The lineup of musical talent at this weekend's Music Tastes Good Festival in Long Beach is impressive, to say the least, with names like New Order, Joey Bada$$, Broken Social Scene, James Blake, Janelle Monaé and The Church topping genre-spanning bills. As is so often the case, there's plenty of gold to be found further down the poster, and local pop songstress Baum is a shiny nugget.
The Los Angeles resident describes her sound as "dark pop," due to the fact that it's honest, highly emotional, but still rooted in infectious melodies. The polished tracks sound very "now" but that doesn't take away from the authenticity.
"I'm not really singing about happy things most of the time," Baum says. "I sing about the hard things that I deal with. That's what gets me emotionally, and that's the kind of thing that I want to express. The music is dark because it's lyrically and melodically sad, but it's still pop music."
Baum knew from an early age that she wanted music to be the center of her life. She listened to a lot of classic rock with her parents and sang around the house all the time. When she was 18, she started to take it seriously, believing that it could turn into a career, but she feels lucky that she knew early on what she wanted to do. It was at the age of 18 that Baum relocated from New York to L.A. in order to attend music school. However, when the paid work started coming in, she dropped out.
"I wanted to be working every day," she says. "I wanted to be in sessions, and writing and performing. I just wasn't going to class. It didn't make a lot of sense for me to go to school. It wasn't a hard decision for me, for some reason. I know that it is for a lot of people, but for some reason, I had not been going to class, I was busy, I had put out a lot of music, and it wasn't a hard decision for me."
Baum is 21 now — three years have passed since she made that decision to quit school. In that time, she admits that she's evolved as an artist, a songwriter, a performer. Most noticeably, she believes that she's gotten better at expressing herself honestly.
"When you start writing, it's hard to be straightforward about the things that you're dealing with," she says. "First of all, it's scary to be vulnerable. Second, it's hard to just have the craftsmanship of knowing how to talk about those things. I've just been really fortunate in that as I've been working, I've been able to write with a bunch of people I really like who've taught me a lot. I've been feeling more comfortable talking about my truths and songs that are about my experiences. Everybody goes through hard shit — you can always find something to talk about.
"When I started writing, I didn't feel as inclined to speak my entire truth. I think as I kept working, I've just realized how important that is. That was one of the biggest things for me. Also performing — I've got terrible performing anxiety and it's gotten so much better, because it's a job. If you're performing once or twice a year, you're going to have a lot more anxiety than if you're performing once a week. I'm going on tour, leaving Monday, and we're playing 20-something shows. At the end of that, I know it's going to be different. I'm going to have changed a bit."
If it took her some time to speak truths, then it was worth the effort. Baum is releasing music that, while catchy and marketable, is filled with incisive lyrics — words that actually say something to young people who might need a spot of guidance. "This Body," for example, is a song about dealing with body issues caused by a media keen to push waif-thin celebrities at us while effectively condemning "normal" body shapes.
"I think if you have any sort of platform, whether you're a visual artist, a musical artist or a politician, any sort of platform where people are listening to you, I do kind of think that it is your responsibility to do more good than bad, and try to help people by normalizing things that aren't normalized and giving people their representation," Baum says. "Everybody has their things that make them human. I think the more we can be honest about that, the more the people that have platforms can show what that is and not be ashamed of it, the more likely that people are going to be able to accept themselves."
Baum is speaking from experience; she says she grew up a normal-size girl, and didn't see people on TV or in magazines who looked like her.
"I was never a really thin person, and that really affected me — not seeing anyone who looked like me in the media," she says. "I always wanted to be a singer, and I didn't see anyone doing that who looked like I looked. That's a problem that really affected me. I feel like it's my responsibility to say this is who I am, and I can still — it doesn't mean I have to always behave a certain way but I have to accept myself and be honest about who I am. If it's one person that it helps, I think that's a big deal."
Music, of course, has a grand tradition of speaking truths. From Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan to Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine, musicians have a long history of standing up for what's right.
"If you do have a platform and you do have good things to say to people, you should use it for that, and there is that responsibility," Baum says. "Especially with music — it literally cuts right through the bullshit. If you can say something important, I feel like that can save people's lives."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
We'll get to see and hear Baum do just that at Music Tastes Good this weekend. The singer has previously performed at only two festivals, but she enjoyed the experiences and she's looking forward to this one.
"I played a bunch of shows at SXSW, I played a college festival, I did a couple of them, but I like it," she says. "Some of my favorite artists are performing at Music Tastes Good. I'm really excited for it. My set's pretty early, like 1 or 1:30, but I'm going to stay the whole day with my band. Go see all the shows."
Baum says we'll get a mix of new and old songs in her set, though they'll all be new to most of the attendees. This is an opportunity to get in early and check out a local musician with a big future ahead of her. Why would you want to miss that?
Baum performs at 1:05 p.m. on Sun., Sept. 30, at Music Tastes Good. For more information, visit mtglb.co.