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Julien Baker: Winning at the Made-Up Game


Published in Relix Magazine, September 21, 2021


“I could talk about this for so long. I’ve had all the time in the world to think about it. And if we had more time, I’d ask you a ton more questions, too.”

That’s 25-year-old singer/songwriter Julien Baker, speaking on Zoom from her home in Nashville. She’s moments away from diving into a detailed self-analysis about how her faith in God transformed from something she was taught as a child to something she personalized as an adult. And she’s not just being polite, either. Though warmth and kindness are as integral to her as musical talent, she would really like to lobby the same questions she is fielding right back at her interviewer.

Before she even touches upon her new album, Little Oblivions—which dropped in February 2021—Baker spends long stretches of time discussing her teenage emo obsessions, her pandemic anxieties and the art of social interactions. She also touches on that time when she freaked out after a friend told her that he didn’t believe in God at a middle school pep rally.

“We were sitting there, all the emo kids with our skeleton jackets and Nightmare Before Christmas T-shirts,” she says. “And I screamed at him: ‘What? Don’t say that! God’s gonna hear you!’”

Julien Baker is a thinker, storyteller, philosopher, wonderer and believer. She is also a true musician—known for her piercing guitar heroics—who possesses a stop-in-your-tracks voice that has helped her grow into a deeply beloved and popular figure in growing scene of young, thoughtful, powerful singer-songwriters.

There’s a slew of guitars and framed posters visible in Baker’s attic studio—the top floor of a house she rents with four other roommates in country music’s most famous city. With the pandemic locking her—like most everyone—down in one place for most of the winter, Baker conducted all of her interviews in this rock-and-roll cocoon for many months. She speaks through a professional-grade microphone, wearing studio headphones that envelop her ears.

The Julien Baker speaking in late March is, in so many ways, parallel to the one singing on Little Oblivions. She’s meticulous about her word choice, slyly self-deprecating, deeply intellectual, and with a stream of thought that veers all over the damn place, capable of plumbing the depths of her own mind. There’s nothing linear about how she presents herself.

And that’s what makes the album—her third and by far her best—so enrapturing. By Baker’s own account, she crafted her first two albums with a goal to write about her life in a way that said something important—music that had a message. By contrast, Little Oblivions was written in 2019, in midst of a relapse after a long, hard-fought period of sobriety.

“This record was written when I was in the shit,” she says frankly.

Little Oblivions is a direct line to Julien Baker’s core; there’s no distance from the pain and no space for her to make sense of it all and create a neat, cleaned-up storyline.

The album begins with a rough admission: “Blacked out on a weekday/ Still, something that I’m trying to avoid/ Start asking for forgiveness in advance/ For all the future things I will destroy/ That way I can ruin everything/ When I do, you don’t get to act surprised/ When it finally gets to be too much/ I always told you, you could leave at any time.”

It’s a striking account of struggle, set to some stunningly beautiful music—songs whose only message, if any, could be “we’re all a mess, but all we can do is our best.”

***

Baker grew up in a religious christian family in Memphis. While discussing God again, she pauses to choose the right word to describe herself as a kid—and she lands on “principled.”

“Even as a 10-year-old child, I walked around wanting so badly to be the good guy,” she says.

So when, as a young teen, she began to understand that she was queer, Christianity didn’t immediately become abhorrent to her—as it did to so many of her similarly religious queer friends.

“They were repulsed by the hypocrisy of this American brand of Christianity. But I didn’t want to be excluded from one more thing,” she remembers. “It just went against what I believed was the character of God; like, if God loves everyone and doesn’t make mistakes, then how could he make me gay and hate me for it? At 16, that’s how I made sense of it all.”

And while the more mainstream Christian kids in her high school were bopping to, say, Third Day, Baker found her way to the darker, more soul[1]searching Christian-influenced corner of emo and punk, including mewithoutYou and Pedro the Lion. (The future indie star also started to obsess over some less overtly religious bands like My Chemical Romance and Death Cab for Cutie.) She wasn’t just a fan—she was a student, Googling the lyrics of her favorite bands and memorizing every word, then sitting in her parked Honda Accord and howling along.

“These lyrics were dark and just emotionally ruthless. I was consumed by the words; the poetry was so important to me. I wanted to know what was going on with these singers, and maybe prove my allegiance to the bands I loved,” she says. “I mean, in [the punk] scene, that’s what you do: get up to the front row and scream every word to prove you’re the down-est fan at the show.”

Yet, the music that she’d go on to create—starting with her sparse, aching debut Sprained Ankle, which was self[1]recorded and first released for free on Bandcamp—doesn’t really sound all that punk-rock. It’s just too pretty. But that teenage obsession “made me so invested in lyrical content,” she says. “It’s more about how I write songs now.”

Baker struggled with addiction early on in her career. By the time she recorded Sprained Ankle in 2014, as a student at Middle Tennessee State University, she was already clawing her way out of the shit and back toward sobriety. The album is full of the type of songs listeners might hear through an apartment wall—from an artist singing just to herself, facing her demons alone. She dropped it into the world without much fanfare, but it was quickly discovered by an indie label and rereleased the next year.

With that rerelease came more shows, a bright national spotlight and journalists angling to box up her story: a queer, tattooed Christian, singing about heartbreak and faith with equal grace.

“I realized early on that I’d been given an above average platform. I’m holding a microphone. I can’t say, ‘No, no, don’t look at me.’ All of a sudden, people were asking what it was like to be gay and Christian, and I felt that I ought to have something important to say. I felt like I needed to be a spokesperson, even though no one asked me to be one,” she says.

By the release of 2017’s Turn Out the Lights, Baker’s platform wasn’t just above average—it was legitimately large. Though the material delved into the same issues that have always filled her songs—self-doubt and self-worth, heartbreak and hope—she admits that it was written with her new platform in mind. In 2018, Baker released an EP with singer-songwriters Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers; the trio, calling themselves boygenius, toured hard behind the music. But by the end of the tour, Baker felt herself losing her grip—on her sobriety, on her faith and certainly on her need to say anything important. And that’s when she called the whole thing off.

“I’d collapsed my love of music with this need to fulfill my performer persona— who I was, or who I was being told I was,” she says. “[In early 2019,] I stepped away from it all. I remember one conversation with Lucy and Phoebe where they told me that if making music as a job was driving me crazy, then I never had to do it again.”

Baker canceled shows and dipped out of the limelight, reenrolling at Middle Tennessee State University as she fought to find her way back to solid ground. Eventually, she began making music just for herself, planting the seeds of Little Oblivions.

***

“Julien seeks the good in everything. She notices so much. And I value her songwriting for its honesty—it is somehow both brutal and gentle,” Lucy Dacus says. “I think she broke a lot of her own rules [on this album], and that’s so cool.”

Little Oblivions, written and recorded throughout 2019, finds Baker seeking the good in herself that she now believes she truly deserves. There aren’t any clean narratives here; no good guys or villains. Baker is both: She never gave herself the space to self-analyze; the songs were written as they happened. The new process was isolating but built a new belief in Baker: She was only accountable to herself.

Baker still believed that God, in whatever form, may exist, but she wasn’t going to wait for mercy granted. She realized that forgiveness doesn’t have to come at the end of the story; it can actually be part of the process.

“I’m telling stories of things I’ve done that make me disappointed in myself, things that inflicted pain. But I’m looking at them, and looking and looking and looking, until I can accept that I’m only human,” she says. “It was an exercise in having mercy on yourself, not seeking absolution from somewhere else. I learned to be compassionate to myself.”

Learning that lesson, though, made for some truly heart-wrenching songs. The admissions are messy; the stories are not wrapped up in a neat package.

“‘Cause I’m not crying wolf/ I’m out here/ Looking for them/ In the morning when I wake up/ Naked in their den/ I’ll swear off all the things I thought/ That got me here/ In the evening/ I’ll come back again,” she sings on “Crying Wolf,” her voice quivering above a sea of piano.

“When you can look at the worst things you’ve done and still say, ‘I’m a human being, I’m still worthy of love and dignity and respect,’ then you can say that about virtually anyone you meet,” she says. “You can access empathy that’s stronger than if it’s just a principal you believe in. It becomes real, a quality you’re actually living.”

On the churning, guitar-driven “Ringside,” Baker swims in uncertainty after she offers, “Beat myself until I’m bloody, and I’ll give you a ringside seat/ You say that it’s embarrassing/ I’m sorry that you had to see me like that.” By the song’s end, she’s abandoned all hope that she can fight her way out, singing, “Honey, I’m not stupid/ I know no one wins this kind of thing.”

On the haunting, piano lullaby “Song in E,” she’s longing to be pulled to safety, but knows addiction is her fight alone: “I wish that I drank because of you/ And not only because of me.”

Baker filled her notebooks with lines like this, and she sketched surreal, tortured figures in the margins: spinal chords transforming into staircases, an open stomach devouring toast. She drew, wrote and faced demons she’d been chasing for years. She printed those sketches in the liner notes of Little Oblivions, explaining, “They were part of the healing process of this record, too.”

“All of my negative coping mechanisms—compulsively praying, drinking till I blackout, running until I have knee injuries—they’re all just ways to push away my anxieties. Man, I went to so much therapy, and the most useful thing I’ve learned wasn’t a practice. For so many years, I’ve heard people say, ‘If you drink more water, if you meditate, if you take this course or read this book, then this will happen.’ And what I’ve learned is that part of being alive is just tolerating discomfort and uncertainty,” she says. “You have a thought, and you just sit with it. The more you do it, the better you can roll with the punches of life. When you’re sad, you accept it—you don’t rush to apply meaning. You don’t rationalize. You just sit with it.”

Creating Little Oblivions revealed freedoms that Baker didn’t know she actually possessed all along. She didn’t need to speak for anyone but herself. Musically, too, she was untethered by expectations. The result is an album full of bold, heavy guitars and, for the first time, drums. She played every instrument, for no other reason than to prove to herself that she could. In breaking her own rules, Baker made the best music of her career. It’s a densely lyrical album, with melodies that embed themselves deep into the listener’s brain—an album that, somewhere, someone is listening to in their parked car, studying every single word and singing along at the top of their lungs. It’s an album Baker wrote for herself, that tells a universal story.

“I’d been trying to win at a game I made up,” she says. “So I asked myself: ‘Why am I doing this? What am I doing?’ This isn’t even a game other people play. Everyone writes their own rules for how to win. On my first records, I was horrified by this massive responsibility that I was so unprepared for—I considered the implications of every word. But I don’t have nearly as much power as I thought I did. And knowing that was so comforting.