Traditional music runs in the blood of Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno. Both were raised by parents immersed in old-time and bluegrass. Both mastered multiple acoustic instruments as children and started performing in their teens. Both spent summers riding the fiddlers’ convention and competition circuit.
But a funny thing happens with aging. Depending on nature and nurture, some folks’ blood runs thicker, thinner; colder, hotter. As we age, desires change, ambitions alter, and value systems shift.
Of course, “growing older” is all relative for Leva and Calcagno, both just 25 years old. Yet hard-earned wisdom abounds on their new album, Imaginary People, out September 15 on Free Dirt Records. It marks their first release under the Viv & Riley moniker, their first collaboration with producer Alex Bingham, and their first time intentionally breaking free from acoustic roots.
To start, the duo wrote songs on an electric guitar and drum set—no big deal for most, but borderline sacrilegious for those who came up in reverential old-time scenes.
“It sounds trivial,” Calcagno tells the INDY over lunch at Gojo by Goorsha in Durham. “But using an electric guitar and drum set really changed the possibilities and spurred a more adventurous spirit going into our recording session with Al.”
That’s immediately evident on album opener and lead single “Kygers Hill,” Leva’s wistful rumination about returning to her old Virginia home. Yes, it references long rides through the Blue Ridge Mountains, but it does so atop a warbly, vibrato-drenched guitar lick from Calcagno. “I wrote that song melodically and lyrically in its entirety,” she says, looking at her partner. “But you really shaped it—the guitar riff you came up with is so integral.”
That “you” is key to understanding the intense bond that Leva and Calcagno share. The two have been nearly inseparable since meeting as high school graduates in 2016 at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington. Throughout the INDY’s 90-minute conversation with them, they communicated as much with each other as with their interviewer, sharing sly smiles and concentrated eye contact as they completed each other’s sentences.
That intimacy stands out on “Sauvie Island” and “How to Lose,” which start with solo verses before reverting to trademark interlocked harmonies on the choruses.
When they started recording with Bingham at his lakefront Bedtown Studios in Virginia, he teased them for cramming themselves into the tiniest spot available.
“It was hilarious,” Bingham remembers, clarifying that his studio is not big “by any means.” But, he says, the pair made their way to “the farthest back corner. It cracked me up.”
Calcagno concurs: “Al thought we were freaks.”
Belying that intense intimacy, Imaginary People also rises above what Calcagno calls the “interpersonal drama” that dominated the duo’s earlier work. “Sauvie Island” hearkens back melancholically to Portland, Oregon, where Calcagno moved after graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio as Leva finished her education at Lewis & Clark College. She graduated in December 2020 at the height of the pandemic.
“It was also the year that the wildfires were really awful,” Leva says. “Things felt truly apocalyptic. But we were making meals and mulled wine together, going down to this beach on the Columbia River, and trying to find beauty amidst the hardness of it all.”
Meanwhile, “Is It All Over” is a sardonic study in paradoxes. The song combines gentle, blissed-out instrumentation and MPC loops with lyrics that drag billionaires wanting to blast off into space while the planet burns.
“It’s this idea of pushing the capitalist game as far as it can go,” Calcagno says. “The UN puts out this really dark climate report about environmental degradation, but we’re still open for business.”
Then there’s “The General,” a freewheeling rock ’n’ roll song built around Leva’s sharp couplets (“Why’d you even have to come downstairs? / The way you look at me makes me scared”). “After I wrote that, I remember us saying, ‘Dang, we’re going to need to start a new rock band so we can perform this song!’” Calcagno laughs. “It just felt like a totally different version of us.”
The album’s title track, on the other hand, is an instant Americana earworm—easy to envision on the radio or soundtracking a film, with Leva’s intoxicating vocals recalling heroes like Iris DeMent or Joni Mitchell. Written by Leva, “Imaginary People” is about realizing “you can’t count on someone else for your own happiness,” she says. “It’s up to you to know yourself and come to terms with the fact that you’re in a moment of growth or change.”
“Flashing Lights,” meanwhile, relates a joyful moment from late 2021 when Viv & Riley traveled to Nashville to play Americana Fest and spent a blissful night dancing with friends.
“It was a beautiful experience to feel youthful again,” Leva says. Calcagno references his earlier comment: “We used to write songs to each other that were complicated and fraught,” he says. “But ‘Flashing Lights’ is about one of those collective experiences we processed together, which is a much healthier and sweeter process.”
Still, their early days as a duo are baked into their beings. For their first tour together, in 2018, they dropped out of college to play a month of house shows in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta—in March.
“It launched us into taking things seriously,” Leva says. “That was very important for the start of our duo.”
Leva’s first solo album came out while they were in Olds, a Grasslands town of 9,000 in Alberta. “We both were so proud of it,” Calcagno says, “but we were playing a house concert to five people during a blizzard that all the Canadians said we would die in if we tried to drive the next day.”
Imaginary People ends on “The Blackest Crow,” a Civil War–era Appalachian ballad that’s been a staple of live sets for both Viv & Riley and their traditional string band, The Onlies. With Bingham’s guidance, though, they approached this version differently.
“Al took it to a new place,” Leva says. “That was our challenge: How do we reimagine these songs so that they’re unlike anything we’ve ever done before? There are background loops of Sam [Fribush] and I clinking ice and water glasses, along with guitar sounds and organelle from Andy Stack. When we play it live, we’ll still do it with just banjo and our two voices. But it’s really nice to have this recorded version that’s so different.”
That ethos perfectly encapsulates Viv & Riley’s here and now: mindful of their past while looking eagerly into their future.
“More than ever, we’re operating as a unit—a single entity—which is exciting,” Calcagno says. “We have confidence in ourselves as collaborators and faith in our partnership.”
Of course, anyone who’s pursued a professional path with their romantic partner knows how fraught that journey can be, so the pair continue to cultivate their bond as a couple. At home, they play the board game Wingspan and love to cook together.
“We have not always been able to cook together,” Leva deadpans. Calcagno goes further: “That’s been a huge area of growth for us. I used to really annoy Viv when we were cooking, and now she’s learned to tolerate me.”
Bingham marvels at Viv & Riley’s maturity. “They were only 24 years old when we recorded Imaginary People together, which was shocking to me,” he says. “They’re very close friends, they anticipate each other’s needs and have a really beautiful balance as a couple and as a duo.”
Bingham also emphasizes the fact that Viv & Riley purposely pushed their music in new directions—all without pushing their old audience away.
“This record feels like a very natural transition for us,” Leva says. “We’re building a new identity. We’re creating new things that can still be a part of that Americana tradition. It’s been so inspiring to see these new themes emerge in our work and make connections with people like Alex who are helping us tell our story in a new way.”
Leva and Calcagno lock eyes again, sharing another long look.
“Getting older is not a linear thing,” she says. “We were teenagers when we met, and now we’re adults, but growing up is a messy path. You have to give yourself the flexibility to ebb and flow. We’re changing. And we’re excited to share that with the world.”
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