Rejoice! Julien Baker Thrives, with boygenius

The singer-songwriter continues to pursue intense self-reflection — only this time with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus.

Julien Baker. Photo by Nolan Knight

Julien Baker does not make music as much as release stitched-up and sutured pieces of herself. Each creation endures the vise-like grip of her self-reflection, as doubts, misgivings, and insecurities are processed and refracted in a withering and unrelenting manner. The songs feel like ghosts of her memories — harrowing moments dissected and pieced back together, made plain before all.

Clearly, her art is deeply personal. Although she has teamed up with other contemporaries in the past, her two solo albums — 2015’s Sprained Ankle and 2017’s Turn out the Lights — probe so nakedly into her past that the idea of her working with anyone else seems almost voyeuristic. 

Yet that is exactly what Baker has done on her latest endeavor, boygenius, a collaboration with fellow singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Earlier this month, the supergroup released its debut EP, and although the self-titled recording is only six songs and 21 minutes long, it is the best album of the year, an astonishing and beautiful effort created by three artists who clearly respect and admire one another.

“It was very rewarding to be able to relinquish control and to turn over some ownership of my own creations and allow it to be accessed by someone else,” says Baker, who performs alongside Bridgers and Dacus at the Fox Theater on Tuesday, Nov. 27. “I entrusted them with my art, which is so precious to me, and I think that inspired me to be more spontaneous and to be more open with them.”

All three artists are under the age of 25 and acclaimed in their own right. (For the Fox show, Baker is technically the headliner, but expect plenty of boygenius songs.) Baker has known both her fellow performers for several years, and although she holds special relationships with numerous other artists, she says she felt a close kinship to Bridgers and Dacus. While planning for the current tour, she asked Bridgers and Dacus to join her, and when discussing how to make the series of gigs particularly special and connective, the trio ultimately decided to record six songs, to be released under the moniker boygenius.

“For some reason, we are all able to bond very deeply in our early careers,” says Baker. “On top of being artistic peers, they are dear friends. It just makes for a very safe and welcoming environment to create together.”

There is a devastating sense of chemistry on the boygenius EP, as each artist defers accordingly to the other, creating a selfless, ego-free collection of tracks. At a moment when the three musicians are arguably at the height of their popularity, they clearly have no apprehension ceding the spotlight.

Of the six tracks on the EP, three are more or less solo efforts, with Dacus taking the lead on “Bite the Hand,” Bridgers helming “Me and My Dog,” and Baker acting as the principal on “Stay Down.” For her part, Baker does nothing to hold back her tortured lyrics of rectitude, which have become a hallmark of her solo work. In many other hands, her art would feel overwrought or melodramatic, but when Baker pleads on “Stay Down” for someone to “Push me down into the water like a sinner / Hold me under and I’ll never come up again,” the sentiment feels wholly sincere and heartfelt.

Those three “solo” tracks showcase the distinct talents of each songwriter: Baker’s pained, emotive introspections, Bridgers’ insouciant, breezy tales of heartbreak, and Dacus’ candid, direct admissions of guilt. All three create woeful ballads, with the trio acting as a collective support group for each other.

The other tracks on the album — “Souvenir,” “Salt in the Wound,” and “Ketchum, ID” — are communal efforts, with the threesome trading off verses or singing in unison. Those songs also showcase the group’s sonic versatility. “Salt in the Wound,” is a muscular, feedback-laden guitar track, “Ketchum, ID” is a Depression-era folk number, and “Souvenir” a ruminative acoustic track indebted to Elliott Smith.

Baker, whose solo work feels so supremely individualistic, said witnessing the creative process of her fellow peers was an illuminating experience.

“We all have such drastically different approaches to songwriting,” Baker says. “Phoebe writes songs in a way that she will not allow anything to be rushed, and Lucy has an ability to deconstruct and reconstruct songs in an amazingly rapid creative process. They both have so many great ideas, and it was special to see them create their art in such a unique way.”

That boygenius has put together the best album of the year should come as no surprise. Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus are among the three most talented artists performing today in indie rock. Faced with the reductive and simplistic framing of being women in a male-dominated genre, the trio chose boygenius for their moniker as a poke-in-the-eye to the paternalistic atmosphere that has fogged their rise to fame.

“It’s such a male-dominated industry, in which men are socialized to feel entitled and to feel that they are all boy geniuses,” says Baker. “Their thoughts are always unchallenged and worthwhile, whereas it feels like women are constantly fighting an uphill battle to be recognized. Naming the band was kind of a jab at the industry that legitimized this attitude.”

Supported by Dacus and Bridgers, Baker can ignore the patriarchy and other traditional shortcomings that infects much of the world around her. Yes, she is still a sweltering storm of self-doubt and inward-directed antipathy, and she will always pen those agonizing thoughts into her personal journal. Only now, she can open those pages to her two friends, knowing they will offer judgment-free relief, an open ear, and a little dash of boygenius magic.

Julien Baker with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, Tuesday, Nov. 27, at the Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland. $29.50; foxoakland.com

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