Lake Street Dive on Signing to Nonesuch, Channeling Bowie

"We knew that we were walking onto a bigger stage with this record," says bassist Bridget Kearney of upcoming LP 'Side Pony'

Lake Street Dive bassist Bridget Kearney (second from right) discusses the band's upcoming LP, 'Side Pony.' Credit: Danny Clinch

In the spring of 2012, Lake Street Dive played a soulful, stripped-down cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" on a street corner in Brighton, Massachusetts. The band uploaded a video of the performance to YouTube, with a plug for their then-new EP, and before long, the quirky Boston indie-pop quartet had gone viral, racking up a million streams. (The clip has currently been viewed more than 3.5 million times.) Further boosted by an appearance at 2013's T Bone Burnett–produced, Inside Llewyn Davis–inspired "Another Day, Another Time" concert in New York City, and dedicated touring up and down the East Coast, Lake Street Dive's popularity skyrocketed just in time for their 2014 breakout album, Bad Self Portraits.

Rachael Price (the sultry-voiced singer), Bridget Kearney (bassist), Mike Olson (the guitarist-trumpeter, a native of the Minneapolis town from which the band draws its name) and Mike Calabrese (drummer) met as students studying jazz at Boston's New England Conservatory back in 2004. As Lake Street Dive, they serve up pop with a timeless feel, incorporating heavy overtones of classic R&B and jazz. This year, they're tweaking the formula further on Side Pony (due out February 19th), with influences from disco and rock & roll, and their first-ever song in a minor key. "We don't want to become a formulaic band," Kearney told Rolling Stone. "We want to continually be evolving." Kearney talked more about the upcoming album, working with producer Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, etc.) and getting signed to Nonesuch Records.

How did Side Pony come about?
We've been a band for coming on 12 years, and we got to this point where we were like, "OK, we're ready. It's time. Let's do it." We knew that we had a lot more fans than we have ever had before and that we were walking onto a bigger stage with this record. Basically, our initial concept was to do something that pushed us to try new things, something that's a bit of a wild card.

How did the band's sound evolve on this album?
There are some songs on the record that are like the next evolution of where we see the band going after Bad Self Portraits. There are new instruments and new ways of writing that are present, both in the songs that we wrote together in the studio and each in our own individual writing. We all kind of learned some new tricks and tried different things. "Can't Stop," that's the one that we wrote in the studio together. It's minor, which is — believe it or not — our first ever minor song.

And this is your first time working with Dave Cobb ...
Yeah, we recorded with him at the Sound Emporium in Nashville. We felt that he's been making records that are really interesting and fresh and not cookie-cutter in any way. He's a guy with a lot of ideas and a lot of creativity. The Sturgill Simpson record really caught our ears and made us want to work with him.

Did working with him contribute to your overall goal of pushing the band's creative limits?
It was very different than working with other producers that we'd worked with before. We tend to overthink things or be analytical and in the past, we plotted out the whole album before we got into the studio. We even recorded fully produced demos of all the songs and then [went] in and replicated them, but he wanted us to be more in the moment and intuitive with stuff.   

How so?
He wanted us to capture the chemistry of playing live together. At least 10 of the tracks on the record were recorded with all of us, including Rachael's lead vocals, just staring each other in the face in the same room. Then once we got the basic tracks together — lead vocals, drums, guitar and bass — that was when we would start putting the color on the track. And that's something that Dave is incredible at, coming up with instrumental parts that really add to the atmosphere of the song and bring it to life. 

Did you draw on any other artists for inspiration?
Well, we're not trying to be, like, a period band or a super retro thing, but we're all into music that's in the pop realm. It's more about being inspired by music and coming up with your own version of it. I know I was really into the Zombies around the time recording this record. And David Bowie. I think the song "Side Pony" might be slightly in the spirit [of Bowie], including songs on his records like "Kooks." Just artists that display a wide range of human emotions on their records too — that element of lightness and humor that can make the depth of a song more intense and introspective, or make sad songs more rich. Elliott Smith is another one. He's somebody that was always including these extra musical elements of a rich harmonic palette and some extra little musical treats.

Lake Street Dive recently signed to Nonesuch — a pretty big step up. How did you all react?
We were thrilled. It's definitely a big change. Nonesuch in particular is a label that we were really psyched about because it's very artist-friendly and has always been home to these outlying side-pony-rocking type of bands. We're in this thing together for a while. We're not looking for any sort of quick-fix success. We just want to keep making new records and making each one different from the last.

Still, during the past year, you have definitely had some pretty notable growth.
Yeah! It's amazing! It happened quickly but also kind of organically. It just felt real, partially because we've been on the road so much, watching the numbers rise and seeing people coming to your shows and singing along with all the words. It's really cool.

Lastly, Lake Street Dive have been doing a lot of work with Oxfam and donating money to help Syrian refugees. How did you react to the recent move by Congress to ban Syrian refugees from the country?
We were heartbroken. We were actually just in the Oxfam office and they were running around a lot because that had just happened. There are so many people in need, and one thing we like about Oxfam is that they're not very politically motivated. They don't have a horse in the race. It's really heartbreaking that our country isn't stepping up and helping all these people that we have the ability to help. So we're kind of doing what we can and trying to get the word out.