Fresh from college, navigating a politically charged pandemic, and set to release a new album into the universe, Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno seem fairly relaxed. It’s 10am in Portland, Oregon where they currently hang their hats, and I imagine full cups of hot coffee around Riley’s iPhone as I introduce myself from 2,684 miles away. At 22 years each, (Vivian actually just turned 23), you wouldn’t expect such a tapestry of experience to precede Vivian and Riley– but you’d be mistaken. Both of them grew up in musical families that reverberated naturally with old-time fiddle and mountain music and childhood was filled with festivals and the best players from around the country. By the time they were in their teens, they were accomplished musicians teaching techniques in various workshops– Vivian alongside her mother, Carol Elizabeth Jones (who along with Vivian’s father James make up the Virginia folk duo Jones & Leva) and Riley with his stringband, The Onlies. Fate has intervened in much less and in 2016, Vivian and Riley met at the Centrum Voiceworks camp in Townsend, Washington. Their personal and professional relationships converged with Vivian joining The Onlies the following year, and in 2018, with Riley on fiddle and harmony, she released her solo effort, Time Is Everything, a stellar debut ringing with Clinch Mountain charm and peppered with just the right twang. On Friday, March 12th, Vivian and Riley will release their first official project as a duo. Recorded in Eunice, Louisiana with GRAMMY-award-winning engineer, producer, and musician Joel Savoy, the album showcases an accessible honky tonk style mixed with lean Appalachian authenticity. Traditionalists will enjoy every necessary thrill while Americana fans less inclined to pedigree will discover a true blue heartache only youth can summon courtesy of an honest-to-goodness skill honed across years and tuned to perfection. Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno will mark the album’s release with a Quarantine Happy Hour virtual performance at 8:30pm EST on Friday, March 12th. “We’re gonna try to make a party atmosphere in our little house in Portland,” says Riley. “And hopefully have a little celebration for our record and all the people who worked on it!”
AI- You have released music separately under different banners– Vivian, you as your own entity, and Riley with The Onlies. Of course, I know that you guys have been intricately involved with both of those projects together. What made you decide to create this particular record?
VL- We grew up doing different things. I’ve played in bands with my dad and Riley played in bands with his friends and played with his dad. We kinda naturally came together with The Onlies initially but pretty much from the start, we realized that we both really loved playing and writing original music and singing more songs rather than only just traditional fiddle tunes. And we liked hanging out together! So we pretty early on decided that this was a grouping that we liked, and we wanted to do projects. After my record, we started writing more together and that really led to us wanting to make this purely a duo record where we were both creating with the same project in mind.
The songs on this album, you wrote them together, and as I understand it, often when you were putting this together, you were at opposite ends of the country. How has your productivity been since you two have been together on the same coast?
VL- You know, it’s funny, it’s probably gone down, surprisingly! You would think that being far away, not that it wasn’t hard, but it was an exciting thing to share. Now that we’re together, we’re definitely getting back into it, but we’ve been busy with other things. I was here finishing up school and Riley’s been teaching a bunch. I just graduated college and I think that we’re gonna hopefully write a lot more together. But when we were both long-distance and in school, it was like an exciting thing that we could procrastinate with or look forward to by sharing that with each other.
There’s a romanticism to that as well– that long-distance, star-crossed creation of music. I can see how that in itself would have lent to the style of the album.
VL- Yeah, exactly.
RC- And these songs were both also our way– writin’ these ones together, passing voice memos back and forth– these were our letters or like our ways of understanding what we each were feelin’ in the places that we were in. It’s not just like thinking about making a record, but our way of parsing out what was happening with each of our lives. I think that if the songs are related in any way from track to track, it’s just ’cause these are the songs that we were experiencing, and these are the feelings that we were [having].
In relation to the style of music that you play, which is very rooted in the past, before social media, before being able to pass digital notes to each other, it would have been letters and you would have had those and been able to hang on to and hold and read to remember. But now as you just said, you have songs instead, which I think is just amazing!
RC- Texts sort of fade away. They get deleted off your phone, you drop your phone in the toilet, or whatever. But hopefully, this album will be our little snapshot of what we were feelin’ for the last four years.
Tell me about working with Joel Savoy. How did that relationship come about?
VL- We knew Joel in different capacities, mainly through music festivals. Riley knew him more from the West Coast world, and I knew him from some festivals in the Southeast and mutual friends. So we’ve known each other for a while, but some of our label mates, Western Centuries, recorded with Joel a year or two ago, and they just really loved the experience and highly recommended him. We got in touch and it was a really, really great fit. He’s a great guy and a really amazing producer and engineer and just has excellent taste and really good relationships with really great musicians who came and played on the record.
Riley, tell me about that experience for you as a fiddle player. Were you able to sorta pick his brain in any capacity?
RC- Yeah. I’ve been playin’ fiddle since I was four and Joel’s kind of been around for a lot of that. We’ve played together and he’s heard me before, but then goin’ into the studio, it’s kind of like bein’ under a microscope. So I was trackin’ the fiddle and just started feelin’ nervous like, “Oh shit, Oh shit!” Joel knows what he’s talkin’ about. At first, I remember when I was havin’ a weird fiddle day, like when we went into track the fiddle parts– some of ’em were live, but some of ’em we added on later– and Joel had really great advice about how to interact with the vocal lines. I just felt like I learned a lot from him in how to approach a fiddle session. That was cool. I mean, he’s a master of that kind of stuff, and I love his playin’ on all the records that he has played on and produced. It was cool to get to soak up some of that knowledge.
How does that experience compare to when you record with The Onlies? I don’t know this, but with that most recent Onlies record, it felt like a one mic kinda thing where you step in and out– and I could be makin’ that up, I don’t know. But what about the dynamic of recording like that versus recording in Louisiana?
VL- The Onlies recording, it wasn’t one mic, but it was all live and we actually recorded that record to tape. So you only got one take, basically. You either kept the one that you did, or you had to rewind over the tape and hope that you could execute it at least as good if not better. We did have a producer, but it was more just like playin’ live, being okay with some errors if the energy was good. With Joel, some of the songs we had written, but we hadn’t really played much, or we hadn’t played it with a full band. So they needed more thought to go into them and arrangements and just working stuff up with the band and seeing who had ideas. We still played a lot of stuff live, but it was more of, in some ways, like puzzle pieces coming together than with The Onlies, which was just like bustin’ through some tunes (laughs)!
It’s always important to innovate, but I would say that there’s also a certain amount of preservation that goes into what you do and the kind of music that you play. Like Riley, you dealing with Joel as a fiddle player. A while back, I spoke to Kyle Nix about learning things from other people. He spends a great deal of time with a guy named Byron Berline and said he can always learn something new and bring something from that technique forward. Do you feel that way about the kind of music you play and what you do? That you are continuing on a tradition and bringing new attributes to it?
RC- Yeah, for sure. Viv and I both grew up in the old-time fiddle world, and I feel like the coolest part of this is that we’re always pickin’ up something new from the people at festivals or from the people that we walk by a jam and hear a tune that it reminds us of one we used to play. I feel like there’s always this continual passing around and also passing down that’s happening. I think both of us have had so many people who have influenced us. It’s hard for me to name just one, ’cause there’s so many people that might not have even recorded commercially– but I have some bootleg tape from them playin’ at a festival in 1994, you know? That sound has influenced something that I hear today. So yeah, that’s my favorite part of this music, actually– getting to channel people’s energy through the music and what it is to be around them.
Another aspect of that preservation is appealing to a younger audience. You also have to bring new people into the fold in order to keep it going. I see this trend– and I don’t know if trend is the right word, but I see this a lot in bluegrass and old-timey and roots music where the audiences, they were once definitely an older variety, they’re startin’ to get younger and I think that’s necessary. How do you guys feel about that?
VL- I think that one of the things about traditional music is that it’s very intergenerational, and so we have always been friends with and hung out around a lot and been inspired by a lot of older musicians and then also making friends with the younger people coming into it. And I think it’s the same for our audience. With this record, I think we really did try to strike the balance between making music that people who already liked us would enjoy and then also feeling free to experiment more in other genres that a younger audience might be more likely to listen to. Do you have anything to say about that, Riley?
RC- Yeah, I guess two thoughts. One is I feel like both of us grew up around, like Viv was sayin’, people of all ages, but I especially felt like there was so many people my age. I was actually just thinkin’ about this and feelin’ nostalgic last night for when we were not all locked down. You might go to a festival and you might hear all your friends playin’ on a stage, or there might be special guests and you might all play a fiddle solo on somethin’ and just feelin’ that energy exist with people of our generation, I think is exciting. And I think that’s comin’ back too. It’s the time in our lives when people are getting into this kind of music, which is exciting and it’s exciting to get to meet different kinds of people.
I know that’s kinda vague, but then the other thought I had is we were jokin’ this morning ’cause we were readin’ a review of the new record and people keep sayin’, understandably, that it sounds really old. Our bio says old-soul roots music and I think that’s true, but the funny thing is we didn’t approach it like that at all! We were like, “Let’s make a record that sounds really new and creative!” Hopefully, those two things come across– us really tryin’ something new, but also everywhere we came from and all the sounds we’ve heard. We weren’t able to fully escape the classic country and the old-time music, but we did try to innovate a little bit.
There are people that try to make records to specifically sound dated, and I did not sense that at all about this record. No, to me it did feel like it was an exploration of something that kind of combined, Vivian, what you had done Time Is Everything and what you both have done with The Onlies [while] adding something new to it.
RC- That’s cool (laughs)!
When you play music for a great deal of time, and especially when you start as young as you both did, it’s very easy to get tunnel vision and have sequestered listening habits. You’re both in your early 20s, but you’ve been at this a long time. What else do you do? What other music do you listen to?
VL- We’ve both had our heads down for a while just trying to get some college degrees. That’s kinda what we’ve been focusing on. Riley was studying classical music for a while. He was playing classical violin, but then he kind of transitioned to music more generally and American studies kind of stuff. I was studying sociology and anthropology and just graduated in December. I really love doing that world too, and I think it all relates in some ways to us being musicians. We’ve both been writing and reading a lot and now we’re taking a little break from the academic side of things and hoping to spend some more time just being creative.