A noticeable twenty-first century trend in indie rock is the proliferation of solo artists rather than your typical four piece band. In a way it is a reflection of our online culture, where to be heard over the din means stepping forward into the spotlight and selling yourself. Many solo artists now work with the same group of musicians but have to use their own name, or some form of pseudonym, for easier recognition. Maybe something is lost when the merging of different musical personalities is no longer the dominant form, but you can see the benefits of being solo from the start – no creative differences, no-one to share the songwriting credits with, no complicated break-ups.
However when you look closer at the sleeve notes of these solo artists you see that actually most of them are still co-writing and collaborating with others, just in looser, more flexible arrangements. Sometimes, though, the need for solo artists to work together on a shared project becomes more tangible and significant. Sometimes you have to give it a name.
Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus had much in common before joining forces on boygenius – they were all roughly the same age, at the same point in their careers and had similar audiences for their music, so they made plans to tour together. Recording music was initially planned so they had something special to sell on the tour, possibly a seven inch. After their first session together they realised the songs were so good they had enough material for an EP.
The name boygenius started as a joke, but there’s a painful irony contained within its lower case subtlety. Men still command the room, the attention, the hype, the prestige. Women have already saved indie rock but you wouldn’t know it from the press or the public. The cover of the EP knowingly references Crosby, Stills and Nash – telling us that all three know their musical history and have the confidence in themselves, and each other, to both mock and try to live up to the legacy of that supreme supergroup (who might join to be the future Young of this project is yet to be determined).
On the EP there are a mixture of songs written alone and together, but each features the three musicians in a cohesive way, so there’s no dominant personality, no lead vocalist, just a mood created that feels distinct.
Opener Bite The Hand builds on the repeated refrain ‘I can’t love you how you want me to’ and maybe this is a statement of intent for the whole project. Expectations can’t always be met. Fans, journalists, lovers, collaborators all may have to just let things become what they are. Dacus sings this one, the music echoing the grunge rock of her recent album Historian, but the magic happens when she is joined by Bridgers and Baker on harmonies that swirl into something special.
Even though I’m way too old and cynical to appreciate the doomed romantic tragedy at the core of second song Me and My Dog, there’s something intoxicating about how Bridgers allows herself to cut loose in a way she rarely did on her debut. ‘I want to be emaciated / I want to hear one song without thinking of you / I wish I was in a spaceship / just me and my dog and an impossible view’ she sings, as the music shines in support.
Of the three solo artists in boygenius I am least familiar with Julien Baker, who always seemed too intense and emo for my particular tastes. However on Souvenir and Stay Down her voice feels less like it has you in a iron fist, and the support from the rest of the group gives her songs space to breathe. Salt in the Wound is the trio’s attempt at epic rock, sung by Dacus and Bridgers which allows Baker’s shredding guitars to really drive the song. Together you can hear them push each other in different, interesting directions which can surely only benefit their solo songwriting in the future.
Perhaps the most truly collaborative song is Ketchum, ID, in which the three share a dream of getting off the road and finding somewhere to call home. Somehow they had all individually written words on the same theme, which fit together to form one story. Sung around one microphone, this haunting moment has already been causing spontaneous singing from the crowd on tour. On this you hear echoes of Trio, where the voices of Dolly, Linda and Emmylou merged to became a collective instrument. boygenius too have found a new voice – on this song three become one.
The problem with supergroups or side projects is that they often only exist for short periods of time. boygenius may only burn briefly, but on this evidence they will burn bright.