An Interview With Young Phenom Julien Baker
When I spoke to Julien Baker over the phone, she was on her lunch break. Baker, a Junior at Middle Tennessee State University, works in the A/V department on campus, pulling cable in the rafters during school events “like an audio Tarzan,” she explains. I’ll admit to being initially taken aback by how unreservedly bubbly Baker — the young woman who made the saddest record I’ve heard this year — sounded. In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense; Baker had just turned 20 several days before, and she was on the phone with a music writer who wanted to know anything and everything about her debut album. She was exceedingly polite and called me “ma’am.” A week or so after our conversation, Baker’s record landed itself in our Album Of The Week column, and then soon after we named her one of the best new artists of the year. Last week she was featured in The New York Times. When I wrote about Baker’s first single back in July, I noted that she barely had an online presence aside from a Facebook page and Bandcamp profile linked to her childhood band, Forrister. Now she’s kind of a Thing, and deservedly so.
Baker’s debut solo endeavor, Sprained Ankle, is a deceptive album. On its surface it’s an undeniably beautiful collection of humbly rendered folk songs; below that is a teeming pit of gut-rattling, cataclysmic feelings engulfing the songwriter. Baker performs every bit of instrumentation on Sprained Ankle and recorded most of it at Matthew E. White’s Spacebomb Studio in Richmond, VA, the same place where Natalie Prass wrought her astounding self-titled debut. The album was initially released independently before 6131 approached Baker and asked to put it out officially.
To say that Sprained Ankle is “devastating” is a gaping understatement. This is the type of album that opens up like a sinkhole and drags you into an emotional wellspring before you have a second to recognize how bottomless Baker’s heartbreak is. Sprained Ankle is heavy, heavier than seems possible for her numbered years on this earth, a collection of life events retold in shadowy detail. Those vague shapes begin to take a more concrete form the second, third, fourth time you listen to the album. Baker’s lyricism is unabashedly explicit, and Sprained Ankle discusses depression, substance abuse, and general crises of faith in detail and her admissions are brave. Baker speaks to God directly throughout (“I think there’s a God and he hears either way/ When I rejoice and complain”) and is finally answered on the album’s closer, “Go Home.”
In conversation with Baker, it’s tempting to ask her to explain away the stories behind some of these songs. I initially wanted to know exactly why she was lying under the flickering florescent lights of a hospital room in “Brittle Boned,” I wanted to hear about the person driving away in “Something.” But once we started talking, I realized that it would be unfair to me, the listener, to know too many details behind these songs; it would detract from her carefully crafted narrative. Baker’s stories, while deeply personal, are also a means through which to self-reflect. They speak to the human experience through a microscopic lens, and giving your own hurts over to them yields massive returns.
Watch the Sabyn Mayfield-directed video for “Sprained Ankle,” and read a Q&A with Baker below.
STEREOGUM: What was it like to grow up in Memphis as a musician?
JULIEN BAKER: Memphis’ music scene goes through a lot of permutations and it’s always evolving. Venues open up and shut down. But there’s this core application to the local music scene, which is really important. I don’t want to use the word “loyal,” but everybody is super invested in it, you know? That was really helpful to me when I started going to shows [laughs].
I used to go to a skate park every weekend. I would make my dad take me when I was like, 13. There’s this organization called Smith7 — they put on DIY and local shows for broke kids who otherwise wouldn’t have an outlet to see live music. They create a safe space, putting on big shows at the skate park and community fair shows and they used to put on house shows for awhile. It’s a haven that is predominately substance free, they don’t allow drugs or alcohol at the events. As a kid, I was exposed to all of that stuff through the the punk scene in other channels, and Smith7 providing a place where counterculture and music and counterculture and drugs and alcohol don’t always have to be united is really important.
STEREOGUM: So is that sort of the scene that your earlier two bands came out of, Forrister and Star Killer?
BAKER: Yeah, and they are actually the same band. We changed our name. There’s this EDM project called Starkiller and we were like, “Oh it won’t matter.” But we changed it recently to Forrister, it’s the same lineup.
STEREOGUM: How did you all become friends?
BAKER: Well, Matt and I met at one of our friends New Years parties at IHOP when I was in ninth grade and we just ended up talking about Circa Survive and he was like, “We should play music together.” I went over to his house, and he lives on a sick farm, so we would just play music for two hours and ride dirt bikes around and hang out. I’ve never had musical chemistry with another human being, specifically a drummer, like Matt. And then I met Creech in high school and Berlin through shows. Berlin is the band’s guitarist. And Creech is the bassist.
When I was in college I was away from them and taking Greyhounds home for shows because I didn’t have a car. I was just sitting in my dorm room and thinking that these more chilled-out songs I was writing didn’t really fit the vibe of Forrister and so I wasn’t going to make anything of them until one of my friends in the audio program was just like, “I randomly have an hour in Studio D, do you have any songs?” We made a demo, and he liked it. I went back and kept working with that engineer, Michael Hegner, the guy who worked with me at Spacebomb, so we just built a very casual rapport and ended up making the record almost as a fluke.
STEREOGUM: Did you record all of those at school first and then take them to Spacebomb?
BAKER: We re-recorded three because we had made three with his time here in TSU. We just went up to Spacebomb as like a road trip because Michael was interning there and we had some free time. We had an order of priority with songs, which ones I thought were best and which ones I thought worked with the flow of the record. And so we tracked all those and in a couple days he mastered it.
STEREOGUM: What kind of environment were you in when you sat down to write these songs?
BAKER: I was living in a dorm. I was very seldom at my dorm though, because, you know, you just get paired with a stranger and you can’t really, like, write music. They’re just sitting there eating Hot Pockets and there isn’t much privacy. There are practice rooms in the music building that I would hang out in as a freshman, they’re like these little closets with a piano inside of them. I would be all bummed out and be like, “I need to go play music because I don’t know what else to do with myself.” I would play piano or guitar in that little closet until like, two in the morning. The doors in the music building lock after a certain time and I would just knock and ask the custodian to let me in.
STEREOGUM: Since you recorded these songs over a year ago, does the content still feel fresh, or is the sentiment starting to seem like a memory or time capsule at this point?
BAKER: You know, when you’re always going through changes in your relationships there are some feelings you will never quite get rid of. “Rejoice” and “Blacktop” are both like that, and sometimes I wonder if people realize I’m just talking about the same thing over and over again. I constantly go through the same philosophical quandaries and theological turmoil. I’ll be talking to someone about “Blacktop” and realize that it’s about something that happened five years ago. They’re still relevant and I’ll always connect with songs. Playing live helps too, you know? Often times there will be lyrics that I thought were less important than others, but people will point them out to me and that gives me a new perspective on that song.
One of the coolest things that ever happened when I released Sprained Ankle for the first time independently and I went on tour was when I was playing in a basement for 10 people in Detroit and the heat was broken and it was January. I played “Rejoice,” which is an explicit discussion of faith, asking questions like: “Where is God? Why won’t you answer me?” And this kid messaged me after the show and was like: “Hey, that song really meant a lot to me and I’m glad that like somebody else feels that way.” For every time someone misconstrues your lyrics, there’s one person who finds the right meaning in them. When I was in New York and I was talking about “Brittle Boned” before playing it. I explained that it’s about having to kill parts of yourself you don’t like so you can be a better person on the whole. And there was a guy after the show who said: “I really needed to hear someone say that because I’ve been doing that. I’ve been killing parts of myself that I don’t like, and it sucks to have to leave things behind and go through change, and it’s hard.” I answered like, “Yeah it’s really hard, and you’re a total stranger, but I’m so glad you’re here.” That’s what makes it worth it for me.
STEREOGUM: What is the sample at the end of “Go Home”?
BAKER: Oh my god. That is the craziest story in the world. Well, maybe not the craziest…
STEREOGUM: No, tell it.
BAKER: We were recording that track, and the end is the piano arrangement from this hymn called “In Christ Alone.” It holds a lot of memories for me — being young in church, and the lyrics hold a lot of meaning when you analyze them. It’s nostalgic, and as I was recording the end of that we had these two directional mics set up while I played piano into the pre-amp. And then I hear this like, crackly TV noise and the dialogue happening through my headphones. Well, it wasn’t dialogue but the guy was talking. I just finish off the thing, the arrangement and everyone tells me that the pre-amp was picking up church radio, as I was playing.
BAKER: It was like a Twilight Zone thing, and I decided to leave it in there because it was such a cool, organic happening. It’s just so crazy, given the context of the record, that this happened to be a quintessential Southern preacher shouting phrases that start with: “But, God!” [laughs] almost like Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons. It was like some holy roller shit.
Sprained Ankle is out now via 6131 Records.