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Q&A: Viv & Riley's 'Imaginary People' draws on bittersweet stories from the past

The musical duo Viv & Riley lounging on a beige couch outside on the grass with magnolia trees in the background.
Courtesy of Viv & Riley
The Durham-based indie duo Viv & Riley are playing at Cat's Cradle on Saturday, Jan. 6.

Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno are better known to music lovers as Viv & Riley.

The indie duo's latest record, "Imaginary People," melds bright production elements with wistful and sometimes bittersweet stories that recognize their roots on opposite sides of the country while looking ahead to an uncertain future.

Viv & Riley play the Cat's Cradle on Saturday, but stopped by WUNC recently to talk about the new songs.

This is an excerpt of an edited transcript of that conversation. You can hear the full interview by clicking the LISTEN button at the top of this post.

Some of the songs on "Imaginary People" seem to be about looking back or revisiting your childhood homes. I'm thinking here of "Kygers Hill" where, Viv, you sing your bedroom's looking smaller or you're just getting older. "Sauvie Island" has that feel too with the line about how it might be time to leave some things behind and move on.

Leva: "Yeah, absolutely. Both of those songs are reflections of places that we spent a lot of time and Kygers Hill like you said, it's about my childhood home and visiting it and kind of seeing it with new eyes and some appreciation and also some some sadness. It kind of reflects a time that has passed. And Sauvie Island similarly kind of represented at a time in our lives and particular things we were going through. And when we were writing that song, that was an opportunity to kind of reflect on a period that was very special to us, but also has passed. So writing and singing those songs is kind of a way to reflect on this time."

As listeners, we're just discovering these places, but is it nostalgic for you as writers and performers to inhabit these songs?

Calcagno: "Especially Sauvie Island, like you know, it's about a time living in Portland. And it was the COVID period, there were wildfires. We didn't know what the world was, and Sauvie Island is a special island where we just kind of sat on the beach and looked at the sky and wondered what was going on. You know, I think singing the song brings you back to that moment in it. I think that's the power of playing songs and the reason we do it is conjuring a feeling in a moment. And I think that's what we're trying to do."

From there we jump ahead with the song "Is it all over?" which takes a look at climate change through a near future of drought and trips to a lithium mining town on Mars where you might play a show. Are you using humor to tell a distressing tale here?

Calcagno: "Oh, yeah. You know, this one came to me as the billionaires were blasting off to space. And then also that UN Climate Report, they call it the "doomsday report" came out and just looking around and wondering what was going to happen. We were also playing a lot of gigs for the first time after COVID. And they were lonesome, and I was imagining what a gig might be in a labor camp that maybe Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk ran up on Mars. Not a gig I necessarily want to play but it could happen."

On "Imaginary People" you sing about putting on personalities and being so cruel you don't need enemies. I also love that line about not losing sleep thinking about a relationship. Is this about falling in love with someone who might not be exactly the person we think they are?

Leva: "To me, this song is more about figuring out if, if you're the person you want yourself to be. So, it's more about the individual, but it's tied kind of into a relationship. I was thinking about how sometimes we expect someone else to make us happy or to help us figure out who we are. So, we put a lot of pressure on someone else to define us and the song was kind of about realizing that, say you're with someone that you really love and you're still disappointed in yourself and you're realizing that all these hopes that you kind of had put into someone — it's just not going to be realized. So, it's then turning in to reflect upon your yourself and what you can do to make yourself happy."

"How to Lose" is a heartbreaker. The chorus includes the line, "you taught me how to lose someone." ... Are you trying to help other people live with that pain?

Calcagno: "I don't think I set about trying to do that. I think I was just reflecting on times that I had gone through and maybe not processed like the events the song unfolded seven years before I sat down to write it and it kind of just came flooding out all at once. But I think just like we were talking about with locations, like, there's a universality in that experience of losing someone. I think it has been interesting to see how people react to it and resonate with it."

Leva: "I think we all experience seeing people we love lose people they love and figuring out how to be there for them during that is something that I think everyone goes through."

Calcagno: "It's one of these things that everyone experiences, but there's an awkwardness, talking about it and being with someone through loss. And I think this song was me realizing that I hadn't done it in exactly the way that I wish I had and trying to learn how to be better."

Viv & Riley's latest record is called Imaginary People. It's available wherever you buy or stream music.

The duo is performing at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro on Saturday, Jan. 6.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
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