On their own, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus are a force to be reckoned with. Each is a member of today’s rising indie rock royalty. Fans crowded the venues they played on recent tours, be it the Sinclair or Great Scott, eager to sing along to lyrics that, to them, are scripture. Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus bear it all onstage and slink back to their quiet selves offstage. But together, as an indie rock supergroup dubbed boygenius, they’re creating something even more powerful than they could have imagined.
On their debut self-titled EP, boygenius, the trio seem to float through pitch-perfect vocal harmonies and stirring guitar ballads. It’s a quiet listen that carries a secret strength under the surface. A song like “Salt In The Wound” shakes the louder you blast it. Meanwhile, the hushed words in “Ketchum, ID” will haunt you for days after you listen. Apart from a few collaborations as of late, like a live cover Baker and Bridgers did together of Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free” at music festival Eaux Claires, this is the first time these musicians have worked together—a surprise given how seamless boygenius sounds.
“It’s a lot different turning over a song that isn’t completely written and asking somebody what they want to add to it,” says Baker. “I trust them both so much that I knew it would be amazing, but I find myself with a lot of apprehension when it comes to showing unfinished songs to somebody. And yet this communication was so comfortable and easy. It was interesting to hear Lucy offer an observation, something so small that could make sure a huge difference, like switching words or moving lines because it would make for an internal run. She has an incredible mind for the tiny details. And it was cool to work with Phoebe as well because she will say a lot of things as joke but they have a hint of seriousness. We talk all the time about [how] her jokes wind up being her best ideas. It’s a quote from one of her best friends, and we all believe that. When we take ourselves seriously, the ideas we’re afraid to present end up being the best ones. But Phoebe has a great ear for instrumentation and production, things that could make a song sound huge. They’re both very empathetic people who feel very deeply, and that’s likely what makes them such great songwriters.”
To peek into the real personalities behind the idolized members of boygenius, we interviewed Julien Baker for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask musicians questions inspired by their song titles. With boygenius as the prompt, her answers are honest and clear—traits that also will appear in her music when she plays the Orpheum this Thursday night.
1) “Bite The Hand”
DIGBOSTON: Looking back at your life, who is someone you were ungrateful for? What would you want to say to them now?
BAKER: Wow. [long pause] Man, I’m trying to decide which way to take this, lighthearted or more serious. I feel like I was probably ungrateful for my mother. But I was also ungrateful for middle school teachers who were probably extremely frustrated with me. I felt really resentful of authority at that time in my life. I was that kid, which I hate. I don’t know if I hate it, really, but it’s a trope, you know? The rebellious junior high student who believes their intellectual superiority means they don’t need to hear the wisdom of people who—whether or not it’s misguided or coming across in a coarse way—just wanted to help me not screw up so much. I guess you could extrapolate that to a larger conversation. I find myself lost in needing to reframe things into a perspective that appreciates people’s intent more than their execution. There’s some times where execution is in poor taste or unacceptable, but for the most part I think I’m a sensitive person, and knowing that helps me remind myself not to take things so personally, to try to discern that sometimes hearing hurtful honesty is more useful than hearing things that are platitude. I have been ungrateful for people who did the former and I’m grateful for them now.
2) “Me & My Dog”
DIGBOSTON: It’s common knowledge that pets can reduce stress levels and provide friendship, but what do you think the more overlooked benefits of having a pet are?
BAKER: Hmm. I think pets are usually sought out or … Sought out, what am I talking about? [laughs] I think people desire pets because they desire companionship or bonds different than a human bond, which is super taxing in a different and emotional way. Especially if you get a dog. Especially if it’s a puppy. They require a lot of energy and financial investment, but they typically love you unconditionally. The thing that I have noticed about animals that’s really interesting though is that they … How do I say this?
Okay, so my partner is from Mississippi, and she used to work with horses all of the time. One day, we were in a situation that was making me extremely anxious, and she changed her body language abruptly and the tone of voice she was using. So I asked her, “What is this? What are you doing? Why are you acting weird?” And she said, “Human beings don’t want to admit that we’re just like animals. But we absorb people’s energy so much. If we don’t control ourselves, we can never establish a bond with someone else.” It’s not just about being considerate of another person. It’s about thinking about how you’re influencing their mood as well or how you’re making them mirror you. She told me about how when she used to work with animals, she couldn’t bring her anger or sadness in because they would immediately know. They could sense that intuitively. Animals aren’t sub-intelligent. They aren’t just an accessory to human enjoyment. They’re very complex and enjoy things in ways humans can’t because we overcomplicate things. We don’t slow down and control ourselves.
I guess that was lengthy. I just thought it was super interesting. Animals know. They know when something is wrong. You can’t lie or deceive. They know.
DIGBOSTON: When is the last time you bought a souvenir on tour specifically to gift it to someone else?
BAKER: I bought an early 1900s weird, old, hand-sketched map of Mississippi and Tennessee because it reminded me of home. And I gifted it. I picked it up at a weird side market in London, of all places! Not even remotely close to there. I was overseas and was like, “How is this here?” I think it had come out of a book that this older antique guy had. I was literally just walking down an alley and I saw this guy selling just, like, old stuff. So I went through it… because that’s how I like to spend my Saturday mornings, I guess. [laughs]
4) “Stay Down”
DIGBOSTON: What’s something you’re cautiously optimistic about in 2018?
BAKER: Oof. Cautiously optimistic about the midterm elections. I’m choosing to be optimistic about that because I think that at least in the anticipatory phase, however they go, we can deal with that. But in the anticipatory phase, it does no good to approach a daunting task with an attitude of foregone deceit. Bringing that cynicism into a challenging or uphill battle, especially in Tennessee to flip the state, is not useful. But yeah. That’s the long answer as to why I am cautiously optimistic.
5) “Salt In The Wound”
DIGBOSTON: How do you avoid using others as a comparative marker for success?
BAKER: Wow. You know, these are thoughtful questions! I thought they were going to be like, “What was your childhood pet like? What’s a time you broke your bone?” But these are like, you’re just going for it. But I enjoy it, though! This is the salient part of talking to a person.
But comparing myself to others? It’s inevitable to compare oneself to others as a metric for success or even just happiness or fulfillment. Like many other tendencies of mine, I try to recognize my proclivity to measuring myself against others. I try to just be very self-aware and recognize it. Then rationalize myself. The way that I do that is by asking myself a number of questions, like almost questioning myself into not caring anymore. I’ll ask, “Do I think that I have any less or more intrinsic worth than this person?” No. Then I think, “What are the things that truly fulfill me?” Then I make a list of them. When I list those things, I’m reminded that the things that fulfill me are never financial or material success. It’s always a list of my closest relationships or my favorite memories with those people. Then I think of what would be the realistic eventuality that, if my peers were to surpass me, that I would like to realize that it’s not a bad eventuality? I have all the things that I need to be fulfilled. This is a very verbose way of saying that in order to stave off comparing myself to other people, I just try to be grateful for what I already have and to understand that A) everything is temporary and B) everything is relative. So if I am fulfilled and I’m able to live my life and take care of the people in it that I love, then that is enough for me.
I don’t know. It’s also not fruitful to do that, you know? I’ve found that I guess you want to approach it pragmatically, it’s not fruitful to allow yourself to be consumed with concern for another person because it prevents you from assessing the things within yourself that need improving and could make you a more well-rounded person because you’re too hung up on somebody else. Which is a big, like, you know, working on the plank in my own eye nod. It seems kitschy. But it truly does work! I mean, [laughs] look, I’m just trying to stay in my own lane.
6) “Ketchum, ID”
DIGBOSTON: All of the major cities aside, what’s an underrated city or town in America?
BAKER: Does Lawrence, Kansas, count? Because then Lawrence. It’s not like New York or LA. I love Lawrence. I love it. It’s just small enough that it’s easily navigable and, even though it’s so far away from where I live, it has a very familiar atmosphere about it. We always stop there to break up drives in the Midwest. Everything is so far apart. Every drive in the Midwest is like eight hours, minimum. We’ve made a habit of stopping there because it’s small, there’s a wonderful zine distributor there, and I don’t know. I like places where things are not necessarily in a hurry! I think that’s undervalued in most of the big cities we go to. I like to be in a place where people are okay with being slow. I’m blanking on the name of the bookstore there, but it’s like my favorite bookstore maybe ever. Wonder Fair! Wonder Fair is the place! I spend an hour in there every time I go. They have zines and cards and all sorts of little things. It’s right across the street from a really neat record store that has an in-house cat that roams and—see what I mean? It’s just very wholesome! It’s sweet.
7) “Everything Is Free (Gillian Welch cover)”
DIGBOSTON: What seemingly trivial thing do you think should be free for everyone?
BAKER: I was going to say contraception or something like that, but let’s see. Why can’t I think of this? Everything I keep thinking about is stuff that you need but you don’t realize you need like Band-Aids. Somewhere in the world, someone is invoicing medicare for Band-Aids. Ugh, I don’t know. Now I’m looking around my apartment to think of things I want and need often and would love to get for free.
Okay! Here’s a thing! [pause] Damn, that’s a stupid answer. Every time I think of it I realize it couldn’t be free. See, I was going to say—because I’m a lame, boring person—that I think it should be envelopes or ballpoint pens. Why do you have to pay for envelopes if you’ve already paid for a stamp? Why?! If I’m buying a box, I get it. But if I already paid you for a stamp, I’m not going to pay you for an envelope. And also, I lose every single pen I’ve ever owned. But that doesn’t count either because I feel like I steal them from every hotel we’ve ever stayed in. I hoard them but I still manage to lose them all. So it would be cool if maybe around the city, in any city in America, there was a jar of ballpoint pens that are free. That would be for me, a person who is always losing ballpoint pens. [laughs]
JULIEN BAKER, PHOEBE BRIDGERS, LUCY DACUS. THU 11.8. ORPHEUM THEATRE, 1 HAMILTON PL., BOSTON. 6:30PM/ALL AGES/$30. CROSSROADSPRESENTS.COM