We all live with other versions of ourselves, identities we’ve outgrown that may suddenly—and uncomfortably—reemerge when we revisit people and places from our past. How we react to these seemingly inevitable encounters is another story, and the topic of the new single “You Don’t See Me,” from Portland-based folk duo Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno.
Specifically, “You Don’t See Me” centers on the phenomenon of how someone who was once dear to you can become a stranger over time, which Leva experienced firsthand during a strange encounter she had while visiting her hometown of Lexington, Virginia.
“I got lunch one afternoon at a great little spot called Blue Sky Bakery. I sat on a bar stool, facing the large window and looking out onto the street. As I ate my sandwich, someone I knew from high school slowly walked by the window. I waited for them to look at me so that I could wave, but they never did. I wasn’t sure whether they just didn’t see me, or if it was a purposeful choice,” Leva recalls.
Leva, the daughter of celebrated old time musicians in Lexington, was especially baffled by this person’s aloofness because they were more than an acquaintance—they were an ex-boyfriend. “It was someone I really knew, and that kind of blew my mind. I actually saw him twice and he didn’t say hi to me,” she says.
Calcagno, who has collaborated musically with Leva since the two were in high school, remembers how profoundly this impacted her, and how quickly she turned to writing “You Don’t See Me” in order to process it. “She just sat down on the couch and I remember it coming out all at once,” says Calcagno. “I think I left the house – I knew when to give her space to think about it.”
Fittingly, “You Don’t See Me” possesses a sort of nostalgic introspectiveness—both lyrically and sonically. There’s a bittersweet quality in Leva’s crystalline voice as it lilts against a driving guitar and violin pedal that mimics the ticking hands of time. And, as intensity builds, Leva’s exploration of this awkward encounter turns into a larger lyrical conversation about growing apart from people as we grow up—and how weird that can feel.
“A crowded room of faces I remember/From a time before/I try to wave but they turn their shoulders/They don’t know me anymore,” Leva sings. “I’m living in your little box of secrets/Where you don’t see me/And you don’t care.”
Aside from the sting anyone would feel from being snubbed, it makes sense that this cold behavior would baffle the pair. Calcagno and Leva emanate easy warmth and kindness, even in the sunlit cover image of their forthcoming self-titled album. After all, the pair grew up in the same close-knit music community, where everyone is somehow connected and old and new faces are eagerly recognized.
“I grew up playing fiddle music in Seattle,” says Calcagno. “I was actually learning tunes and hearing Viv’s parents’ music growing up, but didn’t know about her.” He still remembers sitting in the crowd at a Leva family performance in 2016, and thinking that the way Leva sang felt so familiar. When the pair finally met, they were excited to know another person in their age group skilled at playing old time music, which isn’t all that common. “I think we were inspired and struck by the generational aspect that we were having these parallel experiences,” says Calcagno.
Leva had a similar reaction herself. “On the East Coast everyone was either a couple years older than me or a little bit younger than me, and so meeting people that were at the exact same stage in life, but you know, really advanced players, was really fun,” she says.
Quickly, the pair began playing music together in an country band called The Onlies. Leva’s acclaimed 2018 solo debut, Time is Everything, which deeply considered the concept of time, featured Calcagno – but the eponymous album as a duo is the debut that finally puts them on par with one another as collaborators. It considers the ideas of distance and separation, something the duo—who sent voice memo ideas for songs across the country via text message while they were still in school in different cities—is well-accustomed to. Unexpectedly, the idea is even more resonant as we all sit in lockdown during the pandemic.
“All of these songs kind of just inherently were about distance and separation and space,” says Leva. “It’s interesting because even though it we didn’t write them in 2020, it feels really applicable to this time. We were writing it in a unique long-distance situation but now I think a lot of people are separated from loved ones.”
Today, Calcagno and Leva are both freshly graduated from college and have been living together in a house in Portland during the pandemic. Their shared living situation has allowed them to play together and remain connected to their fans and community via livestreams, like the Quarantine Happy Hour concert series (they’ll plan to play a release show for the new record as part of this concert series when the album drops on March 12 via Free Dirt Records).
“That’s been a lifeline for a lot of folks in our little scene. It was started by our friends who play in a duo called The Horsenecks,” explains Calcagno. “That’s been a really nice thing to see people and hear from people.”
Clearly, this duo—like so many of us—run on their connection to each other, the music, their fans and their community. That’s evidenced in the nuanced questions they ask in “You Don’t See Me,” as well as their biggest hopes for 2021. “Best case scenario would just be for COVID to die down, us be able to play the gigs we were supposed to play in 2020, see some friends, go to some festivals,” says Leva. One thing’s for sure, if the quality of this self-titled debut means anything: Leva and Calcagno’s next live performance will be hard to ignore.