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Lucy Dacus remembers that it was Phoebe Bridgers’ idea. The next time they’re all in the same room, Bridgers pitched, the members of freshly minted indie-rock supergroup Boygenius — which also includes fellow singer-songwriter Julien Baker — should recreate the iconic cover of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s 1969 debut, “which is a classic Phoebe idea that she presents as a joke, but is actually a really good idea,” Dacus said.
When the trio shared the photo after the project was announced this summer, it registered as both a cheeky rock-geek reference and a sly nod to the baggage that’s inevitably affixed to famous (in this case indie-famous) musicians joining forces. The three members of Boygenius are well-matched — they’re all funny, thoughtful, and analytical about songwriting and the maddening nature of the music business. They also seem utterly bereft of the arrogant megalomania inherent to supergroups. While the original CSN quickly devolved from a utopian, hippie-era fantasy into a viper’s nest of backbiting and over-inflated egos, the members of Boygenius remain refreshingly nonchalant about what they view as a fun lark among recent pals.
“There were no band fights, no disagreements — just excitement and different ideas,” Bridgers said of the group’s self-titled EP, which was rush-released last week. (It arrives in physical form on November 9.) “Like, ‘Let’s try this, and let’s try this, and let’s try this. And let’s try your thing, and then we’ll pick what works.’ It was really productive.”
The band’s origin story has already been often told: Baker knew Bridgers from when they toured together in 2016, around the time of Baker’s debut Sprained Ankle and long before Bridgers put out her first record, 2017’s Stranger In The Alps. (“She could get on stage and silence a room,” Bridgers said admiringly.) When the idea came up to tour together again, Baker suggested getting her friend Lucy (whose recent album Historian is one of 2018’s best) involved; after Bridgers and Dacus met, they also became fast friends. With a fall tour in place, they talked about recording a quick 7-inch together, but that idea quickly snowballed into a six-song EP.
That freewheeling vibe, fortunately, comes through in the songs, which Dacus, Bridgers, and Baker worked on mostly together during a quick four-day swing through Sound City Studios in Los Angeles in June. The record manages to present each person’s strengths — Dacus’ wit, Bridgers’ melodies, Baker’s affecting vocals — while also melding them together into an entirely new and immediate package. Whether you love each member’s solo work, or you’re looking for an entry point, Boygenius works equally well.
“I guess it’s sort of like hearing another person describe you, or like seeing a sketch someone draws of you,” the 23-year-old Baker said of hearing her songs shaped by Dacus (who’s also 23) and the 24-year-old Bridgers. “To see your own creation refracted through another person was just very interesting. It gives it depth.”
Before entering the studio, each person admitted to some degree of trepidation of over whether three people who normally make every artistic decision on their own records would be able to defer to collaborators operating on equal footing. Most of their interactions until then were over text and email, so there was no guarantee that they would have chemistry in the studio. “In school, I was always the one in the group project that would do all the work. So, I was like, ‘Well I hope it’s not like that,'” Dacus said wryly.
But once they got together, the connection was instantaneous. The most striking example is one of the album’s best songs, the climactic track “Ketchum, ID,” which was recorded on one mic not long after it was written and arranged by the band. Bridgers initially brought in the sketch of the song, a lament about the loneliness of touring done in the style of a roughhewn Carter Family ballad.
“And those guys pulled out their phones and were like, ‘Holy sh*t, dude.’ There were unused verses about exactly that feeling, and Lucy and Julien both had one,” Bridgers recalled. “Then we finished the song in 20 minutes, and the sneaky engineer, Joseph, set up a microphone in the middle of us the entire time we were talking.”
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While the members of Boygenius appear focused on their craft while dismissing hype with one-liners and philosophical asides, the outside world is already working overtime to build them up into a kind of monument to female empowerment. In indie as well as pop music at the moment, political meaning is often projected on to women artists, turning personal, emotionally complex expressions into pat, straight-forward polemics about identity. Dacus, for one, expressed some dismay over how she and her fellow Boygeniuses have been discussed in the context of “women in rock,” as opposed to being viewed as individuals working in their own idiosyncratic lanes, as men usually are.
While Boygenius seems almost consciously presented as an unassuming collection of songs without any larger agenda, Dacus did have the media in mind when she contributed “Bite The Hand,” the album’s seething opener. “Here’s the best part distilled for you,” she sings. “But you want what I can’t give to you.” While the song has broader meaning about a dysfunctional relationship, Dacus explained that “on a micro level” it is “about people not having a totally human view of who we are and kind of making us items that they can use as fuel for their own jobs.”
“Just being around Phoebe and Julien was really comforting, because they can understand really personally what my life looks like, more so than a lot of my other friends just because they tour and they front their own projects, and we’ve all been written about similarly in the media,” Dacus said.
The response to Boygenius, while pretty much rapturous across the board, has no doubt confirmed Dacus’ concerns, with well-meaning critics and journalists enthusing about how this “all-female” band is the future of indie rock. To be clear, CSN was never classified (or praised) as an “all-male” band. While sexism continues to pervade the music business, it’s hardly unique in 2018 for women to take a leading role in bands, or even to fill every role in a band. All-female bands aren’t “the future” of indie, they’re the present.
For Baker, who like Dacus identifies as queer, the “women in rock” issue is a double-edged sword that ultimately can’t be completely side-stepped. “I do understand the problem created by an article, like ‘Ten Female Musicians You Need To Listen To Right Now,’ [which is] that it puts us all in a separate category or league, which is ‘Other,’ because it’s not as legitimate as men,” she said. “But the fact that that’s a thing that’s being discussed I feel like is necessary. If I want things to ever become normalized, there is some part of me that understands that I have to be explicit about the experiences of women in music. I have to be explicit about each experience of a queer person in the United States Of America, or else they will remain like topics that are subdued by the dominant culture.”
So, yes, Boygenius is an “all-female” band. But it’s also a group of friends who happen to really, really love each other’s work.
“My hair is standing up on my arms talking about this,” Baker admitted. “That’s the thing: I can’t start talking about Lucy and Phoebe because I love them and I’ll do this thing that I call the ‘pride avalanche,’ where I just talk about how great my friends are and how proud I am of them and everybody’s like, ‘Jeez, you’ve been talking about this for 20 minutes.'”
You’re not alone, Julien.
The Boygenius EP is out now on Matador Records. Get it here.