When Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers started their new band Boygenius, they didn’t want to second-guess themselves, as women in music are too often trained to do. They’re each accomplished singer-songwriters in their own right. So why not cut an album in a week, hit the road together and try not to overthink it?
In other words, why not act a bit like the overly-confident rock dudes who've surrounded them all their lives?
“It was weird to harness something toxic but use it for good,” Dacus said, of the tongue-in-cheek thinking about male self-regard that informed their new supergroup Boygenius. “We were bold in asking each other to do things. We weren’t afraid to have an idea and execute it.”
“The infectiousness was immediate, that no idea was embarrassing. We would constantly say ‘You’re a genius’ to each other,” Bridgers added. “If we’d matched on Tinder, we’d be the most compatible people ever.”
What had started as an in-joke about oblivious bros quickly turned into a life-affirming new way to write music together.
“Competitiveness is destructive and it’s forced particularly upon women, who are told the myth that there’s a finite amount of room for them,” Baker said. “The way to rebut that is to do things like this, to model collaboration with whatever influence we have.”
The concept for Boygenius began as soon as they booked their upcoming tour together (they hit the Wiltern Nov. 30). The three were all friends or fans of each other beforehand and on the whole, they’ve welcomed this new wave of incisive, assertive female singer-songwriters coming up alongside them.
Yet they were also growing weary of blithe, constant comparisons to female peers around their same age (Mitski, Soccer Mommy and Jay Som would probably nod in recognition). They’d long taken influences from everywhere: Baker sang on the latest album from hardcore fixtures Touche Amore, and Bridgers cut the definitive cover versions of both Tom Petty’s “It’ll All Work Out” and Mark Kozelek’s wife-murder ballad “You Missed My Heart.”
How could they capture their shared experiences and vantage points while also undercutting easy narratives about them?
Their answer was to think a bit like a straight white dude, and just walk around like they owned the place.
Their six-song, self-titled record, released physically last week on Matador, came out of a rapid-fire four-day session at L.A.’s Sound City studios (where Fleetwood Mac and Nirvana cut classic LPs).
The sessions reconfigured each of their talents and undermined any idea of competition between them.
“After all these people comparing us to each other, pitting us against each other, it finally doesn’t feel like anybody has power over us,” Bridgers said. “I love that people are saying ‘Oh, this must be a record-label play, it’s such a good idea they couldn’t have possibly come up with it themselves.’”
The three artists came into the studio with one finished song apiece and a few starts for new ones. For fans of their solo careers, it’s striking to hear them harmonizing together, building on lyrical themes and playing off each other’s formidable instrumental skills.
“We have this shared experience of being working, touring musicians of a similar age, and many of our songs contain a lot about the distance touring puts between you and home,” Dacus said. “It’s personal, but something we all share, and now I have Phoebe and Julien there, with our voices physically supporting each other.”
Some of it is gorgeous, morbid country music (“Souvenir”) where they trade verses about cemeteries and self-loathing; some is thrashed-up and ethereal rock about the weight of loneliness and anxiety (“Stay Down”). The single “Me & My Dog” is even sweetly surrealist: “I wanna hear one song without thinking of you / I wish I was on a spaceship / Just me and my dog and an impossible view.”
A song like "Salt in the Wound” was “the culmination of each of our boundaries being pressed. We were reading the room, just seeing what we were each willing to do,” Dacus said. “Julien has the ripping solo, Phoebe is belting in her highest register and thematically, it’s not as hopeful as my songs usually are. Hanging out with them, I can see the worst and not always see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she added, laughing mordantly.
“So many of the best ideas started as jokes, then turned into serious but quirky ideas and ended up being the best things on the record,” Baker said. “Even the band name was pitched as a joke, like ‘What if we did this ridiculous thing?’ But then those ideas ended up being the most ambitious.”
There is a self-aware sense of humor about the whole Boygenius project. Their album art is a dry riff on a Crosby, Stills & Nash LP cover, with Baker’s guitar cocked in her lap at the exact angle as Stills’. The homage is funny, but also earnest about flipping the precedents of supergroups like the Traveling Wilburys and the Highwaymen (or Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris’ group Trio, or Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley’s Pistol Annies) into something that felt true to them.
“The way that streaming music provides endless connections, these webs of linkages between artists, it’s futile to continue to strive singularly for recognition,” Baker said. “Don’t value art as commodity, it can’t be reduced to ambition for a single person.”
Their experience of writing together has already shaken up their own ways of performing and recording. The three are known for searingly personal songs that touch on depression, addiction and the trials of intimacy. Bringing that sort of material into this group gave them confidence to dig deeper, like on “Stay Down”: “So would you teach me I’m the villain / Aren’t I the one constantly repenting for a difficult mind?”
“I couldn’t open up with other people in the same way,” Bridgers said. “I wish more women had the opportunity to connect like this. I’m mad at all the time I didn’t spend making music with them.”
Boygenius may have started as a shared jibe at the classic-rock supergroup tradition. But it’s culminating in a whole new framework for them to challenge and support each other, one they hope other artists can build on too.
“Think about all the white dudes with electric guitars staring at their shoes,” Bridgers said. “If there’s endless room for them, there’s endless room for us.”
Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus
Where: Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: 6:30 p.m. Nov. 30