With a voice that evokes Gillian Welch, a songwriting idol in John Hartford, and a background as a multi-instrumentalist prior to embarking on her own solo career, Rachel Baiman‘s second album Cycles is a lush, layered record focused on “stories of my various family members and familial relationships.” As “Joke’s On Me,” the lead single off the album so aptly illustrates, sometimes the joke is part of the journey — especially when it comes to family, relationships, and our plans for what life might look like. Recorded in Australia and inspired by the indie rock scene in Melbourne, the record is decidedly folk, but expanding at the edges into all kinds of sounds.
As for Baiman, the Americana artist grew up in Chicago but has been living in Nashville since she was eighteen, spending a decade working in various roles on other people’s songs, before breaking out on her own in 2017 with the release of her debut solo record, Shame. The album came out in the wake of a political reckoning in America and the election of former President Trump, and it necessarily grappled with politics, rebellion — and, well, shame — in a serious way. Co-founding the organization Folk Fights Back to help channel political energy among musicians at that time, Baiman has since shifted her focus to work with A Better Balance, an organization that advocates for work/life balance for vulnerable workers.
And though there are hints of political subjects on this new record, and the cycles they tend to operate in, the personal emphasis is a lot stronger here. Baiman said that the lead single, in particular, is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on her own mental health and the pressure of ambition. “’Joke’s On Me’ was written in a moment of frustration, self-loathing and ridicule of my own mind,” she said. “I’m an ambitious person and find it impossible to stop working towards a goal. I realize I’ve gone too far too make something happen when I’m no longer enjoying it. Pressure on artists to self-promote is at an all time high, and it takes a toll on mental health. I could easily destroy my own happiness in the pursuit of my career, so I try to find balance between making great art, working towards the next step, enjoying the process, and remembering my dream: To spend each day creatively… much easier said than done.”
To analyze the pressure to be all things to all people, all the time, the “Joke’s On Me” video portrays Baiman decked out in ’80s workout gear, attempting to do literally everything while also on a treadmill. It’s funny and relatable and slightly absurd — like a good music video should be — but is also straightforward enough to showcase the strength of her songwriting. There’s also a cameo of author Jenny Odell’s great book, How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy, another fantastic touch in a video about burnout. (Plus, a fundraiser for “Joke’s On Me” shirts will donate $5 from every purchase to A Better Balance.) Check out the video below and read an interview with Baiman about her new Cycles, which is out in early June, below.
What’s your first musical memory, whether it was a concert, hearing a song, or something else?
I used to go to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival with my family when I was really young. I must have been three because it was before we moved to Chicago. I remember lying on a blanket on a hill outside, soaking in the sounds
When did you realize you wanted to pursue music yourself?
It always seemed like a scary thing to say out loud, so I never specifically made the decision to try and “be a musician.” I started playing gigs around Nashville in my last couple years of college, and then just kind of didn’t apply for any jobs…
As someone who has frequently worked as an instrumentalist, how does that experience differ from working on your own vocal albums?
I love that you ask this question! When I’m working for someone else, I’m trying to understand and deliver their vision as much as possible. So I focus on making sure I know the material really well, have an idea of the vibe they are going for, and try not to have too many opinions. Sometimes I’m asked to play in a way that’s not exactly what I think is right for the song, but I try to just do it anyway because that’s my job. When it comes to my own albums, I’m always thinking about the big picture.
A big moment for me was during the making of Shame when I realized: I don’t care if there isn’t any fiddle on this whole record. I had been sort of using that skill as a musical crutch for so long, and I wanted to commit to being a songwriter first and foremost — that meant working towards the sound of a song, not showcasing my instrumental chops.
Tell me about your debut album Shame and how this second one Cycles builds or departs from the first one?
My debut album Shame was released in 2017 — I made it out in North Carolina with Andrew Marlin (Mandolin Orange). I think there’s a lot of similarities between the two in terms of songwriting, although I think that Cycles is more focused on stories of my various family members and familial relationships. There’s still some political moments but the perspective and tone has changed as so much has changed in the country, I feel like being an effective activist is very different in 2021 than in 2017 and that’s reflected in the songwriting. On Shame, I was demanding space for myself and women in general. On Cycles, I’m asking for empathy through personal storytelling and vulnerability.
Production-wise, I’ve grown a lot in my studio know-how and confidence, so I had a bigger role in arranging and producing. Liv [Olivia Hally, of Oh Pep!] and I did everything as a team, running back and forth from tracking to producing, and giving each other feedback. I wanted this album to have more grunge and reflect some of the Indie rock albums that have been inspiring me lately, and I think it definitely does that.
Why is “Jokes On Me” a good representative of the place you’re in right now as a songwriter/musician as the first single?
It’s funny that you ask that because I have been laughing at the irony the entire way through this single release. I find this early phase of a record release to be a real rollercoaster, and I’ve never felt the song to be more true to my mental state than in the process of releasing this album! I heard this Yates quote on The New Yorker Poetry Podcast which is: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” I’m always trying to explain why certain songs work for me and certain dont, and that quote says it better than I ever could. I am striving in my music for poetry rather than rhetoric, and “Joke’s On Me” definitely qualifies as a song about internal quarrel.
Can you tell me a little bit about the process of working on the video and why the treatment resonated with you?
Natia Cinco, the videographer, is an awesome creative mind. I’ve worked with her a lot on photos but this was our first video project together. I sent her the song and explained a little bit about what I wanted to convey, and she came up with the treadmill idea. From there, I thought ‘well if I’m going to be on a treadmill, I should wear an awesome 80s workout outfit!’ To me, it’s all part of the same idea, of trying to do and be everything. Not only am I going to workout while doing all of these things, but I’m going to make sure I have a perfectly matching, peppy outfit to boot!
What’s it been like working with organizations like Folk Fights Back and A Better Balance? Why is that work a priority for you?
I actually found out about A Better Balance through my work with Folk Fights Back. We put together an event in support of women, and I was researching the different non-profits in Nashville fighting on behalf of women. This one was working for women in the workplace, against pregnancy discrimination, and helping really vulnerable workers be able to take care of their family when they need to. We did a benefit show for them and I found one of the lawyers and clients who spoke really inspiring. When I thought about the messaging of this song, A Better Balance immediately came to mind for me. I’ve never had too much money, and I’ve always traveled a lot and had a crazy schedule, so I’ve always felt really torn about the idea of having children. I hate that it’s so difficult for women from all walks of life to balance having a career and taking care of family in this country. The pandemic has brought that to a head as well, with many more women than men being pushed out of the workforce. That’s why I feel it’s so important to support this organization at this particular moment.
Your album was created primarily with fellow female musicians, can you tell me about the collaborative process?
It’s something that I’m never going back from! Working with Andrew on Shame was an absolute delight and he is a great ally, but there were a couple songs on that album, like the title track, and “Take A Stand,” that were very, very hard to discuss, arrange, and then sing in a room full of straight white dudes. With Cycles, I was surrounded by women at all times, and I never felt like I had to prove myself to anyone, or explain what a song was about. The studio is largely a male domain, and being able to take ownership of that space inspired me to try and work on some more production projects for other people. Studio musicians are overwhelmingly male, and I think that’s because producers are overwhelmingly male. I have made it a point to hire female studio musicians for all of my recent projects and it feels so good to have that gatekeeping power and use it to get some awesome women in the door who may otherwise have been ignored.