How boygenius are breaking big
ON A MID-APRIL EVENING THREE NIGHTS BEFORE they’d play their first Coachella, boygenius cruised down the I-10 to a soundtrack of Neutral Milk Hotel’s acclaimed album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The song lyrics returned to the trio, composed of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, like muscle memory. Soon enough, they were channeling the freewheeling spirit of Lucy, Kit and Mimi in Crossroads, Thelma and Louise, Jane, Holly and Robin in Boys on the Side — just trading the silver-screen cross-country road trips for a chilly two-hour jaunt to the desert and soaking up the freedom of the open road and the singular moment of success they’re still processing. “I was having a, ‘I’m in high school with my friends going to the festival feeling, and that’s sick,” Bridgers says, reflecting on the evening.
boygenius had reason to feel invincible: They had just wrapped their first official show of 2023 — a warm-up gig in Pomona at The Fox Theater where they performed songs from their triumphant debut album, the record (released in late March). The band felt self-assured, confident in their synergy. It was the antithesis of how they recalled the sentiment ahead of the tour opener from their first co-headlining run in 2018. On the way to The Ryman in Nashville, they all felt sick. “I pulled over to maybe throw up,” Dacus laughs.
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“I have not a single memory from that,” Baker declares.
“I blacked out onstage,” Bridgers jokes.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
But having each other was their saving grace, then and now. Their matched neuroses, their natural inclination to be dedicated to their craft — it’s what continues to help them balance and build each other up. So five years later, at the Pomona concert, they were able to quell the pre-gig anxieties that once plagued them. “I thought maybe I was disassociating and shutting down, but then I was like, ‘No, we know how to do this. We did a week of practice. Our band fucking rocks,’” Dacus asserts.
It’s that energy that boygenius, or “the boys,” as they call themselves, are riding high from just before Coachella. “Oh yeah, we have a group gender,” Bridgers notes, before Dacus deadpans, “If you call us ladies or girls, we’re going to hiss at you.” At their Airbnb in La Quinta, the boys are preparing to slip into Canadian tuxedos for their AP photo shoot: Bridgers and Dacus, both 28, are playing musical chairs as they get their hair and makeup done in preparation for it while Baker, 27, who wrapped up glam early, is casually leaning against a wooden column near the patio doors. Despite the pomp and circumstance of the day ahead, when the trio are together, they evoke the euphoria of the morning after a middle-school sleepover. In their respective band T-shirts — Bridgers repping the 1975, Baker sporting SZA and Dacus donning a now-defunct band called “She” — they’re constantly delivering delightful banter and inside jokes, philosophizing and instinctually finishing each other’s sentences. Sure, they’re a band at the top of their game, but more importantly, they’re friends first.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
THE HISTORY OF BOYGENIUS HARKS BACK TO 2018 when Bridgers, Dacus and Baker — all up-and-coming queer indie-rock singer-songwriters — accidentally became a band. Just two years prior, Dacus and Bridgers had individually been opening acts for Baker on tours, and through Baker, Dacus met Bridgers. They all brought something different to the table: The Pasadena-born Bridgers, who had released her moving debut record, Stranger in the Alps, in 2017, was known for her self-deprecating, dreamy folk songs; Baker, a native of Memphis, Tennessee who had dropped her sophomore album, Turn Out the Lights, the same year, was already a fixture for emo-tinged indie-rock songs that grappled with faith and sobriety; Dacus, who grew up in Richmond, Virginia, was on the verge of releasing her sophomore album, Historian, and already had a following for her feathery-light vocals and fuzzy guitar rock. They bonded over their frustrations with a male-dominated music industry and decided to book a co-headlining tour in early 2018. With it, they considered promoting the tour with a cover or single. The idea of one track turned into much more when they met that summer, and over the course of four days, Bridgers, Dacus and Baker recorded boygenius’ critically acclaimed debut EP.
Naturally, the possibility of a full-length lingered. After all, Bridgers, Dacus and Baker had continued to collaborate: They were featured on Hayley Williams’ “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris” from her solo LP, Petals for Armor, and they lent their vocals to each other’s projects like Bridgers’ sophomore album, Punisher, Baker’s third LP, Little Oblivions, and Dacus’ third record, Home Video. Occasionally, they made surprise appearances on one another’s solo tours, and in 2021 they played their first show together in three years at a benefit for the Bay Area nonprofit Bread & Roses. What no one knew was that over time, they had shared minute-long Voice Memos, Google Drives of tracks and premises for songs with one another.
So boygenius understandably set the internet ablaze in January 2023 when it was announced that they would be releasing their long-awaited debut album, aptly titled the record, just two months later. And what began as a fun side project turned them into internet darlings, as social media became flooded with jokes, memes and indie music fans’ emotional meltdowns. The arrival of new boygenius music was designated a “national holiday for hot people.” Someone quipped that they were “filing a class-action lawsuit against boygenius for emotional damages.” Another person said, “The new boygenius songs are basically an 18-wheeler that is completely running my ass over.” The kids — as in indie-rock fans — were not all right. After exponentially growing in their careers individually, only to announce their biggest collaborative effort to date five years after their first EP, boygenius had officially become “the world’s most exciting supergroup.” And that was months before the full record was even released.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
Unlike the four-day window the band had to craft their debut EP in 2018, the boys had comparatively more time to make the record. But Baker, who often approaches questions through an analytical lens, notes that “with the volume of songs, the idea-to-time ratio was as chaotic because we had a whiteboard with 25 songs.”
“Idiots, straight-up idiots,” Bridgers teases, mimicking the tone of Tony Soprano, before reassessing. “Well, that’s not true.” They did, after all, narrow the songs down eventually. Dacus silently panicked about the structure of it all at the time. “The organized part of me was like ‘uh huh,’ just trying not to get in the way of y’all’s processes and being like, ‘Let’s see how this plays out!’” Dacus explains to Baker and Bridgers, her voice pitched with anxiety. “And it did. It worked.”
“It turned out cool, but we’d do it better another time. If we made one right now, we’d be so good at it,” Bridgers asserts as Dacus and Baker burst out into laughter.
Essentially, the trio combined all of their recording strategies together; while Baker and Dacus’ processes are similar, Bridgers clarifies that she records “over fucking two years meticulously.” The result was roughly a month spent in early 2022 working on the album at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios in Malibu. Alongside co-producer Catherine Marks, illuminati hotties’ Sarah Tudzin as engineer, Jay Som’s Melina Duterte on bass and Autolux’s Carla Azar on drums, the boys led 10-hour work days supplemented with yoga, running and sleeping on-site.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
Like their debut EP and boygenius in general, everything about the record was an equitable venture for the trio. Each of the members takes the lead on different tracks throughout the album and join together for swelling folk harmonies that strengthen each of the songs. It makes sense: boygenius would not be boygenius without the foundation of the trio’s friendship. “We’ve made a document of our friendship that exists primarily for our gratification that we get to share as something we do,” Baker explains.
Giving each member a chance to shine is just a part of being one of the boys. And they all do — songs with Bridgers, Dacus and Baker individually taking the lead have all been critically acclaimed. On “$20,” Baker invokes the spirit of her hardcore past, howling her way through self-sabotage and channeling a famous Vietnam War protest photograph. “Emily I’m Sorry” is a gut-punching plea for forgiveness led by Bridgers that could be a bonus track from Punisher. “True Blue” showcases Dacus’ penchant for poignant details and the intensity of loyal love. But before the boys diverge, they strengthen their bond through the hymnal opener “Without You Without Them,” a track Dacus had written long before the band’s debut. “Who would I be without you?” the trio ask sweetly in unison.
Bridgers had wanted a doo-wop-tinged song, and this one, she says, was what she was looking for. “The sentiment is I am grateful for everything that has led to you, and I’m voracious for knowing you and your story,” Dacus says of the track. “I think that’s a nice way to start the record because then we go about telling each other our stories.” It’s a testament to what it means to be a close friend. “Historically,” Dacus jokes, before Baker finishes her thought. “Historically close friends.”
At the heart of the record, the band’s rich gamut of musical influences seep through. Baker openly praises Dacus and Bridgers for remaining curious about the art that affects them, whether that’s a line in a Marty Robbins song or Elliott Smith performing “Miss Misery” at the 1998 Oscars. “It’s not trivial because it’s the experiences that informed the art you made, that you were so taken with the product or byproduct of that person’s experience that you wanted to better know them,” Baker rationalizes. It’s how she feels about Leonard Cohen, whose name is the title of one of the tracks on the record. “I had a bunch of favorite songwriters, and they were covering Leonard Cohen, so it’s, like, meta also in that way,” she adds. The witty, sentimental “Leonard Cohen” has deeper references, too, like an homage to Iron & Wine’s “The Trapeze Swinger,” and is “not even remotely a diss,” Dacus says. In case there was ever any doubt, the boys are all staunch defenders of Cohen.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
“A lifetime of sustained horniness. How is that a diss?” Baker mumbles. It triggers a memory for Bridgers: “I always used to make fun of Conor Oberst about that, about [how] every song you’re having an existential crisis and getting laid… and Leonard Cohen does it in such a casual way where it’s like some huge brain idea, and then a naked lady just walks through that.”
“Read some of that poetry and tell me that guy was not salivating,” Dacus casually retorts.
On the towering ’90s pop anthem “Not Strong Enough,” the boys lyrically reference Sheryl Crow’s 1993 steel pedal folk-pop number “Strong Enough,” with Bridgers leading a chorus about the self-doubt that can inhibit someone from being in a relationship: “The way I am/Not strong enough to be your man/I tried, I can’t/Stop staring at the ceiling fan and/Spinning out about things that haven’t happened.”
the record is also filled with an amalgamation of heady alternative influences. Baker, the resident philosopher of the group, notes hers with hyper-specificity. She discovered a mode shift while listening to the indie-rock outfit Colour Revolt and knew she needed to put it in a song. It ended up surfacing as the “weird chord” in “$20.” She also added the emo band Mineral to their joint playlist, which became “Phoebe’s shit.” The end of “Satanist,” Dacus says, was influenced by Manchester Orchestra’s “100 Dollars.” “We worked with Catherine Marks for production because of her work with Manchester [Orchestra],” she explains. In a larger sense, the band were collectively influenced by Joyce Manor, the Killers and Green Day — specifically the latter for some of the guitar work on the album. In the future, those influences will likely expand, considering the band dream of collaborating with Tracy Chapman and LCD Soundsystem. “It’ll never happen,” Bridgers sighs, referring to working with Chapman.
They even ended up being self-referential throughout the record, not always on purpose. “Sometimes it’s just straight-up an accident,” Bridgers admits, before complimenting Baker. “One of my favorite parts is when Julien says ‘salt in my lungs’ in the song ‘Anti-Curse,’ which harkens back to ‘Salt in the Wound.’” Baker points out that Bridgers has a “Phoebe chord, which I think is the Elliott Smith chord” — or a major 2— that she uses repeatedly. “We love a major 2 in this house,” Baker laughs. “Nobody’s noticed that, and that is special to me because it’s just to please each other,” Bridgers says gleefully. She even plays a “sparkly” version of the guitar from Baker’s “Sprained Ankle” on “Revolution 0.” “No one can listen to this record the way we can,” Bridgers smirks. It’s their own secret love language, a way for them to leave behind subtle hints of admiration solely for one another.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
Even more eyes were on the record when the band announced The Film, a 14-minute visual to coincide with its release featuring “$20,” “Emily I’m Sorry” and “True Blue,” directed by actor Kristen Stewart. The triptych features an escape from suburbia, monster trucks and making out while painting. They thought Stewart would be perfect for it since she was directing an adaptation of Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water, which the band all loved. Bridgers reached out, and Dacus recalls, with her best impression of royalty, that Stewart said, “It would be my honor.” She playfully adds, “She’s so fiery, the type of fire that you go to to get warm.”
Bridgers interjects, “What’s the meme ‘you’ll always be famous’? I think I’m using it correctly. In the Kristen way, she literally can’t help but be herself, and herself works so hard and is so committed.” Bridgers believes that “if she had $30 million to make this video, it would be like Citizen Kane.”
In a nutshell, Stewart nailed it. And, of course, so did the boys. the record debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, the highest Bridgers, Dacus or Baker had ever charted and landed at No. 1 on Billboard’s Vinyl Albums chart. The boys were breaking big.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
THE AFOREMENTIONED SOCIAL MEDIA FODDER in January was just the beginning for the collective group. It seems like since the record debuted, at least one of the members of boygenius is going viral. One day it’s Baker for standing next to Matty Healy at Taylor Swift’s Eras tour; another it’s Bridgers for posing with her adorable pug Maxine or Dacus for her sartorial choice. The fame of it all has taken some adjusting. Before the pandemic, Dacus had been struggling with being “surveilled” in her hometown of Richmond and ended up relocating to Philadelphia. “It just felt like, ‘At what point will I get to live a normal life where people aren’t taking a photo of me eating a sandwich?’” Dacus remarks. Bridgers, who experienced slow-burning stardom following the release of Punisher in 2020 with the added sheen of a prior relationship with actor Paul Mescal and a song with Taylor Swift, has somewhat distanced herself from the attention. “I feel like not thinking about it as one thing has been helpful to me,” she says, while log rolling over the mustard sofa in the living room of the Airbnb. “I feel like I have the most love for fans than I ever have right now because I haven’t let the anger color the entire experience, which I think I was for a while.” Dacus quickly interjects that navigating fame with two of her friends has been helpful. “I feel better about it now, and it’s easier with Phoebe and Julien because we each get a third of the brunt of the energy,” she pauses. “Or we can look next to either side and be like, ‘This is crazy!’”
Through it all, they’ve been able to remain grounded, something not every artist could manage in the midst of the biggest year of their career. In fact, it’s remained a nonissue. “If anything, sometimes you’re a little too grounded, and you’re like, ‘Oh right, we’re a fucking famous rock band,’” Bridgers says, kneeling over the couch as her black pug Maxine sneaks between her calves. “That’s how I feel, personally.” Bridgers’ way to decompress is napping. Baker winds down by running or cooking. “I’m going to make a ginger ponzu teriyaki salmon tonight. I got a slab of salmon,” she says casually. Dacus prefers to tune it all out by reading and journaling. “I’m writing a lot. I’m writing stuff that isn’t music… I like to scheme and dream,” she quips. Together, they go to couples counseling from time to time to make sure they talk to each other. Other bands should take note.
Still, the band are keenly aware of their impact. It’s not every day that an indie-rock supergroup of queer women with a proclivity for writing sad songs become a household name. “I got breakfast with Katie [Gavin] from MUNA a couple days ago, and she was like, ‘Do y’all realize that there’s not a bigger and gayer band?’ We’ve been asking, ‘Can you think of [another band where] not just one person but every single person in the band, and even the extended band, is gay?’ That feels significant,” Dacus says. The hope, though, is that they’re just existing and no one thinks twice about it. “I think that it would be cool to eventually be unremarkable…” she says, trailing off.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
Baker reads her mind: “To eventually be unremarkable. Just us all existing within a very different, very individual and nuanced way. Talking about it in a way that makes it impossible to tokenize queerness because of three distinct people.”
Following their Coachella debut, a performance at one of Swift’s Eras shows and a summer tour of their own, boygenius are set to remain remarkable for a while. But it’s not solely because of their queerness or music: It’s their bond, their magnetic connection, their unconditional love for one another, their friendship — the kind that makes you nostalgic for your own BFFs when they’re miles away. For them, boygenius are forever.
“I think we’ll be old guys on tour,” Bridgers remarks.
“It would be so awesome. How funny would that be to be old on tour together?” Dacus fantasizes.
“Oh, my gosh, all of us rocking Patti Smith suits?” Baker says excitedly.
“See you in 30 years,” Bridgers laughs.