Next Tuesday, Sept. 12, ArtRat Gallery presents Americana Special! An Evening With Viv & Riley. This special edition of ArtRat’s Americana Sundays series runs 7-9pm at 46 Division Ave. S in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. (Admission $25; tickets available from Eventbrite.)
Based in Durham, North Carolina, Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno play old-soul roots music, fluidly melding a backbone of Appalachian traditional music with fresh iconic melodies and the tightly wound vocal harmonies of indie folk.
Ahead of the show, ArtRat asked Vivian and Riley about their origins and their aspirations for old-time music.
Vivian comes from Virginia; Riley, from Seattle. You spent time in Portland, Oregon, before moving to Durham. What do you like about the Durham scene? How do the different places you've lived and worked inform your music?
Vivian: I've really loved living in Durham. There are so many wonderful people and musicians living here. When we first decided to move here, we had friends in the old-time music scene. It felt important to me to live in a place where we had friends we could play old-time music with. Since moving here, though, we've met so many other people making different kinds of music. The Durham scene is great because so many people here are rooted in and familiar with traditional music, but are making new music across genres as well. I loved growing up in Virginia and living in Portland, but this is the first time in my life that my full-time job is to create and play music, which feels really good.
Riley: The Durham music scene is somehow both eclectic and cohesive. It feels musically free and explorative but not too self important. It is also a really supportive environment to make art. I think that really informed our new record; we felt comfortable trying new things without knowing how they'd go. That's a really important thing anytime you are making art.
I wish I had gotten to know the current Portland scene better, but it was COVID times when I lived there. I have been really inspired by music that has come from that scene over the years: Foghorn Stringband, Caleb Klauder & Reeb Wilms. So, living in Durham feels like the first time as an adult that I'm really making music that fits somewhere into the fabric of a scene.
Like many of the performers who visit ArtRat, you grew up around traditional music. How did your own musical journeys progress? Who were formative influences?
Vivian: My most formative influences were most certainly my parents, Carol Elizabeth Jones and James Leva. They're both wonderful musicians who have played in several great old-time string bands (The Wandering Ramblers, Plank Road, the Hellbenders, The Renegades, Ace Weems and the Fat Meat Boys), and were also in a duo called Jones and Leva. Growing up, they would bring me to old-time fiddlers conventions across the southeast. I was around a lot of fiddle music. But, I also heard a lot of great songwriting.
My parents are very familiar with traditional old-time music, but they also write their own songs and listen to many different kinds of music. My dad and I would listen to Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, Joni Mitchell, Bach, The Beatles and so much more. My parents inspired me to respect and deeply explore old-time music, but to not be limited by it. To listen to and make music that is genuine, whatever genre it might be.
Riley: I grew up going to fiddle conventions and camps, playing music with older musicians and learning old fiddle tunes. At the same time, I was collaborating in my childhood band that is still going, The Onlies, playing both old music and often writing fiddle music and even original songs. In my teens, I started getting deeper into writing songs and started to go to indie rock shows in Seattle.
The fact that Viv and I were each into both original and old time music is part of what drew us to collaborate. I've been inspired by other duos that do that same thing; Viv's parents played in a great duo, Jones & Leva, and growing up I listened a whole lot to Pharis & Jason Romero. There are so many others who have influenced me, in different musical realms, its hard to even start to list them. One thing I love about our duo is that we pull from a wide range of inspiration.
Your new album, Imaginary People, drops Friday, Sept. 15. How has your sound evolved since your debut?
Vivian: Between the release of our debut record and now, Riley and I have continued to write music that feels true to us. As we change and evolve as people, so does our music. Since 2021, we have begun to write more songs together, and this record is a more true representation of both of our songwriting. It's also a reflection of our growth these past few years, as well as the people we've met and collaborated with along the way.
With this record, we allowed ourselves to experiment more in the production and instrumentation. While our past releases have leaned more old-time and country, this album leans more indie-folk. It has been so much fun to experiment musically and try new things. You'll still see some nods to old-time music, including an old-time fiddle tune that Riley wrote, and a traditional ballad from the Ozarks. However, we're still playful in their production. Through making this album, we really just tried to be open-minded and not limit ourselves to any one genre.
Riley: I think this new album is a little more explorative and varied than the last one. We wanted to make music that could transcend all the different moments in your day. I think our blurb says that there is a lot of nostalgia in this record and that is definitely true, but I feel a lot of joy in it as well. I think the songwriting on Imaginary People is the reflection of the deepening of our musical and personal connection, moving to subjects other than love and interpersonal tension.
I feel proud of that because it is so easy to write about romantic subjects when you're feeling them. I think it's a lot harder to write about the other moments in life with nuance and reflection and that's something that we've pushed ourselves to do on this one. From a sonic standpoint, working with our producer, Alex Bingham, just exposed us to flavors you don't always find in folk music... subtle loops, samples, etc. I think Al brought a lot of beautiful elements to the table with that stuff.
Will this be Viv & Riley's first visit to Grand Rapids? What can the audience expect from your show?
Vivian: Yes, this will be our first visit to Grand Rapids! We're very excited to be there. You can expect us to play all of the songs from the new record, as well as a few from our previous duo record and my solo record. There will be lots of harmony singing, at least one fiddle tune, and Riley switching instruments probably too much. It's going to be a lot of fun!
Riley: Stoked to be in Grand Rapids for the first time! We will play our new songs and some old ones too. We will make some jokes with varying levels of success. We like to try and get to know people during the show and to create an energy in the room that feels communal. It'll be a good time — come on out if you feel like it!