The Magic of boygenius Goes Beyond Music
Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker discuss why "there's nothing I could imagine more fascinating than learning about my boys"
Published Apr 04, 2023"Bitch, I don't know!" Lucy Dacus sighs, exasperated. She's trying to determine how she weaponizes her attachment style.
It's been a long morning of international press for her supergroup, boygenius, and bandmates Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers have just given incredible answers — phrased like they were sharing at an AA meeting — to the same question.
Over Zoom from two separate locations in Los Angeles, Baker — seated next to Dacus — explains that she weaponizes her avoidant-style attachment by telling people she's enacting harm reduction by removing herself from their lives. Bridgers, anxious-avoidant, love bombs, then withdraws if she's not getting exactly what she wants. Dacus wants to have an answer, but she has a secure attachment style and is far less of a walking red flag than the rest of us.
"Lucy has been accused of being so grounded that Lucy rocks ungrounded people," Bridgers says, prompting laughter from everyone. Ever the philosopher, Baker chimes in, "But I feel like that character — guy in high school who always has a pen — doesn't permit [Dacus's] endeavour to embrace chaos. When people are like, 'You're so grounded,' it doesn't permit you the ungrounded-ness."
Dacus's grounding presence is felt across the record, the trio's debut album as a band. She's the initial voice we hear on the three-part Appalachian folk harmony of a cappella opening track "Without You Without Them," extending the first outstretched hand pictured on the album artwork. The cover is something they had initially disagreed on. But Bridgers says that, as a group, they've never really had to enact democracy. "I always end up coming around," she explains, "because it's not that high stakes; it's just records."
Baker elaborates, "I feel most precious about this project, because it is something I've created with. It's not about me and my ego, so I feel more precious and protective of it. But I also feel less precious about my own contributions, because I know that there are two other people whose taste and talent I trust beyond my own."
Dacus adds that working together has helped her get to know her own instincts. "People are like, 'Why does it work?' And [Bridgers] keeps saying, 'I don't really want to investigate it. It feels like magic and I don't want to put too many words to it,'" she says of the ineffable quality when the three solo artists come together as a band. "Not needing to intellectualize is a lesson for me, because I intellectualize a lot of things and I like to put words to things."
The members of boygenius hold space for each other in conversation. They cite one another with the same ease and reverence as their favourite writers, having actually first formed as a book club. In January 2016, Dacus opened for Baker in Washington, D.C., and they immediately bonded when the latter noticed the former reading Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. Dacus ended up ripping out a blank page to give Baker her email address.
Baker introduced Dacus to Bridgers, then this triptych of singer-songwriters touring their debut albums in their early 20s exchanged emails about literature. As the legend now goes, being booked for a triple-bill tour in fall 2018 led the three of them to record a 7-inch single together to sell at the merch table. It evolved into an EP, 2018's boygenius.
Shortly after Bridgers released her household name-making sophomore album Punisher in 2020, she sent Baker and Dacus the swaying, blue hour-hued "Emily I'm Sorry" via Google Drive, asking, "Can we be a band again?" It went on to become one of the four individually-written tracks on the 12-song album, with the group actually getting the experience of writing together this time.
"Our relationship is just an ongoing project that never stopped and started again," Bridgers says, seeing it all as a natural extension and progression of their friendship. They tracked the record, which they produced themselves alongside Catherine Marks, at Rick Rubin's Shangri-La in Malibu in January 2022 while hummingbirds flitted about outside the window of the studio's control room.
These birds have become a recurring symbol for boygenius, as mythologized on the tender, self-referential ballad "We're in Love." Dacus describes an Uber trip in Tennessee with Baker where they were both upset. Neither wanted to engage with another human, but small talk with the driver led to something profound.
"We're like, 'What did you do this morning?' And he's like, 'Well, I woke up at 4 a.m. I sat on my porch and I was really still, and I just watched the hummingbirds,'" Dacus recalls. Baker adds, "He goes, 'That was enough.'" She still thinks about it every time she sees one.
Meanwhile, Bridgers has developed a more positive association after the trauma of an isolating relationship in her youth with someone whose house had windows that hummingbirds were constantly running into. She says she must have buried at least six in that yard. Seeing hummingbirds everywhere with Dacus and Baker now is "weirdly, like, more poetic."
The trio lovingly pay homage to a legendary Canadian songwriter's "horny poetry" in their signature wry fashion on the album's centrepiece, "Leonard Cohen." "I am not an old man having an existential crisis in a Buddhist monastery," Dacus sings of the crack where the light gets in, "But I agree / I never thought you'd happen to me."
This repeated line calls to mind the terms in which Baker describes the writing process, quoted from a stanza of the Mary Oliver poem "Sometimes": Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
"If you're paying close attention and being observant about your friends and their lives, then you're going to live a life replete with poetic things to write about, because they exist naturally in the world," the Tennessean singer-songwriter says. "And there's nothing I could imagine more fascinating than learning about my boys."
According to Baker, making the record was largely about letting the living inform the art; fucking around and finding out, if you will. "Incidentally, a theme emerged, because there are themes that exist in our lives and because art is reporting about life. The themes will reveal themselves in what we are ruminating on," she says. "Then I get to find the themes of what Lucy and Phoebe keep writing about; all the injury points they take poetically to access a feeling."
It's ironic, then — or just the level of meta we get with three of the most compelling songwriters working in indie rock's upper echelon — that living and growing, together and apart, resulted in a body of work that seems to ruminate on the mortifying ordeal of being known, made alongside those who know you best. "You wonder if you can even be seen / From so far away," Baker sings in near slow-motion on the suspension-held bridge of "Satanist," with Dacus subsequently assuring, "There is something about you that I will always recognize," on "We're in Love."
Again, it's the first knowing invitation they extend on "Without You Without Them" — imploring, with the surround-sound harmonic resonance their voices have together, "I want to hear your story and be a part of it" — in an a cappella reframing of intergenerational trauma that picks up right where the EP's closing track, "Ketchum, ID," left off.
"Well, it's interesting," Bridgers says now. "I'll never know me without you." Dacus immediately whips out her phone to write this phrase down for future reference.
Baker's eyes widen, nodding, "When I describe old, little-kid Julien, you have the caricature I construct — not the person."
"Oh, you were thinking about the past," Dacus realizes. "I was thinking about the future."
"I mean the present, the past or the future," Bridgers clarifies. "You'll never know the version of myself that isn't with you."
Tenses collapse into each other. A linear concept of time warps into an amorphous blob for boygenius's relationship. It's a constant flux and flow that they link arms and run headward into together. the record feels timeless because it exists outside of it — from the spectral acoustics and flickering key gleams to the skronky riffs and clever turns of phrase worthy of the T-shirts they're sure to emblazon.
But if we return to time in the way we're often forced to think of it, a lot has passed since the band formed, sort of by accident, and released their boygenius EP almost five years ago. the record remembers, though. Happenstance aside, its every move is intentional: every line and leitmotif is rife with multiple meanings and references and inside jokes and meme fodder. About two minutes into the eerie, softly seething closing track "Letter to an Old Poet," the unmistakable melody of EP standout and voracious fan favourite "Me & My Dog" returns like an apparition.
"That lyric that everybody screams is so unhealthy and an admission of something superficial in myself that I was sharing with these guys to feel better about it. That your most private thoughts are about how you look is so humiliating," Bridgers reflects of the 2018 track's climactic moment where she sings, "I wanna be emaciated."
Bridgers has noticed that now, or even two years ago when the boys began plotting their return, her thoughts have shifted. In the new version of the melody, the lyric has been changed to "I wanna be happy, I'm ready."
"Lucy wrote that lyric because I was just saying a million words that weren't the word 'happy,'" Bridgers admits. "We bring that out of each other." She adds, "And my dog's dead! So I was like, 'What a literal chapter ending': an innocence dying with a childhood dog, but also some old horrible thought patterns dying as well."
The final moments of "Letter to an Old Poet" see Bridgers, backed by Baker and Dacus, singing, "I can't feel it yet / But I am waiting," drawing out the last word as a soundbite of an audience cheering whirrs through the cracks in the piano motif.
"We're not holding some old beliefs about our relationship or selves," Bridgers says. Dacus and Baker propel her into the future — and they've been looking forward to this year so much.
"I think when I met y'all, I had decided what type of guy I was," Baker remembers, with Dacus quickly agreeing, "Oh yeah."
"Okay," Baker retorts before both erupt in giggles. "I placed ideals and principles and my aspirational self above knowing the self that I actually am," Baker continues. "And honestly, watching Phoebe and Lucy change, and understanding that I love them in a fundamental way outside of the different permutations that their self-expression takes, makes me feel less committed to a set of behaviours. It made me examine why I'm doing things: are they for an arbitrary principle or are they for true, effective good?"
Their relationship alchemizes on the record: Baker, Bridgers and Dacus, each as generational storytellers in their own right, entwining the electrical currents of their voices, sparking brighter and more intuitive in each other's presence. It's as if this shared frequency of their friendship is the necessary reminder that they are far more interesting than the misogynistic-backsliding "sad girl indie" archetype — the hysterical woman counterpart of the boy genius — their signature expunging of their respective emotional catacombs gets reduced to and commodified as. In the company of those who actually know them, something greater is revealed.
"This is gonna be a great article," Baker predicts. Being together was enough.
None of this was supposed to happen. But, against all odds, three people came together and made each other better. Even the hummingbirds noticed.