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Lake Street Dive bridges the gulf between jazz, pop and soul

Lake Street Dive performs Friday night at the Uptown Theater.
Lake Street Dive performs Friday night at the Uptown Theater.

Lake Street Dive stepped into the big-label world this year. In February, it released “Side Pony” on Nonesuch Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. “Side Pony” is the follow-up to the breakthrough “Bad Self Portraits,” which launched the quartet from a cult band to one selling out theaters regularly.

The four met while studying jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and started the band in 2004. Their music is a mix of jazz, pop, soul, folk and R&B, arranged, sparingly at times, in trumpet, guitar, bass, drums and lots of vocal harmonies. The band has developed a reputation for energetic live shows that include memorable cover versions of songs like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”

Friday night, Lake Street Dive headlines a show at the Uptown Theater. The Star recently talked to Bridget Kearney, the band’s bassist, vocalist and co-songwriter, about “Side Pony” and what it’s like for jazz-trained musicians to thrive in the world of pop and rock.

Q: “Side Pony” is your first release on Nonesuch Records. What were the designs going in? Were they different from other albums?

A: We were definitely aware with this record of kind of walking up to a bigger stage because “Bad Self Portraits” had increased our audience a lot. We had made three records before that, but “Side Pony” felt like our sophomore record, and we were aware of the “sophomore phenomenon” and didn’t want to repeat ourselves or go completely off-the-wall.

So we wanted to do things that were honest to our history. That included tracking a lot of things live. Most of the basic, foundational tracks — guitar, drums, bass, lead vocals — we tracked live together in the same room. And that allowed us to be fluid with the song form and allowed us to write songs together more than we had on previous records.

It was easier to do that because we were all right there in the same room and you could say, “Hey, I don’t think that bridge is working, actually. Let’s try a new bridge and here’s how it goes and 1,2,3,4, go.”

Q: How does collaborating like that compare to writing solo?

A: It’s hard. It has a lot of merit. If you think about it theoretically, there are four of us and we each have our strengths, and if we are capable of using those strengths together, our music should be better.

But it requires a lot of trust and vulnerability. The four of us are so used to writing separate from one another and just laboring over something and getting everything worked out before you share it with anyone.

But in this situation you have to be willing to throw out ideas before you have a chance to decide whether they’re perfect ideas. That can be a really positive thing, if you don’t think too long about it.

This was a way in which our producer, Dave Cobb, was a good foil for us. We tend to be very analytical, coming out of conservatory training and music education background, and we definitely think really hard about the things we do. He likes to work more impulsively and encourage us to trust our instincts. So that was a good combination for us.

Q: The new record sounds organic, a little freewheeling — not pristine or over-polished or too perfect. Did that come naturally or did you have to work on that?

A: That’s just kind of the style we’ve learned to play with each other. Because our background is in jazz and we’re all improvisers, we’re used to playing the song a little differently each time and interacting with each other a little bit.

Even if we have a part, like a written bass line, there will always be some variation, and maybe someone would hear what I did and do something like imitate it or respond to it.

I think that’s something that makes us slightly different than a band in our genre that’s coming from that same style of rock or pop. We tend to be a little more improvisational.

Q: Do you have to compromise to make music that satisfies your artistry but is also accessible to a larger audience?

A: Yeah. Fortunately, we all have a real love for pop music and rock music, the stuff we grew up with. I still listen to most of that kind of music today.

I think the best pop music has these extra little tasty treats of interesting harmonies and rhythmic variations and things like that. We use it sparingly. It’s only employed when it’s really necessary and complements the song and makes sense for the story you’re trying to tell.

The bottom line is we want to make everything feel good. Also, this band from its inception was a little bit reactionary to the stuff we learned in college. So we started this band to have it be, like, a bar band, hence the name Lake Street Dive, like playing in a dive bar.

We just wanted it to be stuff that, first and foremost, would make you feel good.

Q: Have you reached a point where the music you want to make requires more than four people?

A: That’s an interesting question. The record has a lot more than just four people — I mean it’s just the four of us, but, like, Dave Cobb plays acoustic guitar on one track and shakers and other things.

But that’s something we need to figure out when we go from doing the album to coming up with live versions. A lot of times the live versions turn out to be quite different from the recorded versions, which, hopefully, is fun for the audience.

I know when I go see a band, and I know the records inside and out, it’s kind of more interesting to see how they do it differently instead of watch them execute it perfectly and the way it was recorded.

We’re writing for the next record, and the writing process now — the hardest thing to write and pull it off and make it sound full and big are the songs we do with just bass and trumpet and the voices and drums. Because there’s so little to work with. It has to be a really great melody and a really great verve and if you have that, you can make it work.

Q: Who were some of your favorite live bands growing up?

A: I saw mostly jazz bands. I grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, and I saw some of the rock bands that toured through. I definitely grew up developing an appreciation for live music seeing local Iowa City jazz groups.

I guess that has something to do with appreciating bands that play their stuff differently every time. It’s what I grew up appreciating about live music.

Q: How are Lake Street Dive shows different from performing in a jazz ensemble?

A: This band has done a lot of live shows together. There are things you start paying attention to that you kind of don’t have time to pay attention to when you’re playing in like a pickup jazz group.

Some jazz quartets play together all the time, too, but with the type of shows that we play and the type of rooms we’re playing, you start to think about some bigger-picture things, like the arc of the show and creating these really dramatic, dynamic moments, some very big, some very small.

And because we have time to practice things, we can start to challenge ourselves with all the different roles we can play, most of that being singing parts and coming up with different harmonies and background parts. The vocals become another instrument because we don’t have that many instruments, and that’s a really cool way to add that extra texture.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain


Lake Street Dive performs Friday night at the Uptown Theater, 3700 Broadway, Aoife O’Donovan opens at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $50 at