Interview: Lake Street Dive’s Bridget Kearney on the musical influences of ‘Side Pony’ and signing to a record label

Lake Street Dive

The Englert Theatre — Monday, Aug. 22 at 7 p.m.

Photo by Danny Clinch
Photo by Danny Clinch

Lake Street Dive saw a mercurial rise to fame after their mellowed-out, soulful cover of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back” went viral. They continued to earn critical acclaim with their seamless vocal melodies and throwback style. They are a nationally-known band with a local influence in Bridget Kearney, who provides bass and vocals for the harmonious quartet. Kearney, born and raised in Iowa City, formed the musical group after heading to the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music with a background in jazz. The four are growing into musical success, touring the US and Europe, but have not outgrown familiar places. Bridget Kearney spoke with Little Village on Lake Street Dive’s upcoming hometown show at the Englert (Monday, Aug. 22 at 7 p.m.; tickets are $33.50), their recent album and their evolution as a band.

Are you excited to be back in Iowa City?

Well, I was just back in July, visiting for about a week — but I love Iowa City. I love being there; I know so many people from over the years, and I’m just excited to share what I’ve been doing with the band with the people I know and love.

How is playing at home different from playing elsewhere?

It’s kind of more real in a way. Especially the size of places we’re playing now, it’s easier to just turn off the part of your brain that knows there’s two thousand people there watching you. But when some of those people are your school teachers or your parents or classmates or people you went to church with, those are like real people, so you sort of tally up in your brain the real people you know. It goes up and up, and it makes me nervous (laughs).

You were classically trained in bass with a background in jazz, but Lake Street Dive is known for its old-school pop melodies and vocal harmonies. When you formed, how did this sound come about?

I think, for all of us in the band, we studied music a lot, but what we studied isn’t necessarily what we’re playing now. But it gave us an education not only in playing an instrument but understanding music and getting inside it and figuring out how it works. So the same techniques I use as a jazz musician to transcribe Charlie Parker’s improvised jazz solos and figure out, “Oh, that’s why it sounds so cool,” you can use that same skill to get inside a Paul McCartney or a James Jamerson bassline. You know, you’re able to listen to a recording and pick out the notes that they’re playing and sort of analyze how that works within the song. Even though it’s not the same style I grew up learning, it’s definitely still used every day.

In the last year there has been a lot of evolution with the band’s operations, with you signing to Dan Auerbach’s Nonesuch Records in Nashville and your newest album Side Pony produced by Dave Cobb. How do you feel about the changes, and what’s the best thing to come out of it?

The great thing about developing or getting some success in the music industry is it helps you to make more music (laughs). When we were just doing everything ourselves, when we were doing our own booking, driving ourselves everywhere and setting up our gear, that was just so many more hours in the day that we were occupied with tasks other than music. Now that we have a bus and do all of the travel overnight. Like for example, today I woke up and I was already in St. Louis, and I’m sitting right now in front of my keyboard and my guitar and I’m just working on writing music. That’s really the best thing about growing in the industry, the way you can continue to make music and be sustainable. And on the other side it’s also a lot of time on the road, which is hard in some ways. It’s hard on your body and your social life.

Side Pony has more instrumentation than your past records, and there’s funk and disco vibes to it. How was it created?

We were touring a good deal after finishing Bad Self Portraits, so there was a chunk of time before Side Pony where we had a chance to do a lot of writing — I think we came into the studio with thirty or forty songs. And we had more time in the studio than we’ve ever had. That allowed us to be a little more intricate with the choices we made on the record. One of the more out-there tracks, “Can’t Stop,” that was one where we got to the end of the session and we’d already recorded a bunch of songs we were happy with but we still had time left. We decided, “Let’s just do something brand new,” and we wrote the song in the studio together. [It was] partially inspired by some dollar bin record store shopping throughout the session. We’d take a break, grab a record we didn’t know, and drop the needle on it and see what it was. And a lot of those happened to be 70s funk records. We were just in this moment of being inspired by these tracks and thought, “Let’s take a sample from one of these,” so “Can’t Stop” actually contains a sample of a Major Lance song, and that’s how it came about.

Do you normally write together?

That was an anomaly. In the past, we’d always written separately, and then come to band rehearsal with basically a complete song. Each of us has our own process. But most importantly we’re all big fans of music, we buy a lot of records, see a lot of shows. That’s what keeps the fire going for me: just constantly consuming music and seeing what’s exciting to me.

What are your current musical interests or up-and-coming musicians you’re into?

There’s a couple records out this summer that I really like. Margaret Glaspy, who’s a really good friend of mine in New York; a great songwriter and lyricist: They’re just a trio and they get so much funky sound out of it; I’m really into it. There’s a band called Big Thief that just put out their first record; they’re amazing. And I’ve been super into Kendrick Lamar. I think his records are so thoughtful and layered and complex. I really admire the confidence that he puts in the listener to dig deep and really get what he’s saying. It’s stunning.

Chelsea Pfeiffer works as a researcher, writes in her spare time and is always looking for new music. Anne Ventullo, who completed the phone interview for this piece, a fellow Iowan, can often be found at local live music shows. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 204.

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