“Shame,” the solo album from Rachel Baiman, who is half of the roots duo, 10 String Symphony, is a reflection on the experience of being a woman in today’s America.
The discussion starts on the album cover. Baiman poses as the Statue of Liberty, with a flaming fiddle as the torch. A skull and roses lie at her feet.
The image, by artist Gina Binkley, gives notice that she’ll be addressing some weighty issues within these ten songs.
Baiman says, of Binkley’s image, “She looked to the suffragette movement for inspiration, and she was sending me all these copies of political cartoons that were made. Some of them really terrible anti-suffragette cartoons, and there were ones that were pro-suffragette. A lot of them used this image of Lady Liberty in the white dress, and that’s where that whole symbolism comes from. And I think that, coupled with the album title, it makes you go, ‘Whoa.’ Because it’s saying ‘shame’ and there’s this image of Lady Liberty, and we’re giving up all these ideals that we’ve fought so hard for.”
She stands on a pile of serious looking books, tomes with the titles, “Women and Eroticism,” “Heaven” and “Religion and Humanism.” The books give clues about the issues that the songs will wrestle with. If the issues are heavy, and sometimes difficult to think about, the songs themselves, with breezy melodies and a folk sensibility, some with lush arrangements, go down easy.
The first song, the title track, starts and ends with the lyrics “Many times I’ve passed a church, and wished that I believed.” It goes on to indict the patriarchal system of much of organized religion (“Old white men write books about faith and healing love/And old white men look happily onto others from above/In the name of sweet religion they would lay their claims on me/And ask me to be grateful for triumphant jubilee.”)
But those first lines demonstrate the ambivalence that a non-religious person can feel about religion. Even while rejecting the shame-mongering (the chorus: “They wanna bring me shame/Well there ain’t no shame/You better look away, bow your head and pray, Cuz I won’t feel same”) Baiman also recognizes the comfort and community that religion can bring.
“I think that one thing that I really wanted to express, and this is why I started that ‘Shame’ song the way I did, is that I don’t have a lack of empathy for the role that religion plays in people’s lives. I think that especially now, but always, people go through really hard times. And some people’s whole life is a really hard time. I don’t want to ever pretend that I could know what someone’s going through and why they would need that kind of support that they might find in religion… It’s this very powerful communal force.”
The song seems, in part, to be asking the question: where can a non-religious person get that comfort that many find in religion? Baiman proposes an answer in the final song of the album, “Let Them Go to Heaven.”
The song was inspired by, and includes sections from, the poem “When I Die I Will Go To Jazz,” by Ishmael Reed. In the song, Baiman chooses the joy of music over the promise of a perfect heaven. “Spare me from perfection/Bring on that scratchy fiddle/Well loved with cracks running right down the middle/What use are angels singing sweet, soft hymns?/These dancers are gonna stomp out all my sins.”
Baiman says, “I do have these really specific problems with religion in the sense that it allows people to accept non-rational ways of thinking, which can lead to horrible things, just depending on how it’s used…So to me that’s a fundamental issue, but I recognize the fact that there are things in everybody’s lives that don’t operate on a rational plane. Terrible things happen to people that they have no control over. People fall in love or have these feelings that don’t operate on the rational plane of being. For me, one of those things is music and the way I feel about it. I don’t, obviously, consider it a religion, but that’s kind of why I love that song so much. It explains that we can relate about this thing that for some people I’m so far away from them on.”
Baiman draws from the church’s musical tradition on “Let Them Go to Heaven.” The backing vocals sound like a gospel choir, an effect that Baiman, producer and musician Andrew Marlin and musician Josh Oliver created together.
“We were definitely going for that gospel choir sound,” Baiman says. “I love the way that production sounds. It was completely far away from where I thought I was going to go with it. I thought, ‘this will be a closing song and I’ll just play it solo with the guitar.’ And then we got the piano going. Josh Oliver plays piano on that track. Josh grew up in the church and so he’s fluent in that language. I love what that did to the track. And I was like ‘ok, let’s put some oohs on it.’ We just went crazy. We created the whole choir. It was so much fun. There’s nine parts. We had a three-part harmony and we each sang each part. And we sang it through this crazy vocal mic and that had a really old sound.”
Bookended between these two songs is the powerful “Take a Stand,” which is sung from the perspective of a now-adult victim of child sexual abuse, but also several songs, like “In the Space of a Day,” “Thinkin’ On You,” and “I Could’ve Been Your Lover,” that address different stages in romantic relationships.
The gentle “Something to Lose” is written about that moment in a relationship when you realize that you matter to someone.
“Maybe it’s about realizing that you don’t want to be as free as you thought you did,” Baiman says. “I remember being on tour, the first really long tour I did, in Europe. I was hired by a Canadian band. I was over there for two months. Here I am in this random town in Belgium, and anything could be happening to me right now and nobody would know. I don’t have a place where I would be missed if I were gone. Of course my parents would be sad, but in the day–to-day situation, that feeling of not having an everyday role in anyone’s life can be really lonely. I’ve always been very career driven and ambitious, and I think that there came a point where I was sort of like, well, maybe I just want to feel a little more grounded. I came back around to appreciating those things that I had been running from a little bit, like normalcy and everyday life. That’s where that song is coming from. As well as just falling in love.”
Although Baiman is based in Nashville, where there are countless options for recording records, she recorded this album in North Carolina with Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange after immersing herself in the music coming out of Chapel Hill. Marlin also provided vocals on most of the tracks, and he and Josh Oliver played various instruments during the recording sessions.
“I was listening to a lot of his albums, like Mandolin Orange, as well as albums he’s made for Josh Oliver and Mipso. I was also listening to Hiss Golden Messenger. So I was just getting really obsessed with this sound that was coming out of that region, with a lot of it having to do with the albums that Andrew’s producing.
“I went to North Carolina because I kind of have this theory that if you want a specific sound, go to the place, use the studio, use the person, use the gear, get in the vibe of the place. I would drive out there (from Nashville) and I’d have about 8 hours to transition out of normal life into album life. I’d be sleeping in the room next to the studio, and I’d wake up and there were pine trees all around me. It was just so North Carolina.”