UWS sibs sing their way to the top

Bailen onstage during their sold-out show last month at Bowery Ballroom. Photo: Courtesy of Toby Tenenbaum
The Bailens, who grew up in a musical household, are winning fans with their heartfelt sound
By Michelle Naim

It’s always nice to see siblings who actually get along. But Daniel, David and Julia Bailen are doing much more than that. Instead of pulling each other’s hair out, the Bailens, who have been singing since they were in diapers, brought their talents together in 2014 to form the Bailen band. Their refreshing three-part harmonies, folky style and original songs have them on a dream trajectory. They sold out the Bowery Ballroom last month and begin a three-month tour of the U.S. on February 20th. But before the rest of the country sees them, Bailen, accompanied by their parents, have a show February 7th at their childhood middle school, Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side.

Julia, 22, is on vocals and acoustic guitar. Twins Daniel and David, 27, also sing and handle bass (Daniel) and drums (David). Their childhood friend, Pierre Piscitelli, their “brother from another mother,” as Daniel puts it, plays keyboards.

Although the band’s success is solely their own, they come from musical blood. Their parents, Eliot Bailen and Susan Rotholz, are freelance musicians who taught at Columbia University and the Manhattan School of Music while the siblings were growing up. The Bailen’s childhood home was a regular stop sophisticated instrumentalists, making the home “a cacophony of sounds,” said Daniel. He recalled one time when he had a friend over and “[he] went to use the bathroom and there was literally a violinist practicing in the bathroom. So that’s the house we grew up in.” For the Bailen kids, a career in music seemed like the most normal thing in the world.

Growing up, the Bailens lived in Morningside Heights, and Daniel spoke fondly of life on the Upper West Side. “It’s a special place to be,” Daniel said, “it was a wonderful place to grow up.” In fact, the cover of the band’s debut record was shot in front of The Hungarian Pastry Shop, on Amsterdam Avenue, which is their favorite spot to write song lyrics. “A lot of amazing authors and writers go there and all the books that have been written there are on the wall.”

Daniel said his little sister, Julia, who went to Laguardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts on the Upper West Side, is the leader of the band. “She just knows what’s good and bad, she’ll let you know.”

Although the siblings get along for the most part, Daniel said they all have strong personalities that can clash at times. He described his drum-playing twin brother, David, as “super organized and very detail oriented ... If there’s a tour, I’m like, ‘Yeah we’re just driving twenty hours.’ [For David,] all the things that could go wrong are going wrong in his head and he’s planning for them ... If I’m working on a tune, [it] will be a complete mess and David will come organize it.” He also recognizes that their “little sis,” Julia, is “just way cooler than us.”

The twins began writing songs together when they were around 5. Their first composition was called “Fire in the Kitchen.” Later, between the ages of 8 and 12, they started singing professionally in the Metropolitan Opera. In high school, Daniel said, that he and David “would go to Emmanuel Baptist Church [in Brooklyn] which is mostly a Haitian community, [a] beautiful place, where amazing music is created. It’s gospel music. Every Sunday we would go down there and play bass and drums.”

The twins formed the Bailen Brothers in high school, and promised Julia she could join once she got her braces removed. Then, when the band began to get serious in 2015, they started performing with their sister. In 2016, they began working with Sofar Sounds, which arranges concerts in living rooms, retail shops and other small settings. “I know that if you’ve heard about us it’s because you’ve heard us live,” said Daniel. “And you’ve probably heard us in a really intimate environment. I know that our followers ... are all people we’ve met and not [people] who stumbled upon us on Instagram or ... Spotify, where everything is so quick and moves so fast. That’s something that is so much more valuable than discovering us on a playlist. It’s in the flesh.”

Daniel called Bailen’s musical influences “a very wide range ... Appalachian folk ... classical music ... [we sang] New York gospel music growing up ... New York City had a huge influence on the eclectic sound that we have.”

The band’s sold-out Bowery Ballroom show (opened by Elliott Skinner) included a poignant moment when Daniel introduced a new song, called “Eyelashes.” Daniel told a story of a girl, “She was our age. She grew up on the Lebanese border during the second Lebanon War in the 90s. She was a child in the 90s.” He said that she told him “Her mom was worried because she kept pulling out her eyelashes. So she asked ‘Why do you keep pulling on your eyelashes?’ And she said ‘because I want to make wishes.’ So her mom asked ‘What are you wishing for?’ And she said: ‘I’m wishing for the war to end.’ I thought that was a really beautiful story so I wrote a song about it.”

Towards the end of the performance, the band announced the midnight release of their first single, “I Was Wrong.” As Daniel explained the idea behind the song: “When there’s a problem, you never see anyone stepping back and saying ‘Maybe there’s something I’m doing that’s triggering this or starting the problem.’ And it’s never right or wrong.” True enough. But Bailen is getting it right. There’s no doubt about that.