On her standout song “She Don’t Know What To Sing About Anymore,” Rachel Baiman presents a bright musical character overcome by the weight of the world around her. It weaves autobiographical details into a story with a volcanic apocalypse that captures all the anxiety of the post-pandemic world.
“It came to me in a dream, the idea of the volcanoes, so I’m not sure why that happened but I can interpret it to mean that everything is going on at once,” Baiman said. “That was the summer when there were huge protests regarding racial justice and police shootings and it felt a little apocalyptic with the pandemic. But a lot of the disillusionment also comes with the current state of trying to be an independent artist.”
Unlike the character in her song, Baiman certainly seems to know how to write songs under the weight of a depressing world. Her new album “Common Nation of Sorrow” is another masterclass in political songwriting, a topic Baiman teaches to other songwriters.
“I’m always coming back in in my music stories of how people end up with hateful beliefs or stories of how people are affected by these systems,” Baiman said. “I teach political songwriting classes and a lot of times people get frustrated with me because I think they come to the class wanting to use it as a place to rant about their beliefs and what I’m trying to teach is how to convey something emotionally.”
“Some Strange Notion,” effectively the title track, describes a world not unlike ours in which people have begun to notice the inequities around them and want to make a change.
“The notion that I’m trying to present is the shared experience of hardship,” Baiman said. “The idea that if you’re just sitting there alone and things are a little bit too hard, you don’t feel like there’s anything you can do with that feeling. But once you realize that everyone around you is feeling the same, then not only do you feel seen and more comforted, there’s also something to be gained from that. If everyone’s going through this together, then that’s an opportunity to make change.”
Baiman admits that perhaps we aren’t there yet as culture wars and tribal politics have distracted many people from realizing that the folks with the power and motivation to oppose their financial interests are the ones holding all the wealth.
“There hasn’t been an across the aisle realization of the way the majority of us are being taken advantage of economically. That feeds into everything. It feeds into anger and racism and misogyny. If people felt that they had opportunity and could build the life they wanted, I don’t think they would need to spend as much time on anger.
Some of Baiman’s sharpest political songwriting comes on “Self-Made Man,” which effectively asks how many people need to suffer for one to become extremely successful. In the song, Baiman takes aim at the type of woman who’d marry a man who’s proven to be selfish and unconcerned with others. In reality, she sees a slightly more complicated picture.
“I don’t know that it would be as conscious,” Baiman explained. “It would be more that the way that the system are set up, if you have some money it would be very easy to make money. If you have no money, you’re constantly in debt and it’s really hard to catch up. So I think there’s such a thing as a well-meaning billionaire but there’s not a such thing as a system that maintains any fairness, at least in this country.
One of the later songs on the album captures Baiman’s connection with music and, by extension, the relationship some of her fans have with her best work. Among the lyrics of “Old Songs Never Die” are “you can’t claim and you can’t own/ these songs that live inside our soul/let the money man try to gauge its worth.” Much like the music Baiman makes and sings about, it’s going to take an appeal to higher values to overcome the rules written by the men with money.
Above is the full episode as aired on WUSB’s Country Pocket, including both my interview with Rachel Baiman and the songs we discussed, starting with “She Don’t Know What To Sing About Anymore,” which certainly resonated with some of the darker periods of my life. The interview begins afterward. You can hear the show live every Monday at 11am on WUSB 90.1 FM or check the blog to watch it as a YouTube playlist. Visit http://www.WUSB.fm and https://www.rachelbaiman.com for more.