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Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and the story of indie rock’s best new supergroup

Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and the story of indie rock’s best new supergroup
Photo: Lera Pentelute, Graphic: Libby McGuire
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Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus make records that seemingly flaunt their loneliness to make the listener feel less alone. Devastatingly honest, each singer-songwriter’s most recent record—Baker’s Turn Out The Lights, Bridgers’ Stranger In The Alps, and Dacus’ Historian, all out in the past year or so—provides an unflinching and overwhelmingly vulnerable look at themselves and their past relationships, at times both embracing darkness and searching for the dim proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Although their individual lyrics feature varying levels of self-deprecation and their instrumentation ranges from sparse acoustic arrangements to blistering, fist-in-the-air indie-rock jams, they’re each constantly searching for someone, anyone, to pull them out of the rut they’ve created for themselves in their music.

They found that helping hand among themselves, culminating in a new band called boygenius, one of the best supergroups in recent memory. The group’s debut self-titled EP will be released November 9 by Dacus’ and Baker’s label, Matador Records.

When a tour featuring the artists—three of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of their generation—was booked earlier this year, they decided to write a song together and sell it as a promotional 7-inch on the road. Although each of them has been extraordinarily busy on seemingly never-ending world tours of her own, Bridgers, Baker, and Dacus each took to Google Drive to upload song ideas and voice memos on the road. After a short amount of time, the drive began to explode with ideas, and they quickly realized that this was going to be a much bigger—and infinitely more rewarding—project than any of them could have anticipated.

“[The EP’s growth] was pretty immediate because anyone’s new idea was the best idea most of the time,” Lucy Dacus remembers. “If someone proposed a change, the other two would be like, ‘Oh, I see that.’ I think we just have such similar taste and sensibilities. That’s why when we set out to do one song, it turned into three, which turned into six. We just don’t disagree that much. It’s really lucky.”

With their schedules somehow all aligning before they each embarked on a run of American dates and European festivals (and a Bridgers stop at NPR Music’s Turning The Tables Live, where correspondent Ann Powers unexpectedly talked about boygenius, which Bridgers says she was “super not supposed to”), the three musicians reserved four days at famed Los Angeles studio Sound City in early June of this year. When asked about how they managed to find the time to record, let alone be in the same room together outside of random backstage hangouts, Bridgers was blunt: “I have no fucking idea. It was some weird magic. We found days that didn’t exist.”

When they entered the studio, each artist brought in two songs: one essentially finished track and one work in progress that needed help reaching the finish line. Everyone had reservations about their own songs, nervous to show the other two out of their massive respect and mutual fandom of one another’s work, regardless of how close of friends they already were.

Baker ended up disqualifying her first song on account of it being too finished, remembering, “As we started tracking stuff, I felt less and less confident about the song that I brought. Not because I didn’t think it was a good song, but because I thought that it was too finished. I sent a couple voice memos and then there was this one that was a completely done Logic demo, and I wanted to not do that one because everything was decided and it felt like we would be exactly reproducing the demo. Also, the way that song was structured didn’t really lend itself to harmonies or switching up vocal parts, and I thought, ‘That’s not even the point of what we’re doing.’”

It’s easy to see what she meant about leaving room for her newfound collaborators. On boygenius’ opening track, “Bite The Hand,” it’s thrilling to hear Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus sing a dizzying round over a growing wall of guitars toward the end of the track, only for the backing instrumentals to give way to a three-person a cappella harmony. Although this was Dacus’ “finished” song, it was written with the group in mind, completely open to Baker’s and Bridgers’ ideas and vocal lines.

Any initial guardedness about their own songs on the first day in the studio quickly dissipated as they began to open up the process, becoming more comfortable working together with each passing hour. As extremely accomplished solo artists, writing a song with others was a novel—and slightly scary—process, but it immediately paid dividends.

“Anyone naturally would be a little protective about their art and the thing that they wrote, and apprehensive about how it would be received,” Baker explains. “As our rapport got more and more comfortable, we became more and more disposed to just rapid-fire, throwing out our observations without reservation or inhibition. I think that’s when you get to a really cool, collaborative place, when you establish trust enough to say all of your ideas, whether or not you know they’re good or bad. That was really beautiful.”

Once they each got to that collectively supportive place, boygenius began to take shape and become more fun. A lot of what you hear on this release began as a sarcastic Bridgers gag, only for Dacus and Baker to like the actual proposal: from Bridgers’ scream toward the finale of “Me & My Dog” to Dacus’ purposely corny “I don’t know / Idaho” rhyme on “Ketchum, ID,” all the way to the Crosby, Stills & Nash-referencing cover art. “We were like, ‘If we’re doing a photo shoot, we have to fucking imitate Crosby, Stills & Nash,’ and it turned out to be our favorite photo regardless of the joke, which was really funny,” Bridgers says.

“That was actually a trend through the whole recording process,” Dacus laughs. “Phoebe would suggest an idea as a joke, and then we realized, ‘Wait, this is an amazing idea!’ Another example is the very last line of the record, cutting off the final two words, ‘When I’m home, I’m never there long enough,’ and it’s ‘long enough to know.’ That was a joke that Phoebe suggested, and then we were like, ‘This is brilliant, we need to do it that way.’”

Nowhere is the result of one of Bridgers’ jokes more apparent and unexpected than in the closing minute of the initially unfinished Dacus offering, “Salt In The Wound,” which features a bluesy, capital-R rock guitar solo, something completely unheard-of throughout the trio’s individual catalogs.

“One thing Lucy and I are responsible for is forcing Julien to shred unironically,” Bridgers explains. “We were like, ‘Fucking do it, dude! Just fucking shred! Shred! Stop trying to be cool. We want this part to be fucking sweet. Shred at the end of ‘Salt In The Wound.’ Don’t be cool anymore. You’re so cool. You made this atmosphere so sweet. Now we need you to, like, cock-rock shred.’ So we did that. I feel like we all just let ourselves do what we thought was maybe corny. I made Julien play banjo and mandolin. I was like, ‘Dude, you’re from Memphis, just do it.’ We just all felt very comfortable… I’m very used to apologizing for all of my ideas, even if I think it’s cool. I’m afraid someone will not think it’s cool and shame me. This was definitely a safe space for corny ideas, and we did all of them.”

That atmosphere—which Bridgers says could have produced 16 or so songs if they had just three more days—was so welcoming and so open to any and all ideas, no matter how outlandish they may have initially felt, that each artist is now going into their next solo project with infinitely more confidence.

“My big takeaway was the feeling of working with other songwriters,” Dacus explains. “That’s the thing that will change—I feel like I trust them and their opinions, and maybe when it comes to writing songs, I’ll be able to open it up to advice from people instead of thinking about it for many months and wondering if I’m okay with it. Not only did it revive my sense of collaboration, it revived my sense of being the head of my own project, too. All of the energy behind boygenius lifts me up as a whole. It really filled me with excitement about music in general.”

While the lyrics throughout boygenius still occupy a lonely and bleak place, they feel more hopeful than ever, more so than at any point in the musicians’ individual releases. The darkness of Turn Out The Lights, the bleak nostalgia of Stranger In The Alps, and the painful rehashing of a breakup in Historian feel like they’re in the rear-view mirror on this six-track EP, with a quiet, more tranquil life in final song “Ketchum, ID” just miles ahead. They aren’t quite there yet, not fully past the traumatic events of their respective lives that inform their solo offerings and keep them from dissolving the group and moving to Idaho (as the EP’s final song goes). But because of their shared optimism for the future following the boygenius studio sessions, they’re closer to Ketchum—be it an actual destination (where Bridgers actually wrote her song “Smoke Signals”) or a state of mind—than they’ve ever been before. And there’s no chance they’d be this close without each other.