So the legend of Sea of Bees — aka Julie Ann Bee, aka Julie Baenziger, aka Jules — goes like this:
One day at the Hangar recording studio in Sacramento, the bass player of a small Central Valley band, an open-hearted coffeehouse worker, was on break from a session. The young woman, 24, who had little musical background before she took up with her friends' band, picked up a nearby acoustic guitar and was plucking and singing while recording herself on a laptop when John Baccigaluppi — the Hangar's owner, a producer/engineer and the publisher of sound-nerd bible Tape Op Magazine — walked by.
Baccigaluppi was smitten by the bassist's pristine voice. Did she have any demos? he asked. No, came the reply, she barely had any songs. Would she be interested in making some? Maybe. He gave her his card. A couple weeks later, Julie Baenziger dropped by the Hangar, and Baccigaluppi miked the studio's B room, gave her a quick tutorial in Pro Tools and left her to her own devices. By the end of the day, to his astonishment, she had recorded the first five Sea of Bees songs.
"I was expecting guitar and vocals," Baccigaluppi says, "but she had done everything, recorded a whole bunch of overdubs. I remember listening to it and being struck by the core of the songs. So I said, 'Let's just mix this. ' " And Sea of Bees had its first release, The Bee Eee Pee.
The full-length debut, Songs for the Ravens (just out on Davis-based Crossbill Records), reveals folk-tinged indie-pop that's so disarmingly sweet and guileless, so tender in its pleas for emotional connection that it can soften the hardest of hearts, or penetrate the toughest of filters.
Take Jason Lytle, the former Grandaddy frontman and a longtime friend of Baccigaluppi. "John sent me the record when I was on my way home from tour and not in the mood for anything, especially music. I went from being completely indifferent to really, really, really liking it," Lytle recalls. "She has a dainty but unique voice, and I love it that she's a bedroom songwriter, a nerdy, crafty type rather than some annoying waifish socialite."
Baenziger's bedroom beginnings are part of a prologue that makes Sea of Bees so compelling — her music seems to have arrived as some sort of immaculate conception. It's true, she says with an hearty laugh, she'd never heard the Beatles or the Stones until she was in her 20s. It's true she's self-taught on every instrument she played on the album (which is almost everything, except drums). It's true she's never heard of most of the artists name-checked in relation to her music — the likes of Björk, Joanna Newsom, Nina Persson, Beth Gibbons and Leigh Nash.
"I never really was exposed to music until I was 16, when I fell in love with the girl who was singing in our church," Baenziger says, remembering a turning point in what she describes as her "quiet suburban" upbringing. "I'd watch her hands and the way her mouth moved, and I'd go back home and try to mimic it." She privately cultivated her own voice as a means of dealing with "a lot of heartbreak and loneliness" before moving to Sacramento and meeting new, musically inclined friends.
"Wherever her music is coming from, it's unique. Songs come to her fully formed," Baccigaluppi says, marveling at how her instincts overshadow her blind spots. "When you make a record, there are times you can't help but say, 'This sounds like that,' or 'This is moving in such-and-such direction.' And she'd always say, 'What?'
"But I quickly found out how good a musician she is — I don't think anybody would call her a virtuoso, but her timing is amazing and her melodic sense is impeccable." (Baccigaluppi notes that despite never having played slide guitar, she added the slide part to "Strikefoot" in the final 15 minutes of a recording session.)
Baenziger knows enough now to cite music she admires: the passion of Sunny Day Real Estate, the textures of Sigur Rós, the simple catchiness of Coldplay. "And John started introducing me to all these classic bands that I'd never heard of," she says. "Even my girlfriend — she asked me 'Have you ever heard the Kinks?' And I said no. She looked and me and said, 'What do you mean?' "
Not that any outside influences could have mucked with the powerful confessional quality of "Songs for the Ravens." Love vs. infatuation, artifice vs. sincerity, need vs. want — Baenziger wrestles with all of them in a setting that ranges from moody ambience and sprightly folk to strummy balladry. "Like a little girl inside/I want to hug you day and night" Baenziger sings on "Skinnybone," and although she says she's in love now, she remembers well the ache of longing."There's a heaviness in the songs," she says. "But I think there's hope, too."
Sea of Bees plays on Sunday, June 20, at the Hotel Café.