Bailey Bigger — Interview

Arkansas-based singer-songwriter Bailey Bigger joins hosts of RadioUTD’s Good Morning Everybody, Maizie Croom and Sarina Mohanlal, for an interview over Zoom. In between the crowing of her chickens and the barks of her dog, Joni, she talked about her most recent album Coyote Red, her creative process, and hints at her upcoming projects.

Sarina Mohanlal: Today we will be interviewing indie-folk artist Bailey Bigger. Welcome and thank you so much for being here. I can’t believe this is happening.

Bailey Bigger: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to do it.

SM: For those of you who don’t know, I was introduced to Bailey Bigger by literally searching the word “South Dakota” into Spotify. It was during this time that I was thinking about going to grad school at South Dakota, so of course I was going to search that into Spotify [Bailey laughs]. But I had no idea that this one little word search would have led me to discovering such amazing music. This leads us into our first question: How would you describe your music to someone who isn’t so familiar with your work?

I would say that it’s somewhere between the influences of traditional folk and traditional blues music. Those are kind of the two biggest genres that played a part in my childhood and how I was raised, and so I think that naturally they both integrated pretty strong into my sound. But, more than anything, I’m just a writer and I’m a poet, and it’s kind of whatever music naturally falls into place with what I want to say at the time. So I think my genre would be singer-songwriter or folk.

SM: Love that. Do you write poetry as well or do you just incorporate it into your music?

No, I do. I started out writing poetry before I started writing songs and I still do. I was a poetry major in college, so that’s definitely like a big thing for me. Yeah, I love writing poems. Honestly, sometimes, I like poetry more because I feel like the freedom of how you say things is a little bit larger scale in poetry than songwriting.

Maizie Croom: Alright, we sort of started touching on it, but what were the big things that inspired you to start playing and making music?

Well, I would say a lot of it is where I grew up. I’m from a small town called Marion, Arkansas and it’s kind of on the levy across the Mississippi River from Memphis. I grew up over here, in the midst of all that. Clarksdale, Mississippi is just two hours from us South. Tupelo. I mean I’m kind of in the middle of where all of the rock-and-roll and blues legends were born. Because not anyone is even from Memphis really, it’s just people from the surrounding areas like Mississippi, Arkansas, further out in Tennessee who just came to Memphis cause it was the nearest city to record an album. So, I kind of feel like I was bound for music being raised over here and kind of surrounded by it all the time. 

I mean, growing up the first concert I ever went to was B.B. King and it was his homecoming in Indianola that he had every year, so, I’m like on my dad’s shoulders at five years old watching B.B. King play live. I think really it was just Memphis music around my parent’s house, all of our CDs and records. I think just growing up here, fully submerged into that music culture, it’s kind of hard to avoid naturally falling into that, especially when you are kind of born with that in you anyways.

MC: Once again, already sort of touched on it, but who are some artists that you draw inspiration from, both traditionally and more contemporary?

I would say, traditionally, I think the first person that ever struck my interest in the kind of folk-country world was actually John Denver. My dad really loved him and really got me into his songwriting and the sound. That’s kind of an artist who really made me want to pick up the guitar and get into traditional folk guitar-picking and finger-picking styles. Also, obviously, Joni Mitchell. She’s a huge one for me, both her songwriting and her vulnerability as an artist, and kind of her determination to present herself to the world as authentically as possible throughout her whole career and never allowing herself to become “the singer.” It was always, she was always “No, I’m a human.” And never fell into labels or into other people defining her, which I think that’s why she’s a huge inspiration to me. And then, I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but Bob Dylan. Just like making waves and changing folk music forever.

And then, current artists. Umm… I’m trying to think of who I listen to [Laughs]. Well, I went on the road recently with Joe Purdy and I really love his stuff and his songwriting. I was a fan of his before we were even friends. But, I really love what he does, he kind of has that authentic thing going that you can’t really copy. He also obviously has influences, but is just being himself in his writing and his performing, and I admire that in people. I feel like I have better answers, but I’m going to regret not saying to someone later.

Okay actually, this is not really… it might be folk music… Big Thief. I absolutely love Big Thief, I think their songwriting is incredible, I think their composition is incredible and their melodies. I just love everything about them. So, I’ve kind of been taking inspiration from them lately as I’ve been writing. Oh, and another one I wanted to mention too, Vashti Bunyan. I really, really love her and I feel like I’ve kind of been writing more similarly to her melodically lately. Yeah, I just really love what she does with her vocals and kind of creates atmosphere in her songwriting which I think is something I’m wanting to get better at.

SM: Awesome. So, could you describe your creative process when you write new music? Would you say you have a creative process or would it just be like *wakes up at three in the morning with an idea*? Could you explain a little bit about your creative process?

Yeah, it’s hard for me to, because I feel like this has always been a question that I’ve never really known how to answer because I think that I go into this zone and I almost black out in a way and I don’t remember much afterwards. It’s funny because I’ll listen back to my album when we’re mixing or doing whatever, or even just playing something live. After a song’s written, I’m not really thinking too much about it anymore. It’s kind of like going through the motions when I’m performing live and things like that. Sometimes, if I really sit down and I’ll relisten to a recording or I’ll really pay attention, it’s like, “I wrote that?” and it’s kind of like I’m trying to remember how that process happened, how I found this line or that line to fit into what area, how I even dissected my emotions in order to find a headspace to write about it in. It’s hard to really look back and see clear steps, it kind of pours out of you just involuntarily I think.

I typically will write the music and lyrics at the same time, that’s something I can for sure say is part of my process. I can’t really do one before the other, they kind of have to be happening at the same time or I’m like “whatever, I don’t really care anymore.” That’s definitely a part of the process for me, but in the biggest sense I think it’s more like I go into this zone of being another person in a way and then I come out of it with a song.

SM: I honestly love that. You could describe it as therapeutic in a way, you get your emotions out, you get the thoughts on your mind out and then you kind of recover from that.

MC: In the same vein, what are some themes that you find yourself returning to while writing music? For example, I relistened to your first EP and there were a lot of love songs.

Well I guess that first EP I released when I was 18, and the second one, 19, and I’m 22 now. So, I think I envy songwriters who can write stories that aren’t true or stories that didn’t happen to them, who can step into another body to write because I struggle doing that. I feel that my strength has always been writing from personal experience. But it often just comes from long, drawn-out emotional reflection of defining everything I’ve felt and certain processes, certain experiences of my life. And kind of hoping to help someone else because we’re all human, we’re all going through the same experience. As much as we feel like we’re alone and we’re the only ones, it’s like the same story all around. I think, for me, a greater theme whether it’s love, heartbreak, grief, even a protest song, just in any of the topics I’ve ever written about, the major theme is more about connection to each other and understanding that we’re all writing the same story and we can come together through that, and music is a beautiful way of doing that. I think more than anything I’m just trying to connect to people and create this greater experience for a community of the planet.

MC: So, how do you think your sound or general approach to music has evolved since you first started releasing music?

I think I’ve grown a lot. You know, I don’t see music as a competition between different artists, more of one against yourself. So, I think I’ve evolved a lot with constantly trying to challenge my songwriting, challenge how I say things, how I do things.

But, I think overall, one thing I’ve been successful in that I’m very proud of throughout my years of doing this is just being me through the whole thing, which can be tough to accomplish and stick through in an industry like this where people around you are constantly trying to shape you through what sells or what they want to sell. Even staying in an orbit of people in this world that are good for you is kind of difficult. I’ve definitely evolved a lot with my confidence and my strength in it. Obviously, my skills get better everyday the more I do it. I’ve evolved as a performer big time, just being comfortable on a stage, sharing my experiences with strangers and being out on the road. Even co-writing, that’s something that I still don’t do very often, but I’ve gotten more comfortable with. That was a big challenge to be vulnerable enough to share ideas with another songwriter and even have a dumb idea and have it be okay that that was a dumb idea and we’re not going to use it.

I think just working in the industry, I’ve always been an artist, but I’ve become a boss in the process. Like a businesswoman and an artist. That’s how I’ve become more evolved throughout it. I demand respect in this industry and I think I’ve stuck with it pretty well so far.

SM: Very proud of you [Bailey laughs]. For a lighter topic question, let’s talk about Coyote Red. Is there a song you would say you had the most fun writing or a song that is really dear and close to your heart? What would you say your favorite song is?

Oh! That’s hard because there are so many. I’ll talk about “The Levee” on that record.

It’s a funny story because that is the only song on the record that I wrote on the piano. So, I live out in the country by myself on 500 acres, it’s pretty nice. In the midst of that, I had been here probably a year and you know when you’re broke, straight out of college and you’re dying to get furniture it takes a while. But my grandmother passed away and she was like my best friend and later that fall, I had gone through a break-up too with a toxic person, and I inherited my grandmother’s piano that was her whole life because my grandpa doesn’t play and he was like “I want you to have it, she would want you to have it.” So, my Dad and his three brothers moved it all the way out here and moved it in, up my stairs. It was an ordeal, but we got it in here. So it was kind of just an empty living room with a piano. So, I wrote that song later that night, the piano’s out of tune a little bit and it’s the perfect sound. But I wrote that because I was so angry and I felt so much rage. I hadn’t really gotten to a place in my life yet where I really embraced the kind of dark side and it was really empowering to do that for the first time in my music especially because that wasn’t the type of song I usually wrote. But I wrote it and it just poured out.

As soon as I finished, I was like “that felt good, that was therapy, but no way anybody’s ever going to hear that.” That was just for me. Then, I played it for one friend ever and she was like, “Bailey, you’ve got to put that out” and I was like “Nah, that’s never going to happen, I’m just going to hurt people’s feelings” and she was like, “why do you still care about that, why do you still care?” Finally, when I was getting ready to make this album, my producer was like “Send me everything you have, even if you don’t think you want to record it, just send me every option.” So, I included that demo when I sent him stuff and I told him “I’m not doing it. I’m not doing it.”

Then, we were in the studio and my drummer was like “Hear me out Bailey, I just have an idea, let me try it, let’s go in.” The album was recorded live pretty much, we were kind of all in one room together playing, vocals are live. But, he went in there and we just kind of went with it. He was like “just start it out on the piano and I’ll come in and everyone just follow.” So we recorded it, and the take that we used, I remember, everyone just had chills in the room. It was kind of this moment of like “come on, you can’t leave that off the record.” So, I went out on a limb and I put it on the record. It’s like my favorite track on the record. I think that’s another way, going back to the other question, that I’ve grown as an artist, expanding what I’m willing to share and willing to release and not caring as much anymore about what people think and just sticking to my guns with my art.

SM: Stepping out of the comfort zone a little bit.

Definitely, definitely. I think there’s a lot more of that to come with this next record.

SM: What would you say has been your most memorable experience in your music career?

I would say probably recording Coyote Red. I think that was a huge deal for me. We did it at this place in Coldwater, Mississippi called Zebra Ranch and it was Jim Dickinson’s house. I don’t know if y’all know who he is, so stop me if you do, but he is kind of like a Memphis staple. So, his sons are North Mississippi Allstars, they have their own band, but he’s passed away, he passed away in I think ‘99 or something. But he produced and played piano on “Wild Horses” with the Rolling Stones. He was one of Bob Dylan’s best friends. He was a producer, that was his main thing. He really hung out with all of these Blues legends like Junior Kimbrough and all of these Memphis staples. He was a very eccentric guy, did a lot of drugs, but had a very beautiful mind that you could sit in a room with him forever. People tell stories about him that you could literally see his aura if you were sitting next to him. He was one of those people that’s so rare and is a treasure to the world in such a quirky and funny way.

So, this was his place and it was a very spiritual place to begin with. It’s like an old shack in the middle of heat advisory Mississippi. The AC broke during the session, so we were in there for three days in 105 degrees. We just kept recording, almost passed out like three times, but I was like “let’s keep going.” That experience though, it was extremely spiritual. The energy was great. My engineer, my producer, everyone in the band was just happy to be there. It felt like we were back in time making music the way music was supposed to be. Like I said, the whole record’s live, but a lot of it was me and my friends, I knew all the people in my band, sitting in a room around microphones. Even the engineer was in the room with us, which is not a thing, that never happens. Just sitting around microphones recording live. The last track on the record is a Jesse Winchester tune, “Mississippi You’re on My Mind.” He’s another Memphis legend. We literally all sat around a microphone in this room and sang that live together.

It was just a really magical experience and there were some spiritual moments where like lights would start flashing during a certain take. The story with the A.C. is that Jim’s wife had it fixed a week before we came and then it broke the first day of the session and we called the repairman and he was like, “We’re going to have to order a part, it won’t be here till two weeks.” So, we had to make a choice whether to keep going or not and we chose to keep going. Later, I didn’t know this, but apparently a Jim Dickinson staple was to turn the A.C. off on artists without them knowing because he said that it made people do better takes and play better. Just things like that and a lot of the record is like first takes. It was just magic, like magic was happening. All of us were kind of like, “what is going on?” It was just a really spiritual experience overall.

I remember too when I did that take of the song about my brother Wylie, my mom had come by, being a mom, she brought my whole band a bunch of fried chicken. She came by and brought that over and my producer was like “sit down for a second, hang out” and she was in the room for that take. It was just kind of this moment, all the lights were off, it was like me by this mic and then my mom sitting there listening and my brother standing in the corner. It was kind of this moment as I played to them. Just things like that.

So, I think making this record, it was also the record I wanted to make. There was nothing like it. I know that I will make great records as the years come, but I don’t think I’ll be able to top that experience or create that authenticity of it again.

SM: That’s beautiful and with the A.C. going off it’s kind of like he was there with y’all.

For sure, and you know Jim’s famous last words were “I’m just dead, I’m not gone. Look for me in the music.” So, it was very spiritual.

SM: Alright, so what has life been like since releasing Coyote Red this year?

It’s been amazing honestly. The record did way better than I thought it did. Like, it’s crazy to me that I’m on an interview with y’all right now.

SM: No! We find it crazy that we’re talking to you!

I still don’t feel like my music is out there enough to be known by people in other parts of the country or people I don’t know personally. It’s crazy for me too. Yeah, the record did a lot better than I ever thought it would. I didn’t really have any expectations, I just wanted to put something out there that felt like me and if people like it people like it. But my PR company did an amazing job, my label did an amazing job, and people really loved it. So, that was incredible to feel that feedback and see that momentum happen over this last year.

But, so much has happened since I released it and I feel like I’m in a totally different career than I was before I put it out, which is really incredible. Like going on tour with Joe and I’m an official showcase artist at Folk Alliance this year, which is really hard to get. Things like that keep happening. It’s a slow stairstep, but everything’s climbing, which feels really good. Yeah, it’s been great. I just feel like it went beyond my expectations and I’m really proud of it.

SM: We’re proud of you too.

Thank you [Laughs].

MC: There have been hints at a next record, so give us a quick summary of plans for the future and where your music’s going.

I’m almost done writing the second record. So, we’re feeling like maybe in the spring, we’ll be in the studio, which would be really exciting. I can’t even contain my excitement for the sound of this record because the same producer and I are going to do it again just cause I adore him and we have the same vision and everything, and he’s very hands-off which is amazing. He’s very much about getting the energy right for me to create in a sacred space and not bringing anybody in who’s going to screw that up. He’s just great. He believes in me and it’s very like “trust the process and hear what Bailey wants, and she’s the one who is making this incredible music.” He’s just a great fan and a friend, so it’s like a perfect combination.

The songwriting is very Vashti Bunyan, Karen Dalton inspired, but it’s also going to be a little more production. We’re going to take our time on it. A little dreamer, spacier, kind of blending into some genres while staying traditional, song-writer kind of intentions. It’s going to be a lot moodier, a little darker in ways.

SM: Excited. Very excited.

Yeah, it’s going to be different, but still very much Bailey Bigger.