The Collaborative Magic of Boygenius
On their last day at Los Angeles’ Sound City Studios this past June, Phoebe Bridgers brought a half-finished song to her new bandmates, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. She had an acoustic guitar riff, a verse and half a chorus, but not much more, and she was hesitant to share her work-in-progress.
“We’re not recording this song. This is not happening,” she told Dacus and Baker at first. But they liked it so much that they began working on it with her, tossing out ideas — “What if the lyrics said this?” “What if we put this over here?” “What if we phrase it out like this?” — while Bridgers played the riff in the studio lobby.
Twenty minutes later, the three singer-songwriters’ newly christened indie-rock supergroup, Boygenius, had completed “Ketchum, ID,” an acoustic folk lament about the isolation of spending one’s twenties on the road, far away from family and friends. They rushed back into the recording space and laid down their vocals around a single microphone.
“It felt like a rock documentary,” Bridgers says. “Like Dave Grohl was looking directly into the camera describing this magical studio moment: ‘And then, just like that, they wrote the song in 20 minutes.’ It really did feel like that.”
For fans of indie-flavored singer-songwriter music, Bridgers, Baker and Dacus are already well on their way into that mythic rock-doc realm. All three are relatively new artists — the earliest of their solo debuts dates back to 2015 — but each has subtly reshaped the contours of the genre. Bridgers merges Elliott Smith-indebted folk-pop melody with a conversational, thoroughly modern approach to storytelling; Baker imbues secular genres like roots-folk and emo-punk with an urgent spirituality; and Dacus navigates political and familial currents by incorporating elements of pop, blues and grunge into her band’s sound. Their collaboration as Boygenius, marked by a stunning six-song self-titled E.P. due next month, represents a creative and interpersonal zenith for the three musicians — a space where Bridgers, Dacus and Baker can become their very own rock & roll superheroes.
Nowhere did the trio’s collaborative confidence manifest itself more than when they cowrote “Ketchum, ID,” a process that forced all three songwriters to rethink what it means to compose a song. “When you take all of the restraints off of what songwriting looks like, it could go in any direction,” Baker says. “Because you’re not wholly committed to the final version of a song, it’s still so nascent that it can be literally anything.”
“It felt like a rock documentary. Like Dave Grohl was looking directly into the camera describing this magical studio moment.”
In interviews, each of the three singers describes Boygenius as a uniquely self-determined collective group, the likes of which the singers, who are all under 25, say they had yet to find in an industry that heavily skews older and male.
“Because we trusted each other creatively, we ended up showing each other a lot of our own unreleased shit that we felt weird or self-conscious about, and we really affirmed each other,” says Bridgers, who notes that she also relished the comfort of having fellow bandmates who can appreciate a good meme. “It’s nice to record with people my own age. That feels good.”
Boygenius came together informally over the past few years, after the three members crossed paths on various tours. “With both of them, Lucy and Phoebe, when we first met in the dressing room, we immediately hit it off,” says Baker. “They both have very warm and kind personalities and were very easy to understand and feel understood by.”
The three musicians went on to support each other with advice as they all worked through the demands of becoming a fast-rising, nationally touring solo artist. “We were both talking to a lot of the same labels and very surprised, and maybe a little caught off guard, that we were becoming successful,” Dacus says of her early relationship with Baker. “We were able to compare notes.”
When a tour featuring all three artists eventually got booked for the fall of 2018, the trio floated the possibility of collaborating with each other on tour — perhaps, they thought, they would all come out together and sing something at the end of the evening. That led to the idea of recording a song or two, which eventually turned into a four-day recording session at Studio City, yielding six original songs written and recorded by the group.
With Baker, Dacus and Bridgers all constantly on the road touring their own projects, most of their Boygenius bonding has taken place over email threads and group chats. “We decided to all have a band together before ever even all being in the same room,” says Bridgers.
When they convened in the spring of 2018, each songwriter brought one mostly-complete song to the project: Bridgers had the dynamic folk-rocker “Me & My Dog,” Baker had brought a simmering ballad called “Stay Down,” and Dacus had written “Bite the Hand” specifically for the group, knowing the other two could relate to the song’s message about having a “complicated relationship with fans.” They completed the other three songs on the EP by helping to flesh out each other’s half-formed demos. “There were a lot of ideas that each of us would have thrown away on our own,” says Dacus. “Luckily, we saved them from each other.”
All three songwriters described the recording sessions as a mixture of relief and revelation, a space for three bandleaders to share the creative burden while also finding new ways to express ideas about their own art.
“I felt so much relief having the focus off me,” says Dacus. “Having about a third of the attention was wonderful.”
At the same time, the three artists created a nurturing creative environment that allowed each of them to experiment and take control over their own ideas in newfound ways. Dacus, feeling inspired by both the emotional and sonic darkness of Bridgers’ and Baker’s music, gravitated, in her own contributions, to material that leaned more in that direction than ever before.
The trio’s easy camaraderie set the tone for the loose L.A. session. When Bridgers hit the soaring high note during her harmony part at the end of the grunge-rocker “Salt in the Wound,” Dacus and Baker were so impressed they began cracking up. “We were laughing of joy,” says Dacus.
One of the common threads running through Boygenius is the trio’s unconventional approach to vocal harmony. “Traditionally, harmonies are supposed to be clean and without affectation, letting the lead vocalist do the emoting,” says Baker, “but our harmonies are often like a hidden, bolstering additional sound — more like a separate vocal line happening.”
The result is a record where each singer comes across as so admiring of each other’s material that they can’t help but sing along as a fellow fan. “My harmonies on ‘Me & My Dog’ are a little extra,” Baker admits. “It speaks to how each artist’s individual style can be gleaned from each song. You can hear artifacts of each artist, but they blend in a way that creates something that is fully unique.”
Throughout the course of getting to know each other in the studio, the three songwriters had begun to use the phrase “boy genius” as a a shorthand phrase for a certain type of man they had all come to know well.
“It’s the guy that walks into the room and maybe has half the information but totally commands the room in this crazy way,” says Bridgers. “The kind of personality you trust because they’re loud. We all know those types of personalities, especially in music… And then we were like, ‘We should absolutely call the band that.”
The name, the group decided, would be both mocking and aspirational — representative, even, of the creative confidence the three artists had discovered together.
“A lot of the time, that type of confidence isn’t bad,” Bridgers says. “I actually want to take some more of that. I don’t want to apologize for myself for 15 minutes before I do something because I’m afraid of people not liking it. I wanna be a boy genius.”
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