"It’s going to be like when you’re kids and you all rehearse the same story for your parents"
Midway through a conversation with Julien Baker, she pauses to qualify what she means when she says that she and her bandmates want to be in control of their current project.
A small part of that pause comes from us being sat on a gate at End of the Road Festival in Dorset – we have just been interrupted by a van wanting to leave the site. Without thought, she jumps on the gate and swings it open to see the van through. “It’s a bad kid skill,” she says. “Obviously I’m the most vanilla adult now, but I used to be a hoodlum.”
The initial part of Julien’s pause, however, is a little more conscious of the issue that her new band seeks to unravel.
“I felt the need then to qualify that we didn’t want to be in control in a mean or exclusionary way. But the thing about being a woman in the music industry is that you constantly feel the need to qualify yourself. We produced this record and all the players are female. It was important for us to show that there doesn’t have to be a man behind the scenes pulling the strings who is later accredited with the genius.”
A day earlier, after her Woods Stage set at the same festival, Lucy Dacus shared a similar sentiment. “In ways a boygenius can be annoying, but in other ways it’s really great that they can have the confidence to take risks. We just tried to employ that energy for each other, and whenever we doubted a line or an idea we just had to be like, ‘no, speak it! Even if you think it’s stupid, just harness some of that cocky attitude.’”
Phoebe Bridgers then explained how, in the initial phases of recording, she was apologising for her ideas fifteen times per day before Lucy and Julien helped her overcome the impulse. The phrase boygenius resonated: “Nobody had to explain what a boygenius was. Julien said it as a joke at first, but we immediately knew what it meant.”
“It’s cool because we all met at times where we weren’t over-exposed,” Baker says. “We had the benefit of following the same trajectory at the same time, which endeared us to each other. I think at that point I was still freaking out about the riders. If there was just a veggie tray and some almonds, I’d be like, ‘what is this?! This isn’t a dive bar! Look at these almonds!’”
And so boygenius came to be – the collective title of Messrs. Baker, Bridgers and Dacus – Matador’s new supergroup comprising three of the most poignant and acclaimed songwriters of the last few years. Coming off the back of tours supporting respective solo releases, the boygenius EP (out 9 November) is a beautiful anecdote to touring, loneliness and friendship. Importantly, it offers a chance for three artists who traditionally write very vulnerable material to feel comfortable appreciating and enjoying the quality of their own work. On ‘Salt in the Wounds,’ Baker even gets a chance to “shred” with an intricate guitar solo (“I never get to ‘shred’ that much, ever!”)
Anyway, to the interview. We weren’t going to pretend that the three of them were in the same room – they weren’t and rarely are. Our idea was to pose them, individually, the same set of questions. Here’s how we go on, entering several conversations about the wonders of Google Drive and a personality test called the Enneagram. Imagine something in-between an interview and the once-popular game show Mr & Mrs.
Julien Baker: Oh my god! I think they call it the Newly-Weds game. We were actually talking about when we have to do interviews separately because we all live in different towns. It’s going to be like when you’re kids and you all rehearse the same story for your parents.
We’re getting in before the rehearsals!
JB: I’m gonna sweat. I’m not into Horoscopes but people tell me all the time that I act like a Libra. I’m really interested in the Enneagram – it’s a personality test but I talk about it like a Horoscope. I’m a four. The characteristics of how I deal with things in a band context are very four-ish. I try to mediate anytime I perceive the potential for a conflict, you know.
The band started with a secret handshake between Lucy and Julien.
Phoebe Bridgers: Yeah, their secret handshake involved spinning around a load of times.
How did the handshake go?
Lucy Dacus: Well it’s a secret, isn’t it? I will say that it’s called the double eagle. That’s all I’ve got. Maybe Julien will tell you more.
JB: The double-eagle? Oh my god. So, imagine if you linked your hands almost to do the dove symbol. But then it’s a full body thing. It’s almost like it’s a dance. And then you both become – oh gosh, what are they called – Maple leaves, that helicopter down?
JB: Yeah, sycamore! But if two of them were linked, circling each other at the same time. I’m so glad you read about that.
Whose idea was starting the band?
PB: It’s hard to say. Julien and I toured together, so many people were saying we should do something. And when we booked the tour it was obvious who we wanted to open because we love Lucy so much, and love her music. But it’s kind of hard to place it. We all said we should record a tour single, then Lucy and I ran into each other at a festival in Philly and Julien started a Google Drive and it got out of hand.
JB: In my memory, there’s no one person I can stake or attribute the idea to. More just, when we continued to talk the ideas snowballed and grew into this thing.
LD: A lot of people think that it’s their idea. I think that it was Julien’s idea because she told me years ago that she’d love to be in a band where she wasn’t the front person. That kind of planted the seed and it just grew out of fertile ground.
How’s the dynamic of being in a band as three solo musicians?
LD: In a way I prefer it. I mean, we haven’t played shows as the three of us yet, but writing and recording wise, I liked having the responsibility divided. I love writing and making music, but being the centre of attention is not my favourite part. I like being a third of something; dispelling that attention between all of us makes the project feel lighter, like we’re each carrying a load of whatever’s coming with this release.
PB: It’s really easy. Like, insanely fucking easy. There’s mutual respect but we don’t even have to think about it.
JB: Being able to feed off another person’s energy and having a musical exchange on stage – I’ve missed that a lot. I think that’s where I feel most fulfilled. It’s weird, for a solo musician to say ‘collaboration fulfils me more than being a megalomaniacal control freak,’ but maybe that’s good. To be able to relinquish that control is really exciting.
What do you admire most about the other two?
LD: I love that they’re so fearless in what they talk about. I’ve learnt a lot from that. I feel like they’re willing to look at darkness from different angles. Like, Julien goes straight into it by using pain and personal doubt in a way that is really strong – there’s so much to gain from her vulnerability and I come out of her songs feeling better and understood. Phoebe looks at it through storytelling and humour and again, it’s so comforting to hear it.
JB: Ah dude, so much. I love them. I’m a sap. They’re this balance of humble, disarming and self-aware. I don’t even know if they even realize this as people, but they have a lot of wisdom. They pair this kindness and down-to-earth humility with a self-assurance. As musicians, poets and people, they seem to do enough self-analysis to know what it is that they want to achieve and create the best art.
PB: Communally we have this crazy respect for each other and the ability to hear each other out. I think that’s the trait of this project that I’m proudest of. It’s really rewarding to be in a room with them. Julien is one of the best people managers of all time, she’s really good with people’s feelings, checking in and making sure everyone’s on the same page. Lucy’s insanely passionate. One of my favourite things she’d do throughout the project was she’d get excited about something and immediately get up and start pacing. It’s an addictive thing, to be around two people who are so stoked about the thing you’re all working on.
What do you think they think you bring to boygenius?
LD: What do I bring? I mean, I brought two songs, I bring the low harmony. The words matter the most to me, that’s what I’m thinking about first and foremost.
JB: Maybe my diplomacy, that’s what I’ll say. Diplomacy and retentiveness. I was just texting them today with diagrams and paragraphs of what the stage plots will look like. I can feel myself doing it. Like, I know they’re busy. I know that they’re both doing things. But I just want to get this right! Yeah… how extra I am.
PB: If I were to guess what they’d say, Lucy might have some kind of astrology answer and Julien might have some sort of – oh, what’s that personality test, where you’re numbered one through nine? The Enneagram. She’s currently obsessed with it so would probably have some answer that relates to that. I’m a two.
If you could add a fourth member to boygenius?
LD: There are so many people. I recently saw Meg Duffy (Waxahatchee) play with Kevin Morby. Her playing is beautiful; her songs are great. There’s also Adrienne Lenker, I think she’s the greatest living songwriter, and she’s a friend too. But whenever I talk about collaborating with anyone from Big Thief, I’m like, I don’t really need anything more from them than what they’re doing.
PB: Fuck that’s hard. Maybe Courtney Barnett, because both Lucy and Julien played a festival and got to hang out with her and I fucking didn’t and I’m so jealous.
In a hypothetical world, boygenius has a hit record and is headlining next year’s festival. With the world’s production budget, what would be the visualisation of boygenius on a live stage?
LD: I want to know what Phoebe and Julien say! I saw Yo La Tengo headlined this festival [EOTR] last night with nothing on stage and I thought that was amazing. That’s kind of my style. I have no lifestyle and no aesthetic to offer personally, I hope people just listen to the music. I don’t have any brand to pedal other than that.
PB: Man, maybe like flames, pyrotechnics and shit. Some boygenius ’80s hair-metal kind of pyrotechnics. I’d make Julien play a B.C. Rich guitar.
JB: I wish I’d known about this question! This is my personality. I need to know the single right answer. I might have to text the other two and warn them.
Lucy had this yesterday and she didn’t prepare you.
JB: What? How dare she! How could she hang me out to dry like this? Maybe… you know how people have light-up words? We have a joke about the phrase ‘seen and heard.’ It’s a sensitive communication phrase that we say all the time. “Oh, I feel so seen and heard right now”. That sums up what I hope we accomplish for each other on this project… what I hope it models for girls and women, and how they view themselves in the world. I think that’s the coolest part.
Photos by Kristy Benjamin
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