Published Nov 08, 2018Three of this generation's best singer-songwriters went to the studio for five days to record a seven-inch single, a promotional item to commemorate their upcoming tour. They ended up with something that could change their career trajectories forever.
That Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus — who all have achieved sizable record deals and notable critical acclaim, all before the age of 25 — were able to craft something as heartfelt and sonically massive as their collaborative boygenius EP in such a short period of time should come as no surprise to fans of their individual works. All three are talented vocalists, songwriters and arrangers, and their disparate yet adjacent sonic worlds — Baker's pastoral folk, Bridgers' acoustic folk rock and Dacus's atmospheric indie rock — meld seamlessly together as they trade off leads, each helming two of the EP's six tracks.
Speaking to the three musicians via an energetic conference call, it's clear to the trio that not only has the EP furthered each of their musical crafts, but the lessons of camaraderie and idea ownership seem poised to indelibly shape their careers moving forward.
"I really noticed what it was like to not have dudes in the room for writing," Dacus tells Exclaim! "I think it was important to all of us to not have a producer involved. To push our ideas around to some sort of form that would've been attributed to his genius or his experience."
This line of thinking is extended to the band's name, which was born from the members "comparing notes about different experiences that we've had with men and boys who've been told that they're geniuses at a young age," according to Dacus.
"It's usually frustrating to interact with those people, because they seem to have an elevated idea of their art as gold," she admits. "But it's also a little bit inspiring to see someone value their thoughts that much, that consistently, or with that much energy, and expect people to care, especially if you're the type of person — which I think the three of us have all been at certain points — where you don't expect people to care, or you apologize a lot, or you throw away ideas without giving them room to breathe or grow."
"I feel like it's natural to want to apologize for yourself all the time, and I don't think there was really time for that," Bridgers adds. "Literally, there wasn't. We went in with no expectations, and I feel like that turned into me putting shit on these recordings that I wouldn't think to put on other recordings. There are parts where I scream, parts where I play banjo, and stuff that would've taken me four extra days to decide I wanted to do, it took two seconds to be like, 'Okay, let's try it!' which was the most fun part about it to me."
The boygenius EP is a lesson in embracing one's impulses and ideas. While hewing strongly to the three members' established sounds, the in-studio camaraderie manifested itself in sonic risks that hint at unexplored arena rock territory — the logical extension of the trio's anthemic inclinations.
"I feel like we had a couple moments that we thought would've been funny or corny, that we'd probably talk ourselves out of on our own time," says Dacus. Speaking of track "Salt in the Wound," she says, "it gets a little arena rock-ish, like Julien doesn't even sing because she's doing this shredding solo, which is not typical to her music to just put one foot on the monitor and go out, but I think because we were having so much fun, I think moments like that exist because we were like, 'This is super fun and we just have to do it.'"
Baker admits that, even after recording the track, she still had some inhibitions about its sound. "The first couple times I showed it to a friend, I was going in with that reservation of 'This is conventionally, maybe corny,' but I like that the more I've listened to that song, the more I feel like the situation around it reassigns it a legitimacy that got robbed from that genre — hot take! — because of its hyper-masculinity.
"Like dad rock is super male, you know what I mean? Female aggression within punk music or bands like Bikini Kill or Bully or Daddy Issues, that makes sense, but rock, capital-R arena rock, still feels really male. And it feels cool to make an all-ladies, tongue-out Slash solo happen. I practice that song in my spare room in my house and I get so freakin' stoked every time, just alone playing that song with my headphones on."
Speaking with the trio ahead of their tour, which features solo performances from all three members followed by a collaborative performance of the EP in full, they reveal that they've already begun implementing the lessons learned from their experience recording boygenius in their upcoming work. Bridgers is "producing a record right now that I have nothing to do with. I'm not playing anything, I'm barely on it. It's just something I have nothing to do with, other than in a production role, and I don't think I'd be doing that if I hadn't had this experience."
Baker, meanwhile, says that not only has her writing style changed since recording the EP, but she's noticed changes in her personal life that she attributes to what she learned from the boygenius sessions. "I find myself not willing to defer about things that I really feel strongly about, when I think I used to, in the name of being diplomatic or mediating," she says.
It's allowed all three members to dial into their convictions more strongly than ever before, honing the self-assured swagger of the "boy genius" but with none of the entitlement. "It has shown me that I can expect more from people," says Dacus. "You don't have to settle collaboratively with people for whatever reason. You just should find the people that you fit with and do it. There's nothing innately about someone's resume or about their reputation that make them worth collaborating with. You should just find your friends and do it."
boygenius is out now on Matador.
The boygenius tour hits Toronto on November 10 and Vancouver on November 23.