One of life’s sad realities is that the older you get, the harder it becomes meeting people who become truly close friends. Double down on that if you live a seminomadic existence as a working musician, away from home for months at a time, days consisting of long hours in vans and endless nights in a parade of clubs.
That surreal disconnect from the normal world is one of the hardest parts of being a touring artist. Never mind the nonexistent odds of meeting your new best friend during a 16-hour stay in a strange and new town—it’s hard to maintain existing bonds when you’re constantly missing out on birthdays, dinner parties, anniversaries, movie dates, and coffee-shop hangs.
That reality was the inspiration for “Ketchum, ID”, the gutting closing track on the eponymous debut from boygenius, the new indie supergroup consisting of Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker. Sadness positively drips from lyrics like “I am never anywhere/Anywhere I go/When I’m home I’m never there/Long enough to know.”
When the three songwriters, who are all in their early 20s, are reached on a conference call in St. Louis, they acknowledge that the life they’ve chosen to lead as artists has both endless rewards and difficult challenges. One of the greatest things about boygenius is the bonding that they’ve done since what started out as a package tour for a trio of solo artists spun off into an actual band.
“For me at least, our type of friendship is really rare,” Dacus offers. “Making friends once you become a touring musician isn’t necessarily easy because you’re in a different city every night and you don’t really have the time to share, I don’t know, community experiences in the way that you do growing up in one particular place. It takes a lot of extra effort, which is something that I’m glad that we’ve made.”
The roots of boygenius date back to Dacus, Bridgers, and Baker all signing on for a package tour, something that makes sense in an era when indie rock has taken a back seat to the culture-shifting juggernaut that is urban music in all its various guises. Playing alone on past swings through Vancouver, Baker and Dacus found themselves booking into the intimate Cobalt. By joining forces with Bridgers, they’ve jumped up to midsize rooms like the Commodore on their current tour, which features them playing both individually and as boygenius.
All three have been lauded as being at the top of their class.
Dacus first surfaced with the ragged DIY stunner No Burden in 2016 after abandoning film school for music, following up that breakthrough with this year’s critically hailed, orchestral-pop triumph, Historian.
Baker turned battles with depression and anxiety into 2015’s stripped-raw confessional Sprained Ankle, the Memphis singer returning last year with the equally gripping Turn Out the Lights. Bridgers, meanwhile, hit indie-rock gold with last year’s official debut, Stranger in the Alps, the album spawning devastatingly sad “Funeral”, which will one day be remembered as one of the greatest songs of the decade.
As much as their individual careers are flourishing, there’s something liberating about being able to share the spotlight.
“I feel like this is a confidence builder,” Bridgers says. “Having to take responsibility for your project 100 percent is hard. When it’s just your name on something, you’re not able to deflect any responsibility or stress, and that leads to a lot of inner turmoil. That’s totally diffused when you’re in a band. Normally, I’ll spend four days asking myself ‘Is this a good idea?’ before doing something. I’ve never done that in this project.”
Baker adds: “Even if there are questions about whether an idea is good, the answer is nothing is ever stupid or minimalized in boygenius. It’s more ‘Let’s try this anyway.’ We really trust each other’s intuition, and that’s something that I don’t always trust in other writing contexts. I’m often very defensive or protective when I share my songs with other people.”
Initially, the plan was to cut a single to promote the tour. The collaboration quickly spiralled into an EP, the collaborative nature of boygenius best reflected by the fact that the record often sounds nothing like the solo works of those involved. Laced with heaven-sent harmonizing, “Bite the Hand” starts out a grey-skies reverie before the clouds suddenly part and the sun floods in. “Salt in the Wound” connects the dots between sunset country and Crazy Horse folk, while “Stay Down” time-travels back to the golden era of college rock—right down to the incandescent guitar outro.
All three members of the group have been labelled, as is typically the case, popular narratives being that Dacus is the bookish nerd, Baker and Bridgers the brooding loners. With boygenius, that pigeonholing becomes harder.
“You don’t really know what people are going through from their work, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” Dacus says. “Think about how comedians often have a lot of sadness or turmoil in their personal lives. In the same way, Julien and Phoebe are often talked about as sad girls, but behind the scenes they are always cracking jokes and being really funny.”
That hasn’t stopped outsiders from pursuing the idea that, when you’re dealing with three artists whose work embraces the dramatic in the most personal of ways, there’s bound to be drama behind the scenes.
“It’s funny—I’ve become really paranoid about making jokes in interviews,” Baker says. “People keep asking us things like ‘So, was there ever a time when you guys have fought about stuff?’ I guess they are looking for some kind of conflict, so I’ve had to try and make it super clear that there’s not.”
And that’s because, Bridgers suggests, sometimes you’re lucky enough to meet the kind of friends where bonds always triumph over bullshit.
“I think it’s pretty easy to not be a fucking dick,” she says to great laughter from Dacus and Baker. “I really do think that. There’s no great challenge to being nice and humble when you are around others. There’s this idea that music is full of licence to be an asshole, but all of my favourite people have never been tempted by that. That’s why we laugh at the question ‘How do you settle your feuds?’ The answer is ‘We don’t have to.’ ”
Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker play individual sets and as boygenius at the Commodore on Friday (November 23).