Julien Baker spends a lot of time considering her role in the music industry. That includes the "sad girl" label that's often attached to the 23-year-old songwriter's work, including her newest project, Boygenius.
"Having the moniker of 'sad girl' attached to us is so one-dimensional," says Baker. "It robs the emotions we express of their legitimacy. When a man is upset, he's passionate. When a woman is upset, she's hysterical."
Earlier this year, Baker formed the supergroup Boygenius with fellow rising stars Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Each songwriter went into the project with a finished song, a work in progress and an aim to be totally open to collaboration.
The openness paid off. Self-produced and recorded with all women players, the trio's new, self-titled EP has a rich sonic palette. Songs like the twangy rumination on escapism "Me and My Dog" and the showstopping "Ketchum, Idaho" are as good as anything in the singers' impressive solo catalogs. The haunting "Souvenir" sees the three songwriters trading off goose bump-inducing verses, and solo tunes like the Baker-led "Stay Down" find Boygenius harmonizing as if they've been playing together for years. Live, their shows are essentially tripleheaders—each woman plays her own set, and is occasionally joined by the other Boygeniuses.
Speaking over the phone, Baker says the nuanced collection of songs was inspired in part by the threesome's shared experiences, both good and bad, as young women in a male-dominated industry. "As much as it's become popular seeing, say, 'Strong Woman' axioms on T-shirts and there being more cultural awareness of independent and self-governing women," says Baker, "there's still very much this cultural ideal that infantilizes women and attributes their decision-making to some other governing force."
Case in point, some fans and critics have assumed the group was formed by a record label, instead of by their own volition. "Almost any time you see a woman lauded for her artistry, there's a man that sort of came alongside and orchestrated the whole thing and is seen as the reason she made it," says Baker, who cites Judy Garland and Nina Simone as examples. "The woman is just this raw, undirected talent with no practical ability or real-world knowledge. She's this infantilized prodigy."
The oversimplistic sad-girl label is just another form of that same devaluation. "It can be a bit infuriating," says Baker. "It's saying that when an emotion is coming from a woman, it's frivolous in a way."
That insistence on relying on both self and each other seeped into the music on Boygenius. Baker, Bridgers and Dacus wanted their record to be both an artistic and social statement—to fully convey their message, the songs needed to be well-written, and they most assuredly are. Boygenius contains flourishes of each artist's musical style. The end result sounds like a band's record, not a supergroup of successful pals simply churning out something fun. The complex songs live and breathe and stay inside of your head for hours after the record stops spinning.
It's easy to see how Boygenius' songs can keep an audience utterly rapt. "I've been able to draw a lot of hope from the tangible impact of what we're able to convey onstage." Baker says. "A microphone has been placed in front of me, and I get to talk to hundreds of people a night. Because of that, we get to set an example, and we get to try to change the cultural narrative about women and how they create. Not just how they create music but how they create anything, how they behave and what they're permitted to do by dominant culture."
Baker points to the band's involvement with voter initiatives, partnerships with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (the latter of which receives 100 percent of proceeds from Boygenius' T-shirt sales), and the conscious decision to have all women players on the record.
But Boygenius is also about leveraging the differences and similarities of each of its members, instead of generalizing the trio with a reductive label.
"I think that's maybe the whole point of this collaboration," says Baker. "That's the immediate level of what we were trying to achieve with this record—making something collaborative that refutes the standard that music has to be competitive, turn that paradigm on its head and set an example of collaborating instead of competing."
SEE IT: Boygenius plays Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., crystalballroom.com, on Sunday, Nov. 25. 7:30 pm. $25 advance, $28 day of show. All ages.