Lake Street Dive’s standup bassist and backing vocalist Bridget Kearney has just released her debut solo album “Won’t Let You Down. (Signature Sounds).” Her 16-city tour stops in Portland on Monday night.
I’ve spent the past month listening to the album’s 10 tracks and officially put a huge stamp of approval on it. It’s got a retro pop vibe running through it, and Kearney’s songwriting panache shines through with commentary on love, longing and heartache that’s often served up with a sense of humor in songs like “Love Doctor” and “Daniel”. She also pulls off some slow ones like “What Happened Today” and “So Long.”
Kearney, 31, was on her way from a show in her hometown of Iowa City, Iowa, to one in St. Louis when I got her on the phone for a chat about the new record, her musical beginnings and her love for running.
Kearney’s first instrument was the piano, which she started playing in kindergarten. In fourth grade, she found her way to the bass via her school’s orchestra. Guitar is a relatively new one. “I’ve gradually gotten to know it; I’m still getting to know it really. My dad plays guitar, so there were guitars around the house growing up, and I’d just kind of fiddle with them.” As for singing, that’s been a constant since her church choir days when it was all about harmonies. Now, she’s front and center.
“With lead singing it’s all about interpretation and performance so that’s a really different thing for me to be focusing on,” she said. “It’s like trying to really be the storyteller and give a great performance of the song.”
Here’s the title track to “Won’t Let You Down”
“Won’t Let You Down’s” liner notes reveal that the album’s songs were recorded between 2013 and 2016, which is a long time to keep something under one’s hat. Kearney credits much of the secrecy to Robin MacMillan who produced, engineered and mixed the album and also played several instruments on it. “I’ve been working on it for a couple of years and not sharing it around that much, even among my friends. It was something I quietly had brewing between me and Robin. He’s always had this professional method of not sharing things before he’s completely finished with them, and so he didn’t even send mixes to me until about a year ago, even though we’d been working on it for years.” Kearney said this added to the excitement because, by the time she was ready to share it with people, it was just about finished, rather than a work-in-progress.
Several of the album’s songs – including “Daniel,” “Who Are We Kidding” and “Serenity” – were penned right here in Maine during Kearney’s writing retreats in Parsonsfield, home of the Great North Sound Society recording studio in an 18th-century farmhouse. During the time of these Maine sojourns, Kearney was living on a couch in Brooklyn, New York, which afforded her minimal privacy or room to work. “There were three other people that lived in that apartment, so there wasn’t a lot of space for me to be creative without being self-conscious with other people around.” The remedy was in Parsonsfield. “It was really magical and so nice to be out of contact with really anyone.”
Kearney spent most of her time in the barn-turned-studio, which had a piano, drum set, organ and plenty of guitars. “I’d just kind of, like, jump from one instrument to the next and sort of see what was exciting to me at the time, maybe spend like four or five days in a row up there really just doing nothing but writing.” Without internet or phone service, Kearney said, she was forced to focus and get her head in the game and clearly it worked. It’s all I can do not to send a thank-you note to that space in Parsonsfield for lending itself so well to the sensational “Won’t Let You Down.”
When Kearney and I spoke, she only had two shows under her belt on this tour but already was feeling good. “The shows are the best part. That’s why we do it. It’s so special getting in front of an audience and being able to reach people face-to-face.” Kearney first started doing solo shows a couple of years ago and found those to be way more nerve-racking than ones with Lake Street Dive, but with the release of “Won’t Let You Down,” she’s finding her footing, especially with her touring band. “The band behind me puts me at ease because I know that they’re gonna do a great job, and then I just try to relax and give a good performance.”
While music is certainly a big passion of Kearney’s, another one is running, which has been an integral part of her life for at least 15 years. “It’s so great. I love being outside, and it’s one of my most favorite places to listen to music.” We both agree that listening on headphones is a fantastic way to consume music. “It gives you this kind of atmospheric experience where you’re also looking around you. I usually have really specific memories of a place and a record because often times I’ve listened to it on a run.”
Smaller tours like the one she’s on now don’t always allow Kearney the flexibility to lace up her running shoes, but that will shift in a few weeks when her tour ends and Lake Street Dive’s summer one kicks off. “We usually have the morning and the afternoon free, so I go running pretty much every day.” You can see for yourself how much Kearney loves to run in the video to the album’s first song, the breezy, dreamy “Wash Up,” which shows her out on a run, singing and loving life.
8 p.m. Monday, April 17. One Longfellow Square, 181 State St., Portland, $12 in advance, $15 day of show. onelongfellowsquare.com