Discovery: Julien Baker

Published February 2, 2016

ABOVE: JULIEN BAKER. PHOTO COURTESY OF JAKE CUNNINGHAMLO.

Singer/songwriter and Tennessee native Julien Baker still seems incredulous about the reception of her debut solo record Sprained Ankle. “That is a joke. That will not happen,” Baker remembers saying to her manager upon being told that NPR and the New York Times were both interested in covering the album. “I just don’t believe you.” Sprained Ankle was released in October to near-universal acclaim, garnering positive reviews and reactions from New York Magazine, Pitchfork, Stereogum, and more. “I never thought the audience would be this wide, and it’s a little bit unsettling,” she confesses. “When you write something just to exorcise those feelings, you don’t think about how it’s going to be perceived on such a wide scale.”Sprained Ankle is sparse and haunting. Many of its tracks consist only of Baker’s voice and a few jangly electric guitar chords, with an occasional drumbeat for good measure. It’s comforting in its rawness, narrated in a first person that never alienates the listener. The album wrestles with reconciling the idea of a benevolent God and Baker’s own struggles with addiction (which she now deems her “hooligan” period), allowing lyrics like “I’m a pile of filthy wreckage” and “Give me everything good, and I’ll throw it all away” to feel true instead of overwrought. 

The musician recorded at Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, Virginia, the same venue where Natalie Prass recorded her self-titled debut, while on break from Middle Tennessee State University, a school that also boasts notable alum Sharon Van Etten. (Baker recently switched from MTSU’s recording industry program to a major in English literature.) But Baker isn’t just an acolyte of her folk-rock peers: Sprained Ankle contended for a spot on best-of-2015 roundups alongside Natalie Prass and Van Etten’s EP I Don’t Want To Let You Down.We quietly followed Baker’s trajectory from Sprained Ankle’s release, and when she expanded her touring schedule—playing the East Coast and Midwest in January, West Coast in February, and Europe throughout the summer—we wanted to know more. We spoke as she drove from Nashville to Memphis for the holidays, and about a month thereafter, we caught her set at Rough Trade in Brooklyn. Baker’s live show is just as unflinching and visceral as her recorded work, and her between-song wisecracks just as genuine and humble as she’d been in conversation. Her on-stage persona reminded us of the point in our conversation when she quoted Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl: “We mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. That’s one of the great things about music: You can sing a song to 85,000 people and they’ll sing it back for 85,000 different reasons.” Though she too might be singing for a different reason, the whole room was still ready to sing right back.

NAME: Julien Baker

AGE: 20

HOMETOWN: Memphis, Tennessee

EARLY EXPOSURE: There’s no musician who just wakes up one day and decides, “This is what I want to do.” It takes some development. Music and musical instruments were proximal to my life from very early on—I took piano lessons for a brief time, but then my dad had a guitar and when he was not playing it, I would pick it up and mess with it. He jokes that I used to complain that it hurt my fingers. My parents were always playing records: My mom was really into the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac, and my dad was more Billy Squire, Whitesnake, ’80s hair metal. But I think there’s that crucial point where you become an adolescent and you don’t want to listen to your parents’ music. In about fourth grade, I started listening to American Idiot by Green Day, The Black Parade [by My Chemical Romance], and Take This To Your Grave by Fall Out Boy later—pop-punky stuff. I wanted to learn these songs. I would sit in my room and teach myself through the records and play and play and play for hours. I feel like it’s a necessary part of musical development to go through that phase where you think that your favorite style of music is the only style of music, and I thought that for a while. I was going to deathcore shows; if it wasn’t heavy, it was sissy stuff. It must have been eighth grade and I picked up Transatlanticism [by Death Cab for Cutie]. I fell in love with artists like Daughter, Sufjan Stevens, Death Cab for Cutie, the Postal Service. That stuff is beautiful, and when I’m sitting alone in my room, that’s the kind of stuff that comes out. I went through the intellectual folk thing, too. I’ve stopped criticizing pop. Yesterday I was talking about how 20/20 Experience [by Justin Timberlake] is one of my favorite records of all time. I’m a little biased because I rep Memphis really hard, but it unifies old Motown soul with this new twist in a perfect, mature, intricate way.

THE FIRST GIG: I had some friends in the neighborhood who would do Green Day and Fall Out Boy, and then I started actually playing. I kept playing, kept playing. I met Matthew, the drummer for [my band] Forrister, right before freshman year. We started playing together and we were like, “We should book shows.” We got these really sloppy songs together and I booked us a show. After that, it was all I wanted to do. Every weekend, every day after school, we were playing shows together. I played in church and I filled in for other people. I would play in these more chilled-out coffee shop gigs by myself. I used to cover Bill Withers all the time, but I focused more on the band until I got to college. [In college] it was a lot more alone time, so that’s when [Sprained Ankle] came into the world.

RELIGIOUS UNDERTONES: I grew up in church—I’m from the South, so that’s not surprising—and I played in church bands. I went to contemporary churches in my high school years and I would play in the worship bands. But there was a period [when] I stopped going, fell off. Every adolescent goes through that phase where they lie and they go out and do stupid things and experiment with drugs and are destructive. For me, I feel like it was more destructive than normal. I spent a lot of time bitter and angry at the church because there were all these things I didn’t understand: the conservative attitude that was so judgmental; these preconceived notions I had about Christianity being a religion of hellfire and brimstone. Organized religion in general has its faults. It wasn’t until some people would invite me to hang out with their group of friends from church—I was acting like a piece of crap, and they were kind to me with no agenda—that I wondered what made these people compassionate. I started talking to them about it and I found a group of people who had a more applied, compassionate schema of the gospel—not rattling Bible verses off at you, but saying, let me take care of you, which spurred me wanting to investigate this platform of love.

I catch flack from other queer artists. There are religious people who say there’s no such thing as a gay Christian. I’ve met other queer people who not only grew up in church but played music in church. It’s really difficult because you’re trying to have your relationship, but you’re publicly singing songs about it. It’s a scary thing to be like, “This is me, this is my identity.” For a long time I was reluctant to mix those two worlds and I hid it. My queer friends were giving me grief, [saying,] “If Christianity is really so accepting, then prove it.” So I came out to my worship pastor. I remember I was shaking and sweating, and I said, “I’m gay,” and then she goes, “So?” I thought that was amazing, so I tell people that story all the time. It’s not like I’m sitting here trying to cram a particular religious agenda down anyone’s throat, but it’s something that has afforded me love and peace and motivated me to be a kinder human.

A CASE OF NERVES: I didn’t used to share [my music] with anyone, because I was embarrassed. I’ve learned to be a little bit more open. I used to hide everything away—the first time I ever recorded the LP with the guys in the band, we were recording vocals and they were begging me to sing louder because I was so ashamed of my voice. I was so shy. I try now to combat that with being chatty, but I get really shy about my music.

A VETERAN ON THE ROAD: I’ve been touring since I was 16, before I went to college. You grow up in the DIY scene and you form relationships with out-of-town bands. When you go to their town they hook you up with a show—in houses and church basements and weird bars—so for a long time it was me and Forrister in the van, roughin’ it. That’s the kind of touring I’m used to. The burnout is very different: My back hurts; I’m tired of lifting these huge amp road cases. But I’m surrounded by my friends who I’ve known forever, and I’m not lonely. But this is very different: It’s weird red eyes and airport terminals and being very far away from your family. Touring in that sense is different. For the January tour coming up, I’m getting to bring my tour manager Emma who has known us for a very long time and has stuck with us through some rough tours.

LITERARY-MINDED: I love literature of all kinds. I’m not a snoot who resigns myself to only reading Chaucer and Balzac and Flaubert. I appreciate those things very much and I like reading stuff that’s a little bit more austere, but I’ve always just devoured books. It does inform my lyrical style a lot. The first LP that we put out, when we were still the Star Killers and not Forrister, there are several songs that are references to literary works. There’s one with a whole bunch of Dante imagery and then another that the title is a Tolkien reference.

AN EDUCATION: I came to college, and I’m glad that I made that decision because I think it’s necessary that you go out and you explore who you are when all the scaffolding is stripped away. Recently it’s been difficult because I was taking these reading-intensive classes—I got off stage at a show in L.A., got in a car, went to the airport, and then I sat down on a plane at midnight, my flight was departing, opened my paper and was typing my Shakespeare final. Then I landed, got in my car, and drove straight to that class. I had a focus in secondary education. I thought teaching high school would be cool if this doesn’t work out. This is a trial run to see how this season of touring works out, and if it is a sustainable thing I might say, “I don’t think I’m going to register for any classes and I’m going to just do music for a while.” Even advisors, who I thought would discourage me from taking this time off, have said school will always be here. These opportunities to travel and accrue important experiences that will be formative and inform your philosophy more than sitting in a stuffy classroom ever could. I’m gambling here—it was only recently that I decided I’m going to try to be courageous and pursue this as Plan A. But Plan B’s not bad either! Hanging out with high school kids, talking to them about why lit is important—that’s a dream.

FOR MORE ON JULIEN BAKER, VISIT HER FACEBOOK.