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Rachael & Vilray expertly evoke an era when jazzy popular music ruled the roost.
For the follow-up to their utterly charming 2019 debut release, Rachael & Vilray headed west. Certainly, their New York home base has plenty of studios, but not an abundance of those classic, high-ceilinged spaces like United Recording in Hollywood, where Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole and Ray Charles made magic during an era that informs much of the duo’s aesthetic. And so vocalist Rachael Price and one-named guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Vilray (pronounced Vil-ree) packed up their latest batch of retro-perfect tunes, contracted a squad of veteran L.A. studio aces and jetted out to the Left Coast last April.
The results can be heard on the pair’s excellent sophomore recording I Love a Love Song! (Nonesuch), a collection of ’30s-through-’50s-inspired original numbers that conjures a time when bourbon and cigarettes were major food groups. Price credits United’s storied Studio A — and of course, Vilray’s artfully constructed compositions. She also praises saxophonist Jacob Zimmerman’s skilful arrangements and the expertise of mixing engineer Dan Knobler, who placed the mics and the musicians to emulate the sound of classic jazz recordings: vocals up front, horns and rhythm right behind. “We laid down a track and we heard it back, and we were like, ‘Oh, this is the sound,’” the singer says, speaking by phone from her home in Brooklyn a few days before Christmas. “The room is doing a lot of the work, and so it instantly put us in a really happy space making the record.”
Playing “live” with the horns and rhythm section, Vilray explains, made all the difference between the new recording and their eponymous debut release. This time accompanied by pianist Larry Goldings, bassist David Piltch and drummer Joe La Barbera — as well as a four-piece horn section with decades-spanning credits — the guitarist, too, was in his happy space. His tasteful chording, deft solos and intimate crooning were inspired by the depth of talent surrounding him, as well as by his singing partner within winking distance in an isolation booth. “I’d never had a situation where I’m singing in such a perfect room and I’m singing with such an incredible band, and the arrangements are so incredible,” he says. “The risk of that — also the freeness of trying to do your best work while playing and listening to people play — kind of asks you to step up to the line.”
I Love a Love Song! is a valentine to the jazzy popular music that once filled airwaves, jukeboxes and nightclubs with witty wordcraft, hummable melodies and swanky orchestration. As is his m.o., Vilray conjured the artists he imagined would be singing his songs if he had access to a time machine. He envisioned Louis Jordan interpreting “Why Do I?,” a riff on Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” with lines such as “Bees don’t want flowers who shout/And lies won’t win love from the trout/The saddest armadillo/Won’t cry into his pillow/So why do I?” Nat “King” Cole was the touchstone for “Hate Is the Basis (of Love),” but listeners might also think of Blossom Dearie delivering lines such as “Imagine hating raisins/And now everything has raisins/Cause you fell for a raisin crazy fool/And in your shared apartment/There lives a purple carpet/Cause guess what? Mr. Raisin loves that too.” Price appreciates knowing who her partner’s thinking about before she steps to the mic. “Any references that Vilray gives me helps me understand how he’s hearing it, and then how I can interpret it from there,” she says.
The pair met at the New England Conservatory of Music. They had friends in common — Mike “McDuck” Olson and Mike Calabrese, who would go on to form the band Lake Street Dive with Price. However, Rachael & Vilray didn’t come together till years later; financial woes forced Vilray to drop out after two semesters, and he returned to his native New York and took an office job. An early attempt at making music with Price fizzled, as Vilray hadn’t played guitar in a few years. To get his chops together, he started busking on the subway, playing obscure standards and building back his confidence. Price saw him perform at a small club in Brooklyn and suggested they give partnership another shot. This time it clicked.
“It took a while until I was brave enough [to write songs for the duo],” Vilray says. “‘OK, I sing with Rachael Price and she’s a world-class beautiful voice and has such a distinctive style, so I should put her voice in my mind as I’m writing.’”
Price remembers the first tune Vilray brought her, a jaunty Billie Holiday-inspired torch song titled “These Tears.” “That was really exciting,” she says, “because at that point I wasn’t aware that we were gonna start playing all original songs by him. And then I heard it and was like, not only is it a new song but it’s also perfect — no one’s going to be able to tell, on this set of covers, that this song is not a cover. And that gave him a lot of confidence and then he was just writing more and more.”
Vilray’s songcraft displays increasing sophistication on the new album, evoking “Wee Small Hours” melancholy with the lovely “Drawing Your Face” and inverting the trope of the lonely sad sack on Christmas with the joyful “Just Me This Year.” Writing tunes from another’s point of view, particularly from another gender, presents challenges. “I try to write interesting characters, and I kind of hope a man or a woman could sing it and it would come across,” he says. “And the way it comes across when Rachael sings it is a certain kind of character she infuses it with. And it’s not a consistent character, that is, she’s not always imbuing it with herself — she’s kind of embodying the persona of the song. And as long as I’m writing authentically, I know Rachael will be able to interpret it authentically and find something interesting in it.”
Price, too, had a crisis in confidence around the time she graduated from NEC. As she toured with the jazzy, but more pop-oriented Lake Street Dive, she felt somewhat disconnected from singing jazz. “What was very evident when Vilray and I started singing together,” she says, “was that I could express myself in an authentic way and not feel like I was regurgitating a sound. It was more like a return to something I’d forgotten about. It was very comfortable.” - Bob Weinberg
Featured photo by Joanne Rattman.