ROUND AND ROUND
Singer-songwriter Rachel Baiman reflects on the ‘Cycles’ of life in poignant new album
Nashville-based singer-songwriter Rachel Baiman had finished recording the songs for her new album, “Cycles,” and was in the process of mixing and mastering when everything came to a stop due to the pandemic and she hopped on the “emotional rollercoaster” like every other musician.
“It was so hard not knowing what was going to happen,” Baiman recalls. “But it did give me the freedom to play with the album for a while because there was no hard deadline to get it out. Everything was up in the air.”
As things get back to normal, Baiman and band return to the road to celebrate last Friday’s release of “Cycles” at a free outdoor show at FitzGerald’s on June 19. She’ll perform with Jacob Groopman (guitar), Miss Tess (bass) and Lauren Horbal (drums).
“Cycles” is a collection of songs, co-produced with Olivia Hally (the front woman for the indie-pop band Oh Pep!), that reflect on the cycles of life — at times heartbreaking, at times celebratory.
“There were all these cyclical themes that I was seeing in the songs — the loss of a child, remembering my late grandmother, the cycles of racism and progression,” Baiman says.
Compared to her first solo album, 2017’s “Shame,” which was a siren call to the American female experience, she notes, “Now I feel I have more of a zoomed-out view of a lot of things after the past few years which have been so intense in this country.”
Baiman grew up in Oak Park and attended Oak Park and River Forest High School, and while she performed with various school orchestras, fiddle music was her first love. From a young age, she took lessons with Mike Casey, one of the founders of the Oak Park Farmer’s Market bluegrass circle that gathered on Saturday mornings to entertain shoppers.
“Mike was a great teacher and invited me to join in the bluegrass circle,” Baiman says. “It was a pretty funny scene. Mainly it was a 12-year-old playing with a group of much older men and a few women. But they were all really sweet, and everyone helped me learn the basics of playing in an informal folk ensemble.”
Baiman attended Nashville’s Vanderbilt University where she studied anthropology: “I know it’s a little bit random but I think it actually helps my songwriting in terms of the perspective it has afforded me of humanity.”
Still deeply interested in music, she soon realized how close she was to the Nashville music scene yet so far away. Underage and without a car, she spent most of her time in the “Vanderbilt bubble.”
“I knew that there was all this music going on around town and I was so frustrated because I couldn’t access it,” she says. But then she spent a semester in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she was of age at 20, and the city’s music scene welcomed her with open arms.
“I was going to pubs and playing fiddle and meeting all these cool musicians. When I got back to Nashville, I told myself ‘If I can find a music scene in a foreign country, I can do it here.’ ”
Since then, Baiman, 31, has settled into the Nashville scene just fine: first as a fiddle player and instrumentalist (she is known in the bluegrass and old-time world as a member of 10 String Symphony along with fellow fiddle player Christian Sedelmyer) and more recently as a singer-songwriter inspired by the thriving songwriter scene in Nashville.
Baiman says it was listening to the music of John Hartford that first inspired her to try her hand at songwriting.
“That was the bridge for me between old-time fiddle playing and songwriting,” she says. “I realized a song didn’t have to be technically perfect for it to be beautiful and impactful.”
As she dove deeper into songwriting, her devotion to the fiddle turned out “to not be a priority. It was like a pendulum swinging the other way.” The new songs on “Cycles” are still folk-tinged but also show Baiman expanding her songwriting and instrumentation.
“I really enjoy the freedom to make musical decisions without worrying how it could work on fiddle,” Baiman explains. “There came a point when I just wanted to be able to think about the art I wanted to create and the craft [her fiddle] became secondary.
“It took me awhile to come to that realization, and now I feel really comfortable just moving between whatever instrumentation feels right for the song.”
And that aforementioned “emotional rollercoaster” of the past year is about to come to a screeching halt.
“To be on the road again after so much time is going to be an amazing feeling,” Baiman says. “I’ve been sitting on this project that I’m so proud of for so long. It’s going to feel great to finally perform the songs live before a hometown audience.”