Julien Baker: Break the mould
“For me, it’s this massive event. And to everyone else, it’s just a piece of art that I’m commending to the big pile of art that grows bigger every day.” Julien Baker is reflecting, with characteristic modesty, on the imminent release of her third album Little Oblivions. “It’s just like shrinking my ego, allowing some ego deaths.”
The perceptiveness and candour with which Baker navigates the world permeates both her music and our conversation. In her music, she holds space for the vulnerability of being human, and is one of those artists whose songs cut deep with their stark, raw emotion. In conversation, Baker’s profundity is intertwined with incisive self-deprecation and quick-witted pop culture anecdotes. When we speak, Baker’s having her morning coffee, an array of guitars and banjo lined-up in the background. Even across time zones and the relative disconnect of Zoom, Baker has a gracious familiarity.
© Alysse Gafkjen
Born in Memphis, Baker cut her teeth in the punk and hardcore scene of her hometown in Tennessee. These formative years were particularly defined by playing in Forrister, the high-school band which Baker, at the time, presumed would offer her break into music. “That’s just not how it panned out” she reflects. “And then I think I kept myself within that songwriter pigeon hole status, because I felt like at the time that was a useful artistic exercise”. Then, in 2015, the release of Baker’s debut album Sprained Ankle sparked her meteoric rise. The acclaim of the follow-up, 2017’s Turn Out the Lights, further augmented her status as a critically lauded artist – not to mention the huge success of boygenius, the supergroup she formed with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus in 2018. Today, Baker inspires a kind of fervent devotion, born from a body of solo work where she has forged a strong identity as a sober artist singing with harrowing frankness about faith, queerness and mental health.
“Little Oblivions is basically me declaring that the identity I spent records, articles and interviews trying to live up to – this Christian anarchist queer – I don’t know if that’s me anymore”
Little Oblivions, however, documents a turbulent period of personal reckoning; a decisive break with the version of herself that had created Sprained Ankle and Turn Out the Lights. It marks a shift, both in terms of Baker’s own personal journey and sound. In some ways it’s fitting that Baker makes use, for the first time, of a full band and a vibrant pop-inflected palette on Little Oblivions: swelling synths and rumbling drum beats amplify Baker’s inner turmoils. But even if the evolution felt massive, it would, ultimately, be upstaged by another shift – something far beyond her control. “In 2019, I felt like this was gonna be a monumentally heartbreaking, challenging record for me to put out. It’s basically me declaring that the identity I spent records, articles and interviews trying to live up to and be – this Christian anarchist queer – I don’t know if that’s me anymore,” Baker reflects. “And then all of a sudden, it’s like the world broke.”
For Baker, the escalating global pandemic put things into perspective and she realised how little she had actually changed. And “how little that mattered and how arbitrary some of my convictions were,” she continues. “I collected myself to make this whole big record about, ultimately, my own microcosmic life.” The shutdown also allowed Baker the time and headspace to make peace with what was undoubtedly an incredibly challenging record to write and process. Where the sparser, spectral soundscapes of Turn Out the Lights and Sprained Ankle grapple with mental health, faith, and reconciling identity, Little Oblivions is strewn with bars, benders, blackouts and a lack of control. The album, Baker explains, was written in the wake of an intense and difficult period, when the success of her first two records created a pressure that was only made worse by relentless touring and personal struggles. Baker conveys this on record with her particular strain of agonising self-scrutiny, the opening track Hardline finding her “asking for forgiveness in advance for all the future things I will destroy”.
A large part of the record deals with Baker confronting her relationship to sobriety. After six years of being sober, Baker had found herself in the midst of a “big identity crisis” precipitated by the demands of music becoming a full-time job. She decided, in 2019, that she didn’t want to be straight-edge anymore. Holding a mirror up to this time, Little Oblivions opens with weekday blackouts and closes with Baker “tired of collecting the scars, stories and the parties and bars”; the rawness of her songwriting tethered to a visceral and corporeal grit. “Falling back into an unhealthy relationship with drugs and alcohol was extremely humbling,” Baker says, referring to this period. “It changed a lot of how I saw myself in the world.”
© Alysse Gafkjen
The same year, in desperate need of a break from music, Baker made an important decision. She had been training to become a high school English teacher and had also majored in audio engineering before her music career forced her to put her studies on pause. It was time, Baker decided, to return to school and complete an Integrated Studies of Liberal Arts degree. “I just went back to being a person in college, and I liked that a lot,” she states. “It gave me a sense of distance from the urgency of being a musician.” This distance also allowed her the space to reevaluate why she even made music in the first place and most importantly, it allowed a balance between being a celebrated musician with a devoted fan base and a semblance of normality to be struck. “It’s like now I’ll probably put out this record, and then I don’t know how it’s gonna do, it’ll probably do OK, maybe.” She crosses her fingers… “Then I’ll go get my masters and be a person who is just a fuller person. I began to collapse my identity with the person that I was as a musician and, since I was horrified of being fake, tried to make myself into a persona that was non-existent,” she adds, “and I cultivated this idea of myself that was unsustainable.”
Ever since Sprained Ankle, Baker has traced her journey reconciling queerness and Christianity, with religious iconography embedded in her lyrics, from the devotional abandon of Rejoice to the almost defiant resolve in these facets of her identity that courses through Turn Out the Lights. Little Oblivions is a little different, written at a point when she was questioning how she “thought about God”. “People would ask me about God on the first record, because I sang about God, in really candid terms,” Baker says, “I still am a very deeply spiritual person, but maybe less religious.” As a queer person who also had a religious upbringing, these parts of her music hold a relatability for me, and for a lot of queer people the attempt to find a place in the world that she expresses is a very real experience. “When you’re a queer person it’s almost like you are othered in a way where you’re constantly trying to mimic everybody else’s coming of age” she articulates. Baker recounts coming out in high school, quipping “I was out but also I thought I was demon possessed for a while.”
Talk turns to her Liberal Arts studies, and Baker mentions a class she took on children’s literature as we touch on notions of queer time, specifically the queer children’s literature that came up as part of the class. “If I had read a single paperback book about like two women being together [when I was a kid], I would have felt so seen,” she effuses. “But instead it’s like us trying to almost carve out a space for ourselves within a predominantly straight culture that’s represented by all these benchmarks we’re supposed to hit.”
For many within her very loyal fanbase, comprised largely of young queer people, Baker contributes to and holds this space. Even if, at the grand old age of 25, she doesn’t quite understand why her music continues to resonate so deeply. “I put out a record that I made when I was 19. And then I understood why young queer people liked my music,” Baker says, perhaps overthinking just a little. “I’m just like oh my god, I’m 20 something!… I think about that SZA song all the time that’s like, ‘God bless these 20 somethings’. Yes! Bless me!”
© Alysse Gafkjen
“I’m so glad I have an internalised acceptance of my own mediocrity that is laced with humour”
Truthfully, a significant component of her appeal is her online presence, with her astute, self-aware humour that’s always on point. “Catch me out here casually discussing the merits of non-dairy milks” she tweeted in the past, accompanied by a meme of Chidi from The Good Place. But she’s wary too.“I generally keep the internet at arm’s length,” she says, “because I’m sus of it. And I just want to like live in the woods and raise chickens or whatever off the grid people do” – aka the wholesome queer dream. Given how intense the internet can be if you have any kind following, keeping this distance seems wise. “I’m so glad I have an internalised acceptance of my own mediocrity that is laced with humour,” she quips when I bring up her album announcement via Vinyl Me, Please – inadvertently incurring the wrath of misguided Adele and Ariana Grande stans. The surreal turn of events last October saw their fans mistakenly deduce that Vinyl Me, Please’s ‘big new album’ announcement was an exclusive from one of these popstars.
While Baker expresses a modest amazement at the intense connection her music has found with so many young people, you feel that she finds it reassuring to have this very clear proof that she’s doing something right. “I’m trying to take more instruction from the youth,” Baker muses. She brings up It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Danny DeVito to illustrate this point, referring to multiple interviews where he talks about directly taking lead from young people as to what constitutes the show’s humour. “It’s this sort of big humility,” Baker affirms, characteristically thoughtful, profound and relatable at once. “I want to be more like Danny DeVito that way.”
Little Oblivions is out now via Matador