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Boygenius: Being called a tortured artist is depowering

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    20 hours ago

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Image source, Harrison Whitford

“I hate live music,” announces Phoebe Bridgers, festival headliner, four-time Grammy nominee and one-third of indie/alternative triumverate Boygenius.

“OK, that’s not true but, God, 80 per cent of it I hate and 20 per cent is transcendent.”

Her bandmates have some thoughts about this declaration.

“Well, some people are live music lovers, like my dad,” says Julien Baker. “If he goes to a restaurant and there’s a surprise Doobie Brothers cover band, he’s thrilled.”


“Oh I find that uncomfortable,” says Lucy Dacus. “You have to perform that you’re listening to them.

“But I’m in the middle of this. Sometimes, I’ve walked into a bar and fallen in love with every single member of a band. But I’ve also walked into a bar and been like, ‘I never want to hear music again.'”

“I have automatic tenderness for anyone that wants to play music,” decides Bridgers. “It’s just that they lose me at some point, in a myriad of ways.”

“The only way they lose me is bitterness,” says Baker.

“Except for Jerry Lee Lewis: I saw him perform at a festival and someone hit him with a beach ball. He was like, ‘I didn’t play music for 60 years to be hit by a plastic ball.'”

“That’s not bitterness, that’s self respect,” says Dacus.

“Anyway,” says Bridgers, staring down the Zoom camera. “Do you maybe have any questions you want to ask us?”

Boygenius on stage

Image source, Getty Images

At this point, it’s a good 10 minutes into the interview. We’re in London and Boygenius are in LA, perched on a four-poster bed, trading in-jokes, finishing each other’s sentences and mercilessly poking fun at each other.

Dacus provokes roars of laughter when she describes her songs as “jolly bops”; Baker is roasted for describing herself as a secret emotional masochist (“there’s no secret about it!”), and there’s a long discussion about the items fans throw on stage.

“It’s always bras,” says Dacus.

“Once, I got a rainbow harness,” counters Bridgers, quickly clarifying that she does not condone fans pelting her with sex toys.

“You don’t want to get one dead in the eye,” Dacus deadpans.

‘Can we be a band again?’

For all their camaraderie, Boygenius formed almost by accident in 2018 when a savvy promoter booked all three ascendant songwriters on a joint US tour.

Already fans of each other’s work, they decided to record a joint EP as an excuse to end every night with a joint performance.

Recorded in just four days, it was a revelation. Vogue christened them “the ‘Infinity War’ of female-led indie rock outfits” and fans started clamouring for a full-length album.

Instead, the members went off to make career-best solo records: Baker’s Little Oblivions, Dacus’s Home Video and Bridgers’ Punisher.

The latter became a cultural phenomenon, elevating the singer to rock’s A-list, where she now duets with Taylor Swift, Paul McCartney and SZA.

But a week after her album came out, she sent Dacus and Baker a message in their group chat, asking: “Can we be a band again?”

It turned out everybody had been thinking the same thing, but nobody wanted to be the first to say it.

Within hours, Baker had set up a shared folder called “Dare I say it?” that quickly filled up with song sketches.

Boygenius at Austin Airport

Image source, Austin Airport

After two writing sessions in California, they recorded their debut in a month-long stint at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio at the start of 2022.

Despite the added time, the sessions were no more relaxed than the ones for their first EP.

“The EP was six songs in four days and this was 25 songs in 30 days,” says Baker, “so it wasn’t proportionally different.”

“We did plan to take days off. We’d be like, ‘OK, tomorrow, we’re going to have breakfast and go on a walk.’ Then Lucy would say, ‘I have this idea for a bridge’, and I’d be like, “Well, why don’t we just turn on the microphone?'”

Listening to Boygenius’s album, you can tell who started each song – the grungy riff of $20 is evidently Baker’s work, for example – but the musicians constantly allow their bandmates to twist the music in new, unexpected directions.

It’s a process that requires vulnerability and honesty, says Bridgers.

She describes the making of Emily I’m Sorry, a delicate examination of self-worth that was the first song she contributed to the album.

The initial demo, she recalls, had a different drum track – but something about it was bugging her.

“I was like, ‘Maybe this is good?’ Then Lucy walked in and went, ‘Hmmm, it’s more ‘chilled-beats-to do-homework-to’ than I imagined.’ And I was like, ‘Uggggh, of course!'”

“I love confrontation,” says Dacus, “because we all have to live with this forever. I don’t want to put out anything that sucks.”

Baker, meanwhile, made it her mission to pepper the album with what the liner notes call “more sick riffs”.

“I missed being in a band and showing up to practice and going, ‘I wrote this riff, what are we going to do with it?’ Instead of like, ‘I wrote this tormented poem that I set to delicate finger-picked guitar’,” she laughs.

‘Always subordinate’

Boygenius have been called a “supergroup” but they bristle at the description, reasoning that those vanity projects are usually less than the sum of their parts. They’d rather just be recognised as equals in a male-dominated industry.

That’s how they got their name – an inside joke about male musicians who are told they’re special from an early age – and it continues to inform the way they present themselves.

They’ve called their album “the record”, in a play on the faux-humility of Bob Dylan’s backing group The Band; while the song Leonard Cohen simultaneously praises and pillories one of Dacus’s inspirations.

Leonard Cohen once said, ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’,” she sings. “And I am not an old man having an existential crisis at a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry… but I agree.

But it’s another one of Dacus’s lyrics, “Always an angel, never a God“, that gets to the heart of the message.

“It’s in keeping with why we’re called Boygenius,” she says. “[Women are] expected to be docile, always subordinate to some greater power, never invested with the actual power.”

“Each of us has been pigeon-holed as a tortured artist and that is a depowering thing.”

“Exactly,” says Baker. “When someone writes that this music fell out of me as a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion, they completely erase all the deliberate, intentional craft I put into it.

“Like, it was a powerful emotion flowing out of me at four in the morning when I made Voice Memo One, but you’re hearing 20 voice memos, 30 demos and hours of editing later, when I have meticulously constructed this piece of art into a specific thing to adequately convey my emotions.

“It’s not fair for it to be relegated to something that just, like, fell out of me like a magical fairy.”

So far, critics have avoided that trap. The NME praised the record as an “instant classic“; and Rolling Stone said it was “even better than everyone hoped”, with both publications highlighting the strength of the writing.

And with the hard work done, Boygenius can’t wait to get back on the road as a three-piece.

“For at least the past year, I’ve kind of felt like a cover band of myself,” admits Bridgers of Punisher’s long promotional campaign.

“I walk up to the lip of the stage at the exact same time every night during the same song and have the exact same fan interaction. And that’s beautiful. Like, I feel like I’m putting on the Rocky Horror Picture Show. But it’s gonna be nice be doing something new with my friends.”

“Oh my gosh, I forgot to tell you all this,” Baker interrupts.

“I played a benefit concert for trans rights the other night and they were like, ‘Here’s Julien Baker, one-third of Boygenius!‘. I loved that. It’s like they were introducing just the green Powerpuff Girl!

“I was so happy [because] you need to be part of something bigger than yourself. That’s why people join clubs for sewing and birdwatching. That’s why there’s a music scene. That’s why people accidentally join cults.”

Not for the last time, the band dissolve in fits of laughter.

Those concerts are going to be a blast.

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