Julien Baker is a busy lady - not only is she touring Europe in support of her superb LP ‘Turn The Lights Out’, she is also part of contemporary American Indie supergroup boygenius with fellow solo artists Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers.
boygenius was a secret project written, recorded and produced by the trio in a blitzkrieg fashion in LA this summer when the “Venn diagram” of their schedules allowed them to “physically get together.” But while those sessions had to be carefully stage-managed, the gestation of boygenius was spontaneous.
“We were in the process of booking this tour in November, me Phoebe and Lucy," explains Baker. "We started group text talking about how exciting it was that it was gonna be the three of us on tour, that it was gonna be female musicians, female crew and then the idea that we should perform, pick a song and all sing it came up and then we thought: 'Oh what if we wrote a track?', then we decided that we'd get together and do a bunch of tracks.”
The infectious spirit and camaraderie within the group solidified the bond between the trio and instilled a spirit of determination to make time to turn their new dream into a reality.
When their Venn diagrams aligned, “Lucy and I flew to Los Angeles and spent a week writing tunes." and "4 days in the studio doing as much work as we could. The boygenius record(s) are what came out”
It was important for the trio to maintain control of the project entirely, in the spirit of the all-female tour which inspired the project.
“It's produced by me, Phoebe and Lucy. Even when we were in the planning process it was important to us that we produced it, because so often I find that whenever there's a female there's also a controlling factor of a male producer or manager who is often credited with achieving that woman's success, at least partially for her. It's as if there's this myth that the woman is full of raw talent and this male gatekeeper has to hone in whatever talent she brings to the table, or has to impart some power onto them in order for them to be successful. I think we all intentionally wanted to push back against that paradigm.”
It’s hard to argue with Baker’s assertion that traditionally the strong-arm patriarchal nature of the music business has worked against and/or minimised the achievements of women. For instance you’ll rarely, if ever, hear any praise for Carol Kaye despite having circa 10,000 studio credits to her name, from Good Vibrations to River Deep, Mountain High to the theme tune to Mission Impossible. Kaye defined the bass sound of a generation. If you were asked to name a bassist, her name should roll off your tongue with the ease of McCartney, but yet it doesn't.
Baker is hopeful that the ideal of sisters doing it for themselves will move from aspirational rallying cry to reality. She notes the lack of female collaborative groups but is hopeful for the future.
“Curiously, I'm on tour right now with Becca Mancari, she is part of a band called Bermuda Triangle with some other women - one of them is a member of Alabama Shakes.
"I don't know why there aren't more (supergroups). I don't know, because this has never been the way I have approached music or my female peers, but I think music culture in general, whether we realise it or not, conditions us to be more competitive than collaborative.
"Even the way articles and reviews are written, if you are a woman and you make music that is not even similar to another woman's music, but you exist within the same scene, there's an element of competition as if it's an ultimatum between you and all these other artists that are similar. When people can listen to five bands that comprise five straight white dudes people will say that those bands sound totally different, that they are apples and oranges."
"That's another reason why this project is so important to me - it models collaboration instead of competition, instead of us choosing to see the other person as an obstacle or a competitor, combining our talents and aspirations and trying to make something shared.
“I think being in boygenius is great, because I really missed being in a band,” says Baker, explaining why now was the right time for her to be a collaborator. “Even before boygenius I wanted to - whatever comes with the next record - invite more people to be part of the process. It really has been great [being a solo artist] but I've missed the dynamic of sharing musical ideas. That's something that I'll peruse in my solo music.”
instead of us choosing to see the other person as an obstacle or a competitor, combining our talents and aspirations and trying to make something shared.
The initial boygenius tracks to surface online have received circa 1.8 million streams on Spotify since their release. The oft-criticised platform is partially responsible for spreading the word as the songs are connected to all 3 artists' pages not just a band site.
“It's by design that we listed it that way. The band is called boygenius, but because of the way that metadata works it is more beneficial to all of us to bring other people's awareness to the other two. Instead of us all saying: 'here's my side project, that is less important than any of our individual careers', we have chosen to fully attach all of our names to it on purpose.”
The blitzkrieg nature of the boygenius recording sessions is nothing new to Baker. Her debut album ‘Sprained Ankle’ took just 2 days to record, whilst it’s follow up pushed the boat out to an adventurous 8 days. It’s a Beatles-esque level of efficiency and indicates that Baker is an artist who understands the power of less, and who likes to keep the creative process fresh for herself.
“It's interesting that you bring up The Beatles, because it's not just the Beatles - this is true of the Ramones and countless other bands, especially the hardcore bands I listened to growing up, would do a single take live or do a record in a week.
"Sometimes I think limitations make you prioritise in a really efficient way. The reason that 'Sprained Ankle' took two days to record was because I didn't have any money for studio time and my friend said 'Hey, you can come record at the studio because I have free time saved up."
"All the demos I'd made were with people in my college that would say 'I have the on-campus studio booked, do you have a song you want to record?'. I tried to never let an opportunity go. If there's an opportunity to go record a song, go record a song. Even if it never comes out, at least you are getting the experience."
"That was kind of what happened with 'Sprained Ankle'. I put these songs together. I wanted them to be real and cohesive, but I didn't think this was going to be an album release on a label or that I would tour it. So on 'Turn Out The Lights', I tried not to fall into the trap of overthinking, because I'm a person who can get very much in my head.
"I tried to prepare everything; this is how I write, I have hundreds of voicemailers and a spiral notebook full of songs and revisions and notes. I try and know it all, so when I get to the studio I can execute it all. I'm thinking about music 75% of the time.
"When I'm recording music I think I'm way too focused on the production of the song; that's the thing I get hung up on,” explains Baker.
“I will get so obsessed with pulling off a lick or vocal melody perfectly. I'll get so frustrated with myself that I'll have to put it down and come back. You know there's a lot of imperfections that we end up leaving in there because those are the more honest versions and I think that's another benefit of doing it, not hastily but efficiently."
Julien Baker’s two albums to date end with powerful piano ballads about suicide, each taking an intimate and deeply personal approach to the subject
“I haven't spoken about this song in a while because we've been doing interviews around 'Turn Out The Lights' and so it's been a while since I revisited it,” says Baker tentatively at the mention of Go Home, before explaining the strange malfunction in the studio which shaped the song.
“There's a radio preacher in the background at the end of it. When we were recording that song we didn't go out and find a sound clip and mix it in. I was recording the very last part, the hymn. At the end, I heard this crackling in my headphones and when I came back into the booth the engineer said one of the mechanisms in the studio had been picking up this bizarre radio frequency that was mixed into that track.
"It felt like a really interesting, happy accident that it happened to be a song, sort of about faith with the hymn mixed in, and then hear that this radio evangelist had been picked up on the speakers without us doing anything on purpose. We had to leave that in there.
"The song itself is about a time in my life when I was a lot more prone to be self-destructive and to handle myself without care."
Baker recounts how as a child she would get into situations that “weren't so safe, in areas that weren't so great” and how she relied on her friends to bring her home from “Timbuktu”. This kindness she says “gradually influenced me to be more careful with myself and understand that I had value as a person, that it was worth it to invest in my recovery and try and lead a healthier life.”
“When I wrote it, it wasn't hopeful necessarily. It was about saying there's this suffering that every human being on earth has to experience, and the way that we deal with that suffering a lot of the time ends up making the suffering worse. And, in the old school traditionalist faith system there's this idea of planning for the eventuality of paradise as a way of dealing with the suffering you are dealing with now.
"Which I now think is kind of unhealthy. Instead of trying to make right now better, just think about 'oh it'll be fine, when I die I'll be rewarded for this.' The song is almost a bitter question of at what point is it better to leave off the current temporal suffering if there is the promise of something better in the future?
"But I think as with so many of the songs that I end up writing; it's not uncommon to feel things that are bleak, we just don't talk about them or feel that we can talk about them, and in merely articulating that feeling I have come to realise how skewed the idea is. I know that's really dark.”
It's not uncommon to feel things that bleak, we just don't talk about them or feel that we can talk about them
Dark indeed, but thankfully Baker didn’t succumb to the darkness as is edified in the final track on 'Turn Out The Lights'.
“Claws in Your Back is sort of about the same premise - not knowing how to escape the painful parts of living, not knowing how to mitigate or reconcile those, but it's from a different perspective. it's not about my own pain, because I think there's a limit to how much you can write about your own sadness without feeling self-involved or narcissistic about it.
"It's a collection of the stories of friends who were hospitalised in in-patient treatment for mental health reasons - the things they told me, how they were feeling helpless or how they perceived what they were going through. Them, explaining that to me, showed me what it was like to be on the other side in Go Home. It showed me the other side of the dynamic and made me want to communicate to those people.
"I hate talking about my own lyrics, specifically because it seems kind of corny, but the part about changing your mind is something I really wanted to confer onto the people that I was talking to - to say 'look I wrote this song about thinking maybe it's better not to be alive any more'. But writing and performing that song - being open about that feeling and having the courage to meet that darkness - showed me that I changed my mind.
"I don't think that that's right any more, because had that happened I wouldn't have gotten to see all these amazing beautiful fruits of what can happen when you are vulnerable or open with other people. I wanted to write a song that was the invert of Go Home.”
With her demons under control Baker is now looking forwards to the next chapter of her life, both as a member of boygenius and as a solo artist, and she already has an eye on album number 3 - piano ballad finale and all.
“Right now I have a whole bunch of demos. When I'm home I do armature recordings. I want the record to sound different, not in that all of a sudden I'm gonna do an EDM record, but I want to experiment with new approaches. I think it is gonna be really rewarding to make, but I don't know yet how it's shaping up.”
One things that’s for certain is that the album will take more than 8 days to record. “I want to spend the time and go to the place where I overthink everything,” and bring it to the precipice where “I might be in danger of over complicating it."
"I'm a big believer in how can you do the most with the least. I like the minimal and the essential, but I'm also trying to not let that be a crutch or a trope that I lean on and realise it's okay to experiment and incorporate other elements into the music.”
Julien Baker plays Vicar Street on September 27th. Tickets €22.00.