Julien Baker Takes Aim at Boy Geniuses

Julien Baker
Julien Baker Nolan Knight
Singer-songwriter Julien Baker has released two full-length folk-rock albums since 2015, but this year, she took a break from her solo artistry to work with musicians Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus on their tongue-in-cheek EP, boygenius. The three musicians are currently on tour together and will be taking over the Ogden Theatre on Monday, November 19. 

They came up with the idea for the album ahead of their tour. "If we collaborated on an original song instead of a cover or what have you, then we could maybe release a split seven-inch, or maybe we make an A and B side," Baker says in regard to the origins of boygenius. "As our excitement grew, I think so did our aspirations for what it could be. It snowballed from just doing a cover together live to doing a full-blown EP with as many songs as we could manage."

While it was a juggling act to create an EP ahead of a nationwide tour, Baker is proud of what they produced.

"Lucy has said this, and I think she puts it really well," says Baker. "'But I'm in this collaboration. I have a third of the responsibility but three times the fulfillment, because I'm able to relinquish some of the control — which initially sounds scary, but it ends up being so fulfilling to just see what other people can create.'"

Beyond the creative experience, the musicians wanted a title that spoke to a type of person who lurks in the music industry: the boy genius. Baker describes that kind of guy as "a boy who has been told he is the most special and the most brilliant. They become this domineering, eccentric person, and because of their talent, no one is making them adhere to social norms, and they're allowed to just preside over their world of creativity because they are extremely privileged – but they don't realize that.

"The qualities of being outspoken, straightforward and ambitious as males are a positive thing. But when you translate those to women, they're discouraged and they're quote-unquote 'unattractive,'" Baker adds.

The three women wanted to channel the spirit of that overconfident boy genius into the album, a figure so insidious that, Baker notes, she was blind to them when she first stepped onto the music scene.

"When I first started playing guitar, I would sit in my room for hours and learn scales. With my first high school band ever, we would have these breaks in the song for idiotic solos, solos that were un-tasteful and would be shredding, but I needed to put them in there, and I realize now it's because we were playing shows with a whole bunch of bands that were all male. If I just strummed chords for the entire song, then people would think, 'Oh, that girl is not even good at guitar, because girls can't play guitar.'"

Despite having a robust discography behind her, Baker still finds herself needing to flaunt knowledge in some venues to be taken as seriously as her male counterparts.

"My tour manager is a woman. The woman who plays violin with me, obviously female. I'm a female. Then the guy who does merch for us, who is wonderful, will walk in, and people will immediately go up to him and start talking to him like he's the person in charge."

click to enlarge Julien Baker - NOLAN KNIGHT
Julien Baker
Nolan Knight
For Baker, co-writing the album changed how she approaches songs. With Bridgers and Dacus, who drew from their own experiences with boy geniuses, she was less calculating and meticulous than she was writing alone, wanting the songs to develop organically among the three of them.

Reflecting on her previous solo songwriting, she finds the songs have now taken on new meanings, and to showcase this to her fan base, she is consistently changing up the arrangements for live performances.

"I think as my relationships with the songs grow, so does how I see the audience perceiving them, and it's really nice to see [the songs'] life span."

Although she jokingly put on the hat of a boy genius for her latest work, she'll always steer away from entitlement and becoming jaded.

"I put myself back in a place of reverence," she says. "I make sure I'm appreciative and can an encounter the world in a humble way. I'm not losing the wonder in playing music."

Julien Baker / Phoebe Bridgers / Lucy Dacus, 7:15 p.m. Monday, November 19, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $23.
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Taylor Heussner has been writing for Westword since January 2018. She received her bachelor's degree in creative writing from Colorado State University and writes for myriad literary magazines. When she's not attending concerts, you can find Taylor searching for music, writing poetry or petting the neighborhood dogs.
Contact: Taylor Heussner