Rachel Baiman was doing outreach for a Democratic political candidate when she had an important realization about songwriting. Volunteers going door-to-door were given instructions about possible scenarios they might encounter, including if the home had changed hands or the person living there had swapped their party affiliation.
“You’re supposed to go, ‘OK, thanks for your time’ and leave,” Baiman says, calling from her home in the northeast Nashville suburb of Madison. “Basically, they were like, research shows if you argue with someone and tell them they’re wrong on their doorstep, you’re more likely to turn them out for the other candidate.”
Baiman, a Chicago native who was raised attending Ethical Humanist Society meetings, addressed a variety of political issues on her 2017 album Shame, decrying the “old white men who look happily onto others from above” in the defiant title track. After the chaotic, intense past few years of U.S. politics, the singer-songwriter-musician was inclined to try a different approach. Her new album Cycles, released on June 11th, was recorded in 2019 and finds the musician digging into more personal stories with subtle political themes.
“It’s not any less intense now; I just have a different perspective on how I want to be an artist amid that climate,” Baiman says. “What is more important and effective is telling stories people can understand and empathize with.”
“Wyoming Wildflowers” does as much, wrestling with the persistence of white supremacist groups in the face of overwhelming beauty. “White is the color they’re so proud of/Well, white ain’t a color, just the absence of,” she sings. It was written while Baiman was attending a wedding and seeing the news about the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“It’s hard to comprehend when you are having a great, loving, beautiful experience why you would spend your time at a rally proclaiming that others don’t have a right to exist,” she says. “What is it in you that makes you feel like that is how you want to spend your time? There must be a lack of exposure to the potential, to anything beautiful or good in this world.”
Similarly, “Rust Belt Fields,” which was penned by Slaid Cleaves and Rod Picott, paints a haunting portrait of a working man who’s seeing his fortunes and opportunities wane as factories close and jobs move away. Banks seize houses that have fallen behind on mortgage payments and the narrator is left questioning the point of contributing to a society where this is the end result.
“You can just feel this person’s pain because they’re like, ‘I’ve worked hard all my life and I feel like I’m worthless despite doing what I perceived to be being a good person and adding to society,’” Baiman says.
Baiman recorded Cycles in Melbourne, Australia, with Olivia Hally, and the more electric, atmospheric sound nods to the city’s vibrant grunge-pop scene that includes Courtney Barnett, Hally’s band Oh Pep! and Angie McMahon. It’s a departure from the bluegrass and string-band influences that showed up on Shame and the 2018 Thanksgiving EP.
While that aspect of Cycles took Baiman far from home, she sourced her stories about life and mortality from her own family. The meditative title track was inspired by a family member’s struggles to conceive, while the devastating “No Good Time for Dying” recounts the painful decline of Baiman’s grandmother in assisted living. Baiman also checks in on her own mental processes in “Joke’s on Me,” where her career ambitions threaten to consume her, and the harrowing “Hope It Hurts,” which was written after some disappointing career news sent her reeling.
“It just tapped into this sense of, when one shitty thing happens and it sets off your whole spiral of self-worth and doom-spiraling and nothing’s ever going to be OK,” she says. “No matter how irrational you can understand those feelings to be, they still happen [to me].”
Baiman has a better handle on it at this point, some two-plus years on from writing and recording the album. But as with everything, it’s always an ongoing process when it comes to taking care of one’s mental health and finding better coping mechanisms. With pandemic restrictions starting to lift and Baiman finally getting to play these songs for audiences, things have been trending in a positive direction and reminding her of what she’s been missing.
“I know now that I can go a year and a half without playing shows and I guess I’ll be fine. I had a garden, whatever,” she says, laughing. “But as soon as I played shows last week, I was like, ‘Wow, I have not felt like myself in over a year.’”