27 year old Nashville based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Baiman released her debut solo album Shame in June of 2017. Baiman is also a member of 10 String Symphony, a duo with Christian Sedelmyer, both five string banjo players, whose 2015 album Weight Of The World featured on NPR’s listings of newest and most promising voices in Americana on it’s release. She is scheduled to play dates next May at JJ Harlow’s in Roscommon and Cleere’s in Kilkenny on the final day of The Kilkenny Roots Festival. Both dates will feature her sharing the stage with Molly Tuttle who was voted Guitar Player of The Year at The IBMA Awards last October. Lonesome Highway caught up with Rachel to learn more about the album and the motivation for much of the material featured on it.
Your excellent album Shame featured in our Best of 2017, having reviewed it last year. It’s perfectly balanced by being most listenable while challenging thorny political and social issues head on. You must be particularly pleased with it?
I'm really proud of it- it was definitely a big step for me artistically, and thanks for your kind words!
The title track is particularly powerful tackling subject matter that is currently the focus of a referendum to be conducted in Ireland in the coming months. Was this the first song written for the album?
I don't think it was the first song written chronologically - but it was the song that first shaped the whole idea for the album. I think I actually wrote I could have been your lover too first. But after I wrote Shame I think the thematic tone was set and I felt more sure that this was an album I needed to make.
The album mixes present social and political issues rather than harping back to older times as other artists do. Is this an indication of someone who lives very much in the present?
Ha-ha I wish! I always admire people who are Zen and do lots of yoga (my band mates in particular). I think I live mostly in the future - I'm usually on to the next thing so fast that I can't fully enjoy the present.
How did the song writing and formation for the material compare with your compositions for your other project 10 String Symphony?
I think it's a difference between a personal voice and a band voice. When 10 String Symphony began we were working a lot with traditional music and how we could innovate on that - deconstructing traditional forms and incorporating a lot of original elements. Now that we do mostly original material the writing and arranging is really collaborative and has to reflect the mutual voice that we've created. With Shame I kind of went the opposite direction- I wanted to uncomplicate things. I was purposefully honest and straightforward to a vulnerable extent.
The album includes two covers, one being Never Tire Of The Road by Andy Irvine, an artist who’s writing continually tackles issues of social injustice. Were you introduced to his music at an early age?
Actually, no- I'm a more recent fan. My fiancé George introduced me to that song because he thought I would like it and I became obsessed.
Rather than the expected rebellion against your parent’s principals as a teenager you actually embraced their ideals and continue to do so in your musical career. You obviously had an interest in global politics from an early age?
I wasn't necessarily interested so much as inundated with global politics, but I was definitely always interested in social justice issues. It took me a while to figure out how to make that something I can tap into emotionally, through songs. I was living to two spheres for a while, studying anthropology and playing music at night. Now I feel like those interests are very much one and the same.
The motivation for founding Folk Fights Back hardly needs explaining given the political upheaval in The States over the past couple of years. How has the movement been growing and what are your realistic goals going forward?
We've seen a lot of amazing support this year, I think the movement grew really fast, more quickly than the three (myself, Lily Henley and Kaitlyn Raitz) of us really had time to do properly. So moving forward, we are going to aim to do fewer shows and have them be more synced up so that we can get back the national/international community feel of having them happen surrounding the same issue on the same day. We are also working this year to support voter registration and voter engagement for the mid-term election. A lack of voter participation is a huge problem over here.
The lack of support for female artists whether it be by radio play or record labels must be a source of infuriation, particularly with the endless stream of talent presently residing in Nashville and the quality of the material being produced. How do you deal with this frustration and do you see any light at the end of the tunnel?
I'm lucky to have worked with an amazing label, Free Dirt Records, for the release of Shame. Free Dirt has released a number of albums by great female artists, which is part of the reason that I wanted to work with them. They don't make a big deal out of their feminist business practices, they just treat it as business as usual, and I really like that. I think it's the way it should be because it normalizes things that should be normal.
There is so much horror going on in the United States, and it's hard to find a group of people that isn't being attacked or disadvantaged further by this presidency. It's hard for me to focus specifically on sexism in the music industry when I see it as a part of this huge societal issue. My way of dealing with the patriarchy in general is just to constantly push myself out of my comfort zone. I push myself to make the best music I can make, to be a better instrumentalist, to know about sound engineering, to work harder and dig deeper and exceed people's expectations of a "female artist" so that nobody can argue with my abilities and my professionalism. I was inspired by some amazing female artists, Caroline Spence, Lilly Hiatt, Courtney Barnett, Dori Freeman, among many others, to believe in myself. So I hope that females in the music business can continue to inspire one another, lift each other up, and become those record label executives and radio programmers and producers so that we aren't depending on an unrepresentative population to "support female artists".
Did you train formally as a musician?
Yes and no - I had a lot of lessons with fiddle players and violinists growing up. In college, I studied anthropology but I also spent a lot of time at the music school taking theory, ear training, music history, etc.
You are due to perform at The Kilkenny Roots Festival in May with Molly Tuttle, another musical virtuoso. How did the relationship with Molly develop?
Molly is a good friend of mine, we started hanging out when she moved to Nashville a couple years ago. Since she also recently released her first solo album, I thought it would be amazing for us to be able to co-promote our projects while simultaneously having a total blast. As you know, Molly is a phenomenal instrumentalist and I'm really looking forward to learning from and playing with her.
The pairing of you both on tour is inspired. Do you intend performing selections from both your recent albums on stage together or playing individual slots?
We will be doing a lot of collaboration, mainly backing one another up on our respective original material (me on fiddle and banjo for her songs, her on lead guitar for mine), but we are also working on some special new material that will be more duo oriented.
I have no doubt you’ll get a tremendous reception and welcome when you play your dates in Ireland and very look forward to your shows
Thanks so much, we are really looking forward to it as well!
Interview by Declan Culliton