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Lake Street Dive, Rachael Price Bring Bad Self Portraits Into Focus

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Rachael Price couldn't spend Valentine's Day at home in Brooklyn with her sweetheart, so she sang her heart out instead. Thus, another in a series of torrid love affairs between performer and audience was unleashed.

Yet Price's most enduring relationship began as a childhood crush.

"I never wanted to do anything else but sing," said Price, the breathtaking voice behind Lake Street Dive, one of the busiest, buzziest, raising-the-bar bands in America this year.

Four days before the February 18 release of Bad Self Portraits, Lake Street Dive's we're-here-to-stay statement album, Price and her bandmates were cruising, just dodging a furious eastern storm on their way to Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina, for one of many sold-out concerts this year.

Newfound fame and adulation might be dizzying -- "We're trying not to let it overwhelm us," Price said over the phone as the wheels kept turning -- but Lake Street Dive is grounded enough to realize what it means to finally stand in the on-deck circle with home run potential.

"For us, it's something that we've wanted for a really long time," she revealed.

How long? It took them almost 10 years to arrive in style.

"We just graduated to a Sprinter van with a trailer," Price cheerfully said. "It has bunks in it, so we can sleep."

A lot of rest doesn't come with success, though. Making little headway despite releasing three albums from 2006-11, Lake Street Dive was aided by two major milestones that led to a the mass appeal awakening, according to Price.

Their visibility was first enhanced by a funked-up viral video cover of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" (heading toward 1.5 million views on YouTube since its May 2012 upload) to promote Fun Machine. That six-song EP with one original and four other covers included two more they still enjoy performing live -- Hall and Oates' "Rich Girl" and Paul and Linda McCartney's "Let Me Roll It."

Then Punch Brothers fiddler Gabe Witcher prompted T Bone Burnett to invite Lake Street Dive to play last September on Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of "Inside Llewyn Davis," the Coen Brothers film-inspired Showtime special featuring other stellar live performances by Jack White, Gillian Welch and the Avett Brothers.

After spending time with such excellent company, Lake Street Dive is certainly moving on up to the Northeast Side and beyond in 2014.

Based now in Brooklyn and Boston, the quartet has been named one of Rolling Stone's "10 New Artists You Need to Know," shined on The Colbert Report on February 5 and have a Friday night date (February 21) with David Letterman. This year's tour itinerary, which includes festival stops at Bonnaroo, then Glastonbury during a trip across the pond, is longer than a list of Grammy categories.

Lake Street Dive_cover_2400x2400It's only February, but Bad Self Portraits might already be the album of the year. Propelled by Price's pipes and four-part harmonies as tight as the friendships within the group, Lake Street Dive delivers, for starters, a pulsating blend of blue-eyed soul ("Bad Self Portraits," "Just Ask"), T. Rex-riffing, sophisticated pop-rock ("Bobby Tanqueray"), retro-Grade A swing ("You Go Down Smooth") and Shangri-La-La-Las girl-group greatness ("Stop Your Crying").

The heart of this all-American lineup starts with Minneapolis trumpet/guitar player Mike "McDuck" Olson, who presented an idea to three fellow acquaintances, all of whom were studying jazz at the New England Conservatory, just minutes away from Fenway Park.

After Olson individually approached the singer, stand-up bassist and Iowa native Bridget Kearney and Philadelphia drummer Mike Calabrese near the end of their first year in May 2004, Price recalled they all met that same day in a practice room on the Boston campus.

"Mike Olson has a lot of grand vision," said the Australian-born Price, a musician's daughter who grew up just outside of Nashville and was named most talented in her senior class, graduating in 2002 from Hendersonville High School.

"We weren't even friends with each other at this point, but he was like, 'I want us to be a band and call it Lake Street Dive, which is a street in Minneapolis that has a lot of dive bars, and I want us to be a band that could essentially make music that would be played in these types of places.' "

While going to school and either maintaining regular jobs or working on separate side projects, they occasionally played in Boston-area dive bars (some cool, others crappy).

"We didn't have a ton of material," Price said. "But we considered ourselves a band from the beginning, even though we were very inexperienced and awkward."

At least Price had some working knowledge of her craft, having adored singing in a family of singers for almost as long as she could remember.

The Price chorus line started with her brother Joel and included sisters Juliet and Emily. Encouraged by their parents, Tom and Elizabeth Price ("she's not like a singer, but she sings," Rachael said of her mom), they were all involved in music in some capacity. Emily Price, who became a professional opera singer, performed worldwide as a soloist (along with Rachael) in the Voices of Baha international choir directed by their father, and also has been in a numerous musical theater productions.

All that jazz become Rachael Price's burning obsession. And she credits her father, who also has been a songwriter and orchestra conductor, for igniting that fire.

"Growing up in my house, being a professional musician was always something that was a possibility," she said. "So that changes how you think about it when you ... from a young age consider that a normal and viable option."

All it took was 5-year-old Rachael hearing a finger-snapping version of "The Lady is a Tramp" by Ella Fitzgerald, and liking it, for her dad to go out and get the entire collection recorded by "The First Lady of Song."

"And he did that with any artist," Price said. "It didn't matter if he liked it or not. He did the same thing with Lauryn Hill. He was like, 'All right, you like Lauryn Hill, I'm going to get you your music, you can listen to that.' He went all the way every time with it. Any time I wanted to sing and write a song, he would sit down and play it with me on the guitar."

Singing by herself or with a choir, Price was on stage before she reached puberty, then went on to perform abroad and earn accolades at vocal competitions such as the one held in conjunction with the Montreux Jazz Festival (honorable mention in 2003).

Though she didn't write songs, Price sang standards like they were her own compositions, signed a record deal as a solo artist, formed her own quartet and became a featured guest of the T.S. Monk Sextet.

Yet nothing could compare with running into Lake Street Dive.

1385488897LakeStreetDiveCr.JarrodMcCabe

The members of Lake Street Dive (from left): Bridget Kearney, Mike Olson,

Rachael Price, Mike Calabrese. (Photo by Jarrod McCabe)

"We have such a strong kinship together," Price said. "We all love the same music and that's very apparent when we play together. For me, it's just so exciting to be singing songs that have never been sung before. ...

"I was able to take what I learned from interpreting jazz songs and apply it to songs nobody had heard before. It's just way more exciting. I just feel like I learn and discover new things everyday."

While Price has some interest in songwriting and has completed one for future release, she's content doing the heavy vocal lifting on Bad Self Portraits songs written separately by Kearney (five, including the explosive "Rental Love"), Olson (three) and Calabrese (three).

She said the others seek her input and, "Let me change and interpret the melody to whatever degree I'd like to. And occasionally the band will go through lyrics. Like, 'I don't have a line for here, I don't have this. What do you guys think?' And people will sort of chime in and contribute in that regard."

Calabrese, who shares rare co-vocal duties with Price ("our first duet," she said with a laugh) on Kearney's swelling "Seventeen," and Olson, who supplies dazzling riffs on that same cut, also know how to write songs from a women's point of view, she added.

"When we first started, there were some odd things where ... that I had to change the pronouns and it didn't quite make sense," Price offered. "But they're pretty good at changing things to have it from a female perspective."

No matter who's doing the writing, Price's alluring alto can carry a tune to its desired destination much like Amy Winehouse. Whether it's a soulful ballad or a fast blast from the past, she's 100 percent emotionally invested.

"You know, I'm singing the songs written by my best friends," Price said of her fellow sky-high Divers. "So I'm pretty aware of their experiences as they are of mine. We function as a group that it's like, if it's Bridget's song, she's 'singing' on the bass (by) playing it, too. It's like we're all having a conversation about what happened to that person. ... Like I'm taking the role of singing it, but it's all part of one statement that we're making. I think that's ... you know it's not me at the forefront, like I'm carrying the weight of feeling the song. Everybody's feeling the song."

Such a passion statement surely will serve them well. Lake Street Dive got signed to Signature Sounds, the small but prestigious label out of Northampton, Massachusetts, ahead of its 2010 self-titled release. But it wasn't until last October that a contractual agreement with Price's previous label cleared the decks for Bad Self Portraits.

Price, who turns 29 on August 30, said she was 21 when she signed a "very involved contract that I didn't understand" with Claire Vision Productions. rachaelprice4The independent record company put out Dedicated to You, The Good Hours and Rachael Price & the Tennessee Terraplanes (all produced by Tom Price, a partner in the company with Robert Cuillo), but decided not to release her last solo record. (Rachael Price, at right, during her solo career.)

"And it became very clear that this wasn't a good situation for anybody," she said. "But they felt that I owed them the money back (that Cuillo invested in her development) and I was under contract."

Stuck in limbo, Price said, "Occasionally, I would hear from them, and they would be like, 'We want you to make another solo record.' And I would be like, 'I don't think that's a good idea.' And it just kind of went like that. But when Lake Street Dive started to get a lot more momentum, they started to come out and say, 'No, you're not allowed to do this, to be a part of this project. You can repay us.' "

Now that the matter is resolved, Lake Street Dive feels firmly entrenched at Signature Sounds and appreciates working with supportive folks who, Price said, "don't get in the way."

Price does want followers to know that Bad Self Portraits, recorded at Great North Sound Society in Maine and produced by Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter), was made before the four saw a crush-hour traffic jam develop.

"So we went into the studio with no expectations of what people wanted or what kind of album people thought we should make," she said. "We didn't have sort of like critics in our ears. We didn't have the same sort of pressures that we probably will have the next time we make one. And I think that was really an amazing and beautiful thing that happened."

So as the band's popularity builds, romancing the crowds every night provides more pleasure than a single brush with celebrity. Though "shooting the shit with Elvis Costello" in New York during the Another Day, Another Time experience has to rank right up there with hearing "Pump It Up" for the first time.

"He was incredibly nice, a friendly person," said Price, whose performance of the band's spirited "You Go Down Smooth" wowed the Town Hall audience that included representatives of Rolling Stone, The New York Times and Letterman's Late Show. "And, you know, just talked to us like we were friends of his."

Meanwhile, Lake Street Drive is attracting a convivial bunch of customers that grows in numbers each day. And while Price continues to cherish the times when the band could finally perform on a consistent basis in "an amazing bar" like Toad in Cambridge ("that's where we really sort of shaped our sound"), there's a sense of validation in what's happening right now.

"We spent eight years playing in rooms where we were trying to get people's attention," Price said. "And now we're walking into sold-out rooms and we just have everyone's attention at the beginning of the show. Like there's no winning over. It's like we're starting at a completely different level from the beginning of the first song. And that's very exciting for us. You can't measure that sort of thing in success or the amount of gigs or press or whatever. It's like this is that feeling. Like we walk out and we have 500 faces smiling up at us ready to have a good time."

Then, no doubt, loving every minute of it.