TNG Interview: Sea of Bees
This post was submitted by TNG contributor, Kaysey Crump
Sacramento based musician Julie Baenziger is incredibly nice. She also has a beautiful voice and writes haunting songs. I sat down with Baenziger, better known as Sea of Bees, for a smoothie while she was in town for the Portland Folk Festival last month.
Jules was kind enough to tell me about the creation of her latest album “Songs for the Ravens,” her deep love of Jenny Lewis, and how a cute girl at church motivated her to learn how to play the guitar.
Sea of Bees: I didn’t really know anything about that. I would think more like “I’ve done ten takes, or I’ve done one take.” I didn’t really know or care about it until my friend John Baccigaluppi from Tape Op told me that they were the early takes. For example we did “Wizbot” in two takes. I really didn’t mind doing it again but he said that it was perfect and that first tries are usually the best tries because the longer you go on the more tired you get and the song can end up sounding strained. Like you said, it starts to sound unsure or not truthful. I finally started to get what it meant to do just one or two takes, just one vocal instead of layers upon layers.
TNG: Can it be hard for you to hear so-called “flaws” while you’re recording?
SOB: If I do hear flaws my impulse is to do it again but now it’s like “no let’s not.” I don’t hear any flaws on the album. We enjoyed adding different things and experimenting. For me, when I went into this, it wasn’t like “I want to sound like the Beatles.” I knew what I was doing and I really wanted to play my songs and try adding some new things, not be passive, but just trying new things. I don’t think I ever want to know the details of a compressor or what the producer does. I’m an artist. I don’t want to get picky and particular. I like to play.
TNG: Do you think you’ll stick with this form of recording in the future? You don’t plan on producing I assume?
SOB: I understand co-producing because it can be more like giving input to the producer but I don’t think I’ll ever want to produce or engineer. Hopefully I’ll always be able to pay other people to do it but that’s just not my job. I don’t want to conquer those worlds. I want to conquer one thing and that’s to enjoy playing music. Too many things make me lose the purity of playing and writing music. Just sitting in your room writing a song is pretty awesome.
TNG: You played most of the instruments on the album.
SOB: Yes except the drums, we had our friend James Neil on drums. James is like a machine. We worked on this album whenever we had time. I would be working and have a couple days off that I would use to record. It would take me three weeks to write a song and then James would come in and record on it. He usually got it the first two takes as well. Then John would suggest that I play some other instrument like the electric guitar, and I don’t play the electric guitar. I didn’t know the strumming patterns or any of the other shit that you need to do on the electric, but John would give me a slide and say “why don’t you figure out something for this part of the song and then I’ll come back and listen.” I would just sit facing the speakers and play stuff until something was right.
TNG: What was your favorite instrument to play on the album?
SOB: Oh I liked all of them! I loved playing the electric guitars because of all the amps that John had were custom made by his friend. They were all cheap amps so they sound very chainy, and grainy, and sparkly, he also all these great pedals that we could put them through. I loved playing the Rhodes and the pump organ that was from the 1800s, playing that was pretty timeless. There was a marimba which was cool because it was so new to me. I think I’m going to keep playing everything. I don’t want to limit myself.
TNG: Some of your songs, for instance “Sidepain” sound very Americana or rootsy. Who are some of your influences?
SOB: “Sidepain” I wrote after I had been in a camping accident because I had a little too much H&H.
TNG: What’s H&H?
SOB: Cheap ass whiskey.
TNG: Ha, that makes more sense now.
SOB: So after the accident I was hanging out with Jenny Lewis one night after I’d gone to see her show. We were sitting down and talking about life, I must mention I was in love with her too. I remember that I wanted to write her a song.
TNG: So “Sidepain” is about Jenny Lewis?
SOB: Yes well the influence of the melody and the beat came from her sound. I like think that she’s Americana, and I felt like she could sing this song. So it wasn’t necessarily about her but it was inspired by her. I was listening to “The Execution of All Things” album which was depressing but it also made me really happy with the high beats and the sad words. Like when I sing “Is it good for you when I think of you while I cry/ are you winning as I lose oh baby/ you’re the sweetest pain in my side.” Jenny Lewis, I love you! So when we were hanging out she said “Jules let me see your I.D. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” I look like a high lion in my I.D. picture, she liked it though.
TNG: Haha, I’m glad she liked it!
SOB: She looked so cute in her picture too like a 90s punk kid.
TNG: Huh, that’s interesting, So when did you start playing music?
SOB: I started when I was around sixteen. My sister and my cousin invited me to church and I never had any friends. Let me start from the beginning. My mom grew up Catholic and she felt that we needed to go to church because she had been brought up in it. So when I was little my sister, my mom and I would go to the Catholic church. I remember there was a guy named Peter, curly hair, hippie, goatee, smelled like b.o. and he played piano. He sang this one song that always got to me, during all the other songs I was sleeping or punching my sister in the arm because church made me irritable. This song got me and I wanted to learn it and learn music but I never knew how. I stopped going to church after that until I was sixteen and my sister and cousin invited me. They noticed that I was a loaner and said “Hey Jules, we just came to the lord and you should come to our church group.” After saying no a few times I went. I came to the door and there was a girl named Laura who gave me a hug. It was really my first hug, I was sixteen years old and didn’t know how to hug or touch. The hug was so nice and I remember thinking “wow that was so nice, so that’s a friend?” I kept coming back to church for that interaction and shortly after that I saw a girl singing with her brother and thought “that’s really beautiful, she’s really beautiful” and it made me want to play music. She really was beautiful, dark hair, angelic voice. Sometimes during worship when everyone was closing their eyes and then looking around to see who was lifting their hands higher, I would just be standing there watching her. Eventually we became really good friends and she had a cd out so I decided to learn one of the songs on it. I would go out to my parents shed at five in the morning because I had to be at swimming by six, and I would go out there, put on her cd and try to learn this song. I would put my finger on a string until I heard the same note and then I would put my other fingers where I thought they should be. It was three chords E, B, and A. Then I started learning how to sing by mimicking her voice and finally felt like I was getting it. I tried out for the worship team and got denied and I felt humiliated. So what was the question again?
TNG: How long you’ve been playing music.
SOB: Right, right. Since I was fifteen or sixteen years old, nine years total.
TNG: This is all very interesting to me as a former Jesus freak.
SOB: Yeah it was hard. I remember as soon as I started progressing in music they asked me to start leading worship. Almost immediately I felt drained with this “Jules we need this song, we need that song.” I didn’t expect that everyone would always be nice but I started seeing people that weren’t being honest, or like they were only honest inside the building and outside they were something different. At some point I remember liking girls around me and thinking about how beautiful they were while I was leading worship. It was just constant confusion. I remember sitting in the back of the church one time because I didn’t want to be bothered and the pastor started to say “There’s a transvestite that called and told me that they’ve been coming to this church for several years and they wanted to finally come out as a transvestite.” I was curious about what was next, “I told them that they can’t come here anymore.” I felt that kind of sinking feeling and started to cry a bit. People were noticing and commented that it was really getting to me. It felt like “How will I ever be happy getting what I want?” I had all of these friends and this community that I worked so hard to make and they accept me and love me that could just cut me off because of how much I loved what I was not supposed to love. I always thought I was going to die early because I couldn’t possibly be happy and I couldn’t get what I had always wanted since I was two or four years old. When I was twelve I told my parents I was going to go to a mental institution because I knew there was something not accepted or not right about me. All in all I felt like I was never allowed to be happy.
TNG: Until now?
SOB: Until now.
TNG: So you’re newly out?
SOB: Yes it’s been around a year.
TNG: How has the queer community been treating you?
SOB: It’s so lovely. I didn’t know anything. My girlfriend Lisa has really been helping me along. Last week she took me to San Francisco to meet all of her friends and it’s so great to be able to talk about queer things and feel comfortable. I like feeling connected to the community because we share the same struggles. But really everyone has been so lovely. A lot of people said “We knew you were gay several years ago,” and I wanted to know why nobody talked about it back then because it could have helped me out!
TNG: I noticed that you referenced men throughout your album.
SOB: When I wrote the album it was right when I started coming into Sacto and I didn’t know any of the people there or how they felt, and I just couldn’t come out. I was scared. I was making new friends in a new city and it just seemed like too much. When I sang songs I wanted it to be universal like, “ok that’s cool she’s singing about a guy with a beard,” cause that’s cool. Everyone wants a guy with a beard. Everyone wants Iron & Wine. For me I want a nice little indie girl with long hair but I didn’t feel like I could sing “I saw her with long hair…” and have some little girl in suburbia asking her mom why I was singing about a girl. Now I feel like I can really come out on my next album and it will be ok.
TNG: Finally, do you feel that being in love has changed your music or how you interpret your songs?
SOB: I think I’ll always write songs the way that I do, through experiences. This next album, I can feel it, and it won’t be like “Songs for the Ravens.” It’s going to be really smooth and subtle because this year has been so smooth. I imagine really synthy sounds and smooth vocals, nothing harsh. I think it all goes with where I’m at. Last year it was harsh learning how to get through things, learning how to live with people and the drinking didn’t help. I smoked a lot, I still smoke a little. Overall I feel like the “trying to find my place” has gone away and it’s smooth sailing.
TNG: It was fantastic to meet you today, thanks so much for talking with me.
SOB: You too!
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