Sea of Bees: Sweet and sad songs with a sting in the tale
Sea of Bees is Julie Baenziger, an acclaimed new singer who's writing an album about her girlfriend. Gillian Orr meets her
Tuesday 15 March 2011
In a Shoreditch café, 26-year-old Julie Baenziger, who records and performs under the moniker Sea of Bees, excitedly relays a story about the day that changed her life. Like slews of musicians before her, Baenziger got into music to impress a girl. Aged 16, the cripplingly shy Californian was dragged to a church youth group by her sister and cousin, where she was met by a girl who immediately hugged Baenziger, the closest contact she'd ever had with anyone outside her family.
After watching this girl sing in front of the group, Baenziger vowed on the spot that she would one day perform with this "angel" and consequently rose every morning at five o'clock to practise on her brother's one-stringed guitar. She is only too aware of the significance of that day; it gave the teenager, who felt like she had nothing to live for, a sense of purpose.
And it is this dizzying effect of falling in love, as well as feelings of loneliness and not fitting in, that permeates Baenziger's emotional debut album, Songs for the Ravens, which has just been released to much acclaim in the UK, as well as winning over a number of high-profile fans, such as The Decemberists.
Combining elements of folk, indie and Americana, and featuring a host of unusual instruments such as the glockenspiel, organ and marimba, the unique album is held together with Baenziger's sweet and often childlike vocal. She sings songs about unrequited love, often using nature as a metaphor.
For a Catholic girl from the small town of Roseville, California, wanting to be a singer was not the done thing. She grew up in a house that only played Christian music, never even hearing The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, but still the world of music always fascinated her.
"In high school everyone was into wearing Abercrombie and Fitch," Baenziger recalls. "And it was expected that you follow a certain path: you go to school, go to college, fall in love, get married and have babies. I never felt normal like that. I wanted to play music and I wanted to grow old with a lady but that was all totally wrong."
Aged 23 she moved to Sacramento, where she still lives, and started to play bass in her housemates' band. Then one day a studio owner, John Baccigaluppi, overheard her practising her own songs and convinced her to focus on her songwriting. He introduced her to his library of genre-spanning records and educated her in rock'n'roll.
It was a formative time and one that, by all accounts, saved her. She often describes the period before she started taking music seriously as being "caged". "My brothers and my sisters don't condone how I live, with music and being gay, but it's always been who I am," she shrugs.
Recording the album was a suitably laid-back affair. She would go down to the studio on a casual basis and songs would just come out. The beautiful "Strikefoot" came after crying in her room one afternoon about an unreturned love. "This album is definitely my little piece of life, you know?"
Since then she has fallen in love for the first time. Her new girlfriend will be the focus of her next album, which she says could take any direction musically; she doesn't want to confine herself with "boundaries". It is perhaps this openness that people respond to. She's not afraid to be herself, with all her quirks and vulnerability.
At the end of our time together she tells me that she's particularly proud of a new song about her girlfriend and decides to sing it to me in the middle of the busy café, which turns the heads of some of the more fashion-conscious types in there. After her impromptu performance she turns to me earnestly and says, "Can I ask you a question... do I have anything in my teeth?" before collapsing in a fit of giggles.
'Songs for the Ravens' is out now. For tour dates, see www.seaofbees.com
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