MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, "MOONGLOW"
Welcome to Afterglow, I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
This week on the show, I’m doing something a little unusual. Instead of focusing on a singer or songwriter from the past, I’m going to focus on someone working today, although writing music that sounds like the past. His name is Vilray, he’s a songwriter, singer, and guitarist, and one half of the duo Rachael and Vilray, along with his old friend, singer Rachael Price. I’ve featured their music on this show before. For this episode, I actually got a chance to sit down with Vilray—we’ll hear parts of my interview, as well as a few original songs he recorded for the broadcast. And we’ll hear some of his work with Rachael and Vilray. That’s all ahead.
It’s the Vintage Voice of Vilray, coming up next on Afterglow.
MUSIC - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “I LOVE THE WAY YOU’RE BREAKING MY HEART
Rachael and Vilray from their 2019 album for Nonesuch records, and the song “I Love The Way You’re Breaking My Heart.” Jon-Erik Kellso was also featured on the trumpet. This was one of the two songs on the album not written by Vilray. Instead, it dates back to the early 1950s, written by veteran songwriters Louis Alter and Milton Drake. It was never the most popular song by them, Alter wrote songs like “You Turned The Tables On Me” and Drake wrote lyrics to songs like “Java Jive.” But “I Love The Way You’re Breaking My Heart” was originally recorded in 1951 by Miss Peggy Lee.
MUSIC CLIP - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “LET’S MAKE LOVE ON THIS PLANE”
Mark Chilla here, on Afterglow. What you’re listening to now is the duo Rachael and Vilray, two marvelous musicians in their 30s making music that sounds like it comes from the ‘30s.
MUSIC CLIP - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “LET’S MAKE LOVE ON THIS PLANE” (cont.)
On this week’s show, I’ll be highlighting their music as well as featuring parts of an interview I had with one half of that duo, Vilray, who writes most of their music, in addition to playing guitar and singing.
Now, writing music in an older style is nothing new. And Vilray is hardly the first contemporary artist to create a vintage 1940s sound. But, from my perspective, few songwriters seem to “get” the mid-century songwriting style as well as Vilray. And it’s not just the melodies—everything from the song structure, to the harmonic choices, to the clever wordplay, and even how he and fellow singer Rachel Price pronounce the words. It’s all drawn that era, although with an unmistakable timeless quality.
For instance, take what we’ve just been listening to and compare it to say, Nat King Cole and the King Cole Trio in 1947…
MUSIC CLIP - KING COLE TRIO, “TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS”
That's the 1937 Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting tune “Too Marvelous For Words,” and you can hear echoes of this kind of songwriting, phrasing, arranging, all within Rachel and Vilray.
But on top of that, there’s the interplay between both singers. That fun back and forth draws directly from many of the best songs from the 1940s. For instance, here again is Johnny Mercer, a big influence on Vilray, and his 1944 duet with Jo Stafford called “Conversation While Dancing”...
MUSIC CLIP - JOHNNY MERCER AND JO STAFFORD, “CONVERSATION WHILE DANCING”
Everything from their tone to those playful lyrics can be heard in a song like “Treat Me Better,” a Vilray original from Rachael and Vilray’s 2019 album…
MUSIC CLIP - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “TREAT ME BETTER”
Vilray is more or less a newcomer to the music scene. After a hand injury in college sidelined his music career, he started pursuing it again recently by writing songs and performing in his hometown of Brooklyn. This caught the attention of his old friend Rachael Price. You might know the name Rachael Price. She’s a public radio staple at this point, and she’s most well-known as the lead singer of the pop group Lake Street Dive..
MUSIC CLIP - LAKE STREET DIVE, “YOU GO DOWN SMOOTH”
Rachael and Vilray’s story starts many years before Vilray’s recent return to music. The two met in college, they studied music together at the New England Conservatory about 15 or so years ago.
I’ll play now parts of my recent interview with Vilray, recorded from our respective home studios, me in Bloomington, him in Brooklyn. Here’s Vilray…
VILRAY: Um, we met in orientation week, I think, of our freshmen year at the New England Conservatory in Boston. And, um, I don’t know… Rachael has some sort of story that I was mean to her or, generally speaking, you know, curt. And maybe I was, I totally believe it. I think that transition from living at home to being quasi-independent as a student leaving town for the first time is a tough one, and [laughter] I probably was hard on my peers! But, anyway, I remember liking her and being charmed by her. And we really didn’t have any classes together, so I don’t know that we were great friends when we went to school together. But I was very close friends with the members of Lake Street Dive, particularly Michael Calabrese and Mike Olson, who both lived on the floor that I lived on. So we got very close, and once they started a band together, I got to know Rachael and Bridget [Kearney]. So we’ve been friends for a very, very, very long time. But we only had a few interactions when we were at school together. I was only at school for two years.
MARK CHILLA: But, you did not perform with her at college at all…
VILRAY: Never. No [laughter]
MC: So, you were once a music student in college in the early aughts. I can relate, I was also once a budding music student in college in the early aughts. You said freshmen 2003, that was my freshmen year of college as well. What was your career path at the time?
VILRAY: Well, I was there studying jazz composition. The New England Conservatory had kind of a—has probably still—a very progressive kind of program that is very into avant garde music. And so I was deep into that world and listening to a lot of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy and Cecil Taylor, and writing music for a trio actually with Mike Olson and Mike Calabrese. We just played kind of—we called it “silly free jazz” or something like that. It was, kind of, the idea was to be light-hearted in our avant garde music. And then two years in, I basically realized I couldn't afford to do this. Not so much that I couldn't afford to study free jazz, but that I couldn't afford to study anything at the New England Conservatory. So I came back to Brooklyn and I worked for a lighting manufacturer for many, many years. 12 years, I think, all told. And it was only a few, five years ago, something like that, that I I retired from that. And since then I've been a full-time musician. But between the New England Conservatory and that moment I was really a very sort of hobby-based musician, writing songs maybe every couple years and doing it all in my bedroom.
MC: So, how did you and Rachael Price then reconnect a couple of years ago?
VILRAY: We had actually tried. She moved back to Brooklyn—well, not back to Brooklyn—she moved to Brooklyn from Boston. And we were friends. And at some point she said, “you know we should play music together. We really like this old jazz. We could play together.” And I was like, “you know I don't really play that much anymore. I would feel very self-conscious playing with you.” And she said, “well, let's try it.” And we did try it, and it was, kind of, you know… I didn't know any tunes, and I was very rusty. I had never really been a, you know, rhythm guitar player, to the extent that I was a guitar player when I was studying music at NEC—I was studying composition. It was just kind of an outlet to write with. So it was difficult, and we had one session that didn't work out that great. And then it was, sort of, once I picked up music again she came to one of my shows, and she said, “Well, great! You seem like you've got it figured out, and I really want to do this with you.” And so we started. And then we were having fun.
MUSIC CLIP - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “DO FRIENDS FALL IN LOVE”
MC: So, what’s it like singing with her?
VILRAY: It's fun. There are no challenges. I mean, you know, it's a weird way to sing. We share one microphone, and we face each other. So in a way, I was able to get over a lot of stage fright that I had, because she was, a little bit, my only audience member that I was aware of.
MUSIC CLIP - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “DO FRIENDS FALL IN LOVE” (con’t)
VILRAY: It's an unusual way to sing, but it's really just fun. We get a lot of sense for how the tempo’s going, and in terms of interpretation, from just glances in each other's eyes. You can, kind of, be a little more spontaneous, a little more elastic with things when you're just playing with one other person and you’re locked in with your eyes with them. And she's, of course, the most beautiful singer, and just so great to write for, and to hear your music realized from her voice is so special.
MC: Are there certain composers that you're trying to emulate when you write songs?
VILRAY: I love Johnny Mercer. I think Johnny Mercer... you know, he's a singer. So he, like me I think, understands how the mouth’s inner-workings can hinder or help the interpretation of a song. I think as a lyricist and as a composer and as a singer, his things are just, like, really tight, and they do exactly what he wants them to do. They have the humor when they need the humor. They have, you know, the heartbreak when that's his aim. And again, he's like not an incredible singer. He's not Frank Sinatra. He's not Bing Crosby. But he's, like, very human.
MUSIC CLIP - JOHNNY MERCER, “AC-CENT-TCHU-ATE THE POSITIVE”
VILRAY: And Matty Malneck, who is not a name that’s thrown around a lot. He wrote a song called “If You Were Mine” for Billie Holiday.
MUSIC CLIP - BILLIE HOLIDAY, “IF YOU WERE MINE”
VILRAY: … that is just an absolutely gorgeous song. Undercovered, but it’s so good. And Billie Holiday’s version is transporting and incredible. And talk about harmonic motion that’s original and beautiful! That’s what I love about the Tin Pan Alley sound, is that it covers all the emotional bases. It’s great.
MUSIC CLIP - BILLIE HOLIDAY, “IF YOU WERE MINE” (cont.)
MC: When did you start writing songs for you and Rachael to sing?
VILRAY: It was kind of after we started playing together that I started writing... I think maybe I had written one song in this project of writing for musicians who are long dead who I love. Fats Waller, and Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra. So I think I had one song by the time we started playing together. We were playing not really standards, but obscurities of the Jazz Age. Then once I started writing… you know, I think Rachael is such an incredible interpreter of that style of music, that if I wrote songs that worked well enough in that style she could interpret them her way. But I found the best success in, kind of, writing for people from that era. Because different singers from that period, they’re attracted to different kinds of songs, and different kinds of languages, and different accents. It's a complicated thing. And so a Fats Waller song is a pretty different beast than an Ella Fitzgerald song, because they like different things.
MUSIC CLIP - FATS WALLER, “LULU’S BACK IN TOWN”
VILRAY: You don't hear Fats Waller sing too many Cole Porter songs. He's singing stuff that’s kind of written for him. I found writing songs for Fats Waller could work out as interpreted by Rachael Price. But we spent a few years working together, and more and more of our set became original songs by me. And then by the time we were ready to make the record there were enough of those, that I think it's 10 out of 12 songs on the record are mine. I guess I wouldn't quite say that I'd written them for her, but I've written them and she interprets them amazingly well.
MUSIC - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “THERE’S NO TRUE LOVE”
MC: When you're writing these songs, you know, you mentioned Fats Waller, for instance. So which song, or songs, on the album is your Fats Waller tune, for instance?
VILRAY: I think “At Your Mother’s House” could definitely be a Fats Waller song, but it could also be, you know, kind of an older blues form, or a later Big Joe Turner kind of song. So I think that's one that—although it doesn't work as well as a song that's sung by a man. I sing it in my sets, but it's a little more disgusting as a song sung by a man [laughter], than it is as a song by a woman. But anyway, I think that's one that's probably a Fats Waller tune.
MUSIC - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “AT YOUR MOTHER’S HOUSE”
MC: Any other songs inspired by Fats Waller?
VILRAY “Go On Shining,” which is one we do with Jon Batiste on the record, that was written one hundred percent as a Fats Waller song. Yeah, he sings very funny songs, and then he sings these beautiful, kind of, “spacey” songs. He's got this song called “Jitterbug Waltz,” which is very famous, and it's just an incredibly weird song. It’s almost like a Pink Floyd thing, or something, and it's just like very trippy in its harmonies.
MUSIC CLIP - FATS WALLER, “JITTERBUG WALTZ”
VILRAY: And I think that’s one of the things I was thinking about when I wrote that song.
MUSIC - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, FEAT. JON BATISTE, “GO ON SHINING”
MC: Rachael & Vilray with Jon Batiste performing Vilray's original song “Go On Shining.” Before that we heard Rachael and Vilray with clips of the songs “At Your Mother's House” and “There’s No True Love.” I've been talking to Vilray this hour, and we've been discussing some of his influences as a songwriter. Many of his influences, as you can imagine, come from the 1930s and 40s. And some of his songs, like the original song “The Laundromat Swing,” were directly influenced by earlier musicians. Her’s Vilray…
VILRAY: “The Laundromat Swing” is one hundred percent a Mills Brothers song. The Mills Brothers, they sing songs where the lyrics are propelling the swing. Every consonant, every vowel is like doing a job that acts as a propellant for the swing…
MUSIC CLIP - MILLS BROTHERS, “SWING FOR SALE”
VILRAY: So I was trying really hard with that song to get every phrase to propel the feel forward. And starting off with the line “drop your lucky nickel down the money slot.” I thought that was like a very—you know, you could feel all the pops of all the consonants, and the vowels were very short and clipped. It feels more like a snare drum than then a lyric. And that's a really magical element to The Mills Brothers that spent a long time trying to figure out.
MUSIC - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “THE LAUNDROMAT SWING”
MC: Rachael and Vilray and their original song “The Laundromat Swing.”
Coming up after a short break, I’ll feature more of my interview with singer and songwriter Vilray, plus we’ll hear two original songs that he recorded for me from his Brooklyn apartment. Stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - MILLS BROTHERS, “SWEETER THAN SUGAR”
MUSIC CLIP - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “I CAN’T GO TO SLEEP”
MC: Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring the music of the duo Rachael and Vilray this hour, a group of singers who perform new music in the style of vintage songs from the 1930s and 40s.
MUSIC CLIP - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “I CAN’T GO TO SLEEP” (cont.)
MC: I’ve also been featuring parts of an interview I had earlier with Vilray, one half of the duo, as well as the guitarist and songwriter for the group.
When we talked, he and I discussed some of his influences, both as a songwriter, singer, and guitarist. His guitar influences, as you might imagine, come mostly from the mid 20th century.
Here’s Vilray again…
VILRAY: Uh, Oscar Moore, in the Nat King Cole Trio…
MUSIC CLIP - KING COLE TRIO, “JIVIN’ WITH THE NOTES”
VILRAY: Um… Merle Travis. I like guitar playing that is kind of orchestral, or really filling a function on its own. It doesn’t need much assistance, and it’s either playing the part of the drummer, or it’s playing the part of the bass player, or it’s playing the part of the horn section. And I try this alternating bass thing. I do it OK. But Merle Travis is, of course, the originator of Travis Picking, which alternates bass lines while he finger picks. You know, it’s amazing how big his guitar playing sounds, and full. And if he’s playing solo, you’re not missing anything. As a person who plays alone a lot, I want it to feel like a fulfilling experience, and not like a “singer-songwriter guy” alone with a guitar strumming. I want to be, a little, hearkening back the fullness of the sound of a solo guitar and singers.
MC: Let’s talk about your songwriting process. Are you thinking melody first? Harmony first? Do the lyrics happen first?
VILRAY: Yeah, kind of, things happen all at once. I love interesting harmonic motion, and I'm always trying to find something interesting to play off of: a harmonic relationship that isn't purely diatonic, you know passing through multiple keys, and so forth. There’s a lot of really interesting work that was going on in Irving Berlin tunes, Cole Porter tunes. And so I am often interested, particularly when I'm writing ballads, in a harmonic motion. And often that harmonic motion dictates with the melody’s going to be like. And often the melody dictates what the lyrical content is going to be like.
MUSIC CLIP - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “WITHOUT A THOUGHT FOR MY HEART”
VILRAY: “Without A Thought For My Heart” passes through a lot of different keys. It starts off very much in one range, and then it's got this big jump almost immediately. I was writing it for Peggy Lee, who is just an incredibly beautiful human voice, and so vulnerable in her singing.
MUSIC CLIP - PEGGY LEE, “BUT BEAUTIFUL”
VILRAY: ...and so soft in her singing, that when those jumps happen you can hear all of her humanity in it, because she can't—she doesn't have enough breath really to, like, nail it. I mean, she's in tune, but it's like you can hear the guttural aspects of her throat, and it's just like so intimate.
MUSIC CLIP - PEGGY LEE, “BUT BEAUTIFUL” (cont.)
VILRAY: And I know Rachael is not that kind of singer, and I was so curious about how it would sound if she was singing quietly, and she was, not quite straining, but you know working to hit a note. As opposed to having all the support that she usually has— kind of a belting, Ella Fitzgerald style. You know, a professional, a very, you know, A+ singer. And I was not disappointed. It took us awhile to get there, to get her feeling like she could be that vulnerable. But I think that song asks a certain thing of a singer, and has kind of a harmonic instability that appeals to me.
MC: ...that was Vilray, talking about his songwriting process.
Let’s play now one of the ballads on the record he made with singer Rachael Price, and a ballad that I think is one of his finest, something that you might find in the repertoire of Ella Fitzgerald. The concept behind it is simple: it’s a story about an introvert finding true love. This is Rachael and Vilray with Vilray’s original song, “Alone At Last,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - RACHAEL AND VILRAY, “ALONE AT LAST”
MC: Rachael Price, of the band Lake Street Dive, and guitarist and songwriter Vilray, with their song “Alone At Last” from the 2019 album Rachael and Vilray.
When I talked with Vilray a few weeks ago, we were each self-isolating in our respective homes, me recording from my make-shift home studio in my basement in Bloomington, Indiana, Vilray recording in his much nicer home studio in his apartment in Brooklyn, New York.
Between the pandemic and the protests, it’s been a difficult time, and not just for musicians, for everybody. Here’s Vilray…
VILRAY: Uh, you know, all things considered, I'm okay. And yeah, I've been getting out to protest. I was pretty nervous about it at first, given the pandemic. And maybe I will live to see my nervousness borne out in bad ways. But everybody's been wearing masks, and you know, I'm getting by.
MC: But it’s also been kind of an inspiring time for you. You’ve written several songs while in quarantine. You've released them on social media. How do you find inspiration at a time like this?
VILRAY: Well, I mean, in a way, you know, they always say “never write a song about the current moment, because it's dated three seconds later.” But the music that I write is kind of instantly dated anyway, because I'm sort of hearkening back to this older period. And you know, there are a lot of great examples of songs from yesteryear, the jazz era, that deal with things like World War II or what-have-you, folk songs also. It just seemed kind of natural to try to explore this thing that the whole world is experiencing at the same time from the perspective of Tin Pan Alley. You know, they would be trying to get things out on the radio, too, that would speak to the moment back in the day. So, that's really where I'm coming from.
MC: ...one of those original songs that speaks to this moment is called “Here I Lie (Olly Olly Oxen Free),” a song that I featured on this very program not too long ago. Here’s a clip…
MUSIC CLIP - VILRAY, “HERE I LIE (OLLY OLLY OXEN FREE)”
MC: During our time together, Vilray was also kind enough to record two brand new originals for me from his Brooklyn apartment, which I’m going to feature now. Like that last, these next two were also both written in the past several months while in quarantine. So they too, reflect the moment, both the good and bad of it.
I’ll start with a classic love song that he wrote, one that resembles in tone and style the old Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer song “I’m Old Fashioned.” It’s called “A Love Song Played Slow.” Here’s Vilray, talking me through his songwriting process…
VILRAY: That one didn’t have like a direct artist inspiration. It was like a harmonic thing, melody thing that I've been writing for a long time. And once quarantine started, I kind of started writing it as a song [about a] person looking out his window, being visited by the same animals everyday, who were out living in the world, and trying to get a report from them. But I didn't get anywhere with that.
So then, I was thinking about how Rachael, she loves costume dramas and reading old Victorian literature and stuff. I was just thinking from her perspective, and I hit on this line “loving a love song played slow.” And that seemed to kind of fit together with the idea of an “old-fashioned time” that we’re in now, where you can’t go on a date, and then go home with somebody that night. You’ve got to, kind of, “woo” them now that we're all in quarantine. And I was thinking about all the people who have to be dating in this situation, and how it must necessarily change things. Anyway, so that's where it came from…
MUSIC - VILRAY, “LOVE SONG PLAYED SLOW”
MC: Singer and songwriter Vilray, from his Brooklyn apartment, and his original song “Love Song Played Slow.”
I’ll close off this episode with another Vilray original written while in quarantine, and recorded for me from his Brooklyn apartment. You’ll even hear at the end a little outdoor summer visitor making an appearance on the street. I won’t give it away, because it’s a nice little treat, but let’s just say it provides some “good humor” to the song.
This is a song about the art of songwriting called “Time To Write A Song.” First, here’s Vilray with a little explanation behind the inspiration...
VILRAY: The thing that inspired me most was, I always wanted to write a “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” style song. Do you know that childhood book? The conceit of that book is, you start off with a premise — “if you give a mouse a cookie, then you’ll have to...” and I think the next thing is “give him a glass of milk.” And then it continues on logically from giving him a glass of milk to whatever they do at the end. And you’ve kind of gone from a very simple premise to, sort of, a complicated conclusion. And I was wanted to, kind of, write a song that was “if you... then you…” And so this was, kind of, checking that box, which I had unchecked for a long time.
Then, you know, early on in the quarantine thing, there were a lot of people talking about how this was going to be “a great time for art,” because everybody is going to be home with nothing to do, and all the artists were just going to make stuff. But the truth is that everybody's completely isolated, and they don't really have what they need to make the art. And also they're completely depressed! Because you’re stuck at home, you don't have any money... and you know, it's a depressing time! People are dying out in the streets! It’s horrible! And so the idea that this could be a happy moment for art is, kind of, ludicrous. So I thought I would write, kind of, a tongue-in-cheek thing about how if you're depressed, it's a great moment to write music. Which I think it's not! [laughter] But you know, I like those kinds of dark jokes. I think a lot of my songs are premised on dark jokes.
MUSIC - VILRAY, “TIME TO WRITE A SONG”
MC: That was Vilray, and the ice cream man, recording live from his Brooklyn apartment, with his original song “Time To Write A Song.”
Thanks to Vilray for taking the time to chat with me and perform for me (and all of you) on this episode. If you want to learn more about Vilray and his music, you can head on over to indianapublicmedia dot org slash afterglow to find links to his songs.
And thanks for tuning in to this edition of Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - MERLE TRAVIS, “ROSE TIME”
MC: Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow