The trio explains just how this unexpected side project revitalized how they write, listen and collaborate--and how they’ll bring it all back to their own endeavors.
On finding common ground -- and choosing a name
Baker: I forget who came up with the name, but it was a conversation we were having about artists who are guarded as geniuses and that particular terminology. It falls in line with the trope of the eccentric, romantic genius who is allowed to sort of live outside of the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. The thing about that is that those people are often men who are lauded for their creative genius, but the thing that we don’t often understand or talk about is that they were allowed to arrive at that creative liberty through so much reinforcement of their inherent worth that they’ve been socialized to believe that their every thought is valuable, that they are capable of anything and engendered with a dominant attitude because that’s how men are socialized. Conversely, women are socialized to minimize themselves, to defer to men, to accept that men are more powerful and in charge. I think that the reason why women face an obstacle right now in music is because of that narrative that we have, that social construct where women who are forthright and about their ideas who are driven, there’s a negative connotation involved, and I feel like a woman’s legitimacy is questioned so much more than a man’s -- especially in professional situations, especially in the music industry. Yeah! Anyway, that shorthand is just to describe the archetype of a guy like that who’s a boy genius. It started off as a joke and then we were like, “Actually, it’s not all that bad of a name.”
Dacus: We’d been saying [boygenius] throughout the recording process because we’ve all come into contact with men who have been told they were geniuses from a young age and specifically in the creative world… It’s frustrating to encounter somebody who’s hyper-confident and hasn’t worked for their position, but we’re also occasionally jealous of the free nature of allowing oneself to value every thought you have. We tried to harness that, because we didn’t have much time to make this, and we needed to get something out that we really loved. So, we’d just tell each other, ‘Every thought is worth saying. Just be the boy genius. Act with confidence.’ That was helpful, even if it is based off of a toxic characterization.
On creating a strong rapport and ditching apologies
Bridgers: I have the tendency to apologize before every single song, and they were like, ‘Dude, shut the fuck up. Play the fuckin’ song. We’re here because you’re good. You’re allowed to have bad ideas, too.’ There was not one fight; there was not one thing that I felt like was being taken out of my hands without my permission. It was just entirely equal and we immediately diffused the over-apologetic thing. We made Julien shred on ‘Salt in the Wound.’ She was like, ‘I don’t know you guys, I could really go for it,’ and we were like, ‘Yes, really go for it!’ It was the most amazing studio dynamic ever.
Baker: There’s the obvious comfort of us feeling understood by each other just because we’ve shared similar experiences as women, but also as performers. There’s a lot of not being able to explain the particulars, all the things around performing and writing that being a musician entails. Having that scaffolding already there for your relationship with a person makes you much more sensitive and aware of their needs and their perspective. It was easier to have a conversation and write with those people. We’ve all been in situations where we felt like there was a power dynamic or power disparity, or where we felt not at liberty to share our thoughts, or we felt that we were viewed as inferior in other collaborative situations. I think we took care to be explicit and intentional about establishing a rapport of respect and trust. We did that intuitively. It was really useful to have that basis.
Dacus: Phoebe had the idea of ending “Ketchum, ID” with a shortened line. The line is usually “when I’m home I’m never there long enough to know,” and she had the idea to shorten it to “when i’m home I’m never there long enough.” She presented as a joke, but it was actually a great idea. Julien’s song, “Souvenir,” that wasn’t even on the table for the first couple of days of recording. She just was like, “I wasn’t gonna bring this in, I didn’t know if you guys would like it, I’ve been sitting on it for awhile.” She played it through, and we were like, “Yeah, we need to do that one. Of course! It’s a great song.”
Bridgers: I had no idea I needed [boygenius]. It was so hard to schedule, and such a pain in the ass, and I was so stressed out when I recorded that it was just the craziest wake-up call ever. You don’t get to make music on tour. You play an hour of fucking music a night and you don’t actually get to create anything. The scheduling was so hard but everybody was supportive. All of our teams were really supportive. It forced me into a room where something crazy organic happened, and it’s changed my perspective on my life. If I put myself in a situation like something will happen, what’s the worst case scenario? The worst case scenario is like, it’s hard and maybe we recorded one song and that was our intention -- “Let’s just put a tour 7” out.” It changed my perspective about forcing myself into situations because I really didn’t have any expectations, and now I apply that experience to every experience I’ve had yet. Like, “Alright, let’s just try the thing and see what happens, because we’re never going to know if we don’t try something.” It just made me think about the way I create a lot differently, and it turned me into the kind of person who doesn’t apologize for myself all the time, even when I’m in a room with my 63-year-old producer. It totally changed the way that I talk.
On “Bite the Hand” as a mission statement
Dacus: I wrote it very intentionally for us to sing because I think it’s a thought that we all struggle with about addressing our fans and their expectations for us. We’re all so grateful to be in the places that we are, but what’s expected of us is sometimes unreasonable, degrading, unwelcome or impossible. It was good to start the album addressing all of our listeners and the fans that know all of us and say, “You know, let’s acknowledge that we can’t have a completely reciprocal relationship.” It hurts me to even say that because I wish that I could in some way fulfill a reciprocal relationship with my fans, but I think the three of us feel the need to assert ourselves as individuals and not cater to the people that support us, because it feels like you should owe your fans something -- but actually, you don’t. You’re already giving this very vulnerable expression of your deepest thoughts with your music, and it takes a lot of work, and you’re working a 24/7 job being on tour. I always encourage my friends on tour not to worry about what they owe their fans because they’re already giving so much. Becoming a band, I think we were all aware of how our fans might react, so this was sort of like an initial statement.
Baker: I loved that line so much: I can’t love you how you want me to. It was just thinking about what it means, such a concise way to express such a complex emotion of loving a person and also having to understand that you can love a person and you can’t all of a sudden become what they need and sacrifice your entire identity and autonomy to become some other thing.
Bridgers: I remember when Julien and I first heard the lyrics we were jumping up and down being like, “Oh my God, that’s a crazy song, it’s so relatable!” Then we were like, “Oh my God, what if we do, like, an emo round?!” It all just came together so fast! I think we played it three times in the room together and then we had an arrangement that we were so excited about. Writing that song and arranging that song was us figuring out how well we work together, which was awesome.
On getting back to unexpected basics with “Ketchum, ID”
Bridgers: We finished it in maybe 20 minutes. While we were finishing it in the hallway of Sound City [the Los Angeles studio], Joseph was secretly setting up a microphone in the center of us. We were like, “Okay! We’re done, let’s try to record it --” and Joseph was like “Alright, you’re set up. Record it.” We recorded it in one take, just something that would not have happened if I were more guarded -- more guarded with bringing up my lyric or melodic ideas, or [thought] “We don’t have time to do that today, we’ll do it tomorrow.” It was amazing and rewarding and represents the whole record-making process to me.
Dacus: It’s a favorite for all of us, because we all contributed equal parts to the writing of that one. The recording circumstances of that felt really intimate and personal to the song itself.
Baker: We each turned into an almost old school storytelling traveling song where we trade off verses. It came together so naturally, and everybody seemed to just gel in a reflexive and easy way with each other’s poetic process... I always think of the O Brother Where Art Thou? singin’ into a can scene, where everyone’s just in a room, hitting all the three-part harmonies. We did that, and we set up all these microphones in the concrete lobby. When we were tracking that, I remember just thinking, “Man. This song got finished today, and a week ago we didn’t know this song.” It’s something that I feel not only so understood by the lyrics and the poetry and the music of it, but the process is so organic and simple and honest. It felt so special to me. That’s one of my favorites on the record.
On feeling understood by one another
Baker: I think we’ve felt very understood by each other. Phoebe and Lucy, it’s not just that we share the fact that we’re women and younger than a lot of people that were around or at a particular point of life in our musical journeys. I think they’re both people that feel very deeply. They’re very empathetic and they’re also very -- intense isn’t the right word, because they’re not severe to the point of being negative or having no joy. They’re actually both extremely funny to be around and I laugh so much with them, but they also have an incredible depth to their personalities and they consider things so much. I feel very understood by that intensity of the mind. That’s something that’s common with artists, but I think sometimes there’s artists [who] manifest [that] as eccentricity and abandon. For me, that manifests as overthinking and anxiety and a whole live focus and consideration. For them, in varying degrees, I think it manifests in a very particular thoughtfulness. I think they’re good feelers.
Bridgers: Both of them are secret shredders. They’re too humble to always shred, vocally and on their instruments. I think they have perfectly chosen on their records when exactly to let loose in that way, which I find so enticing and amazing. When I went on tour with her in 2016, I’d never done this before -- I literally stayed and watched the show every single night. I went out into the audience and wanted to see the show, selfishly, because she’s always growing and changing and she has this incredible knack for creating an environment [where] you kind of feel like you’re living in the environment of her songs. Lucy’s sensibility for poetry is kind of unmatched. I feel like she has a really good knack for saying stuff in songs that you didn’t know it was okay to say, but sounds so natural, and you feel you know exactly what she’s talking about even though she’s saying it so poetically. You’re like, fuck: I know exactly what that feels like. It’s like a movie or something. As a fan, I feel like that’s what I look for. And then, also, with Lucy and Julien, I’m so excited to hear when they meld in their fucking songs because they have the craziest voices ever.
Dacus: I want to work with Phoebe and Julien because they’re great writers, not because they’re women. It shouldn’t be remarkable that we’re all ladies, but then also, getting in the studio and being like, “Wow, this is so many women in the studio! I never feel this! This is special!” Those coexist, and I think that as long as it is treated with care, it’s okay, being able to talk about the gender-centric aspects of this band and any girl group or any woman or non-man who is making music.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 10 issue of Billboard.