Inspired by their love of the jazz and swing music of almost a century ago, Lake Street Dive singer Rachael Price and guitarist Vilray (who goes by that single name) began performing as a duo in 2015. At first, they built their repertoire from less familiar songs from that era, but over time that material was largely, and seamlessly, replaced by Vilray’s own songs; he wrote all but two on their 2019 debut, “Rachael & Vilray.” After an Omicron-induced delay, they are about to decamp to Los Angeles to record a follow-up. Before that, though, they’re doing a short run of shows, including a pair at City Winery Feb. 19, rescheduled from an earlier date that was canceled due to a snowstorm. We talked with the pair about their project during a recent Zoom call.
Q. How did Rachael & Vilray begin?
Price: Vilray and I met as students at the New England Conservatory. We’ve been good friends for a long time. In 2015, I went and saw him solo at a small bar in Williamsburg. He was playing a lot of obscure jazz tunes from the ‘30s and ‘40s. I had been very busy with Lake Street Dive, and something about the way it sounded in that small bar and Vilray’s beautiful amp and his beautiful voice and these songs made me realize that I was missing singing jazz. So I asked him after the show if we could be a duo group and perform at the same bar together. And he obliged.
Q. Vilray, there’s a story behind how you came to be performing in that small bar.
Vilray: I left college in 2004 or 2005 and I was working in Long Island City. Everybody that I knew and had ever played music with was still in Boston. So I was, a little bit, a person without a scene. The only thing that brought me into playing music again was breaking a bone in my hand. A friend bumped into me and said, “You seem pretty bummed out,” because I was in this cast. There was something about having no choice about playing music as opposed to before, where it felt like, oh, one day I’ll pick that up again; it made me realize that the number of years that I have to play music is finite. So my friend said, “You should just book a show.” It had been years since I played a show and I said, “Well, that sounds crazy.” But he said, “Start thinking about the kind of stuff that you want to play, and then by the time you’re out of your cast, you start practicing and then a month later you’re playing the show.” It was like I didn’t have any choice about it, he’d already booked the show. So that was a good friend [laughs] who got my head around playing music again.
Q. It seems like there was a certain serendipity to that sequence of events, culminating with Rachael happening to come to that show.
Vilray: I definitely have had a lot of angels in the form of friends who would right my perspective when I had convinced myself that things weren’t worth pursuing musically. I have had many friends, including Rachael, who say, “No, that’s not enough.”
Q. You’re referencing a certain period of jazz and popular music with the music you’re making together, but almost everything on “Rachael & Vilray” is original. What do you think that brings to the table as opposed to tapping into standards or even less well-known material from that period?
Vilray: To me the value in writing and playing original music is that people don’t already have relationships with the way they’re interpreted. There’s so much shared heritage with this popular music, and these relationships are kind of sacred things that people have. Listening to original music erases all of that. You’re not competing with anybody except yourself and these great songwriters to make it sound like it could have existed 80, 100 years ago.
Q. Rachael, how does your approach to singing this material change from when you’re singing with Lake Street Dive?
Price: A lot of it is just a matter of technique — small, subtle changes to make the sound more appropriate for the music. I actually get to use a whole different side of my voice that I really don’t use that much in Lake Street Dive, because there I’m singing with full drum kit and distorted electric guitar and distorted bass, so it’s a lot more forward and belt-y and there’s lots of riffing and I shout and scream. With this, it’s a lot more important to be really strong with the intention of the meaning of the lyrics because they’re so beautifully crafted. Also, when you have so few elements, it’s very important to make sure that they’re all in the right place, especially when you’re playing duo. I need to be very present with the lyrical singing, so it almost leans into a musical theater tradition where I would be acting the lyrics a bit more, there’s a little bit more talking of the words, there’s a lot more humor.
Interview was edited and condensed. Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
RACHAEL & VILRAY
At City Winery, 80 Beverly St., Feb. 19 at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. $35-$45. 617-933-8047, www.citywinery.com/boston