Monday, September 30, 2013

Interview with Bridget Kearney of Lake Street Dive

This is in an excerpt from my forthcoming book on how to practice. Enjoy!



 
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Interview with Bridget Kearney

Often times in rock music the bass player goes unnoticed, both visually and musically. If the bass player is doing a good job you're likely not to notice them. And being in a band with a lead vocalist as amazing as Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive, it might be even easier to get overlooked. But if your name is Bridget Kearney, that couldn’t be further from the truth. A glance at comments on YouTube videos and you’re just as likely to see comments praising Kearney’s funky, melodic, and powerful bass lines as you are Price’s vocals. The grooves she creates with bandmate and drummer Michael Calabrese and guitarist Michael “McDuck” Olson are tighter than a froggy’s bottom. And her harmony singing and songwriting help propel an already formidable sound into something special.

Kearney’s bandmates in Lake Street Dive are a team of all star musicians with a lot of tricks up their sleeves. Their music pulls in a variety of styles and creates a sound much bigger than the sum of its parts. The music is retro on one hand and completely of  the here and now. I imagine big things could be in store for this band.  Bridget was kind enough to grant me an interview on a crazy muddy day at a backstage tent at Floydfest a mere hour before they took the stage for sound check. The interview was very enlightening and it was a pleasure to hear Bridget’s thoughts on how she developed her powerful bass playing.

BC: How did you get started with music?

BK: I started in my church choir when I was about 5 and did that through high school. And then I started playing piano in kindergarten. I was taking piano lessons once a week. And then I started playing bass, which is my full time instrument, in 4th grade in school orchestra.

BC: So that whole time from elementary school onward you were taking lots of music lessons?

BK: Yeah, starting in kindergarten I had a piano lesson once a week. Then I’d go to choir rehearsal once a week and then in 4th grade I added in the bass lessons once a week.

BC: Was this electric bass?

BK: I started on upright in school orchestra and then I briefly took some electric bass lessons but mostly upright bass.

BC: When you were taking bass lessons, how were they structured?

BK: The first lessons that I took were just technique based. I learned the A string. I learned the E string. I think we started with pizzicato and gradually added in bow technique.

BC: Was this all classical?

BK: Yeah, 4th, 5th, 6th grade I was just playing orchestra classical music. I had private lessons and orchestra lessons once a week. At some point I took private lessons outside of the school. The orchestra teachers are taught to teach beginners on all the instruments and that only takes you so far. So I wanted to get more instruction.

BC: When you first started on the upright were you playing solos or was it all for the orchestra?

BK: We played some songs in lessons that were pretty simple songs. So as a bass player often times you’re accompanying but for the sake of getting to know your instrument and learning your way around it you’re better off learning the roles of other instruments as well. So you can gain that facility.

BC: In the very beginning can you recall how your teacher would structure the lessons? And specifically would they tell you how you should practice away from the lesson? Was there any instruction in that regard?

BK: I guess my earliest lessons were where I worked out of a book. A bass book that we were using. My teacher would give me a couple pages that we would go over in the lesson. This is how the song goes. And I had been taking piano lessons since I was very young. I don’t really remember what it felt like to read music cause I was pretty young. So when I started bass I had a bit of a head start with seeing notes on the page and sight reading stuff.

The songs that I was learning would get progressively harder and incorporate new notes that I had learned so maybe the first songs would only have like 3 notes in it. You know someone came up with some terrible 3 note song.

BC: Did your teachers tell you to break things down into phrases or anything like that?

BK: Yeah! Definitely. All the time. I sort of think of that as being something I used later on when things got more complex. I would take things in bits and pieces. But that didn’t happen in the beginning when I was learning my instrument.

BC: Did you sing choir, play in the orchestra, and play piano all the way through high school?

BK: Yeah I played in the orchestra all the way through high school. And then around junior high I started playing jazz in school jazz band. And I had a rock band that I played electric bass in.

BC: Sounds like you were constantly playing music.

BK: Yeah I started playing music from a very young age. I was always drawn to music and constantly seeking it out.

BC: When you were in high school were you focused strictly on bass or were you still playing piano?

BK: I focused strictly on the bass. I stopped taking piano lessons in junior high. And I was pretty serious about it. Especially sophomore, junior, and senior year. That was the time that I was probably practicing the most in my life. And then after college I was practicing a lot then too. During college I was practicing, and doing music all day. I went to a music college but I was very busy playing shows and playing in ensembles. I played a lot but solo practice time was rare.

BC: So when you were in high school what kind stuff would you do for practice? Would you practice everyday?

BK: Yeah, I’d practice everyday. In the early years I was taking mostly classical lessons and I was working from repertoire. I’d have a piece that I was working on and I would get as far with it on my own. And then bring it in to my teacher and my teacher would say, “I think you should change your fingering for this part. It will be easier. And pay attention to this about your bow stroke. And we need to make the fortes more forte.” You know making everything more musical. And my teacher would know pieces that would include a certain technique that I needed to work on. If I was struggling with a certain zone on the bass. Thumb position or something my teacher could say here’s a song you should learn because it will force you to learn that.

BC: My wife plays stand up bass and started playing it about 4 or 5 years ago. And I know that she has a hard time with the physical side of upright bass. She gets cramps in her left hand sometimes. How much technique building did you incorporate into your practicing?

BK: I did a lot. My teacher was a university professor of the bass.  That was her profession, teaching the bass. She has taught a bunch of people who are at an advanced level to get better at the bass. So she had a bunch of etudes and daily practice things that she gave to me that were good to hone in on technical aspects but were still musical.

BC: So they weren’t just boring exercises.

BK: Yeah.

BC: How would you incorporate that into your practice? 10 minutes. 20 minutes?

BK: I think depending how much time I had, I would spend a half hour to an hour to warming up.

BC: You would do technique during your warm up?

BK: Yeah, and then I would move on to the repertoire that I was working on.

BC: Were you using the metronome for all that?

BK: I would use it for some of it but not all of it. I find the metronome useful now for the sake of slowing things down so that you know that you’re getting every note and nuance right. And then gradually working it up to speed. And that’s the main thing that I was using it for then. And since then, after college, I’ve kind of gotten into using it to focus on different placement of the time with the beat. Ahead of the beat, behind the beat. And zoning in on certain 8th and 16th notes. You know putting the metronome on different 16th notes.

BC: At what point did you really get into jazz and what style were you playing?

BK: I started in junior high and around my freshman year of college that became sort of my main focus. And I started out by playing in big bands with 15 other people that were playing the song and I would just play the bass line. And as I wanted to get better at it I started learning more of what the sax and trumpet did.

BC: When you say big band you mean Glenn Miller type stuff?

BK: Yeah, and freshman year in high school I started playing in smaller groups where your role in the ensemble is a little more flexible with regard to taking solos and stuff. And that time my main mode of practice became transcription and playing stuff mostly by ear.

BC: What jazz bass players were you studying?

BK: Paul Chambers. Charles Mingus. Charlie Hayden.

BC: Were you learning their lines note for note?

BK: I’d learn their lines. Sometimes I’d write them all out and transcribe them for the sake of analysis. And sometimes I’d just learn them to have them in my ears and under my fingers and not write them down.

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BC: This kind of goes back a little bit but how many hours a day would you practice? Say in high school.

BK: In high school maybe 2 hours a day but sometimes it would be a half hour and sometimes it would be 4 hours but on average I’d say 2 hours. And if it was a long session, I’d take breaks.

BC: So back to jazz. How much music theory have you studied?

BK: Well I went to school for jazz bass. We took other classes not related to jazz. But I guess I’ve studied theory a fair amount.

BC: How important do you think it is?

BK: I think it’s really important.

BC: Even for pop music?

BK: If you’re writing pop music, I think it’s important. If you’re just playing, I don’t think it’s important. But if you want to write it, I think it’s really important to understand how stuff works. It’s going to be a lot if you’re just using trail and error. And I don’t really put a lot of stock in conventional music theory, but I think analyzing the foundational elements of music is super important especially if you’re going to be composing.

BC: I’m a bluegrass musician, but I play some jazz. But it’s how a bluegrasser would play jazz, so I understand the basics but I realize how crazy jazz theory can get. I would imagine especially so if you’ve studied a lot of Mingus. But in bluegrass, the bass player’s job is to be the bass drum. They are often just playing the 1 and 3 and 5 with some walks here and there but it seems like jazz bass is a lot more wide open harmonically and my question is how do you get to where you understand how to navigate a chord progression that’s a little more complex. As a bass player you have all these options harmonically.

BK: Yeah. There’s a whole world to that and everybody has their own style. I think the way that I learned to do it was transcribing other bass players lines and then trying to analyze what they are doing at any given moment. Let’s say you sit down with a 6 minute song. You can start to hear the form of the song pretty quickly.  You play the tune and then you solo over the tune and then you play the tune again. So you hear the same form maybe 20 – 25 times in 6 minutes. So you can just line up the bars. You can say well the first bar you played this the first time and then this the 2nd time and this the 3rd time. And from that you’ve just gained a bunch of different approaches as to how you want to do it yourself.  And then music theory comes in really handy.

I always thought of it like this. You have 4 beats to get from point A to point B. This chord is the first one. You almost have to play the root on the downbeat. You don’t always have to but in general you need to. And then you have 3 beats to make your way to the next one. So you have a million options. You want to build some themes. You want it to be sing able. There’s certain things that you can be technical about. But the most important thing is to be musical about it. Make it something that sounds good to you.

BC: What’s the feeling of the song…

BK: Yeah.


Look for the rest of the interview in my upcoming book.