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Julien Baker - The Under the Radar Cover Story

Faith Healer

Dec 22, 2017 Issue #62 - Julien Baker Photography by Crackerfarm (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share

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When Under the Radar first spoke with Julien Baker in the spring of 2016, it was a few weeks after her headline-grabbing round of performances at that year's South by Southwest festival and less than five months since her debut album, Sprained Anklea dazzlingly intimate album made over two days and with zero expectations of an audiencehad become one of the most out-of-nowhere breakthroughs of 2015. Only 20, she was reportedly at the center of a bidding war between just about every notable major indie rock label, leaving her with the decision to shelve her nearly completed teaching degree from Middle Tennessee State University in order to devote all of her energies toward touring. Friendly and fast-talking, often drifting off into philosophical tangents and then apologizing, she was a blur of energy and anxiety. She was already fretting about the prospect of making album number two.

"I worry because the logic you could follow is that if I can make an album in two days, then maybe I can make a better album if I have all this time and resources and pieces of equipment and can rent out a studio," she told me then. "I'm worried that it will be crippling. I think being conscious of this will prevent it from happening," she continued, rallying some optimism. "I'm not going to have eight-piece string arrangements and get all crazy with it."

A year-and-a-half later, Baker's fears appear to have been unfounded. On a balmy mid-September morning, she is back in Murfreesboro, TN, where she went to college and has returned after spending much of the past year back in her hometown of Memphis. It was there that she recorded Turn Out the Lights, her sophomore album where she had more time, more resources, more equipment, and, yes, even string arrangements. And, yet, it is a natural extension of everything she did on Sprained Ankle, taking the straightforward arrangements and emotionally raw songwriting of that album and deepening the textures and focusing the sentiments. Where her debut was an accidental breakthrough, an album that was humbly and simply constructed, Turn Out the Lights, which is being released by Matador Records, is an album of considerable ambitionsomething Baker seems eager to downplay.

"It was sort of like I made the best macaroni sculpture in the whole kindergarten class [with Sprained Ankle]," Baker says, "and when I got brought into a studio with all of the paint and canvas and fancy equipment I could ever need, they said, 'Let's see what you can do!' I said, 'I hope it's a masterpiece,'" she continues, then laughs. "Now that I had these resources and have been made aware of the audience and the support that I have in listeners, as well as in support from a label, I wanted to make something that would make all those people proud and feel like they got something that was gratifying and worth it," she says, before trailing off self-consciously. "Which is interesting, because I feel like it's a taboo to admit knowledge of the audience as an artist."

Over the course of two days and nearly three hours of conversation, Baker makes a number of comments like this, indicating how, despite having broken through in the mainstream of the indie rock world, her heart remains largely in the punk and hardcore scenes where she came of age. If Baker has been affected by her success, it's hard to tell in conversation. Unfailingly polite, she is still immediately engaging and personable, the kind of person who uses your first name when talking to you and who never corrects you after you repeatedly refer to her first album as "Broken Ankle." She still talks quickly, editing her sentences as they tumble out of her mouth, then apologizing when she realizes she has ended up at a point that is quite far afield from your original question. She's still disarmingly sincere in everything she says, yet cracks jokes at her own expense when she sees the mood becoming too serious. But even if she is loath to explain the details of the album out of fear of taking herself too seriously, it's obvious that she has put a lot of sober consideration into this album's construction.

Recorded in January 2017 at Memphis' legendary Ardent Studiosthe place where hometown heroes Big Star made each of their three albums and R.E.M. and The White Stripes recorded classicsBaker's second album proves that a little polish goes a long way. Instead of having two days to record, Baker and a select group of contributors had a comparably luxurious six, working 12-hour sessions. The increased ambitions can be felt from the album's first moments. On album-opener "Intro," the first sounds are that of a squeaky door opening, some footsteps plodding across the floor, and some thunderous piano chords that soon turn into a descending melody. A violin enters next, shrouded in echo and atmosphere, as the track dissolves into a crosshatch of electric guitar lines that become the album's second track.

"The first track is literally an overture of the record," Baker explains. "It moves from a minor inversion to a major key version of that riff, because I wanted that to be a microcosm of the whole narrative arc, like negative to positive, minor to major, dark to light, and to show those things as not existing on a spectrum but maybe they are inversions of each other. They're flip-flopped. They're the same image, just upside-down. And having that clarinet-strings-piano intro was something I was nervous about, but I thought, 'This is the record that I wanted to make, and I have a chance to and I can. I want to put this beautiful thing in there.'"

"Beautiful"that's the word Baker uses most often when describing how she wanted Turn Out the Lights to be different from Sprained Ankle. This, it seems, is a word that gives her pause, as if she has to apologize for wanting to make something that requires a bit of finesse and refinement to be exactly what she wants. Where Sprained Ankle was striking in its hypnotic directness, these songs are even more so, adding layered harmonies and countermelodies that allow them space to breathe and evolve in ways they hadn't before. Her writing, too, is more dynamic, tracing the album's trajectory through heartbreak, loneliness, and (eventually) hope. That journey starts with "Appointments," the album's despondent second track (and first single), wherein Baker describes a crumbling relationship with uncomfortable specificity. "I'm not what you want, am I?" she sings in a quivering voice over twinkling electric guitar. "You don't have to remind me how much I disappoint you," she continues, her voice growing sharper as she describes a narrator who has no choice but to cling to an empty hope that things somehow will get better.

"Much of that song is just excerpts pulled from real conversations that I've had with people that I love," Baker says. "And those conversations occurred at a time when I felt pretty distant from others and unable to communicate effectively. And this is true of so much of the music I write: the things that I was feeling that I put into the songs, I knew not to be true or accurate assessments of the situation. Like how much I disappoint others by my inability to achieve a normative idea of mental health. Those things aren't accurate to what other people are probably feeling, but they were how I felt at the time, and I felt like 'What is the worst that can happen, at this time in my life when everything feels wrong and unorganized and disjointed?' If I ruin everything, I can live with it. And once I get to the bottom, there's no place else to go, and I can start climbing back up again. It's like a positive Sisyphus," she says with a laugh. "It's like, 'The rock has to stop rolling down the hill, and I get all of the joy and achievement of pushing it back up again.'"

That themetrying to find hope in what seems like a hopeless situationruns throughout the entirety of Turn Out the Lights. It's there in the atmospheric title track, whose insomniac narrator is tortured by self-criticism, haunted by the reality that when she turns out the lights "there's no one there between myself and me." It's there, nestled in the strings and piano lines of "Shadowboxing," whose protagonist fights her demons to a draw, only to be plagued by the fear that she is ultimately unlovable. It's there in a trio of songs that address God, either directly ("Happy to be Here") or obliquely ("Televangelist"), with Baker lobbing questions and waiting for answers. As much as Baker is an artist who works in broad strokes from a vivid emotional palette, she is also a writer with an eye for metaphorical detail. No better example exists than "Hurt Less," a piano ballad where Baker takes the image of the safety beltand whether or not to care enough about yourself to wear one—takes on symbolic power.

"It's not about the romantic relationship," Baker is quick to point out. "It's just about my best friend, Mathew Gilliam, who is the drummer of Forrister, which is a band I played in in Memphis. He sings low harmonies on the song, and I had hair standing up on my arms, because it felt like such a precious moment to be able to sing about a close friend and driving around and feeling understood by someone, just sitting in a car, not really having answers. The last part about starting to wear safety belts-because being with another person that you value so much, that also experiences so much pain and that you sympathize with-makes you aware that you're not the only person in your world and that there are other reasons to stay. There are reasons to stay and engage and try and not just submit to sadness or apathy."

That decisionto stay and fight or succumb to despairhangs heavy over the album, with references to death and (one assumes) suicide dotting a few tracks. But unlike Sprained Ankle, where Baker sang about how she wished she could "write songs about anything other than death," these are songs consumed by the struggle to live. These are not purely autobiographical songs, Baker says, as much as they are about learning to see beyond her perspective to recognize the pain of others. That's more or less where the album ends, with "Claws in Your Back."

"'Claws in Your Back' is about several of my friends who were coping with serious levels of mental health issues," Baker explains. "And me watching them go through that and revisiting the notion on 'Go Home' on Sprained Ankle, which is at the end. I'm speaking as someone who is tired of this earth and the afflictions and suffering that I experience and that I witness and that I wish I could just leave and move on to, ostensibly, the next plane of existence, where hopefully things are better and people are healed. With 'Claws' at the end of the record, I see what so many people are enduring here in our current temporal world. And rather than just focus on something that is coming after or seek an escapist solution to problems, I started thinking about how it's depriving a person from recognizing the beauty that's interwoven into all the negative things. I'd rather stay in this world and try to identify the beautiful and meaningful and worthy things that already exist instead of writing this world off as suffering that has to be endured until it gets better."

That it will get better is no guarantee, Baker admits. She might never stop having panic attacks. Governments might never escape the grip of corrupt politicians. The world might never be any less broken and filled with loss and despair. Maybe nothing will ever change. But even if all of that holds true, it's still her responsibility to find a way to respond to it all. Where she had once said that had she known so many people were going to hear Sprained Ankle that she wouldn't have felt comfortable expressing so much unfiltered pain, she found that having an audience didn't change much of anything when writing the songs for Turn Out the Lights.

"There were so many times when I felt the need to censor myself or to change something when it risked being at all campy or cheesy," she says. "But I would then feel really convicted, like, 'No, this is how I feel and this is how I wrote the song, so I want to allow it to stay how it is and embody that emotion.' A lot of questions that I ended up answering on the last record were all about pain, and hopefully this record can be about pain, too, but also about healing. But to be able to discuss all of those negative emotions," she says, pausing, "I think you have to make room for joy when joy feels appropriate."

Shadowboxing with Giants

When Julien Baker's father was a teenager he made a decision that would forever change the trajectory of his life. Doing what Baker calls some "early 20s stupid stuff" on a motorcycle, he was in an accident that resulted in the loss of his leg. Right then and there, he was presented with a choice: he could wallow in his misery and be defined by his disability, or he could try to find some meaning in his loss. "And then he started making prosthetic legs and limbs," Baker explains, her voice rising in excitement. "When he lived in Memphis, he made all of the prosthetic legs for the amputees as St. Jude's Cancer Research Hospital. And when he was in Louisiana he made a robot arm for a baby that is like experimental technology that is picking up on electricity from their nerve endings. It's crazy. But he took the most tragic event of his life and made it into his profession that is helping other people walk again. It's pretty cool."

Baker's mother, too, practices the healing arts as a physical therapist doing rehabilitative home visits for Medicare and Medicaid clients. Neither of them practices the musical arts, Baker says, but both instilled in her a love of songwriting. With mom tending toward Fleetwood Mac and dad blasting Bad Company and The Scorpions, it wasn't long until they noticed Baker's musical inclinations and set her up to begin lessons. Like so many students, she had a good ear but no discipline.

"I was such a delinquent student, and I still can't really read staff music, so doing rudiments was hard," Baker recalls. "My piano teacher was like, 'If I play this song on the radio, can you figure it out?' And I'd figure it out in like five minutes. So then I'd do that with guitar, too. When my dad bought a guitar, I'd take it into my room and teach myself chords on it, like simple stuff. 'Good Riddance' by Green Day is C, G, and Dreally easy. So I just did that from the age of 12 to 14 or so, when I started joining bands and trying to play out. I guess I always knew that that's what I wanted to do, because it was the only thing I could do for four straight hours and not be bored."

By fourth grade, Baker had her first musical epiphany. Watching VH1's Top 20 Countdown, she was taken by the image of Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong in "his weird skinny jeans and tie." The band's American Idiot album had just come out, and Baker was introduced to her first anti-war, slightly countercultural act. An only child, she didn't have an older sibling to expose her to music that lived beyond the Top 40, and her suburban home was far enough away from Memphis proper that she hadn't experienced much of the city's historic culture, either. She was going to have to figure it out for herself.

As an angsty and sensitive kid, there was something in Green Day's music that connected, something that was about to define her early adolescence. Soon, Baker was wearing ties and painting her fingernails black and diving into the history of punk rock. Her infatuation with Green Day opened the door for her to discover Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance. A level deeper, she found post-hardcore heroes Underoath and AFI. She had begun down the "slippery slope" of punk rock history, Baker says, and she was soon obsessed with metalcore and screamo bands such as The Chariot, Norma Jean, and Whitechapel.

"And then I went in 2008 and bought Control by Pedro the Lion and Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie, and I always think of buying those records as something that flipped a switch in me and broadened how I thought about emotive music," Baker says. "Because I had finally found these people who were screaming their feelings and getting it out, and I was like, 'This is great. This is way better than how I feel. I feel like there's something not as gratifying in the softer music that's on the radio, and I want something that's real and angsty,' because I was an angsty kid, and that's what I wanted."

All the while, Baker was writing songs of her own, dissecting the chord structures of her favorite songs, then moving the parts around to make something new. For now, though, she was mostly interested in kicking up a racket and becoming a "cool rock chick" who could shred with the boys. But it was difficult to grow as a songwriter while she was still afraid to even show her work to another person. With her best friend Matthew Gilliam, the future drummer of her first band, The Star Killers (eventually renamed Forrister), she did what she has done since: she rallied her courage and took a chance.

"I played him a song that I wrote and sang real quiet," she recalls, her voice dropping to a whisper. "And even after I sang him the basic melody, I was like, 'This is just how it goes. I don't want to sing for our band.' And then we kept looking for a lead singer and we didn't find one, so I was like, 'Well, I'll just sing for this show, and we'll get another lead singer.' And then I sang and played in that band for four years. I would play with different bands around town, and I got booked at this coffee shop in Memphis called Otherlands. I was so excited and nervous, so I just went and played four original songs, wearing a Mastodon shirt and was four-and-a-half feet tall."

Though Baker expresses some embarrassment about those early songs, it's obvious she had more than enough to write about, even at a young age. She was a depressed, anxious kid, reeling from her parents' divorce and struggling to understand her sexuality in a region of the country that wasn't (and isn't) known for affirming LGBT rights. Alcohol and harder substances started to become a part of her daily life before she was old enough to drive. She has talked at length about this topic in previous interviews, so much so that Baker says she now has to be careful not to fall into what she refers to the "scars and stories" trope.

"I think it's just sad," Baker says. "It makes me sad that I did those things. I think that it's a common misconception that teenagers or pre-teenagers, like 11- or 12- or 13-year-olds are just emotional because they're emotional and it's hormones. I don't think that's it. I think you're frustrated because you are having to exercise significant cognitive effort to make sense of things that are coming at youlike the world and people you love letting you down, people that you love not loving you back, questioning authority or feeling like your hurt is either valid or invalid. And if you remove any stability from that, whether it be with your friends or your family, it just sends everything haywire. Absolutely, there were things that were really messed up when I was growing up, but I don't want to harp on a broken home narrative. People are going to find negative ways to cope, and, unfortunately, I was proximal to people in my life who also wanted to pursue those self-destructive activities as a means to cope. And it took me being introduced to a new environment to change it."

That environment was provided by Smith7, a nonprofit record label that puts on and promotes shows in Memphis to help local bands get established, turning any proceeds back into helping the label break even. It was there, at a house show, that Baker found the outlet that would come to define the rest of her high school years. At a house show dubbed "Wes Fest," as attendees were encouraged to dress like their favorite character from a Wes Anderson film, a lonely, self-destructive girl found the place where she belonged.

"And I showed up and I was kind of scared, because it was high school [students] and a couple of college-aged people, and I was like, 'There's going to be beer and alcohol here,' and I was really curious about it," she recalls. "And then there wasn't. [It was] the first time I had really encountered kids getting together on their own and doing things that were still countercultural and carving out their own reactive space but not having a party. It was so interesting to see a substance-free space, like, 'Why? Why is it substance-free?' and the guy who runs it, Brian [Vernon], who is still one of my best friends in the world, was like, 'Because we're here for music, and that's all we're here for.' And that was a sentiment that I could totally hop on board with."

Before long, Forrister, with Baker as lead guitarist and vocalist, were at the center of a thriving Memphis punk scene, playing a weeklong tour every summer where Smith7 bands perform at summer camps at elementary schools, then donate the money earned to a local charity. "And the whole point is, 'Dude, music should be a vehicle to impart something of worth to others, whether it's an intangible comfort or a tangible resource, like, we raised you this money,'" Baker says. "And seeing the way Brian dealt with money, he would just give people money to print shirts and say, 'If you pay me back, cool. If you don't, cool. I want you to have this.' The ethos of that whole scene informed how I still think about music."

Night after night, show after show, Baker stood in people's living rooms and shouted. Surrounded by friends on all sidesamps and drum kits up front, musicians standing face-to-face with their audiencethese were not performances as much as they were paroxysms of collective catharsis. For the first time in her life, Baker felt like she was part of a community, and that interconnectedness made her want to see if she could give something back to everyone she felt understood and validated her. "I think it made me want to show up and try and not be flaky and self-destructive," she says, "because it's one of those things that was showing me that I'm not the only person in my life. What I do has a huge implication on all these other people, and I cannot go about my life being self-destructive in a self-pitying way, because I could do something constructive."

But even though Baker had found a place to belong, she still had a secret. She had known for years that she was attracted to other girls, but, given the local political climate, she didn't dare tell anyone. This was the era before gay marriage in all 50 states, when even President Obama and Hillary Clinton were officially against legal recognition of same-sex nuptials, and Baker had overheard enough of the controversy in the media and seen enough "God Hates Fags" signs on TV to know that she should keep her mouth shut.

To her surprise, her friends didn't seem particularly shocked by her announcement. One obstacle averted. Next, Baker had to come out to her parents. Having had a friend who revealed his sexuality and was promptly kicked out of his house, she knew that such announcements could have dire ramifications. But here, again, she was met with nothing but unambiguous support and acceptance. She had one obstacle remaining: she had to come out to her church. As she had grown to love her local Christian community, as well as playing guitar in her church's worship band, a rejection would represent nothing short of profound loss. Tracking down her church's music leader, she readied her revelation. "I was like 'I've got to tell you something,' and I was sweating profusely, and she was like, 'What's going on? Did someone die?' and I was like, 'I'm gay.' And she was like, 'So?' That was her literal response. I was like, 'If I had known that people were going to respond this way I would have come out five years ago.'"

But there was one final hurdle to clear. Though her local community, as well as her local church, had been affirming, she couldn't shake the existential terror that they could all be wrong. What if those Biblical passages condemning homosexuality, referring to it as an "abomination," were correct? She couldn't bring herself not to believe in God, and she couldn't square what she believed to be true of God with what it appeared that the majority of Christendom believed about homosexuality. "I'm one of those people who can't leave a problem unsolved," she says. "If something is unresolved, I can't relax."

And so Baker set about to solve it, at least for herself. She went to the local library and took out books on Eastern religions. She read treatises by Milton and Goethe and Barthes. She dove deep into the Bible and its supplementary texts and theological commentaries. This was heady stuff-too heady for a ninth grader in some cases, she admitsbut she found her answer. "I think feeling persecuted, I could no longer be ambivalent about the things I believed, because if they remained undefined then I would have to be in this constant state of doubt and uncertainty as to whether those people were right, and I didn't want them to be right," she recalls. "I didn't want to think, 'Am I going to hell? Is there a God that is going to send me to hell for being gay?' And I had to find out," she says, "and I found out that there's not."

The story of what came next has been told over and over, by everyone from indie zines to The New York Times. Baker went to Middle Tennessee State University in the fall of 2013, wrote a batch of brokenhearted songs during lonely, late-night sessions in the campus' deserted music building, and then turned those tracks into Sprained Ankle. Two years after their release, she still hasn't really adjusted. "But I hope it never becomes routine or mundane, because for me now every time I go on tour, we show up to good theaters, and I'm like, 'Look at this place! It's so beautiful!' I never thought that more than 30 people would come to a show," she says, pausing as if to take it all in. "So this is cool.

A Fix for Everything

On August 29, 2017, the annual conference of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention released the Nashville Statement, a document reaffirming the traditional interpretation of the proper role of sexuality in Biblical teaching. Signed by 150 leading evangelical leaders representing numerous denominations, it kicked off a series of rebuttals that seem to hold the potential of further splitting Christendom into squabbling factions. One thing is clear: the debate is far from over.

"It disappointed me because it felt like now we live in a world where so many people feel like they're defending an ideology that is under attack," she says, "and they force themselves into this unnecessary binary, where they want to remind everyone that they still don't agree with you, and that's fine. But, foolishly perhaps, I was more optimistic about this discourse that's occurring, and the voices of LGBT people being recognized. I think that a God that would make a person who is a member of the LGBT community would know exactly what they are doing. This is a conversation that I know will take two hours for me to explain," she says, sighing. "I feel myself getting upset about it, because I have just now worked through all that 'You can't change those people. They're going to be hateful no matter what' and trying not to get so twisted into a knot about it."

Though she doesn't spend much time on Turn Out the Lights directly addressing the topic of sexuality, she does offer one clear statement on "Happy to Be Here." A somber electric guitar ballad where she imagines being an electrician who can crawl into her head and examine the defects in her internal wiring, the track presents her as someone longing to reformat herself to want "two cars in the garage and church on Sunday." She eventually shifts to address God, the engineer, for designing her the way she is.

"For the first half of 'Happy to Be Here' it's frustrated, like, 'Why am I made this way?'" she explains. "It's arguing, presumably with the entity that is responsible for how I amall the things about me, my mental disposition, my sexualityand knows those things. And thinking that if there's this entire society where those things are identified or regarded as broken, then those two ideologies don't line up. There's a bit of cognitive dissonance there. If human beings are divine and loved creatures, which I believe they are, then how could those integral parts of human beings also be called ugly or wrong or broken? So it was asking, 'Did you do this on purpose? What am I supposed to do with this?'"

Towards the end of the song, Baker makes an arresting statement: "I know there's nowhere I can hide from your humiliating grace." When asked about the line, Baker explains that she has come to view her gifts and flaws in a less dichotomous way, learning that her struggles often provide her most enduring life lessons. That is "humiliating grace"the feeling that God surrounds her with people who love and affirm her, often for the very qualities she hates about herself. It's a humbling feeling, she says, one that fills her with both embarrassment and gratitude. She was taught in church that God has equipped her with gifts to serve others in ministry. Could this moment and this music be hers?

"I think viewing music or talent as a platform is something that has always been with me," she says. "I want to use my music for more than 'I made a cool piece of art. Everyone tell me how cool my art is.' I want to use my music for more than accolades and getting recognition. I want it to provide a resource to other people or to allow me to be a conduit for something shared and common to myself and the people at my shows," she says, then takes a deep, self-effacing breath. "Wow. I hope that I answered your question."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Fall 2017 Issue (October/November 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]



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