When you stumble upon friendships that poke at those slumbering, unseen aspects your character, it feels like a rare, treasured thing. Made up of indie folk artists Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, and Phoebe Bridgers, the supergroup boygenius is an extension of that same bond: these are three friends who delicately tease out the best parts of one another.
“We knew how we wanted to be talked to, so we knew how to talk to each other,” says Bridgers of what is was about their relationships that allowed each of them to open up.
Dacus mirrors the thought. “I knew that neither one of them would present a weird power dynamic,” she puts it.
Forming earlier this year – and off the cusp of releasing their own solo records to critical acclaim – the three-piece, all of whom are in their early twenties, have recently released the six-track EP boygenius. It ties together imagery of space-travelling dogs, biblical references, and pores over the reasons to let go of unhealthy relationships.
Indeed, a thread that’s woven boygenius is a towering sense of hurt – yet the musicality remains hopeful throughout. Asked about the period of increasingly conservative governance both the United States and Australia are moving through, Baker replies quickly. “There’s a value in just being hurt with each other,” she says. “It’s important to say, ‘I’m feeling this and you can feel it with me and we don’t have to be alone.’”
On ‘Bite The Hand’, Dacus sings, “I can’t love you how you want me to.” The sentiment, she says, “is widely applicable to any relationship between somebody who is asking for too much and the other person who has to admit that they can’t fulfil someone’s expectations.” Asked if Bridgers has had to reconsider her approach to romantic love, she says she’s started going to therapy. “It has helped a lot. I feel like you can get tunnel vision in relationships. Or, like, if you’re in an abusive relationship you can be tricked into thinking that the world looks a certain way,” she says, “and you can never look outside of it.”
In ‘Stay Down’, Baker sings, “So would you teach me I’m the villain, aren’t I, aren’t I the one? Constantly repenting for a difficult mind.”
“That song’s actually about being in a relationship and working on how you deal with anger and how not to turn it into resentment,” she explains.
Watch boygenius’ NPR Tiny Desk Concert
“I think that because we’re humans, we latch onto patterns. We start to presuppose a negative outcome for our interactions with that person, and then that ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy where we create more conflict and we breed more resentment.”
Maybe Baker isn’t the villain; maybe the villains are the habits forming in her thought patterns. “I’m putting those words in their mouth,” she says. “That song is an indictment of myself for having negative reactions based on my self-esteem.”
In the process of putting this EP together, some brought completed songs to the table – “I’m a very calculated writer, but also a very private writer, and I tend to have the whole song formed before I go to record,” explains Baker – while others accumulated sounds in the studio, building up a song from scratch.
“That was really neat for me to learn how to give myself time to let go of the hard and fast rules I had for how a song has to be, and allow it to evolve,” says Baker.
“I don’t chose the obvious thing a lot of the time,” says Bridgers of her own lyric writing. She’ll gravitate towards the weird abnormities in her life, rather than traumatic events. She lets her memories sit. “Someday I’ll be compelled to write about the shit that’s on my mind right now. But at the moment I’m writing about the shit that happened to me when I was a teenager.”
I think that because we’re humans, we latch onto patterns. We start to presuppose a negative outcome for our interactions with that person.
In many ways, boygenius has been more than a process of divulging sounds and song-writing processes: it’s been a therapy in itself. “It’s nice having any kind of perspective. It’s nice commiserating with your friends and talking to people. And talking therapists helps a lot,” Bridgers explains.
Asked what books and films have had an impact on them this year reveals they share a need to understand human behaviours. For Bridgers, it was Tenth of December by George Saunders, a collection of short stories that find meaning in life’s fleeting moments, and the Japanese coming-of-age fantasy anime Kiki’s Delivery Service. “It’s like a poetic way of talking about wanting to do art,” she says.
For Baker, it was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a novel that merges the story of refugee’s fleeing war with a sense of magical realism while satirising the current geopolitical arena. “I love things like that that make huge concepts digestible in a really disarming way,” she says. And The Good Place. “[It’s] unfolding these grandiose moral quandaries that are really at the heart of all human behaviour,” she says. “I think the best art is the art that makes you re-evaluate yourself, right?”
Watch boygenius perform live at Brooklyn Steel
For Dacus, it was last year’s genre-blending short stories Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado and 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room by gay African-American writer and social critic James Baldwin. “The crux of [Giovanni’s Room] is that he won’t let himself love the person that he really loves and is ashamed of his body, ashamed of his feelings, he was ashamed of everything true about him,” says Dacus.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m ashamed of myself,” she continues. “But I don’t know if I always recognise the worth in negative things. And so that book helped. So did being around Phoebe and Julien. I think they really do understand the worth of negative emotions. I write about dark stuff, but it’s usually pretty hopeful.
I think the best art is the art that makes you re-evaluate yourself.
“I think there’s a lot to learn in just taking a good long sit in the dark places of your mind to just scope it out and see what’s there, and come out of it knowing yourself better. Like, that’s innately okay, and I just needed more practice at that,” she concludes.
Though all in similar places in their lives, they have different motivations for why they pick up a guitar and put lyrics to the page. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently,” says Bridgers. She describes a desire to want to “make music, more than I want to have music.”
Dacus spent years writing music for herself before showing it to anyone. “It wasn’t meant to be heard, so I always found out a lot about what I thought just from basically talking to myself,” she says. “Making that effort to rhyme or stick to a metre gives it a structure to pour into, and it also like makes something beautiful out of something that could be really complex,” she says.
For Baker, it’s two-fold. “I think it’s almost reflexive. Ever since I was a kid I think the way that I’ve been able to articulate my feelings best and the way that I’ve been able to work through them is by putting them in a song; unpacking them that way. Then I can make them into a work of art that I can step away from and have perspective on,” she says.
And from the performance side of things, her motivation is astoundingly uncomplex. “It’s the plain and simple joy of the look on people’s faces when they’re singing along.”