On their evolving sound, working with a hip-hop producer, and doing something extra special for their new release
Over the past 15 years, one big star to emerge out of the galaxy of Boston music has been Lake Street Dive. The original quartet of vocalist Rachael Price, multi-instrumentalist Mike “McDuck” Olson, bassist Bridget Kearney, and drummer Mike Calabrese came together while studying at the New England Conservatory Of Music to expand the style of country into funk, soul, jazz and R&B.
This fusion of sounds won them a big following around the city, with folks to this day having fond memories of their early gigs at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. These days, the band is based in Brooklyn, with Calabrese still living in Boston and keyboardist Akie Bermiss making the act a five piece in 2017. Their seventh album, Obviously, is due out on March 12 via Nonesuch Records, and is a stellar example of this talented act pushing their music forward.
Calabrese and I recently spoke about the making of the album, working with a hip-hop producer, still living in Boston, and a livestream happening the night before Obviously drops.
What do you view Obviously as a representation of? Is there a specific theme or vision behind the record or were you just trying to evolve the sound that you have going on with the funk, soul, R&B and pop elements?
We didn’t have anything specific in mind. Like always, the songs are based on what we were each going through and now we’re a little bit older so we have different issues. The other big change was that it was a little more collaborative than our previous records because we have Akie Bermiss into the fold on keyboards as a full-time member of the band and he was very involved in the writing process this time. That was kind of a big departure and I guess you could say we also for the first time in a while we decided to go full bore into letting a producer take the reins on the overall album, including song choice. That was something that we hadn’t done in a while, but it shaped the album to be what it is in my opinion.
That producer you worked with is Mike Elizondo. He has a background in hip-hop from working with Dr. Dre, Eminem, 50 Cent, and Mary J. Blige among others. Did his background play a major part in either the way the sound of the record is portrayed, how things are arranged, or how you as a drummer were making beats? What specific role did he play while making the album?
All of the above. It’s everything you just mentioned and the fact that it was a big reason why we picked him because we were thinking of going in and making this album possibly with a sampled approach. We were all in agreement that R&B and hip-hop these days is the touchstone of production perfection that’s happening in the music industry. It’s for several reasons, but the methodical organization of sound, arrangement, atmosphere, and all of those things combined no one is really doing better in the business. Another aspect of what I hear a lot in hip-hop production is the ability to take three or four cool ingredients and turn them into an experience, a full-body experience of a song.
I think that Mike is very good at boiling the track down to its basic necessities and having each part fill the exact role that it needed to. A lot of it was fitting it together with us along with us having to do less, we were able to take just five instruments and create something with meticulous sounds behind it to be this fully functional recording experience. For me as a drummer it was awesome because hip-hop is predominantly my go-to for drums. It gets people dancing while giving the rapper or singer a nice bed from which to deliver what the point of the song is. I think he was really attuned to that and having a producer who is really good at arranging drum parts was really cool. He was letting me be me, but there were points where he knew exactly how to approach it and it was kind of a lesson for me personally and a very cool one at that. Having him come out of that world was purely invaluable in the way we put the album together.
From listening to it, everything seems so seamless while having a good flow going on from track to track. Did you go back to Nashville to make the album like you did with your previous two albums, Side Pony and Free Yourself Up, or did you go to a different studio in a different city?
Originally the discussions with Mike took a couple months and I think during that time he was already planning on possibly relocating from Los Angeles. Initially we were going to head out there to make Obviously but he ended up moving to an awesome plot of land outside of Nashville and there’s a studio there, so he moved into it. We decided to fly down there and it was cool, both Side Pony and Free Yourself Up were done in the city of Nashville with there being all the distractions that come with it.
With Obviously, we would get up in the morning and drive out to the farmland and we would literally be on the farm during the making of the album. We could grab a coffee in the morning but during the day we were in some spacious big sky territory, it was really nice.
Being the only member of the band left living in Boston, does it get difficult to meet up with Rachael, Mike, Bridget and Akie when it comes to writing new material, practicing or just talking? Have you been doing a lot of Zoom chats to exchange ideas or planning things out?
We’ve been dealing with living in different locations for a while now so things haven’t been that different since we made Side Pony. What we did do differently this time around is that we made sure when we were touring, which was in 2019, that we started preparing music for Obviously. We were carving out time while we were on tour to collaborate, rehearse and record demos, and afterwards we were sending back and forth Garageband files of what we were working on to each other. Time was of the essence and even more so because some of us have families now so we started to focus a little more and we made the most of touring this time around while working stuff out.
COVID-19 still has touring and live music on hold, especially with the cold weather being around. Does the band have a plan in place to do a special virtual show to ring in the release of Obviously or do you plan on just sharing it around social media, making sure it gets some press and hopefully when the pandemic subsides later this year you can hit the road in support of it?
The night before the record comes out we’re doing a live stream with each of us listening to tracks off of Obviously and talking about the making of the record. That’ll be happening at 7pm on March 11 with the album coming out on the following day. In terms of plans, we still have dates on hold for an upcoming tour and it’s looking like that’ll be starting late summer and possibly early fall. Like any plans that are made these days, things can change at any moment. We’re counting on touring eventually but until then we’ll be online and expressing ourselves through the virtual mediums.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.