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Viv & Riley

A bittersweet nostalgia lies at the heart of Imaginary People, the new album from Viv & Riley, coming September 15, 2023 on Free Dirt Records. Over ten tracks, the pair applies an indie roots sheen to newly composed pop gems. Rooted originally in the folk tradition, the pair reframe the production into experimental territory, crafting songs that speak to finding a path forward into adulthood in an uncertain world. Gifted songwriters and multi-instrumentalists, Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno’s first album under the name Viv & Riley is a subtle masterpiece of thought and reflection. The album brings a reflectiveness to summertime jams that speak of uninhibited joy and creative camaraderie. Coming on the heels of their acclaimed earlier albums that showed preternaturally talented songwriting from such young artists, now the songs have caught up with their lives. Now in their mid-20s, the two are building a life together, creating a supportive community, and looking back on everything they’ve been through. Based out of Durham, North Carolina, they’ve tapped into the area’s eclectic and collaborative music scene, recruiting Alex Bingham of Hiss Golden Messenger to produce the album. Bingham brings a sunny, lush sound to Viv & Riley’s music, moving beyond their earlier country roots and toward a layered sound and sonic experimentation. The songwriting has evolved as well, from the world-weary, stripped-down country songs they’re known for to indie songwriting at turns sweetly sad and gently sardonic. Ultimately, Imaginary People is about carrying and honoring our pasts, about letting that inform our new steps forward. No matter how much we might cling to where we are, sometimes we need to uproot and take a leap of faith, to open ourselves up to new experiences and ideas in order to grow and blossom. 

For Viv & Riley, this artistic rebirth came about in Durham, home to ground-breaking roots artists like Watchhouse, Sylvan Esso, and The Mountain Goats. “We stumbled into this place,” Calcagno admits. “Literally, Viv put her finger on the map.” They had a few friends from the old-time music scene, of which they were deeply embedded from a young age, and through their award winning stringband, The Onlies. “We knew there was a song community in the area,” Calcagno says, “and we found that through making this record. The music scene in Durham is really inspiring and robust; there’s a lot of people making beautiful art.” Drawing from this scene, producer Alex Bingham enlisted fellow bandmate Sam Fribush of Hiss Golden Messenger as well as Andy Stack of Wye Oak and Helado Negro, plus pedal steel player Whit Wright (American Aquarium). The band then retreated to Bedtown Studios, Bingham’s bucolic lakefront recording space in Virginia to cut the album. “The recording session was this process of discovery,” says Calcagno. “New friends, this new scene, and this developing sound that we were trying to figure out. I think that the answer to us feeling stuck after COVID was to open ourselves up to possibilities of what things could be, just being open to anything, socially and musically.” 

This spirit of experimentation brought new sounds to their music, complimented by songs that both Leva and Calcagno had written in Durham after buying an electric guitar and drum set from Facebook marketplace and sitting down for some experimental songwriting sessions in their basement apartment. The instruments helped to unlock new directions apart from the old-time music they’d both grown up with. “We were trying to not put ourselves in any kind of box,” Calcagno says. “We wanted to try unexpected ideas, like putting an acoustic guitar through a warbly vibrato, or using an MPC sample as the backbone of an old ballad. I think we were trying to make music that felt right to us; we wanted to follow each song where it wanted to go.”

The lyrics of Imaginary People lean melancholic, showcasing a poignant nostalgia that’s a response to an increasingly chaotic world. Opening song “Kygers Hill” was named for a location in Southwestern Virginia where Leva grew up, and was written after a visit home, as she reflected on her childhood with renewed appreciation, and grappled with the realization that she could never return to that moment in time. “Sauvie Island” is a thoughtful ode to the duo’s time living in Portland, Oregon, written about a nearby island retreat that was a respite from the chaos of the city. “We found closeness and joy in stillness there,” Leva says, reflecting on the song. “Flashing Lights” recounts a story of feeling mentally and emotionally free for the first time after lockdown, two-stepping and waltzing through Nashville with close friends. “Is It All Over” lampoons the futility of the billionaire space race through a darkly sardonic vision of a future music industry, while the title track expounds on the “imaginary” versions of our idealized selves. “That song is about grappling with all the different versions of yourself,” Viv says. “It’s looking at who you’ve been, who you are now, and who you want to be in the future. People are multifaceted, and in any given day or situation, you have to choose which version of yourself you want to be.”

Viv & Riley fittingly end the album with a droning take on the traditional Ozark song “The Blackest Crow.” Both musicians trace their original artistic inspiration to the deeply rooted music they learned in their youths on opposite sides of the country, and it’s fascinating to see them now pushing the tradition in new directions. Unlike their previous albums, Viv and Riley shared most of the songwriting on Imaginary People. For two people who finish each other’s sentences and spend their days practicing harmony singing, it still took time to adjust to each other’s songwriting styles. The end result retains their individual perspectives while infusing each song with a cohesive narrative voice.

The new album from indie roots duo Viv & Riley is made up of quiet moments, the small sparkles of beauty we find in our lives that keep us going. Anchored in reflective celebration, the album is existential in its approach to dealing with the chaos of modern life by focusing on community and friends for joy and support. As much as Imaginary People looks back to nostalgic yesteryears, it importantly marks the beginning of a new direction for these two master songwriters.