Durham-based singer/songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno recently announced their debut album under the moniker Viv & Riley titled Imaginary People, out September 15, 2023, on Free Dirt Records.
Gifted songwriters and multi-instrumentalists, the pair applies an alternative indie sheen to their traditional country roots across the ten-track album.
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.”
Watch: “Imaginary People” by Viv & Riley
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.”
Earlier this summer, the duo released “Is It All Over,” a folk anthem for a dystopian near future. It took inspiration from the recent space race of billionaires like Jeff Bezos, the intensification of catastrophic weather events resulting from climate change, and the absurd future music industry.
Watch: “Is It All Over” from the new Viv & Riley album Imaginary People. Out September 15
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 string band, The Onlies.
Watch: “Troubles (Kilby Snow)” by The Onlies
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.
“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.”
With Imaginary People, Viv & Riley tap 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 traditional country roots toward a layered sound full of experimentation.
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.”
The songwriting on this album has also evolved. Unlike previous albums, Viv and Riley shared most of the songwriting on ‘Imaginary People’.
The opening song, “Kygers Hill” was named for a location in Southwestern Virginia where Leva grew up. It 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 on a dose of mushrooms with close friends.
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.
As much as Imaginary People looks back to nostalgic yesteryears, it importantly marks the beginning of a new direction for these two master songwriters.