing instrumental music.

I'm sure you've been in bands where the chemistry doesn't happen that quickly or maybe doesn't happen at all. But Lake Street Dive has been together for 15 years now with the original members still in the band. That's rare.

It's very special and crucial to the longevity of a band. It would be really hard to keep a band together for 15 years if you didn't have chemistry and things that you agree upon and things that you admire about each other's musicianship. It's great to be able to walk into rehearsal, work up a new song or a cover, hear your bandmates' ideas and genuinely like them. It's important to keep the energy positive and productive.

It's funny that you mention covers. I discovered the band via the Fun Machine EP (2012), which was mostly other people's songs. How do you select covers and then go about making the piece your own?

We've been doing it for a long time, but it doesn't get any easier. It's still a somewhat mysterious process, which song is going to stick. A lot of it has to do with the way that the vocalist likes singing. Just yesterday, we were working up a new song for Akie. We wanted him to choose something he likes, something he can make his own. That's how we've always worked with Rachael as well. It's got to be something she's comfortable with, believes in; something she can sell in a way that's not just a pure copy.

I'm struck by the lyrics of your songs. Very often there's a melancholy to them or they're about loneliness. That's a thread that runs through the material. Was that a conscious decision?

Not that specifically. Lyrics are very important to us, and for me personally, it's important that a song is memorably about something. I'm usually not into songs that are super vague. That's a goal post that I set for myself: Making sure that it's pretty clear what the song is trying to say. If I can throw something in there that's head-turning, something that catches your attention in a way that forces you to pay attention to the lyrics.

In terms of sadness, that's one of the most interesting categories of songs for me. Our musical style is pretty peppy. That's a musical genre that I enjoy; something that has some emotional depth to it but is also fist-jamming, dancing-around-the-room … crying on the dance floor is the best term for it.

I would suspect that you hear from fans about a song such as "Dude," that they say, "That really spoke to me. You got me."

I think with Free Yourself Up, we've reached some territory that's beyond the realm of purely romantic love songs. It's been interesting to see the way that those have seemed to touch people. "Dude" is one; "I Can Change" is one. I see a lot of people on social media covering the song and saying, "This is a really important song to me." That feels really cool to be able to get into that territory of topics where it's not just about relationships, but it's also about your relationship with the world and your relationship with yourself.

There is also a sense of humor in your songs.

There are some songwriters that myself and the rest of the band like who use humor: John Prine, Harry Nilsson. The thing that is great about using humor is that when that is put right next to something that's really sincere or something that's maybe really personal or honest, sad, it makes each side of the coin shine all the brighter, to have those contrasts.

What was the turning point for the band? There's usually the early struggling of getting people to come to gigs, then to get it to where it's more than just your friends, then getting out of your hometown, etc.

It's been a long, slow burn for us, but I would say that one of the bigger stepping-stones was when we put out a YouTube cover of The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." It languished online for several months with only our parents watching it. Then, all of a sudden, it started getting posted around and shared. Much to our surprise that translated into a lot of new people coming to our shows. By the time we put out Bad Self Portraits (2014) there were a lot more people ready and willing to listen to it.

That created a snowball effect where other things started coming our way. We got to do this cool concert at Town Hall in New York for the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis with amazing artists: Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, Joan Baez. Those are probably the two biggest things in our career to date.

One of the most fascinating things to me about Lake Street Dive is that you seem to draw a cross-section of people: There are the fans who like to sing along with the songs and then there are those who take a deep dive into the musicianship.

Totally. That's exactly how we like it. That's a great combination of people to have in the room. People that are there to party and people that are there to listen really closely. That creates a really perfect concert environment for us.

Lake Street Dive performs at Wave on Tuesday, July 2, on a bill that also features Robert Randolph and The Family Band.


Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.