boygenius: The Making Of An Indie Supergroup

WERE one to point to albums released in the last 18 months that exemplify the great traditions of the singer-songwriter being carried on in the present day, three key releases come to mind.

They are: Julien Baker’s tender and tragic Turn Out the Lights, Lucy Dacus’ folksy and introspective Historian and Phoebe Bridgers’ pensive and vast Stranger in the Alps.

In a manner befitting that of the Highwaymen or the Travelling Willburys, the three women behind these beloved LPs convened together earlier in the year to form boygenius.

Their debut self-titled EP is a reflection on both their individual strengths as musicians and the beautiful colours that blend in the centre of their proverbial Venn diagram.

As the newly-minted supergroup makes its way around North America on their inaugural national tour, we spoke with each of the songwriters about their own process, their feelings towards one another, and the aspects of songwriting that brought them together.

Julien Baker

Calling in from her native Nashville, Julien is enjoying a rare window of time off between touring in support of her album Turn Out the Lights and the boygenius tour. Although acutely aware of the demands that come with the life of a touring musician, the 23-year-old has grown accustomed to it.

It feels like it’s just been one long touring cycle since [debut album, 2015’s] Sprained Ankle came out. The longest time I’ve had off the road these last few years has been about two months, and that was when I was recording Turn Out the Lights. Even then, we were only in the studio for six days. As soon as the masters were handed in, I was back out on the road.

Julien mentions the idea was floated of taking some time off after touring in support of Sprained Ankle (2015) came to its natural conclusion. A change of heart came, however, after a look at her country’s immediate political situation.

I felt like I wanted to be out making music at the time right after the election. I wanted something else tangible to do, to throw myself into – something I felt was contributing in some way. It’s kind of become the normal thing for me.

The most recent thing Julien has thrown herself into is boygenius, which was born out of her friendship with Lucy and Phoebe. Baker recalls encountering Lucy early on, just as the two were emerging as solo artists in their own right.

I met Lucy before her first record [2016’s No Burden] had even come out. She opened a show for me in [Washington] DC years ago – my manager, Sean, is from Richmond; that’s where Lucy’s from too. She came highly recommended from him, so she got added to the show.

In particular, Julien recalls being genuinely moved by Lucy’s craft as a songwriter, finding a kindred spirit of sorts in the Virginia native.

I can remember walking out from backstage into the room where she was playing. She played this song, ‘Laughs On Last’. I’d obviously never heard it before – her music wasn’t available anywhere at the time. As she played it, I just started crying. It really snuck up on me, as I wasn’t in a particularly emotional mood. I was overwhelmed by how good it was. We hung out later on in the dressing room, and we’d see each other every time I came back to Richmond [Virginia].

Phoebe arrived in Julien’s life shortly afterward, with Julien again latching onto the songwriter at an early and developmental stage.

She had, like, one or two songs on Spotify – or maybe Soundcloud. I knew that she was a prominent songwriter in LA, and to be honest I thought she might have been too cool to play this show with me. I hadn’t really played in LA much before then. She agreed to play the show, and we hit it off – she is one of the sweetest, most down-to-earth people.

Julien notes that forming these two friendships came at an important point for her as she was establishing herself as a touring artist. Seeing herself in what these two other songwriters were doing was, to her, an entirely validating moment.

I was just starting out doing solo tours, not performing with a band. I was really happy to be making friendships out on the road, but it was also mostly men that I was meeting during the days of [previous band] Forrister. I think Lucy and Phoebe were women that I could really relate to with what I was doing as a solo artist.

The friendship extended into a joint tour, which in turn lead to the three deciding to collaborate musically. Recorded in just four days, Julien sees the boygenius EP as both a departure from their individual endeavours and a logical cohesion of their musicianship.

It’s more of a fluid work, and the range is more dramatic. There’s very thickly-layered songs and very sparse, delicate songs. I think we were able to get to those different places by putting trust in one another.

Of particular note is the three-part harmonies that are implemented on nearly every song between the three members. For Julien, this was a significant change from Turn Out the Lights – in which she primarily harmonised with herself.

All of us have different backgrounds in music, but one of the things we all have in common is vocal arrangement, and using our voice as an instrument. Before we met up in person to make this record, Phoebe floated the idea of having some Carter Family-style harmonies – referencing old folk, country and bluegrass musicians. I think all of us have that kind of sensibility impressed upon our musical appreciation. When it’s just me backing all the harmonies on my album, there’s only really one way I necessarily tier harmonies. It was really interesting to see how Lucy and Phoebe approach it, and I think that reflects on how we sound together on the record.

Indeed, after two very well-received solo records, the boygenius EP was Julien’s first return in earnest to collaborative songwriting. Although it took some brief adjustments. Julien sees the results as fruitful and revelatory in their own way.

I think writing for this EP required a significant amount of trust from each of us. We were all used to having control over everything. For me, the poetry and the narrative of my songs only goes through one person: me. When I’m happy with a song, I don’t have to be vulnerable with anyone until we’re in a studio – and even then, it’s not necessarily a process; more a documentation.

Making this EP taught me a lot about what we have to gain from sharing things that we’re feeling vulnerable about. To take these songs that are so incredibly personal, and give up control enough to turn over ownership to another person and see that the songs become an entity that no-one really has complete ownership over. Because of that, I can hold the art that’s so dear to me with a little more of an open hand.

Lucy Dacus

Some 4000-plus miles away from Julien – or 6500-plus kilometres, depending what system you use – Lucy Dacus is on the line from Bristol in the UK.

I’m staying with some friends over here. They’re all actually in the other room right now – they’re playing a board game. I’m in the other room by myself, all sad and cold.

She’s teasing, but the 23-year-old knows a thing or two about sadness. Anyone who has taken even the most cursory of listens to her second LP, Historian, could assess it as a portrait of the artist in a mournful state of disconnect – a quietly devastating LP in the spirit of Joni Mitchell’s Blue or either of Joan Baez’s first two records.

Despite barely any downtime between Historian and boygenius, Lucy is still in good spirits as the momentum around her music begins to build in earnest.

I’ve honestly adjusted to touring – I feel more comfortable being on the road now. I love being at home, and I love reconnecting, but I have more structure on the road. This is my job – it used to be a vacation when I’d go on tour, but now that’s changed to when I’m at home. I feel like I’m stagnating if I’m off the road for too long.

Lucy recalls her meeting with Julien back in 2015 fondly.

I think we spoke for about 20 seconds before we both realised, “Oh, we’re definitely friends now.” We were emailing every single week after that show.

Lucy met Phoebe through Julien, who always knew in the back of her mind that the pair would hit it off.

I was very familiar with Phoebe’s music by the time we finally met. She was everything Julien said she was – she was a great conversationalist, and she was incredibly thoughtful and empathetic. Julien’s like that, too. You feel very nurtured when you’re with those two.

After the collective friendship between the trio was formed, a plan was hatched to go out on tour together. Once the tour was booked, the idea of the trio recording together was floated – and, one month later, they found themselves in the famous Sound City studios in Los Angeles.

We talked about it in May, we recorded in June, the first single came out in August and the EP came out in November. The whole thing has existed for roughly half a year – I think we’re adjusting to this ourselves at the same rate that everybody else is.

Although the group went into the studio with only a day’s rehearsal, boygenius feels far from rushed or impulsive. There’s a conceptuality to the EP’s peaks and valleys – a rare thing to achieve, given the brevity of the format. Lucy says the collaborative nature of the project meant that things came together much quicker than anticipated.

It was so much easier than I thought it was going to be. I think that has something to do with who the three of us are as people – we understand each other in a way not everyone can. We’re similar ages, we have similar life structures, we get covered in similar ways in similar publications. I think we find a lot of comfort in each other in that way. A lot of their ideas and impulses were ideas and impulses I would have had anyway. We were almost moving as one mind at points – someone would begin to say an idea, and someone else would already be having that exact same idea. That felt really good – it felt like we were doing the right thing by working together.

The process for the EP also served as a considerable contrast to the way Lucy has operated on her two solo albums. This new experience allowed her to take in a new perspective of music making, away from the proverbial driver’s seat.

I don’t know if it was like this for everyone, but I did feel a load off not being the sole decision maker. I like having full control of my music that has my name on it – I feel like I need to make every decision so that it’s really me presenting my work to them. When it came to boygenius, I really valued the decisions that Phoebe and Julien offered to the band. I feel like I came out of making this record with a new appreciation for both of them – in a way, I felt really proud of them.

But she admits to a few nerves at the start.

At the very beginning, all of us were tepid about starting it. We weren’t anxious in a bad way, but we were nervous – like going on a first date. None of us had done this before, so it really felt like something new. Once we started sharing, however, it was like the floodgates were open. By that point, none of us thought twice about voicing our ideas.

Of the six songs written as boygenius, Lucy takes lead vocals on two: ‘Salt In The Wound’ and ‘Bite The Hand’. ‘Salt In The Wound’ only became a fully-realised work once it was in the hands of her cohorts.

When I was writing this song, I saw that it was really bleak early on. That’s where Julien and Phoebe came in – I think that they’re really good at resting comfortably in the darker sides of their mind, and bringing poetry out of it. I was able to write like them, because of their influence.

 Phoebe sings this incredible harmony on the end part – she’s usually very quiet, but she’s roaring this high harmony here. Julien and I were just fist-pumping away in the control room when she laid it down. As for Julien, she does this arena-rock style guitar solo – this typically-masculine thing.

She was trying to talk herself out of it. “This is so corny”, “This is so lame.” We immediately shut that down. “This is amazing,” we told her. “It’s especially amazing for you to be doing it in this context. It’s perfect.” That’s a lesson we learned from doing this record: Stop trying to be cool and just shred.

Phoebe Bridgers

Phoebe Bridgers – 24, a native of Pasadena, California – is fresh off a flight that was late to take-off. She’s just arrived in Nashville to begin full-band rehearsals for the boygenius tour.

I’m feeling good, but I’m also really nervous about it. I feel like I’ll feel better about it two nights from now, when that first rehearsal is over. It’s just that initial stage of going into something you’ve never done before that gets you. I’m still very excited, though.

Much like Julien and Lucy, Phoebe is swinging right into boygenius stuff just as the dust is settling on a solo album. Unlike her cohorts, however, Phoebe is coming off her debut. Stranger in the Alps was released in September of 2017 to some of the strongest critical acclaim of the calendar year.

It’s a lot – I mean, for anybody, this would be a lot. At the same time, though, it’s been really creatively and emotionally rewarding. I love that people loved the last record. I love that people love this record. I love that I get to work with two rad people that I’m also a huge fan of. I didn’t even really think about it being hard or this all happening right after I’ve been so busy for a year. I’m just really excited. Phoebe first discovered Julien’s music around the time that Sprained Ankle was released, albeit under somewhat backhanded circumstances.

The weekend that record came out, I had like four dudes I knew text me and say to me, “Check out this record. She sounds exactly like you – you’ll love it.” I was actually really pissed off about that – at that point, I’d really had enough of being compared to other female artists. I just straight up wasn’t listening to it. I had a bunch of links to her music sent to me, and I just wasn’t clicking.

I finally relented after I got a message from my friend Brian about her. Brian was my drummer for years, and he knew me really well – so I trusted his opinion. Sure enough, I put the record on as I was driving – and by the first track [‘Blacktop’], I was crying. Within a month, we’d played a show together and became friends. The turnaround was really fast on that one.

Julien was the connector once again.

Julien showed me Lucy’s record [Historian] and I became obsessed with it. Funnily enough, we actually didn’t meet until the start of this year – I came to Richmond, and I did a little in-store appearance at the storefront for 6131 Records.

Julien and Phoebe hit the road together in 2016, prior to Stranger in the Alps coming out. As soon as their North American run was over, the two were immediately in talks to head out together again, which eventually came to fruition in 2018. They both agreed on Lucy to join them as their opening act, which then prompted discussions of the three working together on a project.

We were thinking of recording something to commemorate the tour – doing a 7″ where we do a couple of covers or something like that. That then turned into doing three original songs – one each. By the time we were done, we’d ended up with six.

Because the turnaround for boygenius was so swift, the trio have barely had any time to reflect on its creation since. However, Phoebe recently came across the recording of when the trio sang together in the same room for the first time.

Whenever I have time to kill on a flight, I like to go through all of my voice memos – just because they’re so disorganised. I try to label them, but I don’t get to do it for months at a time. I was listening through just recently, and I found all the memos from when we were figuring out our vocals for each of the songs. You can just hear in our voices how excited we all are to be singing together. It was fun to listen back to hear how we figured out where everything went. Now, we get to go out on the road and do it all for real.

The entire process of making the EP took a grand total of five days – one for rehearsal, four for recording. The process was a world away from how Stranger in the Alps was put together.

My two producers are white men – one in his 60s, one in his late 20s. I love them both dearly, but we’ve never been treated as peers. We’re all coming from completely different places. I also tend to make music by writing something, deleting things and starting over again. It’s like a demoing process, except I’m actually in the studio. Sometimes I’m there for an hour; sometimes I’m there all day.

With boygenius, it couldn’t have been more different. It was very fast – we just recorded how we play live, and that was it. I tend to lean on production a lot more in my own music – I think that’s probably why ‘Me and My Dog’ is probably the most polished song on the record. Even though it wasn’t what I was used to, I still found those sessions to be really productive.

Phoebe notes their differences in approach is what makes the record so special.

Lucy tends to write when she’s pacing around with a little notebook in her hand, while Julien needs to be sitting down at the piano or playing a guitar. I tend to use my hands a lot, just singing random things until I latch onto something. I think the fact that we all have these separate skill sets is what makes the record so special.

As to whether there is any longevity to the boygenius project beyond this very moment in time, she remains hopeful.

I’d like to think that we could do this again. I think it would be great. We all know each other inside out, and we see each other out on the road all time. When we were making the record, though, it was probably the closest we’ve ever been. It’ll be the same on this tour. I definitely think something more can come out of it. I hope so, at least.

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