Julia Bailen of Bailen: Q&A

Bailen (photo by Dery Keretic, PR)
by Kara Manning | 05/14/2024 | 3:00pm

Bailen (photo by Dery Keretic, PR)

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and WFUV has asked Julia Bailen of Bailen and Victoria Canal to share their stories of perseverance over personal struggles. If you or someone you love is struggling, you can reach out to SAMHSA's hotline, NYC Well, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), or the Sound Mind organization, focused on ending the stigma that surrounds mental health through the power of music. You can also read 2023's interviews with Ruston Kelly, Bully's Alicia Bognanno, and Pom Pom Girls' Mia Berrin.

New York City trio Bailen has been entwined with WFUV since the group's 2019 debut album, Thrilled to Be Here. Early on, they visited our studios in the Bronx for a session and played an FUV Live concert from The Loft at City Winery. There's nothing quite like the power of sibling harmonies, and twins Daniel and David Bailen and their younger sister Julia have an uncanny, timeless way around their songs, with sophisticated arrangements, sweet pop fluidity, and heart-melting lyrics. (Little wonder, given their  background as members of the Metropolitan Opera's children's chorus.)

Last year, Bailen returned with their second album, the adventurous, Brad Cook-produced Tired Hearts, and performed an FUV Live concert at The Bitter End, infusing their smart, sensitive songs with bold slashes of rock and funk. They've expanded that exceptional album this year with a deluxe edition that includes alternate takes and a version of "These Bones" featuring Amos Lee.

Bailen have tour dates this summer — and on Saturday, May 18, they'll be in their hometown of New York City for the Sound Mind Live Music Festival from 12-7 p.m., joining Kevin Morby, MisterWives, and SHAED in Brookyn on stage (tickets are free, but register here).

Knowing how eloquent Julia Bailen has been, both in interviews and in her own essays, discussing her own medical journeys and mental health, it was especially rewarding to connect with her for FUV's May is Mental Health Awareness Month 2024 series:

Why is it important for you and your siblings to play the Sound Mind Live Music Festival? Were you aware of the organization's work prior to that commitment, and had you interacted with them in the past?

We are really honored to play the Sound Mind Festival this year. A lot of our songs have revolved around mental health over our last two records, so it’s always important and exciting for us to play for organizations that are doing really meaningful work around mental health. I think it’s increasingly valuable to create community among artists, and especially when trying to confront an issue that impacts so many of us.

It’s very easy to feel isolated as an artist and as people when the world encourages us to be siloed, self-sufficient, and polished – I think Sound Mind actively works against that kind of isolation. It’s so hard to create collective power in the music industry, and I think the only way we’ll see a better quality of life for working artists is through the kind of organizing that Sound Mind does. I feel especially lucky to be able to share space in-person with so many wonderful artists in this amazing festival. I knew about Sound Mind but I hadn’t been to an event before this festival, so I’m really looking forward to it!

You, Daniel, and David, recently released an expanded version of your 2023 album, Tired Hearts. The album deals with challenging emotional tides with candor, heart, and insight, especially on songs such as "BRCA (Nothing Takes Me Down)," "Nothing Left to Give," and "Leave Me Wanting More." While songwriting can't necessarily ease pain or sadness, how has it served as a salve for difficult times for you?

There are so many songs on this record that feel cathartic to sing live. "BRCA" has been a really powerful song to play on tour – we’ve been doing it acoustic for these shows and it has felt so raw and powerful to sing around one mic. For those who are not familiar, BRCA is a gene mutation I have that gives me a high likelihood of getting breast and ovarian cancer in my life. It’s been incredibly important to connect with people who also have this gene, similar genes, or whose lives have been touched by breast or ovarian cancer. I feel less isolated in my experience and I have learned so much about how different people have dealt with BRCA and its unique challenges. It quickly became evident how little talked about the issue is and that makes it feel all the more vital to sing about and connect with others.

You wrote a powerful essay in Spin last year about how your BRCA2 positive diagnosis has altered your life and how you struggled to get insurance after you fell off of your parents' American Federation of Musicians (AFM) union health insurance after you turned 26. Has any of that struggle been resolved for you personally and how would you like to change the system for other musicians seeking the medical and mental health coverage they need?

Luckily, I do have insurance through the marketplace and New York State has good options through Obamacare – but it is still financially burdensome (I can guarantee meeting my deductible every year because of the routine imaging I have to do). It’s also unpredictable because my income fluctuates – meaning I could change insurance tiers from year to year (i.e. one year qualifying for private insurance and another year qualifying for Medicaid) which would significantly change the care team I have access to – and would create a host of time-consuming and logistically burdensome adjustments.

For a health issue that requires diligent, regular, and long-term screening, constantly changing insurance policies with different networks and restrictions can really present obstacles for getting care. Despite the insurance, it’s particularly difficult to find affordable mental healthcare. Many practitioners don’t even take insurance, and healthcare can be extraordinarily expensive. Some of the most valuable work that Sound Mind does is act as a hub for affordable mental health care resources. They have a really extensive network of organizations and programs on their website that can help find tailored mental health care from traditional therapy to peer groups to holistic treatments to psychedelic assisted therapy. Being a musician is, in many ways, to exist on the fringe of society; so, the frameworks that the healthcare system are modeled on are not built for us or our lifestyles and really the only way to meaningfully advocate for ourselves is through collective action.

What do you think most people misunderstand about the daily lives that musicians lead, the challenges that they face financially, and why you think there is a higher rate of mental health struggles among artists (and the backstage folks too) in music?

I think it’s really hard to explain just how complex the financial structures and revenue streams are for artists. The really frustrating aspect of the industry is that labels and streamers assume artists are making money on touring; while promoters and venues assume that the money is coming from streaming. But in reality, there is not enough money flowing to artists on either side to support a middle class of artists. The cost of touring makes profit margins impossibly slim for most small to midsized artists and the royalty payouts from streamers are not reflecting the actual listenership on these platforms.

The accounting, the budgeting, the commission payouts, the tracking down of missing royalties, the taxes – in short, the nuts and bolts of running a business — are often the artist's responsibility. The time and financial costs of keeping the business open and compliant can be prohibitive (i.e. filing taxes in every single state and country you play a show in). And all of this must happen on top of writing, recording, performing, traveling, promoting, and creating content for social media – all of which are increasingly the artist’s responsibility.

It seems to me that there are a lot of points of contact between musicians — operating as small businesses — and monolithic entities like governmental agencies or behemoth companies in the music industry – structured to engage with large businesses — and the outcome is that most bands/artists are too under resourced to keep up with even the operational aspects of being in business as an artist. Add to this the very real pressure of achieving the peak of your career in your 20s while the analytics and numerical values of your work and life are on display through streaming counts and social media views/likes – sounds like a pressure cooker for existential dread.

There's a new song on the deluxe edition, called "You Would Never Know," that speaks to that terrible vulnerability of public-facing pain, weeping on the MTA, struggling with sadness in the open. As a listener, it's a song that sounds as if it were crafted in tears too.

“You Would Never Know” is about being in a relationship with someone who deals with stress and sadness really differently from me. I have a really hard time keeping my emotions to myself – I wear my heart on my sleeve and every emotion I have on my face. (But also… are you a real New Yorker if you haven’t cried on the subway? Feels like a rite of passage.) I have definitely given myself a hard time for being so outwardly emotional – but sometimes that’s just the way it is — you just have to cry it out.

How do you take care of yourself when you are struggling with anxiety or depression? What brings you solace or comfort?

When I’m going through a longer period of time where I’m struggling with anxiety or depression, I really like doing something mechanical and creative – like sewing or painting. Some kind of visual expression that doesn’t have to do with music or work – I think Joni Mitchell once called going between painting and music a kind of creative hygiene — and I really like that. Talk therapy has also been a big part of how I manage stress and my depression, but also just talking with my friends and peers about the stuff that really bogs me down – I’m someone that really needs to be around people to get out of a funk. And that’s pretty much what we’re doing at this festival!

What makes you most proud about what you and brothers have accomplished with Bailen?

I am most proud of the culture of our audience. Consistently the folks that come to our shows are some of the kindest people I have ever met or shared space with. We always leave shows feeling really honored that our music attracted people that have that much warmth. There’s something really special about feeling like we played to a room of our friends after every show even in towns that we’re not familiar with. That makes me feel like we’re doing something right with the music.

For you, what song have you written that resonates most powerfully with you ... and why?

Right now, the song that I really love singing has been “These Bones.” It’s so positive and soothing while still acknowledging that something really hard is going on. Daniel wrote it for several people that were in the hospital at the same time that he couldn’t visit – it’s just really comforting to sing. We also recently put out a version with Amos Lee, which is such a dream come true for us. Amos has been a real champion of ours throughout our career and so it felt right to have him sing on such a meaningful song.

In addition to Sound Mind Live, is there any other charitable organization that holds great meaning for you when it comes to mental health awareness?

Backline is a great organization that helps connect folks in the music industry to affordable mental healthcare providers. I love going to venues and seeing their posters up in the green room – that feels super comforting. We have also done live streams with Melodic Caring Project over the years and they are some of the best people I have ever met. They bring live concerts to kids in hospitals around the country who can’t get to the shows. It’s great for the kids and as an artist it’s so powerful to bring something beautiful into a kid’s hospital room — it throws the value of live music into relief, especially when it’s easy to let the difficult logistical parts of tour get you down.

- Julia Bailen of Bailen
May 2024

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