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Rachael & Vilray share a mic — and a love of old swing standards

SAM BRIGER, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in today for Terry Gross. The duo Rachael & Vilray have a new album called "I Love A Love Song!" Listening to their music, you might think that they were singing lost jazz and swing tunes from the '30s and '40s, but they're mostly singing new songs composed by Vilray. The New York Times calls their easy, swingy music, quote, "as cozy as it is sophisticated." Rachael Price is also the lead singer of the soul-inspired rock band Lake Street Dive. I spoke with Rachael and Vilray early in 2020 about their self-titled debut. But before we get to that conversation in concert, let's hear one of their new songs from the new album. This one is called "Is A Good Man Real?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS A GOOD MAN REAL?")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) I've never known one. What do they do? We've all heard the legends. But can they be true? My cousin's best friend's boyfriend once nearly cooked a meal. So is a good man real? Does he try to remember what his old lady said? When he sleeps in on Tuesdays, does he straighten the bed? Once he's had three martinis, he'll let you take the wheel. Oh, is a good man real?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRIGER: Rachael & Vilray, welcome to FRESH AIR.

VILRAY: Thank you.

BRIGER: You guys are very generous. You were willing to perform a little bit for us today. So I was wondering if you could please start with "Do Friends Fall In Love?"

RACHAEL PRICE: Sure can.

VILRAY: Yeah.

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Two friends, two hearts, too many nights to count them. But tonight was something new, and I know you felt it, too, when we fell into the passion of a kiss. Around the world, we've shared these roads together. Every journey is grand when you're holding my hand. Do friends fall in love like this? A look that once was merely warm now blazes with an ardent desire. A touch that once was just a touch burns hotter than a five-alarm fire. Oh, say you're mine for all our days to follow. What was innocent before has become a grand amore. Do friends fall in love like this? (Whistling). A look that once was merely warm now blazes with an ardent desire. A touch that once was just a touch burns hotter than a five-alarm fire. Oh, say you're mine for all our days to follow. As friends we lived before and will live evermore, together two friends in love.

BRIGER: Oh, that was great. Thank you so much for doing that. That was "Do Friends Fall In Love?" by Rachael & Vilray from their debut album, which is also called "Rachael & Vilray." What was the inspiration for that song?

VILRAY: You know, it was actually a commissioned song.

BRIGER: Oh, really?

VILRAY: Yeah. A woman wanted to give a song as a present to her husband-to-be, and also, she wanted it to work as something for them to walk down the aisle to. So, yeah, that was actually the second draft. She hated the first version that we sent her.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Why? What didn't she like about the first version?

VILRAY: The first version acknowledged that unhappiness exists.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: People don't want that at a wedding.

VILRAY: And - yeah, they don't want that at a wedding. You know, but that's kind of what I like in a song. I like to acknowledge that unhappiness exists in basically every song that I write.

BRIGER: Your voices blend so well. Was that something that happened right away, or did you have to work on that?

PRICE: I think it was pretty immediate. I mean, it's definitely gotten a lot better. Our voices blend because we understand the style of music. And I think we understand the accent really well, which is a big part of it. So that sort of fit together immediately. But just two voices harmonizing well together was really tricky. I'd say probably. I'd say, probably, we played a lot of gigs where we sounded pretty out of tune...

VILRAY: (Laughter) Yeah.

PRICE: ...When we first started. And...

VILRAY: Also, Rachael's an incredibly strong singer, and even if you like my singing, you wouldn't call it strong. I think that's what we've maybe talked the least about but learned the most in the process of singing with each other.

BRIGER: So did you have to tell Rachael to sing quieter, or did you have to step it up? Or - you know.

PRICE: Pipe down, now.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

VILRAY: Yeah, I don't know. I think we just sort of, like - we share a single microphone on stage.

BRIGER: Right.

VILRAY: An old '30s RCA ribbon microphone. So you can do a lot with dynamics. She can continue to be very powerful but just ease off a little bit, and I can ease on.

BRIGER: You mean, like, actually step back from the microphone?

VILRAY: Exactly. Right.

BRIGER: Yeah. And, Rachael, you said you know the accents of this music. Could you elaborate on that?

PRICE: Well, they didn't - I mean, they didn't talk the same. And they sure didn't sing the same throughout. You know, it changes from decade to decade. And my guess is a lot of that has to do with how they were being - how they were like sort of self-monitoring and the type of microphone they were using. But, you know, it embodies the sound of the music, just sort of the type of accent. I don't really know. It's like you'd have to talk to somebody who's like a musicologist. Maybe it had to do with, like, mid-Atlantic or I don't really know. But it's pretty different. And it would - I think it would sound strange if you didn't sort of emulate the accent somewhat when you were singing this style of music.

VILRAY: I think the person who epitomizes the accent best is Johnny Mercer. I think Johnny Mercer, like, really understands how to, like, write swinging lyrics and then deliver them in a swinging way. And certainly, when I'm writing, I'm thinking a lot about Johnny Mercer. I think, like, something like "The Laundromat Swing," which is something we do that I wrote, I was thinking of Johnny Mercer a lot...

BRIGER: Oh, really?

VILRAY: ...When I was writing that song. Yeah.

BRIGER: Would you guys mind just doing a little tiny bit of that song?

VILRAY: Sure.

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Drop your lucky nickel down the money slot. Then toss your dirty drawers where it's piping hot. If you want to take your baby to the dancing spot, you've got to do the laundromat swing. Every working fella on a Friday night - about 20 after 5, they's (ph) getting right. If you're going to show the ladies you's (ph) a true delight, you've got to do the laundromat swing.

BRIGER: Yeah, that's a great song. And at the end, you're - you sort of do that double-time, too, which must be pretty hard to do.

VILRAY: Yeah. I don't know we would double-time that tempo. But...

PRICE: Yeah, depends on where we start.

VILRAY: Yeah, exactly.

BRIGER: Fair enough. Why don't we take a quick break here? If you're just joining us, my guests are Rachael & Vilray. They have a new album. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, this is FRESH AIR. My guests are Rachael & Vilray. They have an album of mostly compositions by Vilray, although there's a couple of covers on this, too. When you're writing these songs, do you have particular characters in minds or scenes that you're working on?

VILRAY: Well, like, "Treat Me Better" - I was thinking about this today - like, "Treat Me Better" I think I was probably coming from a place of Gershwin's "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off."

BRIGER: Yeah.

VILRAY: Which is, you know, a duet about how we - there's no reason for us to be together, but we are, and, you know, maybe we shouldn't be. And by the end, they've kind of come to this decision that they should be. They're going to call the calling-off off. So I was kind of trying to write something that would fit in that space in a musical. But because it's not a musical, I get to, at the end, kind of leave the couple in exactly the same pickle that they're in at the beginning, which is to say that they really do not speak the same language.

BRIGER: Well, I'm glad you brought up "Treat Me Better" because I was about to ask you to sing this song. Yeah, to me, this song sounds like a mini screwball comedy.

VILRAY: Right, exactly - but kind of without the happy ending. I mean, at the end, the only thing they can agree on is the name of the Queen of Spain.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICE: Right.

VILRAY: They haven't decided that this is a functional relationship. I'm not sure it is.

BRIGER: Fair enough. Well, would you guys please play "Treat Me Better"?

VILRAY: Sure.

PRICE: You bet.

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Here's a tender serenade. Oh, you should treat me better. Let's hear the operetta complete. Emeralds on the promenade. Oh, you should treat me better. These hardly even glitter, my sweet. I never prize myself above nobody else. But baby thinks he's better than me. I order a la carte, buy her diamond heart. And I look on, fake a yawn. Kissing on the Caspian. Oh, you should treat me better. You didn't pack a sweater for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) I buy her caviar, but she throws out the jar. 'Cause it tastes a little fishy to me. We go to 21, and in front of everyone... I spit out a Brussels sprout. Married by the Queen of Spain. Oh, you should treat me better. I'm liable to forget her first name. L-E-T-I-Z-I-A. (Imitating lisp) Do I pronounce that this-a-way? Letizia is the queen's first name.

BRIGER: That's "Treat Me Better," which is from Rachael & Vilray's CD. And that was written by Vilray. That's just a wonderful song. And I think one of the things that you do, maybe, Vilray, when you're writing these to give them a timeless quality is to just sort of avoid maybe contemporary references. Like, in none of these songs is there any mention of Twitter or, like, Facebook. And you're - you bring up 21. You know, you're sort of putting it back in a older time period.

VILRAY: Yeah. Well, 21's still around.

BRIGER: It is still around. But, yeah.

VILRAY: Who goes? I don't know.

(LAUGHTER)

VILRAY: No offense. Yes, I think that's true. I try to keep it in a space where you can relate. You know, I think if I wrote a song that was about the swingin' good time that was happening at 21, we would be veering into a strange space that was completely unrelatable to myself or anybody else. So that's not that appealing to me. But I think there is a timeless quality to these old standards.

BRIGER: Rachael, it sounds like you've been interested in singing jazz and swing since you were 5. Like, you heard an Ella Fitzgerald record, and that really sort of set you on your way. When you were starting out, were you trying to emulate certain aspects of different singers? Like, were you studying their inflection? Was there anyone in particular that you really spent a lot of time listening to and trying to sound like?

PRICE: One hundred percent. I studied Ella Fitzgerald early, and I completely copied her, and so I learned the versions of her songs, like, from top to bottom, every single thing. There's recordings when I'm, like, 10 doing that. And I - once I did that, I kind of went - I treated learning in that style. So I got to Sarah Vaughan, and I wanted to sound just like Sarah Vaughan. And I got to Peggy Lee and Doris Day, and I just sort of copied singers. And along the way, I realized that this was actually a helpful way to learn singing, is to just copy a singer. And there's a couple reasons why that works. I think one of the main reasons is that I think people can sing better initially if they're copying somebody because they're a little less concerned - they're a little less self-conscious.

BRIGER: How do you go from emulating people to then finding your own voice?

PRICE: Just a lot of work, and, yeah, I think just doing it a lot and digging deep into yourself and also stripping away. It's, like - I've done a lot of, like, learning of ornamentation and then sort of taking it back down to the heart of it.

BRIGER: You're talking about singing with sort of more ornament or, like, a more stripped-down version. Could you give an example of that, of each of those?

PRICE: Yeah, sure. I think probably the easiest way to just quickly demonstrate that is just sort of a talkative type of phrasing, more conversational versus, you know, longer-held notes. So I'll use "All Of Me" because it's a standard everybody knows. So you know, more ornamentation. (Singing) All of me. Why not take all of me? Can't you see I'm no good without you? Take my lips.

Something like that. And then more conversational would be - (singing) all of me. Why not take all of me?

BRIGER: Right. So like...

PRICE: (Singing) Can't you see I'm no good without you?

Yeah, it's a lot more space.

BRIGER: Yeah. In the first version, like, the - when you sing all, it's got, like, 15 syllables rather than just the...

PRICE: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

BRIGER: Yeah.

PRICE: Yeah. I mean, both are fun, but you do need to do both. You can't do one all the time.

BRIGER: Do you prefer one over the other?

PRICE: I think when I was younger, I preferred the - you know, the first way, just sort of, like - I would always call it just soaking in your own sound.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

PRICE: Just ruminating, marinating.

BRIGER: Just enjoying yourself so much (laughter).

PRICE: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. But, you know, if you do something all of the time, you do it none of the time, which I think is a really important thing to remember with singing.

BRIGER: That's interesting. I haven't had the pleasure to see you guys perform in person yet, but I've watched a bunch of stuff online. And you almost always sing with this one microphone. And you're facing each other. So you're really close to each other. And you're looking more at each other, rather than facing out towards the audience. Why did you decide that that would be the way you'd perform?

PRICE: We decided it mostly by just having this initial experience. We played a couple gigs early on. It was shortly after I asked Vilray if we could do this together, and I think that we left those gigs feeling awful. (Laughter) Like, we were just like, oh, God, this is so much harder than we thought it was going to be - to play music like this and really, like, do it well. I think we sort of thought it was going to come together a little bit easier. And one - I don't know why we did a gig where we sang on the same microphone, if that was, like, a conscious choice or it was like, we - because we were playing at a bar that there was, like, no sound system. And we were bringing everything in. So I kind of think it was more of an accident. But we ended up playing this one gig at this bar that doesn't have music anymore. Maybe it's not...

VILRAY: It doesn't exist anymore.

PRICE: Doesn't exist. Great. It was called Rye (ph). And we had this one microphone. And we looked deep into each other's eyes during that show. And afterwards, we kind of looked at each other like this big aha moment, which was it was much easier to sing these songs in harmony together if we were just looking at each other and, you know, staring at each other's mouths. So yeah, it was intimate. And I think that's what we were missing was intimacy, because a duo is just - I've never really experienced anything like it. Like, the first handful of gigs - because I was so used to having a band where it's like, one person makes a mistake. You just move on. They don't - you don't notice almost. They don't notice. You just keep going or whatever. But when it's just two people and there's one instrument, it's like...

VILRAY: Yeah, every mistake, you're, like, looking at each other. Oh, my God.

PRICE: Yeah. Yeah. Or if, like, one person is having a bad night - and you can feel that immediately. Like, you get off. And you're like, you had a terrible show. And they're like, yeah. And you're like, yeah, I felt that the whole time.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICE: Whereas in Lake Street Dive, like, I would get off and be like, oh, my gosh, best show ever. Did you guys have so much fun? And someone would be like, that was awful for me. And I was like, well, I didn't know.

BRIGER: Right.

PRICE: So that's - you know, you can have different experiences, but you can't have a different experience in a duo.

BRIGER: You guys are so close to each other. As I said, you're performing, like, you know, just on the other side of a microphone. Are you guys ever worried you're, like, getting your coffee breath all over your partner? Or...

PRICE: Oh, we have talked about hygiene.

(LAUGHTER)

PRICE: Dental hygiene has been, yeah, a big discussion.

VILRAY: We used to actually brush our teeth before every show. I don't...

PRICE: Together.

VILRAY: I don't know why we don't anymore.

PRICE: I don't think we stand as close.

VILRAY: Yes, that's true.

PRICE: Yeah. I think there was a time when breath was a real concern. It was important for us to chew some gum.

BRIGER: We had a much smaller microphone before. And now we use a big one.

PRICE: Yeah.

BRIGER: So the - a larger microphone blocks it a little bit now (laughter)?

PRICE: Oh, yeah.

VILRAY: Yeah. Yeah. Big microphones make good neighbors.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: We're listening to the interview I recorded in 2020 with the music duo Rachel & Vilray. They'll be back after a break. Their new album is called "I Love A Love Song!" Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new historical novel by Paul Harding, whose debut novel, "Tinker," was a surprise Pulitzer Prize winner. And Justin Chang reviews the new film "Women Talking" by actor-turned-director Sarah Polley. I'm Sam Briger. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANY LITTLE TIME")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Any little time, could just be standing in a line, but then I get to thinking about the time when you loved me. And every little time, I’ll cry. I notice every set of eyes looks to the ground or to the skies. A heart can break at any little time. Any little time, a stranger’s laugh gets in my mind, recalling just the middle of a joke you once told me. And every little time, I’ll cry. It mystifies the happy guy whose laugh was half the reason why a heart can break at any little time. Fearsome. Tears come. Let them flow. Any little time, could be the bottom of the ninth…

(SOUNDBITE OF HANK JONES, FRANK WESS AND MICKEY ROKER'S "A HANKERIN'")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, sitting in today for Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with the music duo Rachael & Vilray, who also performed some of their songs, songs written by Vilray and influenced by the music of the '30s and '40s. They have a new album called "I Love A Love Song." Let's listen to a song from it called "Why Do I?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHY DO I?")

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Oh, the kingdom of the animals is vast. Of all those little critters, not one frets about the past. And then there's me thinking constantly of all those happy days that didn't last. Each darling songbird sings songs without singing of love. The tiger and the lion don't need shoulders to cry on, so why do I? Clams, to my knowledge, don't sigh. And owls ain't left wondering, why? Each time their fellow flies out, they needn't weep their eyes out, so why do I? The Bible taught man calls the shots for every beast and bird. But I've listened hard in my backyard and this is what I've heard. Bees don't want flowеrs who shout. And lies won't win love from the trout. Thе saddest armadillo won't cry into his pillow, so why do I?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRIGER: Well, a different scenario for you, Vilray, was - I don't know if you still do it, but you did some busking in the New York City subway stations.

VILRAY: You know what? I stopped, and I'll tell you why - because they brought cell service in. And there was a magical thing that was happening wherein you couldn't be reached, and it was the only place you couldn't be reached when they didn't have cell service. And it happened many times that people would come up to me, having waited 15 minutes for a train and heard three songs, and they would come up to me with, like, tears in their eyes, having just been broken up with or in the midst of falling in love with somebody and just been like, I cannot believe what a touching experience I just had musically. And that was, like, such a high, obviously, for me.

BRIGER: Yeah.

VILRAY: And once they brought cellphones in, that really went away.

BRIGER: Really.

VILRAY: And so did I.

BRIGER: Was that a way to sort of just get your chops up, your speed, after not playing for a long time?

VILRAY: Absolutely, yeah. You know, the reverberation in there really make you want to, like, reach and sing strongly. And yeah, it was a great way to learn songs.

BRIGER: Did you have a favorite stop or station?

VILRAY: Yeah, the Metropolitan stop on the G train.

BRIGER: And why was that?

VILRAY: That's kind of where everyone goes. It's a good hub. So it's where the G train and the L train meet, so you get a lot of traffic of people coming from Manhattan who've traveled across town on the L and are getting on the G. And also, the G is very slow, so people...

BRIGER: So you get a lingering audience.

VILRAY: ...Are standing around for a long time. Exactly. People require three - two or three songs before they're like, OK, I can't not give this person money - if you've had an emotional experience with three songs. If you've had one with one, you're like, oh, God, I'm really feeling things today, you know? But if you've had one with three, you're like, that guy is making me feel things.

BRIGER: And then would people not get on their train and just hang out and listen to you?

VILRAY: Yeah, that definitely happened. And I would get gigs, you know, wedding gigs and stuff like that. And people would fill me. And it was a very special - you know, so it was a very special - and I played a lot with my friend, Damon Hankoff, who I went to high school with. He played bass with me a lot. And, you know, it was just like a great way to learn each other in terms of our playing and learn tunes and make arrangements up. And it was really cool.

BRIGER: You have a song called "Alone At Last," which is about someone who has some, I guess, social anxiety. But then when they finally find someone who they're in love with, then they finally feel that they're alone at last. And it sounds - Rachael revealed in an interview that that's a little bit about yourself.

VILRAY: Yes. That's a song that I wrote for my fiancee. And, you know, I don't generally - well, I didn't write it for her, but I wrote it about my feelings for her. And yeah, I'm uncomfortable around people. And as a New Yorker, I think many New Yorkers are sort of neurotic people who are uncomfortable around people. And I think it can come off as not quite - I don't know, grumpiness maybe. So I'm often grumpy, but my fiancee kind of puts me at peace. I've had a lot of feedback from introverted people who say, well, that's how I feel too. So I think I hit on something.

BRIGER: Would you guys mind just doing a few lines of that?

PRICE: Sure.

RACHAEL AND VILRAY: (Singing) Once was agoraphobic. Times Square would make me gasp. I let full trains go past. With you, I feel alone at last.

BRIGER: Yeah. That's wonderful. How does your uncomfortableness around crowds affect performing live?

VILRAY: You know what? I love it. I can't quite explain it. And maybe eventually I will come to hate it. But I think there's something about having a stranger say that they've touched you - touched them that is very fulfilling for me. And it's as simple as that.

BRIGER: When Rachael said that she wanted to sing with you, did you start writing pieces specifically for her?

VILRAY: You know, I think I started off just sort of writing. Rachael was talking about, like, learning Ella Fitzgerald and learning Sarah Vaughan. And I think I was like, very committed to the idea that I should be very pure and write for people of the era. And so I was writing Sinatra songs and Fats Waller songs and Billie Holiday songs and Peggy Lee songs. And I think that's how I did it for a long time. And we certainly sing a lot of those songs. But I think "Alone At Last" is a song for Rachael. And I think we have a song called "Without A Thought For My Heart," which I definitely wrote with Peggy Lee in mind, but with also knowing that Rachael doesn't sing like Peggy Lee very often and that I think she would kill it singing like Peggy Lee, kind of in a vulnerable, whispering, soft space. And it took us a while to get to that place in the recording studio where she felt comfortable doing it. But it's everything I dreamed of when I was writing that song. And it's not exactly what you would think of as a Rachael Price song, but I think it's, like, exactly what I think of as an ideal interpretation.

BRIGER: Well, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you guys, and I'm going to ask you to do one more song. And, Vilray, this is a song that you just mentioned, which was "Without A Thought For My Heart." You said this is a song that you wrote thinking about Peggy Lee?

VILRAY: Yeah. She has a very tender, very quiet way of singing that is incredibly all hers. And it's my platonic ideal of what romantic female crooning is. So, yeah, that's - I wrote it with that idea.

BRIGER: Well, why don't we hear it? But before we do, I just want to thank you both so much for coming on the show. Rachael, Vilray, thank you very much for being on FRESH AIR.

VILRAY: Thank you for talking with us.

PRICE: Thank you very much.

(Singing) We always knew that I was too young for anything beyond just your selfish bit of fun. Right from the start without a thought for my heart. You held me near and simply whispered that we should be so glad for the moments that we had. We knew you'd part without a thought for my heart. Now ain't the time for thinking. I should have done my thinking months ago. I may not know which man's worth keeping, but now I surely know the kind who ought to go. A parting kiss. With this, I crumble. And all my fantasies are scattered by the breeze. I played my part without a thought for my heart. It wasn't smart. It wasn't smart. I played my part without a thought for my heart.

BRIGER: That was Rachael Price singing and songwriter Vilray on guitar from their self-titled debut album, "Rachel & Vilray," which came out in 2019. Their new album is called "I Love A Love Song!" Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "This Other Eden" by Paul Harding, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel. Also, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Women Talking," about the response of a group of women to the sexual violence in their religious community. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "SOLITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Briger
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