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Rachel Baiman: Songwriting From Sorrow

With a title that hints at collective disgruntlement – “Nation of Sorrow” – multi-instrumentalist, Rachel Baiman has brought an experienced team to her self-produced project. The LP – Baiman’s third – was released this spring. It “leans heavily” into her “bluegrass and old-time sensibilities.”

In addition to solo projects, Baiman’s bio includes work with fellow fiddle player and Grammy nominee Christian Sedelmyer, via the duo group 10 String Symphony. She’s also done “session and side-person” work with notable artists such as Kacey Musgraves, Kevin Morby, Molly Tuttle, and many more.

She recorded the tracks of “Nation of Sorrow” in Nashville with engineer Sean Sullivan, who has won three Grammys for his work on records by Crooked Tree, Tall Fiddler, and The Travelin’ McCourys.

Much to her delight, she was also able to snag sound mixer Tucker Martine, who has worked with artists such as The Decemberists, Neko Case, and First Aid Kit. She went out to Portland, Oregon, for a couple of weeks to complete that part of things.

“Every time I came across a record where I was like, this is how I want it to sound, it was Tucker Martine,” Baiman explained. “He’s really responsible for setting those amazing acoustic sounds.” She described sound mixing as “make or break” to a project.

The record contains her own original songwriting along with a single called “Self Made Man,” which was a “reinvention” of folk singer John Hartford’s song of the same name.

Baiman said songwriting is her main musical interest these days. A native of Chicago, she moved to Nashville at age 18 and has since evolved and grown as an artist.

“When I moved to Nashville, I kinda fell in love with songwriting,” she explained. Although her main instrument is fiddle, she opts for other tools when it comes to composing tunes.

“Banjo is easier to write with, and guitar is even easier to write with,” she laughed.

“I love writing and reading,” she said. “I read a lot of literature and novels.” She said this enhances her compositions because it allows for “learning about different people and places.”

In this record, she said she really hones in on her own personal political beliefs, which she said are about current “economic oppression” and include her rallying cries to socialism. She said, in a nutshell, the music is about “the camaraderie of the human experience” and “the hardships everyone has gone through these past few years.”

“I touch on a lot of socio-political issues, and songwriting can hit on those issues in an emotional way.” She said she has received feedback that is both “amazing” and “adversarial.” Her tone indicated she might actually welcome both forms of feedback, within reason; both are part of any healthy conversation.

Baiman’s activism takes an additional form when she teaches others. She has taught a few songwriting workshops wherein she tries to get others on board with her activism through art.

“I try to get people to write songs from the point of view of narrators they disagree with,” she explained.

Baiman said she has been making music since childhood but, sadly, found no peer group growing up in Chicago. Then, she attended the Mark O’Connor fiddle camp, held just outside Nashville.

“At this camp, there were top players from all the genres,” she reminisced. “I saw the amount of possibilities there and heard playing I had never heard before.”

Suddenly, she found her people: Nashville.

No doubt, connecting to peers who make the kind of music she loves has helped lighten Baiman’s own load over the years. The camaraderie of music can be powerful. Whether one agrees with Baiman’s politics or not, one thing is clear: Her success so far shows there is a place for personal political music that both plows – and amplifies – emotion.

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