It’s impossible not to sing along to Sugar Ray. It doesn’t matter who you are or where it’s playing. There’s something about those sunny guitar riffs and Mark McGrath’s voice. Their hit “Someday”—it’s the band’s best song, really, so don’t try to argue otherwise—is playing overhead at Pavement in Allston. Kaley Honeycutt, the singer-songwriter behind beach pop act Baby!, can’t help but smile.
“I was in a Lyft a few months ago and I remember crying to that song for some reason,” she says, laughing at herself. “I don’t remember what was happening in my life, but I remember listening to the lyrics and tearing up, thinking, ‘Wow, I’m crying to Sugar Ray… in a stranger’s car.’”
The scenario isn’t out of the ordinary for Honeycutt. Despite being 23 years old, she lives up to the moniker. Everything about her shines with youthfulness, the type of charisma, style, and voice of someone who makes you feel younger just by proximity. With glitter-flaked fingernails, a pink shirt tucked under a pair of overalls, and a safety pin tattoo on her right bicep, she’s sipping on her drink with the open-mindedness of someone a quarter her age. Maybe it’s because she hails from Orlando, Florida, a place where the sun always shines. Maybe it’s the lingering effect of her upbringing. Honeycutt is the youngest of five children, the oldest of whom is 17 years her elder and the second-youngest of whom is two years her elder. She is the only girl.
“I am a baby. I am. My brothers used to make fun of me for crying all the time and singing sad songs all the time. My last partner had an issue with that, because he got nervous people would read into it when we were together, and, to be fair, sometimes they did,” she says. “But it’s a wide range of crying. I cry when I feel inspired, or happy, or I relate to something—so I cry in public all the time.”
Baby! isn’t a lifelong nickname, though. In fact, Honeycutt only chose the moniker after she recorded an album. As a kid, she used to sing to her mother, only later picking up guitar in the 10th grade. She opened up Audacity on her computer, plugged a Rock Band microphone into the USB slot, and recorded material. Back then, Honeycutt penned tracks in the vein of early aughts folk revival: Jose Gonzales, Iron and Wine, Sufjan Stevens, Feist. Now, her songs carry low-lying influence from pop acts like Sylvan Esso and Regina Spektor, even if her music is incomparable to theirs.
“I never really wanted to play music publicly. It was just personal. My mom used to tell me I should be on The Voice,” she laughs. “One day, I wrote a song that is on the record—‘Sunny Florida’—and it came out so organically. It was about feeling like a big change was coming. After I wrote that song, I felt really proud. So I decided I’d try to record a whole album. That was my only goal.”
It’s a goal she pulled off better than she could have imagined. Her debut full-length, the aptly titled Sunny, F.L., is an eight-track record of warm bedroom pop with beach vibes for days. Recorded back in spring of 2016, the album capitalizes on her Florida roots. “If I’m Sorry” sways with a blissful blush, tightened by taut percussion behind her raspy voice. Opener “Weather Girl” is quintessential breezy pop over a surf rock beat. Her goal—to record a full album, that’s it—sounds simplistic, but that’s what gives the album such authenticity. There are no self-imposed hurdles to jump over. She isn’t trying to prove herself to anyone. She wanted to see if she could do it. That innocence comes across with concrete material, music that gets lost in the fun while being unaware of how good it really is.
Luckily, someone else took notice: Yellow K Records, the label that helped break Japanese Breakfast, Eskimeaux, and more. When the company noticed she followed it on Instagram, staff scrolled through her page. When they saw a Bandcamp link in the bio and Mitski listed as a follower, their interest was piqued, but it was a video of her playing then-unreleased Sunny, F.L. cut “Weather Girl” that won them over. They did what anyone caught fawning does on the internet: They slid into her DMs.
“I felt really lucky because I try to listen to my intuition with where I’m supposed to be in life,” Honeycutt explains. “Before I recorded the record, I was doing graphic design. When I felt inspired to record the album, I quit that job and got a shitty job at a restaurant, but I had a lot of days off to write and record. I went for it because I felt it’s what I was supposed to be doing. To have them reach out? It made me feel even more validated for following my gut.”
Honeycutt followed that intuition even farther. The music scene in Orlando is cool, but limited, at least in regards to how often musicians pursue their craft seriously there. Honeycutt started a booking collective, Ugly Orange, which organizes concerts and commissions artists to do visual art, typically an installation, for each concert. She worked on poster artwork. She recorded her whole album. But she couldn’t find a good job, her bandmates constantly rotated, and the motivation felt dull. After scoring a job teaching music and art to kindergartners in Cambridge, she decided to move to Boston.
“I was hearing about the music scene here in Boston, and everyone I looked up sounded so cool. As soon as I moved, I found a new band immediately,” she says. “I remember listening to the Birthing Hips record specifically and thinking, ‘Damn. This is something really unique and exciting to hear.’ It’s funny because they wound up being one of my earliest Boston shows at a warehouse type of space. I went up to them afterwards and was gushing. I talked to their drummer Owen, and they wound up being my drummer for the first several months I was here, and having them interested in being in my band was totally surreal.”
Baby! as a band is often in flux. Though Honeycutt tries to keep the members consistent, touring schedules and life often split her backing musicians up. She met each of her bandmates through quintessential Boston means. Ari, her bassist, met her at a house show. Chad, who recorded guitar on Baby!’s excellent Pick Me EP from this year, reached out after Honeycutt posted a flyer in Berklee’s Anime Club, an intentional placement to avoid Berklee bros. Chris, her current drummer, had written about the EP for SlyVinyl. Though other bandmates have come and gone, Honeycutt doesn’t pass them off, nor does she overlook their help in the live setting and beyond.
“I didn’t know anyone in Florida who was actually pursuing music full time, so I’ve been so lucky to be here in this city. I get to be friends with such great bands, people who have incredible work ethic, and see how they do things. I feel very inspired by everybody,” she says. “My bassist Ari in particular. She’s super serious and very hardworking, but finds it very important to relax, have fun, and not take yourself too seriously. I definitely got hit with the reality that I have to work my ass off, but I met someone who showed me the ropes, which includes taking it easy on yourself sometimes.”
Honeycutt lives in a co-op where there’s a giant living room table. Most days, it’s covered in work. There’s a laptop where she’s editing a music video, a utility knife at the other corner where she’s carving the lineout cut for a new T-shirt design, markers sprawled across as she draws a poster for the show, and the dates written out nearby. She can’t help but juggle it all. She’s a creatively driven person who doesn’t just do these things because she has to. She does them because she wants to. The rigid caliber of expectations of Boston’s culture also extends to its art, and those expectations are addictive.
“It’s the norm to be in multiple projects, to tour with multiple bands, and make zines or a music video for your friend here in Boston. It’s not like people here are goofing off. They’re doing really cool stuff, and it’s super inspiring,” she says. “So I’m a fucking nobody band, but I come after work every day, stay in, and do all of this.”
All that’s left now is to tighten Baby!’s live sound. Honeycutt keeps focusing on improving her sound in any setting, so that no matter what the venue she’s in she feels comfortable with how Baby! sounds. Luckily, Boston has a lot of varied venues, and the only way to get better playing live is by playing live. It’s a learn-as-you-go process. Though Baby!’s record release show this Wednesday at the Middle East Upstairs should imply she’s got a lot to learn, one listen to her debut LP is enough to show she’s already miles ahead of the rest of the game—say, the 1,300 miles from Orlando to Boston—but hey, we’re not picky.
BABY!, PEAER, NOX, STRANGE MANGERS. WED 8.30. MIDDLE EAST UPSTAIRS, 472 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 7PM/18+/$10. MIDEASTOFFERS.COM