From jazz band to the Billboard 200: Q&A with West alum Bridget Kearney

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Jarrod McCabe

Shirley

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At a young age, West alum Bridget Kearney ’03 realized she wanted to be a professional musician and “put all [her] eggs in one basket,” attending the New England Conservatory in Boston after high school and joining the soul-pop band ‘Lake Street Dive’. The colossal success of their cover of Jackson 5’s “I Want you Back” gave them YouTube fame and attracted the attention of many national luminaries. Since then, they’ve been featured on well-known programs such as NPR, The David Letterman Show and The Colbert Report, recognized on the Billboard 200 list and named as a bestseller in music on Amazon.com. The group will perform at the Englert on March 25.

How did your time at West High influence your career today?

The two things I really got excited about in high school were music and English. West High is really strong in both of those worlds. In the music department, for example, I played in the jazz band with Rich Medd and he always just made jazz band really fun. I was always excited to go to jazz band rehearsal and that is one of the reasons I’m still playing music.

When did you realize you wanted to be a professional musician?

I’ve wanted to be a professional musician for a really long time. All children have their dream job like firefighter or astronaut. Basically once I got to high school I realized that being a musician for your job is actually possible and that was when I really started to work really hard at making that happen.

What brought that realization?

I, for the first time, saw some real life example of working musicians around Iowa City starting with some of the teachers I had … you just start seeing people who are doing what you want to do and it gives you motivation to keep going.

How did your band come up with the name ‘Lake Street Dive’?

Lake Street is a street in Minneapolis which is where our trumpet and guitar player is from. He wanted to start a band that was like the type of bands you might see in a dive bar on Lake Street in Minneapolis. We were all students at the New England Conservatory in Boston. So we were playing a lot of the type of music that was more intellectual and the type of music you would see in a concert hall. So in contrast to that we wanted to play this type of music you would see in a dirty bar

Do you guys play a lot in dive bars?

Oh yeah. We’re playing in one tonight.

Are majority of your gigs in those types of bars?

We just prefer to play in those rather than like in theatres, or not your classic dive bar but more like big rock halls. We do prefer to play for an audience that’s on their feet and moving around, rather in a really pristine concert hall.

How would you describe your band’s style?

We can sum it up in soul pop but basically we think that genres are dead and we try not to put ourselves into any stylistic boxes. We’re just looking for parts of music that excite us and then include that into what our music is. So it could be anything, you know? There’s stuff we like about the Beatles or stuff we like about classical music or whatever. We pick it up and incorporate it into our sound.

What bands are you into right now?

I am really into Lazer Kick and I’m into the new Elvis Costello and the Roots record.

Was there ever a moment when you realized your band could be successful and you could make a living out of playing for it?

Yeah. I remember specifically, we formed this band freshmen year in college and we were all in music school so we were playing in a lot of different bands at the time. I remember we had a summer off when we were playing together. I just doing some reflecting on what I was excited about and what I really wanted to focus on and I was just like ‘wow, Lake Street Dive has a cool combination of people and I’m really excited about getting it going’ in a serious way. That was about eight to 10 years, so it took a long time for us to get it rolling, but it just felt like it was worth keeping it together through the hard times.

Were there ever any moments when you felt like you wanted to give up?

No. I wouldn’t say there were any moments when I wanted to give up. There were moments where all of us within the band were distracted from giving the band our full focus, and it came to a point where eventually we just had to say if were going to do this were going to have to do this 100% and that was scary but definitely rewarding to do what you’re not supposed to do, which is put all your eggs in one basket. But if it’s a really good basket, then you should do that.

What was it like being on all those talk shows?

It was like a dream in a way that just doesn’t seem real. It was really fun and exciting. Especially the Colbert appearance for us. We’re big fans of the show and have been for a long time, so standing there on the set next to someone you’ve watched on the screen over and over again was just totally wild. And also Colbert was the first show we did and I think we’ll probably forever be spoiled by having that be our first appearance, because not only is it like the best show, everyone on the crew was so welcoming and nice. Even Colbert himself personally shouted out the window to us when our car was pulling up to the studio. That all gave a pretty good first impression of a world that was pretty scary to us.

What was it like talking to Stephen Colbert?

We talked to him a fair amount. He’s a personal fan of the band, that’s why he had us on the show. He came to our concert at Carnegie Hall a few days after that… it was really nice to him support us like that too.

With your new album out, tour performances that are already sold out around the US, and some trips to Europe in May, how do you find time for composing? Do you get most of your writing done on the road?

We do some on the road. We definitely do some learning and rehearsing songs on the road, because the four of us don’t live in the same city. So when we’re not on tour, it’s tough to get rehearsals together. But the breaks that we have are also when I can get the most work done, as far as songwriting. Sometimes I have to go to extreme measures like locking myself away in a cabin in seclusion to get my work done… especially when we’re on the road a lot we have to continue to make sure to carve out enough time to work on our songs.

Are you excited to play at the Englert?

I’m old enough to remember when the Englert was a movie theatre before they turned into a performance stage, so I remember seeing “The Little Mermaid” when I was five or so. I always love going back and playing at the Englert. It’s super special for me.

This transcript has been edited.