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SCMC Folk Series: Rachael and Vilray

Rachael & Vilray via St. Cecilia

Rachael & Vilray are performing at St. Cecilia Music Center in Grand Rapids on Tuesday, February 13th at 7:30pm. Their music is based on the jazz and standards from the Great American Songbook. WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf spoke to Vilray about their latest album, ‘I Love a Love Song.’

Scott Vander Werf: Rachael & Vilray has been a musical act ever since Rachael Price saw Vilray play a very short set of covers, she wanted in. In the time they began collaborating, they've made two critically acclaimed and popular albums for the Nonesuch label. Their style and methodology has ranged from an intimate duo to the nine-piece formation heard on their newest album, “I Love a Love Song”, which has this tune, “Why Do I?”


SVW: Rachael & Vilray sing to each other in a storytelling setting with original songs that harken to an earlier golden era yet with a timeless originality. I spoke to Vilray on the phone about the new album. I asked them how they met and how they began to collaborate.

Vilray: Rachael and I met when I was 18. She was 17. We met at the New England Conservatory in Boston. She was a vocal major and I was a composition major. And yeah, that's where we met. It took a few years before we became friends and many more years before we started playing music together. We were teens then and we were kind of in our late 20s by the time we were playing. I was playing kind of classical guitar, so to speak, for a nine year old and some classical, classic rock. It wasn't until I was about 16 years old that I got into jazz. And I was at sort of a special music high school in New York and it, playing the guitar was a little awkward because I couldn't bring it to the orchestra. And there was no like rock band or anything. So I took some jazz classes and I really fell in love.

SVW: Now in the liner notes to ‘I Love a Love Song’, you talk about the lyric, we've all heard the legends. How does this reflect the musicians who helped you make the record?

V: I think everybody that made the record is at least a legend in the making, but some are veterans of the jazz scene. We have people who played with Benny Goodman and Tony Bennett and, you know, some great studio musicians like Larry Goldings and David Pelch who have played with everybody, including James Taylor and others. So, yeah, there was a lot of talent in the room and Dan Nobler produced the record. He made our first record also. He's a legend in the making and Jacob Zimmerman wrote all the arrangements. Another future legend.

SVW: Well, your music harkens back to the golden era of jazz and standards, but it also feels very contemporary as well. Is that intentional?

V: Well I think it's maybe more unavoidable since I am contemporary, and you know so there are there are some, aspects of the language that seep in you can't you can't stay completely true to the language of the 30s and 40 but you know I think sometimes people forget how much humor and how much body humor and and sort of gallows humor is in those old standards and lesser-known songs of the Tin Pan era.

So I think the humor is a big attractor for me, and sometimes I think that humor has sort of a whiff of modernity to it. I think every generation maybe thinks that they invented being funny, but I'm really plumbing the depths of genius in a lot of the songwriters that I like from that era and trying to, you know, to say something that hasn't been said before. So maybe that's modern.

SVW: And what is your process in terms of composition? Do you write the music first or the lyrics? Or does it change from song to song?

V: Definitely changes from song to song. If I'm a little bit of a rut harmonically or melodically, sometimes writing lyrics or even just writing the names of songs and keeping them on a note and using that when I get stuck can be very valuable. But mostly I write sort of harmony and melody first, for a few bars at least, and then start to introduce language. I do find that language has sort of an intrinsic musicality. So for me, it doesn't make sense to save it till the bitter end, but usually they all go hand in hand really.

SVW: Now in the liner notes to ‘I Love a Love Song’, you talk about your collaboration being around seven years. Is it now eight years?

V: Eight years this month, I believe, maybe last month.

SVW: Were you guys just playing gigs and stuff before that or did it really take off in 2019?

V: No, we were playing gigs. You know, I think we played some big gigs even. But yeah, it just sort of made sense. Nonesuch, our label, agreed to that timeframe, 2019. And, you know, unfortunately we released the record more or less into a pandemic, but, you know it was a great experience making it. And, you know, I stand by the songs on that first record too.

SVW: Was there a different experience in terms of recording the first album from this most recent one?

V: Yeah the first one we were just sort of finding our legs. This music is kind of recorded, it's mostly recorded live, which is to say a band records it and Rachel or myself are at least recording scratch takes maybe in an isolated booth. But the band is in a generalized room, everybody can hear each other, their sounds are bleeding into the sounds of microphones quite close to them, and that's the way the records were made back in the day that I love so much and you can really feel that sort of human essence and living aspect of the bleed, the sonic bleed.

So we did that on the first record but we were playing in this much smaller room so we had to kind of record the rhythm section and then bring in the horns and so the rhythm section was all bleeding into each other's microphones. And then the horn section had to listen to it over headphones and record. So that was just a limitation of the room. For the second one, we did it in one of those big, old, beautiful recording studios in Los Angeles. And so we were all able to be there together simultaneously. And so that felt a little bit more organic. I think that's the way to do it going forward.

SVW: And ‘I love the love song’ is still relatively new in your touring this album, but are you guys planning the next one?

V: Yes, planning, planning and writing and talking about what it should be like and how it should be similar and building on things that we've learned in the last two records and the ways it should be different.

SVW: Guitarist, singer and songwriter, Vilray from Rachael & Vilray. Their latest album is ‘I Love a Love Song’ and the “Nonesuch” Label, which closes with ‘Good Night My Love, Good night’.


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