What happens when three gifted solo indie artists throw their hats into the ring together? The answer, as Laura Barton discovers, is a band called boygenius.
“You couldn’t find three people who are having a more similar experience,” says
Phoebe Bridgers. “It’s being in a room with truly your peers. It’s what men get to do every time
they walk into a venue.”
Bridgers is down the line from somewhere near Joshua Tree, describing the experience of collaborating with fellow songwriters Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus on boygenius, a project that emerged out of a fierce friendship and produced a stunning six-song EP that marries their distinct voices and musical talents.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the three would cross paths; they are, after all, among the most gifted young songwriters working today. Still, each describes the fact of having found each other with a kind of wonder.
“I met Julien backstage when I supported her on the East Coast,” recalls Dacus. “I was reading The Portrait Of A Lady in the green room and she came up to me and said, ‘Henry James!’ and we started talking quick-fire about books. It was a nose-dive into deep conversation.”
Meanwhile on the West Coast, Bridgers and Baker had formed a similar bond after meeting on tour and subsequently discussing favourite books, poets and authors via an email chain or “the letter-writing of millennials”, as Baker puts it.
Dacus well remembers the day that Baker told her about Bridgers. “She said to me, ‘Lucy, you have to get into Phoebe Bridgers. She’s about to put out the best record and you need to meet, and we all need to be in a band together!’” The logic made perfect sense to Dacus. “One, Julien is a ripping guitar player, and at the time had aspirations to just be a guitar player. Phoebe plays bass, and I don’t like playing instruments,” she explains. “And I think we have similar goals.”
They have, too, a similar sensibility in their songwriting and in the way they view the world. “We all seek to be incredibly vulnerable,” she says. “And we all recognise the power in that. I think that is a strength not a weakness. We all look into our own lives, and we’ve all been recipients of that solace from other artists.”
Baker agrees. “‘Intelligent’ is a lazy word, but they’re intelligent and engaged and empathetic,” she says of Dacus and Bridgers. “They both feel very deeply and consider things. They’re very thoughtful and attuned to feelings and humanness. They’re very perceptive and very compassionate. It’s what makes them both good songwriters and good friends.”
It’s a remarkable fact, and a testament to the power of email chains and a shared Google Drive, that the three only succeeded in getting in the same room together for the first time the day before they began recording. “It was better than any of us expected and we already had high expectations,” remembers Dacus. “We were all talking, talking, talking, all comforted by each other’s presence.”
“I’ve never worked so hard and had it so easy,” says Bridgers. “Noon to midnight a lot of the days. We literally didn’t have time to go eat. If we’d had two more days we probably would’ve had 12 more songs.”
Though each songwriter provided the structure for two songs, in truth all three built them into their finished form. Bridgers cites the example of the song Ketchum, Idaho, a track she had brought into the studio as “a nothing, a chord progression, a melody, half a verse” but that, in fact, became a “magical experience”.
The song had begun as Bridgers’ attempt to capture the challenges and strangeness of life as a touring musician. “Trying to talk to your partner back home and being in a van and having no privacy, being really busy and having spaces between but it’s not down time, you can’t go anywhere,” she explains. “It’s this weird, anxious, lethargic feeling. And you can’t complain about it because you wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
She played what she had to Baker and Dacus. “And they both said, ‘Oh my god, I have a verse about being trapped on tour!’ Their verses already existed. We recorded it in one take. It was done start-to-finish in an hour.”
Other songs allowed each member to explore sides of themselves that had perhaps been neglected in their solo work. Baltimore Wind, for instance, which Bridgers describes as “a song Lucy wrote where Julien gets to shred and I get to scream, which I almost never get to do.”
Dacus specifically recalls the experience of writing the track Bite The Hand, and how it grew out of the inspiration from her new bandmates. “I wrote it specifically for Phoebe and Julien,” she says. It’s a rumination on something we all have discussed, having complicated relationships to fans, the expectation of people. It’s people taking and taking from you. Asking so much and you can’t see to what end. It’s the way people perceive your success and you’re told to keep going and keep going, but to where?” Had she written it alone she suspects it might have been a fledgling song she disregarded. “But working with them has made me a better advocate for myself. It’s allowed me to explore my ideas more heavily. Ideas I would’ve thrown away but one of the others was able to save.”
A Whole Different Other
“I hadn’t made music in a band context for so long,” says Baker. “It was so awesome. I have a real soft spot for harmonies and rounds. It reminds me of Appalachian people and every record that my grandma owns. Lucy and Phoebe’s voices are so powerful and allowed us to do interesting vocal shapes. In the songs I’d written, it was interesting to see how their style and vocal intonations coloured it, so it becomes a whole different other.” Dacus felt a similar impact on her songs, a sombreness that spilled from the fact that “They’re both a lot darker in their material than me. But they’re not in their personal lives, they’re funny and joyful.”
Away from the studio, all are long-standing vinyl fans. From Dacus, who grew up in a household so fervently Christian that her parents smashed up her copy of Green Day’s American Idiot because it contained “curse words”, to Baker, who inherited her grandmother’s pink Crosley record player, and on the morning we speak woke up at her home in Nashville and listened to a Self Defense Family album.
“I use Spotify,” says Dacus. “And I’m really happy there’s a free way to listen to my music, because I don’t think music is a luxury item. But vinyl is.” To that end, she is cautious about buying vinyl on the road, sticking rather to support bands’ merch on CD or tape. “I tend not to buy records on tour because I fear for their lives,” she explains.
But of course there are exceptions. Should she find herself passing through Asheville, NC, she will make time to visit Harvest, her favourite record store. “It has everything you want and everything you didn’t know you wanted,” she says.
Last time I went, I bought 15 records.” Among them were a Feist album and Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans, alongside a local band named Water Liars, who she saw play a college show seven years ago. “All things I couldn’t pass up,” she says.
“But that happened 15 times.”
Bridgers is more rigorous. “I have this ongoing list on my phone,” she says. “Basically, I’m collecting, rediscovering classic albums that I wouldn’t listen to on streaming.” Recently, she’s been hunting for Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon records, and at Repo Records in Philadelphia she bought Brian Eno’s debut album Here Come The Warm Jets. “And I’m going through a Vic Chesnutt phase. I’m obsessed with him. What a cool force. I can’t believe his music has been around my whole life and I never heard it before.”
The pride of her record shelves is her complete Elliott Smith collection. “Including the seven inches, and one that’s a split single between Elliott Smith and Pete Krebs,” she says. “There were only 500 made, and it’s one of the few rare things I own. I don’t care about things being rare.” She admits she came upon it by slightly nefarious means, as a year or so ago she was gifted a copy by a music publishing company A&R eager to sign her, and hoping the only outstanding Smith seven-inch in her collection might woo her. “I didn’t sign with him though,” she adds, sounding perhaps only a little guilty.
A Sonic Metaphor
That all three members of boygenius are young women is an inescapable fact, notable largely because of its rarity. While all are naturally wary of questions about being a woman in music, this project has offered a new perspective. “I haven’t been bothered at all about talking about it in this context,” says Dacus. “It is special, but hopefully it will get less special the more women that take this form. I’m happy to be part of changing that narrative with Phoebe and Julien.”
It is, too, a powerful statement at a time when so many women are uniting, finding their voices and dentifying a strength in marches and rallies and movements such as Me Too. “I think people always believe deep down that there is an element of competition in the female creative community,” Dacus says. “It’s a statement that none of us believe in that competition, and our voices together is a sonic metaphor.”
There are hopes, of course, that the three will be able to record more together, play live together, and take advantage of, as Bridgers puts it, “our Carter Family-style harmonies”.
For Dacus, it feels much more a matter of when, not if, a chance to feel once again the overwhelming sensation she experienced in the studio with Baker and Bridgers: “David Bowie had that analogy of where you walk into the ocean and your feet are about to come off the floor, and how that’s when you know you’re doing the right thing,” she says. “And that’s how it feels.”
Back To The Day Job
The highlights of the indie supergroup’s individual labours…
Stranger In The Alps
Bridgers’ debut solo album saw her early potential emphatically realised and was one of the outstanding releases of 2017. The purity of her ghostly vocals enshrined some captivating dark lyrics about fading relationships. The gut-wrenching sorrowful beauty of Smoke Signals and the raw Motion Sickness are high points, but everything here is expertly crafted refined songwriting. Conor Oberst guests on Would You Rather, but Bridgers is a star deserving of equal billing.
Turn Out The Lights
While the Tennessee songwriter and guitar wrangler’s bleak debut Sprained Ankle was a fine introduction, Baker truly hit her stride on her first album for Matador. Addressing her demons, new-found sobriety and spirituality on 11 haunting piano, glacial guitar and vocal compositions, Baker arrived at the conclusion: “I think I can love the sickness you made. I wanted to stay,” by the final note of thrilling closer Claws In Your Back sounding towering and defiant.
This year’s sophomore album, Historian, was one of Long Live Vinyl’s Top 20 albums, but the Virginian’s 2016 debut is also worth investigating. Dacus’ voice is dry and direct, and the writing sharp and incisive, with lines such as “I let my mind get turned inside out/ Just to see what the kids were laughing about/ And it wasn’t worth understanding/ Something I could’ve gone my whole life not knowin’” on the excellent Direct Address. It’s a smart, concise 35 minutes that signposted the brilliance to follow two years later.