DC Americana and blues artist Lauren Calve releases Wildfire, her new EP, on June 23. She recently released the first single from the album — a song called “Better Angels.” As Lauren has said, she took inspiration for the song from Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address, which prompted her to reflect on the courage of people today dealing with modern challenges like COVID-19.
And, of course, as everyone has been in a pandemic lockdown, Lauren has been a regular performer in livestream concerts, spreading the word about her new music and finding creative outlets where she can. Parklife DC’s Mickey McCarter recently caught up with Lauren to ask her about getting music out during the lockdown, her approach to unique arrangements in her music, and her spiritual connections to the places that gave birth to roots and Americana.
This interview has been edited for length and focus.
Mickey McCarter: You have a new EP coming soon, and it’s an unusual time for musicians because you cannot tour. What have you been doing to promote the album and get the word out while we are in lockdown?
Lauren Calve: I’ve done a couple livestream shows since all the venues have closed, and they’ve gone really well. It’s been a great way to reach people that live in areas where I don’t normally play shows, where I’ve never toured. It’s been a great way to get my music out there.
MM: So, you feel like you got some good feedback, and you got a good response from doing that?
LC: Yeah, for sure. There’s still a learning curve for me to get the highest quality audio, and there’s been some forums and videos that I’ve seen from people in the DC area put out information on how they get the best quality out of their livestreams. That’s something that I’m striving for to increase the quality, but people are pretty forgiving too, and they understand that it’s over the internet and the sound quality isn’t obviously like going to a live show.
MM: Are you your own technician when you do those? Are you responsible for getting everything up and running and broadcasting?
LC: For my first livestream, my phone was basically the only equipment that I had. That was the first time I did it. It was just me playing solo. It was the week that “Better Angels” came out, and I just decided to go live and play the songs, an acoustic version of the songs.
Then the second time I had my guitarist with me, Frankie Grocholski, otherwise known as Frankie G out of Baltimore … and he came down and helped me with a livestream that we did with Sixth and I and DCist. We used more microphones and interfaces, and so it worked a lot better. I thought that the quality was good. I got positive remarks from that, so it seemed to work!
Watch a lyric video for “Better Angels” by Lauren Calve on YouTube:
MM: Let’s dive a little bit more into the music and your inspirations and the like. You’re a DC-based artist, but you’re also an Americana artist, and that’s kind of interesting because well, first, Americana is really booming. It has emerged as a genre that folks are really tapping into.
I was reading your bio and your love and the connection you feel to the music from Muscle Shoals, and obviously must feel some sort of spiritual connection to Nashville these days, I would imagine. So, here you are writing, performing, living in the DC area, and you’ve got these spiritual places for the genre of music that is moving you. How do you connect to them?
LC: That’s an interesting question. The thing is most musician artists recognize that roots music does come from places other than DC, although there is a rich Americana scene in the city and there has been for some time. Emmylou Harris got her start here and there were venues like The Cellar Door and The Bayou that a lot of great musicians like Neil Young would come through. Gypsy Sally’s, which unfortunately recently closed, was a music venue in Georgetown that focused primarily on roots music, and there are a few others that are still open or that I hope will remain open that also feature a lot of roots music.
There’s definitely an audience here in the city, but again I realize that the roots music that really influences me comes from the South. I’m definitely drawn to those places. The Muscle Shoals documentary specifically [Muscle Shoals, directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier]… It really moved me and made me realize where a lot of my influence was coming from, that early soul music and Southern Rock, which I think has influenced me a great deal in my writing and in playing.
I was born in Kansas and only lived really a year and a half of my life there, but I’ve always felt more spiritually connected to the Midwest, and also my parents are from Western Pennsylvania. My mom grew up on a farm, and I have these rural or semi-rural small-town blue collar roots that go deeper than me being raised in Northern Virginia. There is definitely deeper connection to the more rural to the country to the land, to wide open spaces. In fact, I wrote a song, “Be My Home” about that, about this theory that I have that wherever you’re born, you place these spiritual roots and it forever is your spiritual home.
MM: You’ve put out a couple of EPs over the past six years or so, and I was wondering if you’ve reflected on how your music has changed. Having only just gotten familiar with you in the past year or so perhaps, I feel like you can feel a spiritual progression when you look at your first EP versus your current EP. Do you feel that you’ve gotten deeper, for lack of a better word?
Stream a “Better Angels” playlist by Lauren Calve on Spotify:
LC: That’s a great observation and a great question. I think that now that I’m three years into my thirties, I think a lot of people would agree with this, that being in your thirties, at least for me, has opened parts of myself that I hadn’t really explored, whether it’s, yes, my own spirituality, my connections with my family and my background. That all feeds into my music. Also with the sociopolitical climate too, I’ve written more politically charged songs recently in the past few years.
I’m finding a space where I feel I write at my best, or I feel that themes and ideas that I keep coming back to, and I’m able to go deeper into. For instance, on my new EP Wildfire, the title track “Wildfire” is the one and only love song I’ve ever written, so that’s a perfect example of the maturing as a songwriter, and showing more of myself writing from a more personal place. That was one of my song writing goals of last year was to be more vulnerable with my songwriting and to be more introspective about my own life and experiences, and be able to share that with others, and to find universal themes in my experiences that others can relate to.
Also on Wildfire, one of the songs, “She Loves Waterfalls,” is a very personal song. The character in the song isn’t me. It’s my mom, but it’s very personal because it reveals family struggles and her journey to and her remarriage and finding joy again, so there’s a lot more vulnerability with this EP for sure.
Watch a live performance of “She Loves Waterfalls” by Lauren Calve on YouTube:
MM: You’ve gotten more comfortable then dealing with that sort of stuff as an artist.
LC: I’ve gotten more comfortable with being more open and sharing parts of myself with listeners, and that’s something that took time. I haven’t really been writing or performing for that long when I came out with my first EP in 2014. I had only really been playing out for a year, which is why that EP only has four songs on it. At that time, I had a tremendous fear of being on stage or performing. I think I’m a perfectionist to a fault. If I’m feeling uncomfortable, it used to just irk me and bother me so much. Every little thing I do, I would obsess over it. Now fast forward to this present time. I’m finally starting to feel comfortable opening up more, which I think is a huge leap from where I was, where I was just terrified of even being on stage.
MM: To change gears a bit, every time I talk to somebody, I want to talk a little bit about music that motivates you. I was looking at your website, and saw some covers, which were great, great covers. I think a great cover is something that keeps the spirit of the original but adds the artist’s unique voice and style to it, and I think you did some wonderful covers on your website. Lucinda Williams — well, no surprise. But The Cars and Red Hot Chili Peppers, those were a bit of a surprise! So, inspiration it seems can come from anywhere, and you are going to love songs across genres if they are just good songs.
LC: Right. The music that inspires me most can come from any genre. I have a pretty wide-ranging sonic vocabulary to draw from if you will because I love listening to all different kinds of genres, all different kinds of music, and it all comes through in how I write.
For a lot of my songs, the arrangements are very rooted in the folk tradition. But I like to go outside the box and come up with interesting and different arrangements that you don’t normally hear in Americana music. I think Robert Ellis does this really well. He is an amazing guitarist! He listens to all kinds of music, instrumental, world music, and from all different genres, jazz, classic, country. He has something… It’s something that I try and emulate, which is to arrange music outside the box in a more creative, unique way, and I think that has so to do so much with having a wide range of music to listen to.
I recently created a playlist [see above! – editor] to coincide with the release of “Better Angels.” I chose songs that were based on the concept of angels, of heavenly themes, ideas, so all the songs were related to that. That’s how I chose the songs, but there are all sorts of artists in there, like Laura Mvula, this neosoul artist that I love.There’s Social Distortion, and there’s classic rock of course I love. Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Patti Smith and Grimes, who I’m super into right now. I have a deep love of pop music too, that I grew up on, and of course rhythm and blues. I love listening to as much as possible because I just think that it can only make my music better. And that’s also why I love using covers that are outside the genre, as you noted.
I worked with a producer to re-record covers and to rearrange them so that they sounded sadder. They had more of a minor tonality to them, and it was from that experience that’s when I started to look at covers a little differently, and to think that you could change the chord structure, you could change the arrangement. In my Red Hot Chili Peppers cover, I didn’t play some of the bridge or some of the riffs. It was a good practice because I wasn’t thinking literally about how I was going to cover the song. I was thinking more abstractly, like how can I make this my own? I love playing covers for that reason. It’s a great creative practice to not take things too seriously, and to be inventive and to think outside box.
Watch Lauren Calve cover “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers on YouTube:
MM: As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been in lockdown. How have you been spending your lockdown days when you aren’t performing online. Have you been writing? Has it been good or bad for your creative process? And what are your plans when we emerge from lockdown?
LC: Since the quarantine, things have actually been really, really busy because of course I’m about to release my third EP, and I have already released the first single from the EP, so things have been really busy. I’ve been doing interviews, and I’ve been trying to get a lot of content online to keep people’s attention on what’s to come.
It’s busy in the music sense, but not really creatively. Being a musician is this cyclical pattern where you release new music or you write, and you record, and you release, and you tour, and all of that is really creatively draining in a good way because you’re channeling it and putting it into something tangible. Then for me right now, since I’m at the end of that, and not doing the touring part, we’ll be doing more streaming. For me, the next part in this cycle is to go through this period of creatively recharging. Especially with the stress of what’s going on, it’s important to get regular exercise and eat right, and rest, and read for pleasure, and listen for pleasure, and not really think so much about productivity and my song writing goals.
LC: That’s where I am now. Though I haven’t been as productive creatively, I’m in a process of becoming creative, recharging so that it can get to the point where I can be more creative. I’m hoping at that time, when the time comes, it will coincide with being able to play live again. I had some shows that I was to play this month with Bob Schneider in North Carolina and Virginia, and of course those were postponed, and they’re being rescheduled for early August. So, we’ll see if we’ll be able to play those shows or if they’ll be postponed, but I’m certainly looking forward to playing live again, and especially with my release on June 23rd.
I’m excited to follow that up with shows, hopefully live, but if not, then just to do more high-quality livestreaming. I would like to curate the shows so that each show has a narrative to it, a theme to it. I’ve thought about doing shows that are specific to covers that are a little unusual or that people wouldn’t think of necessarily for me. That might be drawn from that playlist that I created. This show would be centered around stories of my family and my personal life and the songs that would be in that vein.
I’m trying to get creative with it too, because of course the market is so saturated right now with livestreams. It’s great because artists are still able to play, and still able to make money that way, but it’s important to differentiate yourself. It’s for the benefit of the audience to make things a little bit more interesting, so that people keep coming back.