More than 15 years into its career, Lake Street Dive is still looking to change things up within its jazzy, soulful, pop music mix.
The band’s latest album, “Free Yourself Up,” was specifically designed to result from as much inter-band songwriting collaboration as possible. For the first time, the band produced itself. And with a growing sound, the popular quartet is now a quintet, having added keyboardist, singer and songwriter Akie Burmiss.
It seems to be working. “Free Yourself Up” debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard all-genre albums chart after it dropped in May 2018, Lake Street Dive’s biggest chart splash to date. The single “Good Kisser” got to No. 12 on the publication’s adult alternative songs chart.
Lake Street Dive returns to this part of Southwest Virginia for the first time in five years, with a Thursday show at Rocky Mount’s Harvester Performance Center. In a phone call last month, drummer Mike Calabrese talked about the band’s approach to making records, songwriting, the new guy in the band and the normality of working with one of the best singers in the business, Rachael Price.
After six studio albums helmed by such producers as Dave Cobb, Sam Kassirer, and Floyd-based Joe “Bass” DeJarnette — Lake Street Dive recorded its 2012 album “Fun Machine” in Floyd County — the band decided to helm its own project, with help from studio engineer Dan Knobler. Calabrese said that the band has been arranging its own music for years, and production is, in essence, an extension of arranging.
“There’s a sonic aspect to it,” Calabrese said. “It becomes very meticulous and detailed and we were like, we’ve been listening to a lot of music for 15 years together. We’ve been making decisions together as a band for a long time. It’s time for us to do this and go into it with the knowledge that we could.
“We’re well practiced in listening to music. We’re well practiced in listening to each other. Really, that’s all producing is. It’s listening and figuring it out.”
Songwriting was more of an individual project for the founding band members — Calabrese, Price, guitarist/trumpeter Mike “McDuck” Olson and upright bassist Bridget Kearney — on past records, he said. For “Free Yourself Up,” the band looked toward efficiency.
“With this lifestyle, I don’t know how bands with a single songwriter do it, and tour, and keep making records,” Calabrese said. “Even for four people it’s a lot, with our schedule. When you collaborate, a lot of times it’s easier to get started and have someone else finish it. Sometimes the hardest thing is to start somewhere. But if someone sends you the little seed of an idea, it’s like, oh cool, I’m hearing this right now, just something to get started.”
The band was flexible about it, though. When Kearney came in late with three songs she had written, they nudged out some of the collabs. Her “Baby, Don’t Leave Me Alone With My Thoughts,” “Good Kisser” and “Shame, Shame, Shame” lead off the album.
“It’s all about the song and about the overall cohesion of the record that kind of dictates whose songs get on,” Calabrese said.
The quintet, having added Bermiss last year (he joined the year before as a touring member), will stick with the collaborative process for its next album, Calabrese said.
“With the four and now the five of us working together, at the beginning of the summer we had like two or three songs we were thinking about. Now we have 30 demoed out, ready to be looked at closely, learned and produced. In a very short amount of time you can put together a good amount of material with so many co-writers.”
Adding Bermiss marked the band’s first-ever lineup change.
“When he came on, we were at a point where we were like, we need a way to keep the shows more exciting for the fans and us, and it would be nice to have someone who is an actual piano player cutting piano tracks on our records,” he said. “We felt we kind of exhausted our sound the four of us could create live and on record. We had met him years and years ago, and knew he sang beautifully and wrote great songs.
“He’s also an incredible nerd and a super sweet person, so that also helped to fit in with us. He tours very easily in a personal way, and that’s really the most important thing while touring, but it just so happens that he’s an incredible musician and really fun to write with and play with, and he’s become a really good friend of ours as a result.”
Everyone brings a song-first mentality to each aspect of performance and recording, Calabrese said. But it’s clear that one voice stands out among all the harmonizing. That voice is Price’s. Calabrese said that they’ve been working together so long, he sometimes takes for granted how excellent she is.
“I need to remind myself constantly, in fact, that, oh, she’s world class and one of a kind,” he said. “You’ve been working with the same people for 15 years, [so] the things I think about Rachael are, let’s look for a gym to go to in this town, or like, you want me to grab you an ice coffee? I forget I’m grabbing ice coffee for an incredible singer. I’m going to the gym and exchanging meditation techniques with an incredible singer. It’s almost like, whatever — she’s my friend.”
He experienced such a moment at Price’s recent wedding.
“Even the groom was like, I can’t believe I’m marrying one of the best singers I ever heard in my life. I’m like, oh yeah, she sings. I always forget,” he said, laughing. “It’s great.”