Back in 2004, a little band by the name of Lake Street Dive formed. After meeting in the halls of New England Conservatory of Music, lead vocalist Rachael Price, bassist Bridget Kearney, guitarist and trumpeter Mike Olson, and drummer Mike Calabrese decided to form a band. The goal was simple: make part-jazz, part-soul southern rock with people that they love. Word of their live shows spread rapidly, as the band is all fanfare and enthusiasm on the stage compared to the more manicured sound of their studio recordings. At least, that was the case up until last year.
Like a lot of Americans, the four members of Lake Street Dive found themselves suffocated by the terse political climate under our new president, and their new album Free Yourself Up is a stark reflection of such. Over the course of its 10 songs, listeners will find the band may not sound drastically different in terms of instrumental style, but rather the messages the band is singing about have changed. In fact, Free Yourself Up signals a lot of changes. The biggest, and best, is how Lake Street Dive interact with the external world as musicians and citizens.
“First, it’s important for songs you’re writing to be honest. They should reflect where you’re at personally. While I think our songs have done a great job of feeling really applicable to all sorts of people because they came from personal experiences to a personal extent, that’s the first responsibility we felt as songwriters,” says Price. “Secondly, people may argue for, against, or not even care about reflecting the [political] times, but we wanted to make sure we were being responsible artists. These things started factoring in to our day-to-day life and our relationship to the world.”
Because the band chose to tackle heavier subjects, the usual songwriting process was altered to better format the discussions. Instead of each member writing a song on their own and bringing it to the band to rehearse, everyone began collaborating more both in song arrangement and construction. In a way, they were playing song tag: If a member had an idea, then the goal was to tag another member and invite them to work on your track together, trading off who writes the music and who writes the lyrics. The process taught them to build more trust and, in tandem, confidence both as individuals and as a unit. All four musicians were making decisions faster. They were on the same page more often. They learned new things over a decade after they thought they already had one another figured out.
Collaboration was needed because of how difficult addressing real world problems was for them. Lyrically, Lake Street Dive struggled with songs like “Shame, Shame, Shame” where the members couldn’t figure out how to communicate the message. They scrapped the recording and then resurrected it later on because it felt like an important sentiment to deliver. So they repurposed the song’s anthemic moment where they sing a positive message about incoming change. The new version solved the roadbump the band ran into.
Musically, there were other hurdles. On “I Can Change,” a stylistically simple folk song felt out of their wheelhouse only because it strays toward the reserved side of music. How could a notoriously energetic band deliver a subtle number? Lake Street Dive opted for minimal production, continuing folk’s tradition of accessible music to encourage listeners to learn how to play it themselves, thus passing the story along to others through performance.
Free Yourself Up bursts with tracks that were at once inspired and difficult like these. Track listing becomes extra important in that sense. So the album begins with the lively, new-age swing of opener “Baby Don’t Leave Me Alone With My Thoughts.” Its first words, “Hard times, hard times,” stage the scene as a warning and a rally cry.
“It perfectly encapsulated the vibe of the record,” says Price. “It’s a fun dance song, and that’s Lake Street Dive to a T—we’re trying to make people groove. But at the same time, we wanted to introduce the fact that we have more things to talk about than breakups. It’s a fun dance song about a person suffering emotionally during a tough political climate. What better way to start it all than by—if you think of the album as a person—zooming in on their brain and understanding the context for why they’re about to do, say, and feel what they will do.”
Nearly 15 years deep into its career, Lake Street Dive is still the reckless, inspiring, lively band that first explored Boston’s music landscape in the mid-aughts. The one criticism the musicians heard from fans over the years, though, is that their records rarely capture the energy their live shows offer. So they decided to figure out what’s missing in that translation from studio to stage by taking the producer reigns themselves—a first for the band. “I’ve never worked so hard on my vocals,” says Price. “Instead of doing a few takes, I was spending days and days, and we spent time talking about approach, almost like a director would.” So all four committed to rectify the situation by learning to produce the album themselves. After all, the only way to know what goes into a good, energetic track is to tinker with the equipment yourself.
The new production role felt manageable because of their close-knit bond. Telling a friend’s story on their behalf is a lot easier when your friend happens to be standing right next to you onstage. That’s what makes Free Yourself Up feel liberating the deeper into its runtime you get, and it’s why the band is so excited to bring that sound to life onstage at the Sinclair this Friday.
“It’s a profound experience,” explains Price. “I grew up singing jazz, which is the interpretation of someone else’s lyrics but putting your own feelings behind them, like the way an actor would choose to play Lady Macbeth. But there’s something very profound about being able to go right to the songwriter, except you know them. You don’t have to ask them what the song is about or what they’re going through because they’re your best friend. You hear it and get it. It’s a blessing to be in a band with such good songwriters and to get to be the voice for these words.”
LAKE STREET DIVE, MIKAELA DAVIS. FRI 5.4. THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. 7PM/18+/$53.75. SINCLAIRCAMBRIDGE.COM