Julien Baker, the Memphis-bred phenomenon behind 2015's Sprained Ankle and 2017's Turn Out the Lights, is touring in support of a new project with fellow indie-rock sensations Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Bridgers' Stranger in the Alps was released last year and features a duet with Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst as well as the enormously infectious "Motion Sickness," and Dacus has been carving out a place for herself in the indie-rock pantheon with a duo of lyrically resonant and grunge-guitar-laden albums, 2016's No Burden and this year's Historian. All three artists are relatively new on the scene, with Baker's Sprained Ankle having the oldest vintage of their solo releases, but their collaborative boygenius EP project feels, both lyrically and sonically, like something put together by artists wise beyond their years.
- Lera Pentelute
On the EP, the trio give the songs room to breathe, making their harmonies feel precious, like moments of connection in lives ruled by distance and grueling touring schedules. The collaboration, initially born of an email thread and shared demos, began to coalesce once the trio booked a tour together. Baker says she knew they would team up onstage somehow. "I like to find ways to make the live set special and different. It seemed obvious to all of us that we would collaborate in some way," Baker says. "If we're going to write one song, we might as well write as many songs as we can." So the trio blocked out a week and wrote and recorded their six-song boygenius EP at Sound City Studios in L.A. The EP is set to be released on Matador Records this Friday, November 9th.
The three entertainers differ somewhat in style and genre. Dacus' music feels more classically rock-and-roll, while Bridgers' is the most folk-tinged of the group; she's drawn comparisons to the late Elliott Smith. Their differences work to their credit on the boygenius EP. The songs, with all three vocalists taking turns on lead and harmony duties, feel like something universal accessed via different routes. Unlike so many collaborations, the songwriters behind boygenius are united by common experiences and shared friendship rather than a strict adherence to any genre or a crass cash grab. These are three friends letting down their guard with each other and writing about how it feels to be themselves, even as they discover who they want to be.
"Those are two people that, now looking back on it, are two of my earliest, closest friends from the quote, unquote 'music industry,'" Baker says. "I don't feel like I know the first thing about the music industry. Especially now, living in Nashville, there's such a world of cogs and mechanisms that I'm just not privy to."
Perhaps owing to the speed with which the project was put together, or maybe because no one in the group is really an industry insider, nothing feels calculated on the boygenius EP. "Writing with Phoebe and Lucy opened me up in a lot of ways," Baker says. "Now that I'm engaging with music constantly, I've become so much more meticulous about how I create music. And I wonder sometimes if the magic is in what's automatic. And getting to write with them, especially in this very limited time allotment, was really amazing. It challenged me to rely more on instincts.
"I think Lucy and I are used to making records very fast, just going into the studio and grinding for a week or two weeks, but Phoebe approaches records in the 'leave it alone' way. [Phoebe] will not rush a song."
There must be something to letting a composition breathe and relying on instinct, because the songs on boygenius sound like something infused with a little bit of magic. On "Ketchum, ID," an acoustic lament about youth spent on the road on tour, one can almost hear the buzzing of fluorescent lights and echoing hallways backstage. Baker and her band mates conjure a moment of respite — with harmonies enough to bridge their distances and keep dissonance at bay.