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boygenius - The Under the Radar Cover Story

Jun 14, 2019 Lucy Dacus Photography by Saverio Truglia Bookmark and Share

The term supergroup is primarily reserved for a band comprised of people well established at their craftsay, a quartet of recognizable rock stars. Although boygenius’ members have each released at most two albums, the term is already being regularly applied to the trio of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus.

Boygenius’ early supergroup status tells you all you need to know about the ascendant career trajectories of its members. Each singer/songwriter has earned heaps of indie buzz and critical acclaim on the strength of her captivating solo workall largely marked by witty insights, personal reflections, and vulnerable delivery.

From the earliest days of each artist’s career, both listeners and critics have grouped the three togetheramong other artists, who pretty much universally just happen to also all be womenthanks to these similar qualities and the artists’ simultaneous rise to indie prominence. All three developed a mutual admiration for the others’ work, and since they’re all currently at similar stations in life, they decided to turn a possibility to tour together in late 2017 into a full-blown project.

Baker and Bridgers already had experience on the road together. Shortly after Baker first heard Bridgers’ music, she personally contacted Bridgers, who wound up opening a bunch of Baker’s subsequent shows. “I made a point the entire tour with Julien [that] I couldn’t not see her set,” Bridgers recalls. “It was always growing and changing in the most gorgeous, crazy ways. She’s just, like, the craziest performer ever.” It didn’t take long for each performer’s love for the other’s music to blossom into a close friendship that’s now as strong as ever.

The kinship between Baker and Dacus came together similarly. As the legendary independent label Matador was making the final steps towards signing Baker, the same A&R folks going to show after show of hers caught Dacus opening for her in Washington, D.C. Matador wound up signing both artists, who would go on to play a run of shows in Europe together and bond over their similar backgrounds as queer women from religious Southern cities (Dacus in Richmond, Baker in Memphis).

“I met Julien when I was first coming to terms with the fact that I was queer,” Dacus says. “She and I were both raised Christian…talking to her, seeing that she was engaged with her faith and outspoken about being queer…I just thought that she was really courageous.”

At this point, far before the bond between Dacus and Baker led to boygenius, both women had already received their fair share of praise. Baker made headlines first, with her late 2015 debut album Sprained Ankle, on which, over little more than one midtempo, undistorted, often arpeggiated guitar part at a time, she whispers and wails about loss, addiction, religion, and queerness with striking intimacy. Dacus’ time came next, with her early 2016 debut LP No Burden, a witty rock record on which her bluesy, husky singing and guitar playing paint modestly lurching canvases across which she vividly ruminates on arguments, conversations, and breakups.

Bridgers began earning hype shortly thereafter, but it wasn’t until the end of 2017 that she’d release her debut album, Stranger in the Alps, a folk- and soft rock-speckled collection across which she wryly uses specific, often funny musings and occasional string flourishes to make ordinary life events feel formative. As with Dacus’ and Baker’s debuts, it was met with a slew of fanfare and critical acclaim.

As Bridgers’ debut arrived, Dacus and Baker were entering their next chapters (“I’m concerned about getting my second record out, so I can fucking get on with my life,” Bridgers jokes now). About a month after Stranger‘s release, Baker released her sophomore album, Turn Out the Lights, on which she employs new string and distortion elements to expand the Sprained Ankle formula for an even more simultaneously intimate and vast experience. Dacus’ sophomore album, Historian, hit shelves in early 2018; a denser, more immersive collection than No Burden, the LP sees her leaning harder into her rock influences, adding brass flourishes, and writing even more detailed tales. These sophomore efforts were each artist’s first for Matador, and since two of boygenius’ members are signed to the label, so too is the supergroup.

And there’s that term again: supergroup. Even though Dacus, Bridgers, and Baker are all relatively new names in rock music, their careers to date could absolutely be described as super. At a prominent nighttime event with an audience of thousands, Bridgers was asked about her upcoming, not-yet-announced project with Dacus and Baker; the next day, music news sources were overflowing with headlines and speculation about what this project might be. Mysterious postcards with just a photo of the threethe same photo that would eventually be the EP artwork, the one that slyly nods to the supergroup Crosby, Stills, and Nasharrived at the offices of leading music publications just about a week later, further adding fuel to the hype fire.

Questions were answered a few weeks later, when Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus announced their joint tour and the boygenius EP. A full six-song release came as a surprise to everyone involved.

“None of this was planned ahead,” says Bridgers. “We were literally supposed to record maybe a song for a 7-inch. Then Julien started this Google Drive, and we decided to do three where we all brought one song to the table. Then we got in the room the day before we were supposed to record, and we ended up working on eight different scattered ideas. Then we were like, ‘Okay, let’s calm down.’ We ended up with six songs.”

Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker were excited not only by the final product but by the actual process, which inspired them. Few contemporaries can understand so well the current stage they’re on, so the shared time in the studio allowed them to compare notes on more than just songwriting. Together, over the course of just four days, the musicians produced the EP themselves. Self-production, as Dacus tells it, was “the first goal.”

“That’s not only, ‘Let’s not give the credit to a man,’‘’ she clarifies, before continuing, “‘Let’s not give credit to anyone other than ourselves.’ We are capable and even more capable together.” The trio consciously hired only women to work with them in the studionamely, Anna Butterss on bass and Elizabeth Goodfellow on drumsto round out their arrangements, because “it actually isn’t that hard [to hire women] once we just look around,” as Dacus says. “You want people to not miss [the fact that the EP is made entirely by women], but you also don’t want people to linger on it. We just wanted people to see that it’s possible and easy to do.”

Although nobody wanted the presence of solely women on the EP to be such a massive conversational point, it became one even before boygenius was announced. During Goodfellow’s time in the studio, as Dacus tells it, “She was like, ‘I’ve never been in the studio with this many women before. I wish I weren’t surprised.’” The women-only space that the artists crafted for their writing and recording was the most comfortable that any had worked in to date, which emphasized the connection that Bridgers, Baker, and Dacus all share.

“The feeling was different,” says Dacus. “We were listening to each other a lot, talking about the meaning of the song before doing takes, [and] trying to embody the full meaning of the song.”

Each found that the others’ songs were deeply relatable to their own lives since they’re all at similar stations in life. “We live similar lives structurally,” says Dacus, “being touring musicians, putting out music, and being young women. We understood each other super easily.” She also recalls how much each woman felt she could be her true self “without any second thought towards our image,” describing an overall “free and easy” feeling in the studio.

“A lot of the time,” Dacus says when discussing those ample moments when a musician’s life isn’t as free and easy, “as frontpeople with everything named after ourselves, there’s a lot of attention that I know I’m not used to. Being around each other normalizes it because it’s happened for all of us…. We have talked about it just a bit, but the best part is that we don’t [often] because it’s all implicit.”

It’s this natural connection among the three artists that imbues boygenius with its much-discussed walloping confidence and ear-grabbing assertiveness. The EP’s charm comes from how little each song sounds like any of the artists’ solo work, even though strands of their individual songwriting methods linger. The contributions of each song’s two non-originators establish boygenius as a musical project both independent of and entirely dependent on the talents of its members.

Dacus contributed “Bite the Hand,” but her standard blues-infused lucidity falls to the wayside in favor of muddy dejection that could fill indie arenas. Bridgers’ “Me and My Dog” is the catchiest and most immediate of the bunch, a banjo-inflected, empowering, lucid rock stomper that’s a far cry from the delicately bleak arrangements of Stranger in the Alps; tracing the song back to its creator is its deadpan but lively lyrics. Baker’s “Stay Down” opens with her signature clean guitar arpeggios, but the song’s gradual ascent of fluttering pianos and a second guitar part separate the track from her solo repertoire.

The EP’s six tremendous, powerful songs (and their frequent, heavenly harmonies) came easily to the trio because they had no trouble placing confidence and trust in each other. “I believe in boygenius because it’s [the other women’s] work too,” says Dacus. “It’s so much easier to get behind it fully because I’m a fan of them. I think we all were a lot more willing to admit that we liked the songs because they were personally owned by the other two.”

Baker expresses a similar gratitude and reverence for her boygenius peers, and in the same breath, she forecasts a bright future for each artist’s individual writing habits. Each artist, as Baker tells it, seems poised to take the many lessons that working with the other two taught her into the recording booth for her next album (a boygenius full-length seems unlikely, since all three members have such busy solo careers).

“As women, especially younger women, we often have an expectation forced upon us of being hesitant or reserved or submitting to another’s ideas,” Baker says. “Being in this environment where we could feel very valued and respected in sharing all of our ideas was a great learning process. I think it motivated us to be more forthright in our lives and our work.”

All three women agreed that the primary outcome wasn’t the music itself or even a chance to form a new side project. Instead, each artist was struck by how different her own music will be after having the chance to share her creative process with two other artists she respects.

“The biggest takeaway for me was feeling like I could really speak up in a roomthat my ideas were going to be received well,” says Bridgers, the eldest of the group at 24 years of age. “Because whether or not someone is respectful to me, I do a lot of apologizing for my ideas, which I didn’t do at all in the room with Lucy and Julien. It just made me a more vocal person with every project that I’ve done sinceeven in a live setting.

“Before, if I have a good idea that I secretly know is a good idea,” she continues, “I’d say, ‘I know this is weird, but…’ and hope someone likes it. I’m not doing that after this project, which is the most valuable thing about this entire experience.”

Baker says she’s already finding a difference in her creative approach since exiting the studio with boygenius.

“When I think about whatever I make next under my own name, I feel so much less fear thinking about taking risks with the sound,” she says. “Since Turn Out the Lights has been out, I’ve felt apprehensive about the ideas I’d have as I write. ‘What if this is the wrong move? What if this doesn’t sound good?’ I feel a lot more self-assured now in pursuing my musical instincts after having had this experience.”

Dacus says she hopes the trio’s chemistry and creativity can inspire other women in the industry to find the same confidence.

“I think that I have learned a lot from women and people out there on stages owning their work courageously…. I hope people see the three of us and know there isn’t competition,” she says. “You don’t have to compete with your contemporaries. You can make something good with people you admire. I think it’s dangerous for people to become jealous. It’s so toxic to want to take titles from somebody else. I hope people see that you don’t have to fight your way to the top.”

The chemistry among boygenius’ members is perhaps the most exciting quality of the group’s music and acclaim. It’s been a dream for them all to collaborate, and they’re still all absorbing the idea that their recording choices and, of course, their songs might actually have a long-term impact on the male-dominated world of music. “It ended up being bigger than I thought it would be, because nobody thought boygenius was gonna happen,” says Dacus, “and then it just did.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 65 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. It was our back cover story. This is its debut online.]

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