Photo Courtesy of Prater Day
“There’s not a lot of room for self-doubt or concern that you’re not good enough to do something when you’re watching the kind of shit that’s going down in our country right now,” Nashville singer-songwriter Rachel Baiman
muses from across the globe in Brisbane, just before kicking off a short run of Australian dates. “It’s like, ‘Well, you know, if you can be the President, I can do whatever the fuck I want.’”
It should be no surprise that Baiman—who plays fiddle, banjo, and sings in the progressive acoustic duo 10 String Symphony—gets political on Shame
, her second solo album. The cover art depicts Baiman, burning fiddle in hand, perched atop thick books with titles like Women and Eroticism
and Religion and Humanism
. They at the themes Baiman explores through the album’s ten cuts, opening with the tone-setting title track’s rejection of outsiders’ attempts to shame women for choices regarding their own bodies.
“I really wanted to have my own name on [that song] because it just felt so personal,” she explains. “With a solo project, it’s very much just me being myself and there’s a lot of transparency there, which is scary but also really liberating and fun.”
Growing up in what she calls a “radical” Chicago household as the daughter of a social worker and a political economist—“he’s been talking about democratic socialism since I can remember”—she’s long been concerned with social and political issues.
“My dad’s known for giving unwanted, endless lectures on all topics at the dinner table that are very, very depressing,” she remembers. “Sometimes you just don’t want to be worried every single day that the world is gonna end.”
Though she was involved in peace and justice groups as a teenager, Baiman put her activism on hold when she moved to Nashville after high school. “I guess we all kind of had that luxury [of ignoring politics] at the time,” she says. “Obviously there’s always things going on, but I really felt like everything was generally going to be OK.”
Meanwhile, Baiman attended what she calls “the School of Nashville” by playing in jam circle, developing her instrumental skills, and learning the lifestyle of a professional musician. Though it could be challenging to keep up at times, Baiman has adapted well to her new circle.
“The last few years, I’ve really come to focus on [songwriting] a lot, whereas previously I’d been more focused on being an instrumentalist,” she explains. “It’s from growing up a little bit and feeling more confident in my opinions, experiences, and just feeling like I had something to say.”
Beyond her more socially aware songwriting, Baiman has also been reinvigorated as an activist after the 2016 presidential election.
“I spend a lot of time calling senators and it feels so pointless, but you just have to keep doing it,” she says. Along with fellow artists Lily Henley and Kaitlyn Raitz, Baiman also founded Folk Fights Back
, assembling benefit bills for immigrants and refugees, climate change, and women’s rights, which have allowed her to see more of a local impact after national non-profit A Better Balance
helped pass a law granting paid parental leave to all metro Nashville employees.
Though Baiman admits to witnessing some pushback as her music has gotten political, she’s found it difficult to avoid writing about issues like access to healthcare and women’s reproductive rights as they become day-to-day concerns for her.
“Those are feelings and thoughts I have just the same as when people write about relationships,” she explains. “Especially this year, it would be impossible for me to write a genuine, heartfelt, honest song without having some politics in it.”
“It’s definitely important to incorporate your beliefs into your music or your art,” agrees Raleigh’s Kate Rhudy. Back on the other side of the world, she’s similarly pondering the intersection of politics and music while, in the tradition of the Triangle’s Great Cover Up, also preparing to portray one of The Dixie Chicks later that night.
“I think people who say ‘shut up and sing’ are behind the times and I don’t know where they’ve been, because people have been making music political forever,” Rhudy adds.
Though the tunes on Rhudy’s debut record, last year’s Rock N’ Roll Ain’t For Me
, are typically less pointed than Baiman’s, they’re undeniably personal stories from a critical three-year period in the young songwriter’s life when she was enrolled at Appalachian State University.
“I think is super important to write about those times because young women’s experiences of growing up, becoming self-aware and learning from your [mistakes] are not always talked about, and are kind of dismissed,” she says. “It was a little unstable and things get pretty messy, but you’ll figure it out and it’s gonna be fine.”
Before dropping out of college in 2016 to pursue music more full-time, Rhudy played fiddle and added vocals for a couple of twangy Boone bands. The trials and tribulations from one cross-country tour inspired her to write the somber ballad “The Only Pretty Thing In Texas,” which first appeared on an EP she recorded her sophomore year of college, alongside the dark, Kerouac-inspired friendship tale “If You Killed A Man”—the first song she remembers finishing writing—and two more originals.
“I was big into journaling as a kid and began writing songs about my feelings since I started learning the guitar when I was thirteen or fourteen,” she says.
Rhudy started performing as a solo artist, and spent a summer in Nashville with plans to play out more. But she confesses she mostly ended up picking up dogsitting gigs and working at Ben & Jerry’s. After another year in school, Rhudy relocated to Raleigh and had hopes of making a full-length record. Her friend and fellow fiddler Libby Rodenbough encouraged her to reach out to Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin, who produced Mipso’s Dark Holler Pop
and Old Time Reverie
. He agreed to record a song with Rhudy.
“I never really sat down in a room with her and heard her sing and play her songs, but I was completely taken with how she sang,” Marlin remembers. “Her voice just has this presence to it that could make anybody in any room stop what they’re doing and turn to figure out who the hell is singing.”
They completed her album in late 2016, with assists from Rodenbough and Mandolin Orange’s Emily Frantz and Josh Oliver. On the re-recording of “Texas,” it’s Oliver’s guitar underscoring Rhudy’s line that she’s “sick of all these guitar playing men,” a taste of the cheekiness that she cranks up on “I Don’t Like You Or Your Band,” using humor to heal from real emotional pain as she jokes about “your middle class white-boy blues” on the jaunty send-off song that touches on patriarchal structures.
“If you’re viewing the world through a skeptical, critically thinking feminist lens, you’re going to think that way and you’re going to write that way,” she explains.
Like Baiman, Rhudy ended up touring with Mandolin Orange, as each opened up a string of shows for the band last summer behind their new albums, which share a release date. Both were also produced by Marlin, who Baiman initially met after jamming together when 10 String Symphony opened for Mipso and Oliver at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room in 2015.
“Sonically, [Baiman and Rhudy] were going for totally different things, but with equally great songwriting, which is what drew me to them as they both have totally different but very honest approaches to songwriting,” Marlin says. He notes that Rhudy’s songs tend to be “a little more quirky with some nice turns of phrases” and a string band feel, while Baiman’s “more spacey, eerie side of folk” fit with her taking a stand.
Baiman approached Marlin to produce after growing fond of what she calls “the North Carolina sound” that she associated with his minimalistic production style.
“A lot of it is Andrew and Josh’s relationship, where Josh creates these crazy soundscapes with his electric guitar and Rhodes and keys, so you get this beautiful, full sound that makes the listener ready to take in the acoustic instruments because it doesn’t sound small in the way it would if you only had a guitar playing,” Baiman says.
Baiman calls Shame
a “North Carolina album,” noting that she benefited from escaping the hustle and bustle of home, where calls for other projects or rehearsals might create distractions. Her passion about old-time music made her feel further connected to the state, where she says she feels very calm and genuine playing alongside the musicians she knows. “Nashville is such a career-oriented music scene,” she adds. “It’s like you’re always at work when you’re in Nashville, and in North Carolina, there’s a little more opportunity to just play music for the sake of playing music.”
Sure enough, though, Baiman’s refound sense of purpose means she’ll do more than just play music on stage, as she’s not afraid to comment on the potentially touchy subject matter of her songs. But she tries to avoid the dire tone of her father’s lectures.
“Some people have this desire for escapism, saying ‘we just want to hear music, don’t bother us about politics rights now’ but I think asking artists to not include politics is just kind of silly,” she offers. “Do you want art or do you want a fake picture of something that isn’t true?”
Rachel Baiman and Kate Rhudy perform at The Pinhook in Durham on Saturday, January 27. The show starts at 7 p.m., and tickets, which are $8, are available here.