“When I was a kid, my dad was in this tiny fringe political group called the Democratic Socialists of America” explains songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rachel Baiman.
“That was considered extreme, something I didn’t tell my friends about. Now my generation has had to wake up to the intensity of our own economic oppression. We sit around talking about how anyone affords to buy a house, and how we can get rich people to pay for our albums”, she laughs
Baiman finds hope in this shared experience as a mechanism for activism. On Common Nation of Sorrow, Baiman’s third LP, she tells stories of American capitalism, and the individual and communal devastation it manifests. “The reality is that the vastmajority of us are being taken advantage of by the same brutal economic and political systems. Maybe that shared oppression is a place in which we can meet and fightback”, she explains.
Common Nation of Sorrow opens with “Some Strange Notion”, an anthemic song from which the album title is drawn. Featuring the distinct outlaw country drumming and vocals of Miles Miller (Sturgill Simpson/Tyler Childers), contrasted with a phased-out string section and seemingly socialist rallying cry, the track pulls together the many elements of the record in a way that eerily reflects its lyrical content; “But now, some strange notion has taken ahold of us/ It’s the common nation of sorrow, hear the boots march through the dust/ when so much pain is intertwined, there are none who can tear it down/ you cannot bury those already resting beneath the ground,” sings Baiman. “This song was deeply inspired by the idea of generational activism”, she says. “The realization that sometimes it takes several generations of work to see any change orprogress, and the tenacity and determination which that idea requires.”
In contrast with her previous work, Baiman is the sole producer of Common Nation of Sorrow, which she recorded in her hometown of Nashville. She leans heavily into her bluegrass and old-time sensibilities on this new record. “In some ways, this is a homecoming project for me”, she says. “I wanted to explore these songs based on who and where I am right now, with the town and the people who have raised me musically using the music from the place I’m singing about ”.
After recording for twelve days in Nashville with Grammy-Award-winning engineer Sean Sullivan, Baiman traveled to Portland, OR, where she spent two weeks mixing the record with famed engineer and producer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket/The Decemberists/First Aid Kit). “Because I self-produced the project, I felt it was important to get a totally fresh, outside perspective during the mixing process” explains Baiman. “I am a longtime fan of Tucker’s work, and it was an honor that he took on this project”. Raised in Chicago, Baiman made her way to Nashville at 18 with the dream of being aprofessional fiddle player and has since released two solo records and an EP, alongside session and side-person work with Kacey Musgraves, Kevin Morby, and Molly Tuttle among many others. As a songwriter, she has garnered a reputation for her specific brand of political and personal lyricism, which Vice’s Noisey described as ‘Flipping off Authority one note at a time”. This album is no exception; On the stripped down, Welch and Rawlings inspired “Bitter”, she sings, “I had a vision, some kind of religion/ whatmakes life worth living should pay/ but I found no meaning, nothing to believe in/ just men getting rich in the shade”. On her re-write of John Hartford’s “Self Made Man”, she adds the lines “Will you tell him that he’s done everything right and that he could never take the blame/ for the people cast out and trampled on, just because they got in his way?”.
Despite the general outward focus of the songwriting, some of the album’s best moments turn inward. On “Lovers and Leavers”, Baiman addresses her battle with bipolar disorder, which she was diagnosed with in 2021. “There is no middle, only highs only lows / It’s a beast it’s a burden, it’s a bottle half full”, she sings. “I wrote this song long before I knew what was going on in my brain”, she explains, “but now I hear it back and think, wow, that’s a song about bipolar disorder, which I disguised, even to myself at the time, as a love song.”
For Baiman, this is all part of the same American story. “I have so many friends struggling with mental and physical health right now as we emerge from Pandemic lockdown,” she says. “Access and affordability of healthcare is a nearly universal struggle in this country, and as a freelance musician without employer health benefitsit’s even more difficult.”
While she has had no trouble with lyrical honesty in the past, Baiman’s previous records,“Shame,” and “Cycles,” have been experiments in musical growth and change. On “Common Nation of Sorrow”, she has found a production style to match her straightforward writing. Baiman displays a certain self-awareness and comfort with the inability to be all things, while simultaneously pushing to new heights with her message, and delivering a heartbreaking, albeit beautiful, assessment of her country.