There’s something magical about Sea of Bees lead singer Julie Ann Baenziger. Anyone who’s met her can attest to that. She’s a kind, soft soul. NPR’s Robin Hilton has called her a “female sparklehorse,” and for good reason. Her music shimmers with vulnerability and raw emotion.
Today’s she’s wearing baggie overalls over a tie-dye T-shirt. A knit hat is pulled tightly over her hair. She and her producer, John Baccigalluppi, are in his downtown Sacramento studio The Dock. He cues up cover songs Baenziger has recorded for one reason or another. This one is Madonna’s “Ray of Light.” Baccigalluppi says it’s for the show Grey’s Anatomy.
“Who knows if they’ll use it,” he says. “They requisition like 20 different artists for these songs and only choose one. We’ve got enough unused covers to do an entire cover album.”
Baenziger tells me they’ve also got covers of her performing Macy Gray and Nine Inch Nails.
“We’ve got one of Yellow Submarine too,” she laughs. “But it came out too dark. It’s like ‘I don’t want to be on that submarine.’”
Baenziger constantly amuses herself. And from what I’ve gathered, that’s the same way she approached the writing of her latest album Build a Boat to the Sun. Her new record label 3 Loop Records released the album in June and she’s just returning home from a tour of Europe and the East Coast.
“I just had fun with this album,” she says. “It’s supposed to take you on a journey. It’s like ‘come on, let’s build a boat and fly it to the sun’.”
And the album definitely takes off like a rocket to the, well … sun. It starts with the playful and upbeat song “Test Yourself.” Baccigalluppi says it was one of the last tracks recorded but when he heard it he knew it would be the first track on the album.
“We struggled with the sequencing of this album,” he says. “There are couple loud, upbeat songs, a couple quiet sad songs and a bunch in the middle. In the end, we decided to start off with a bang and establish that this is a new Sea of Bees album unlike any other album before.”
And it is. Baenziger has clearly grown as both a musician and a lyricist. And she’ll be the first to admit it. She says she played about 80 percent of the instrumentation you hear on the album, including drums. In her first full-length album, “Songs of the Raven,” she only played drums on a couple tracks.
Maybe taking time off between albums was a good thing. It’s been two years since Sea of Bees released its last album, Orangefarben. Baenziger says she needed some personal time to sort things out in her life.
“I needed to step away from things,” she says.
Baccigalluppi says she was burnt out and needed rest.
"She had been touring for two years straight and performing more than 100 gigs a year since the last album," Baccigalluppi says. "Last year I think she did four gigs the entire year."
Just because she wasn't doing shows doesn't mean Baenziger wasn't working.
“I wasn’t playing, but I was writing the whole time,” Baenziger says. “My ideas had time to take shape.”
It makes sense. Orangefarben was written, mixed and produced in three months. It was “a whirlwind,” in Baenziger’s words. And she had just come off a breakup.
“So it couldn’t have been anything else. It was very direct. ‘Here I am. I’m a broke person'.”
In the end, this album had time to mature. She and Baccigalluppi were able to tinker and experiment. Bad ideas could be tossed out.
“We had one song that was going to be on the album but neither of us was really excited about it,” Baccigalluppi says. “And then Jules wrote the song ‘Monk’ and we were like ‘that one’s going on the album.’”
So they scrapped the other one.
They also struggled with the song ‘Moline.’
“It kept coming out sounding like Neil Young,” Baenziger says. “And the drums buried the vocals.”
So Baccigalluppi had Jules sit down with an acoustic guitar in his Stinson Beach, California studio and just start singing.
“And that’s pretty much what you hear on the album,” he says. “There’s very little post production on that song.”
But the Neil Young version wasn’t for naught, he says.
“The record label asked for that original version for a B-side so we just leaned into it and did our most shameless Neil Young rip off we could do.”
The album overall is an introspective journey. Baenziger invites you into a world that’s full of pain and mistakes. It’s not an easy one. The back half of the album toys with a tone that’s both melancholy and hopeful.
And that’s what sets Baenziger apart. In a crowded field of female folk singers that are more than happy to depress you, Baenziger knows how to inspire.