As Lake Street Dive releases its major label debut, the band is thankful for all the years it got to exist on its own little island, apart from trends and outside the mainstream eye.
Having met in 2004 as students at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, drummer Michael Calabrese, bassist Bridget Kearney, singer Rachael Price and guitarist/trumpeter Michael "McDuck" Olson started out in a decidedly avant-garde direction. By the time Lake Street Dive released Bad Self Portraits in 2014, the band had found a pop sound that drew as much on '60s R&B and British Invasion as their instrumental and jazz background.
So with Side Pony, released Feb. 19 on Nonesuch, Lake Street Dive is an accomplished band ready to showcase a sound and an identity that don't exactly fit anyone else's expectations. The title refers to the hairstyle, yes, but in a bigger sense celebrates individuality and self-confidence.
"As we've become more aware where we sit in the pop world, we've become more and more aware of how weird we are and how much of an outlier sound we have," Kearney says. "Walking in to this bigger arena and working with a major label for the first time, we wanted to embrace that and continue to rock our side pony instead of being drawn into this temptation of doing what's really popular now."
The band looked at Side Pony as a chance to push their musical boundaries rather than play to expectations.
"[Bad Self Portraits] had introduced us to a lot of a new fans and that can be a difficult position to be in. You want to make people happy, but you don't want to recycle material. Our whole approach was to do stuff that was new for us," Kearney says. "We've been together for a good long time, and we've developed a lot of trust with one another. If someone says 'I have this crazy idea,' we're all willing to go for it because we know there's probably something good on the other side."
Though it's difficult to imagine now, Lake Street Dive started as a "free country band" ("Ornette Coleman meets Loretta Lynn," Kearney says), but that was quickly abandoned. Lake Street Dive retained those avant-garde leanings for the first few years, but really the band became "an outlet for us to discover ourselves as songwriters," Kearney says.
"The initial output was pretty scattered and it still is in some ways," she says. "We're not trying to be a specific thing. We're not trying to be within the confines of current pop music or trying to be some retro throwback thing either. That leaves us a lot of freedom when writing songs to think about the fundamental building blocks of music."
The band dove into writing songs, exploring how their different influences and skills could combine in different ways. Through years of trial and error, they landed on the Lake Street Dive sound: fusing classic '60s pop music with swinging jazz, letting their extensive music training push the songs into unexpected realms.
"It was very slow for the first nine years, but that was something that actually was a blessing," Kearney says. "We were really able to build our foundation on a substantive ground that was all music based. Nobody could've possibly been in it for anything but the music because that's all there was. The growth the last couple of years has felt quick, but we had those nine years to figure out what we were about."
For Side Pony, Lake Street Dive had 27 songs fully demoed before going into the studio. Producer Dave Cobb (who drew the band's interest from his work with Sturgill Simpson) pulled a batch of the ones he was most excited about from that list and the record started there. The band recorded in two halves, with the luxury of a six-week break in between to assess the progress.
"(Cobb) was so engaging and so excited about what we were doing," Kearney says. "He's an encyclopedia of pop music, so he's a nice counter weight to the Conservatory background we have. Sometimes we'd get too much in our heads and one of his catch phrases in the studio was 'too much math.'"
"It's fun when we can sneak in these hints of music school, but at a certain point, we'd realized we started to make a more complex record than we wanted it to be, so we wrote some fun summer jams," Kearney says.
Side Pony opens with one such burst of sunshine, "Godawful Things," which combines an endlessly catchy chorus with tempo changes, instrumental riffs and vocal harmonies.
"That was one that when we arranged it and were getting ready to head into the studio, I was super excited about and felt like it was the next evolution of what we were doing in a really good way," Kearney says. "The lyric has some deeper meaning to it and also some nice wordplay, and the way it's arranged is really special. That was exciting for me, and I wanted us to keep being open to deconstructing song forms."
With the album's release, Lake Street Dive turns to what the band has long considered its best and most enjoyable aspect of playing music: live performance.
"The studio can be satisfying because you can construct all these layers and make it a perfect take on the song," Kearney says. "But the live thing is a favorite for all of us. The shows themselves, that's the best time we have as a band.
"We as a band are in the exciting position of not being able to do exactly what's on the record on stage," Kearney says. "It will be exciting for people who have the record already, because they're going to be different versions of the songs. Sometimes they'll have a totally different dramatic arc, so that's really fun for us."