How Community Combats Apocalyptic Dread for James Baley

Issue 2 | Making Art at the End of the World

James Baley is a very good person to talk to about the end of the world. He’s buoyant and blunt about all of the things in the world that are difficult but that, ultimately, there are ways in which we can find its beauty. The Toronto-based multi-talented and multidisciplinary artist likens community to flowers beneath a concrete parking lot. Simply because something is in the way it doesn’t mean you’re not able to blossom through it.

Baley’s music is soothing, personal, intimate and uplifting. On Listen, his 2015 debut EP, the track “Don’t Give Up,” something he wrote for himself for encouragement, appropriately fits an ethos that simply because everything else feels like it’s ending or hard, it does not mean you have to give up. This sentiment reverberates through everything Baley touches with his thoughts in our conversation.

He’s also released Roads, an EP in 2017, and is currently working on new music. Baley’s journey as a performer and musician has taken him all over and into many different collaborations with July Talk and U.S. Girls, to name a few. He’s part of Toronto’s exciting ballroom scene, performing as Songbird. 

Baley’s insights into why he makes art at all, especially in a period of time that often feels tough, is particularly illuminating. To be a musician now is to understand you’re a commodity to someone and you may not always be chosen. Your art may not be valued beyond a stream. There’s constant pressure to make work at lightning speed, lest the world forget you exist. It’s cyclical and defeating. So, Baley creates and defends spaces where those thoughts are antithetical; that existing and creating and taking the time to do so bears more fruit.

Baley and I have a sprawling conversation for over an hour about the contours of destruction, hope, and how creating and nourishing community is a balm to any sort of apocalyptic thought. Baley cites the women in his life—from his mother’s encouragement to pursue music to Lido Pimienta’s warmth and Maylee Todd’s wisdom to his ball house mother—as wells of inspiration. Because they have gone through it, sought change, and passed down kindness and perseverance on a cellular level, Baley is doing the same, both in his work as a musician and performer. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Somewherelse: Maybe it’s a little strong to start this way but you mentioned in our email about the conversation you had with your friend about your work and working in a world that is actively destroying itself. Do you want to talk about that? 

James Baley:  I was reading the one part in the email, I was like, well, it is heavy. What is it? You said, “our bodies, our identities, our shifts toward a real sense of progressiveness and true harmony among one another are threatened, too, and that can feel like a sharp ending. This new decade is bittersweet.

At the end of the day, we just have to stay true to our original mission or whatever the mission is. I am here to share my work and to create a world that I want to see. I want to see a space that is safe for people like me to do what I’m doing right. You know what? I’m going into 2020 with what am I going to do? Am I going to look at all the negative stuff on the road and be, oh, shit, there’s just so much it’s overwhelming. And right now I just want to sleep, you know? You don’t make change by sleeping.

What do you think about the end of the world?

If you don’t love what I create, create the world we want to be. The change that you want to see and that’s all you can do. Really do what you can do. Make sure that everyone along the way understands your journey and also try not to lose sight of whatever your goal is, to get to all your emotions, all your experience.

I was watching your Daily VICE video on ballroom culture in Toronto. And there’s something that you said at the end of how this is really safe space for you. It gives you the confidence outside of your performance to be James Baley in dealing in your day-to-day life. Do you feel that when you’re making art, when you’re coming up against everything else that wants you to fail or wants you to think a different way or maybe wants you to sleep, that you have the confidence and security in your own art, in the community that you’re in, the thoughts that you have, making the spaces that are positive and nourishing for you and anybody else who wants to feel those feelings?

That is a yes.

That was a very long question. I’m so sorry.

Once you have your community—and I know for me it’s being accepted or even just recognizing that there are many people that are like me, that have my kind of mindset. I guess if you don’t have a tribe, if you don’t have, you know, that inner voice being, “You know what? Listen, just keep moving forward because you have to. And you are worth something. And wherever you are as a person, as an entity is necessary in this world, no matter how fucked up it might be.”

How do you practice making space for beauty to grow in the darkness of the world?

I feel like I make it happen again with community and then, you know, your own inner passion. I talk to people that really inspire me, like Lido Pimienta and Maylee Todd. Maylee said to me, “James, You’re not the same person you were two years ago. You’re not going to be the same three years from now. You’re not the same person. Just remember that change takes time and be patient.”

Maylee told me that it took time. Change takes time. Don’t be discouraged if it’s not happening right away. In this society and system, we are fooled to think that we need to just produce every single second.

These women, for example, have become wired to create space for that positive energy to grow and thrive and also be protected so they can impart it to other people like me. So, How do I get there? How do I create that? You know what I mean? That’s how I respond to those women. How did you get there? Because I have a mission and I have a goal. I want to make sure that my community and people like me are protected and safe and then able to thrive. How do I tap into that? By being able to listen and to yourself, also analyze and become wise to how you create, how do you create that space?

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Photos and artwork courtesy of James Baley. Photos by Joshua Rille.
Interview written and transcribed by Sarah Macdonald.
Photo collage by Marta Ryczko.