Julien Baker - The Under the Radar Cover Story - Bonus Q&A

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


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Julien Baker doesn't hide her excitement. At the end of the first of two 75-minute interviews, I mention that Under the Radar is pleased to feature her on our cover, not realizing that this is news she is hearing for the first time. "Woah! Really?" she replies, her voice filled with incredulity. "Oh, my goodness. Wow. Okay! Cool. That's super cool," she says, pausing as if to give me one more chance to reveal the prank. "My goodness."

Given the disarmingly unguarded nature of her songwriting, such a response probably shouldn't be a surprise. Baker is anything but circumspect. Two years after her Sprained Ankle became one of the most-acclaimed debuts of 2015, Baker is still getting accustomed to the fact that she has listeners, let alone enough of them to justify appearing on the cover of a national music magazine. In those two short years there have been sold out shows, interviews with The New York Times and The Washington Post, and a contract with Matador, but the 22-year-old remains remarkably grounded. (Though she is a solo act, her heart remains in the scenes she grew up in, so much so that she still uses "we" instead "I" when talking about her work.) She has told her story many times by this pointabout how she grew up gay in the South, how she struggled with addiction as a teen, how she learned her chops in Memphis' Smith7 punk scenebut she still replies to questions as if she's doing so for the first time.

With Turn Out the Lights, her dazzling sophomore release, Baker has a lot more to talk about. Broadening her sonic and thematic palette to include colors and sentiments only hinted at on Sprained Ankle, Baker has proven herself to be the rare songwriter who can craft simple arrangements that sound expansive, using expansive sentiments that feel intimate. Here, Baker explains how being both gay and Christian informs her work, how her unlikely breakthrough came about, and how she is still trying to figure out where she wants to go next.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Why'd you decide to record in Memphis?

Julien Baker: I recorded the new record in Memphis, because at the time I was living there. I moved away from Nashville, and I lived in Memphis for a year-and-a-half, because that's where I'm from and where I consider home. I have a really strong attachment to Memphis, so I wanted to record the record at Ardent Studios, which is an interesting and meaningful piece of local lore. The guy, Jody Stephens from Big Star, kind of runs the studio, and it's a big deal for local artists but also for on a national level. We just worked six days in a row and stayed in there for 12 hours.

You did the whole album in six days?

Yes. This is the first record that I made demos for. I used to only make voice memos and use my antiquated laptop and a 2000 edition of Audacity to make really rough demos and then hope that everything came together in the studio. But this one, me and Cal [Lauber], the same guy who recorded the record in January, made 20 demos. And then I listened to them a whole bunch and conceptualized them and took a spiral notebook and made all of these charts, just listing parts and priority levels. That way when we got into the studio, it was assembling the mental raw material into a finished product, but it went really quickly. Everybody that playedCamille Faulkner plays violin on a couple of tracks, and she knocked it out in a day. It was wild. And there are one or two tracks that have Cam Boucher's really low woodwinds. The first track that's just instrumental, he knocked that out in two takes. It felt good.

You produced this record. Was there a particular texture that you wanted to capture?

Musically, I think I wanted the record to be cohesive and feel like the songs, while they could stand alone as individual pieces, were a body of work more than a collection of things that maybe sounded sonically similar, because they were all written with the same tools but were not crafted on purpose that way. I wanted things to sound really crisp but not shiny and polished and overproduced. I feel like it's an under-descriptive word to say just "beautiful," but I wanted them to sound not overly dramatic or operatic or like I'm trying to make a magnum opus but just beautiful, purposeful songs.

"Hurt Less" stands out on this album, since it's one of the only songs that is unambiguously positive.

Good! I sent the song to Camille, because she was in a different city, to listen to and start writing violin stuff. And she responded, "The last line of 'Hurt Less' really surprised me." And I was like, "Good! That's okay." Because it felt revolutionary, which is kind of an awful thing to admit, that being complacent in my sadness made me feel like, "I'm it. What I feel is most important, and I refuse to see impacts that I might have on others or to think of our potential as a community." And I think that song being about friendship is why it's so important to me. That's something that has provided me more solace than many other things.

You write a lot about God in your songs. Have you ever received any backlash for that?

Oh, man. I've never gotten reamed out, like, "You're gonna go to hell." I've never had fire and brimstone heaped directly at me in a social media public sphere platform, which is almost weird to me, because I expected it more. To be a person who is saying, "I'm a queer female and I believe in God, and I don't agree with all the things that a lot of you guys say about God and God's self"I was expecting way more negative backlash, but it hasn't happened. I'm an indie artist with a platform of sorts, but maybe I don't come across their world. But what I have seen more is the people that I interact with or the nonprofits or organizations that have reached out to me, I didn't know that there were so many people like me that were trying to consolidate and elevate the voice of people who want to contradict the dominant narrative or how religion should be utilized and who God is.

Have you ever experienced a backlash from people who are okay with you being gay but not for being a Christian?

Ooh. See I think that's interesting, because that has also not happened very much, but it's something that I feel more. I've had more inquisitive conversations with people asking "So, you believe in God and Jesus and Holy Spirit and that whole nine yards?" being wary about it. And I love those conversations, because when I get to talk about things in really specific terms, it gives me a chance to just express my personal thoughts on my faith and offer an alternative to so much of what's out there, which I think can be really negative. But I've had more of that than people being like, "So...you like girls?" Typically, when someone is like, "Oh, you're queer. I didn't know that. That's cool," they're just okay with it. There have been a few times that they haven't been okay with it, but fortunately not with interviewers or stuff. People will find out that I'm queer, and they're like, "Oh...okay." They're just super uncomfortable. Hopefully I'll continue getting to talk about those things: both being a queer person and [having] my faith and how that fits into the tumultuous political sphere.

Do you ever worry that it would be harder to write if you didn't feel so much of that tension in your life?

Hmm. There's a personal and a less personal way to answer that. If the social sphere changed and those two elements of my personality stopped being a potential taboo, then I think I would probably have not written about it. But also I think then there would be new questions and fears and doubts worth exploring. As far as a personal psyche goes, for me it's just a rolodex. When it seems like I've solved one problem or the things that are causing me anxiety or fears about the world at large, when one of those things gets solved, a new thing appears to fill its place. I hear a lot of people talk about it like a mental whack-a-mole, and that's certainly true. I also think that maybe there will be a season in life where things are going alright and there's not a lot of destruction or trauma in my personal, immediate world. But I don't think that will negate me feeling empathy for the things that I observe, and I think at that point maybe the things that break my heart will be more overtly about others. There's several songs on this record, like, "Claws" and "Even" and even "Hurt Less," to some extent, and "Shadowboxing"that are derived from recognizing other people's pain and how deeply it affects me. So I think that was part of what I liked so much about this recordthat I got to reassign the focus from just me and my egocentric world and expand it to others and other human beings' narratives and seeing the songs as ways to practice and explore empathy. So I think there will probably always be some pressing thing to write about, whether it be my issue or somebody else's. Hopefully it will be somebody else's so I can stop talking about myself so much. [Laughs]

When did you start writing your own music?

Probably like 2006 or '07. Oh, my God, that was 10 years ago. That's insane to me! But, yeah, I would just sit in my room and mess around with the acoustic guitar, and once I got to where I thought I could pick out other bands' songs and chord structures by ear, I feel like it helped me get creative, like, "What if I moved this note here or that note there?" And I started writing instrumental stuff and lyrics, and I was always too scared to show it to anybody for years and years. I guess that was when I was 12 and 13, and it wasn't until I was 14 or 15 that I started playing out at coffee shops and stuff. I just wanted to play lead guitar, and I didn't think that I could sing well enough. I was like, "I just want to play, and someone else will sing." But then I started playing out.

What were your original songs like?

Oh, man. I listened back to them recently, and I was like, "What was I doing?" I think they were a lot more folky, because acoustic guitar and the simpler chord structure lent itself to Mystic Valley Band or Paul Simon-y sounding fingerpicking or even bluegrass-y stuff. And then I didn't really get to use any of the interesting bizarre chord structure things until I was in a heavier band, and then I just wanted to do that all the time. I didn't want to do soft stuff. So then when I started playing by myself again, it was on electric because I could do whatever I want. I guess I could have done whatever I want on acoustic guitar, too, but I like being able to utilize all the effects pedals and weird Fall of Troy chords.

This was around when you started to get involved with the Smith7 scene, right?

Oh, yeah. So I started going to house shows, it must have been 13 or 14. It wasn't that long after I started playing guitar. Maybe 14. It was because a couple of my older friends would go to house shows. Smith7 used to book shows at the skate park, and the skate park in Memphis is where all the metalcore bands came through, so that's where I saw Underoath and AFI and Bear vs. Shark or whatever. They would get booked there, and I would go. It was so cool because everyone who showed up to Smith7 shows was there for music primarily. It was so awesome. Kids were standing in a living room. It was the first time I had ever seen this happennow it's a routine thing. But it was the first time I'd ever seen amps and a full drum kit in a living room, and then everyone is just standing there. There is no barrier between the audience and the performer, and the vocalist and everybodythere's no divide. The vocalist is grabbing people by the shirt and singing along, and everybody is having a good time. It's less like there's a single performer, and it's more like everybody showed up for this massive singalong, like revival style group sing. And I think that was something that I was so immediately invested in, because finding a community like that that you feel accepts and supports you and validates your emotions and art is so integral and precious to that age of development in late junior high and early high school. I feel so fortunate that it was such a positive environment. The ethos of that whole scene informed how I still think about music.

At this same time, you were struggling with substance abuse.

That's something that I'm super careful on how I discuss it, because I never want to tell those stories and have it seem like an accessory to who I am as a person in the "scars and stories" trope. I'm very aware that experiencing all of the negative things and becoming involved with using substances at a young age was...I don't want to say irresponsible, because that not only seems trite and something a now adult would say, but it kind of minimizes it. I'm grateful that I later found people like attendees at Smith7 shows and the Smith7 community, because I saw that there was an alternative to just coping with your problems using substances.

When you're a kid and you're experiencing all of these emotions and negative things are happening in your personal life, you start to lose perspective on how your problems will ever get solved or how you'll ever deal with the sadness that you feel. I think it was really easy to get so nihilistic or pessimistic that I didn't really care what I was doing with my health or how things were hurting my body or hurting other people around me, and it makes me sad that I was that selfish and shortsighted, even though I know it's important to have mercy with the past self and forgive yourself for things like that. But there are so many things that if I had never been introduced to that kind of mentality where people are finding feeling and release and enjoyment in just making music and just screaming into a microphone. I had never shown up and said, "Nobody here is drunk. Nobody here is smoking weed. Nobody here is doing anything." I like to think that I would have learned on my own to moderate things, but I think it was good for me to see the alternative and see how powerful music could be by itself and that it could be constructive. I could form a bond with all these other people in this room, and I want to mean something to them and I want to contribute and not just allow my sadness to make me swallowed up by negative coping mechanisms.

How did coming to terms with your sexuality play into that dynamic?

Interestingly, I knew I was gay and did not want to tell anyone, like every gay person. But I knew that I had feelings for girls and that I was attracted to other people of my same sex, and I didn't want to tell anybody for years and years. And I think that once I started to come out to people at my high school or in the music scene that I was in, it was really unexpectedly welcoming. And I think that was something that I needed. Before I came out, when I was 12, 13, and 14 and hanging out with kids who were a little bit older than me, there were people in our group of friends who were queer, and always thought, "Man, they just told everyone they were queer, and I could never do that." I didn't have a problem with it, and would just tell people that. Like, "No, it's not my thing, but I don't have a problem with it." And on the inside I was like, "How? How did you do it so easy?"

But then I had my first girlfriend when I was in ninth grade and started coming out to folks and was just met by a lot of people not reacting in a negative or surprised way that I thought [they would]. All of my closest friends pretty much told me they saw it coming, and it was probably a year or two after I had come out to all of my friends that I came out to my church. But I think it was actually a more positive experience. I had a lot of internalized guilt about it that was less like a direct result of my environment or people around me, because I had friends who their parents were totally chill with it. And I had another friend in high school who got kicked out and cut off entirely, because he came out. That's how much it varies from parent to parent. My dad was completely accepting. My mom was accepting. I think because they grew up in the era that they did that it took them a little bit to wrap their mind around it, and they don't always necessarily have the right vernacular, but they are always completely supportive.

I'm still a person of faith and trying to think if all I hear on news coverage of protests is people holding up signs that say God hates gay people, then what am I supposed to think of a God that I can't bring myself not to believe in, just because that's the philosophical postulate that I've arrived atthat God exits. But I also can't believe in a God that would condemn something that He created. So I honestly think that me being so deeply affected by people who weaponized scripture and use it as a way to condemn gay people or other religions made me obsessed with it. I can't trust you unless I verify it myself, and I did enough investigation to know that that's a fallacy. But just voraciously consuming all of this literature, like, "Are all of the things I hear said true?" I think it made me more discerning and want to figure it out myself. 

So then you went to Middle Tennessee State University. Was there a reason you chose that school?

MTSU has an incredible recording industry major program, and I was always handy with modifying guitars and fixing amps and making little pedals and circuits and stuff, and I just thought if being in a band and being successful is a one in a million shot and a pipedream, maybe I should find a way to get a degree that is a quote-unquote marketable skill, because we live in a society that gears everything towards being a successful contributing career-having member of society. So I was like, "I'll get a marketable skill in engineering," and I went for audio, because I would run sound for bands and stuff. But then I stopped doing that, because I realized that I was going to have to take a lot of classes that were geared toward business and marketing to round out the recording industry major, and there are many people who I respect infinitely who are able to do the whole networking and marketing and business savvy-oriented part, but I couldn't do it and I was dreading it.

So I switched majors to Spanish Literature and secondary education, which was really fun. I got read some Garcia-Marquez original translations and student teach at a local high school. So I was going to be a high school teacher, and I was in summer classes to complete that, and then I started touring full time. I was in the middle of releasing stuff with the record and driving to student teach ninth graders and stuff. It was fun. That's performance, too. That's a meaningful way to contribute to others, to establish a dialog that is going to be vital to those kids. Not vital in the way of "You're going to need to know these answers for the state aptitude test"don't get me started on thatbut you've got to make students for an hour every day understand why they should care about the racial dynamic in To Kill a Mockingbird. That is the performance and the thing you're trying to get across and establish a dialog about, and it's honestly not that much different when you're standing on a stage telling people that they should care about their emotions and each other. It was fun. I think I would be happy if I ended up doing that.

That must have been a difficult decision to quit.

The whole time I was in college before signing with [the record label] 6131, I honestly don't know how I did it. When I look back at the way that I time-managed in college, it was insane. I would finish classes, take a Greyhound bus home for a weekend show, or the boys would come up and we'd play a show. They'd pick me up in Nashville and we'd go to Chattanooga and play a show or on a weekend break to Chicago or St. Louis to play a show. That's what I thought it would be. I thought I'd be in a DIY band and work my real job so I could have the pleasure and the joy of playing to 20 people in a living room. And I was like, "You know what? If that's the most that comes of it, I'm okay with that."

Did you know the songs on Sprained Ankle were special when you were recording them?

No. I did not. I was just writing them in my dorm, because once I moved away it was hard to have a full band practice, so I had all these songs that I would write in my dorm or I'd go to the music building from midnight to 2:00 in the morning, because no one was there and I could use the practice rooms and write songs that didn't really fit a full band setting. It was just a collection of songs. And one of my friends [Michael Hegner] from the audio program said, "Hey, I have a chance to record at this studio I intern at. Why don't you come on a road trip with me to Richmond [Virginia] and we'll record as many songs as you want?" And I just released it for fun, just for my friends, and still was mainly touring with Forrister. And we were working on releasing stuff. But I never imagined that would happen.

Was the reaction immediate?

It wasn't immediate necessarily. I put the tracks up, and my friends on Facebook were like, "Good job." And people downloaded it off the Bandcamp. I think I put it up there for three bucks, and I made $100 or $200. And I split it with Hegner, and I walked to the MTSC computer labs, and I put some cash in his hand, like, "Yeah, that's what being a real musician is about!" [Laughs] I was so proud of my $50 to $100, this measly wad of $20s. I was like, "I got you, dude." And then after that, one of my friends, Ryan Azada, asked me to do a winter tour with him and just do acoustic sets, and I did, and that was so much fun. And then I booked a little tour right after that, and because I had a relationship with a bunch of people who played in other touring bands, that's how 6131 got involved. And when we got signed, I did a short tour. It was on summer break and me and my friend, Emma, who was my first tour manager ever and still a really good friend of mine, drove up to New York in her Prius. And it was just all shows where I emailed people and begged them to let me play at their little house. I played in living rooms and stuff all the way up, and then I played Cakeshop in New York. And I made 70 bucks off that tour and gave it to my tour manager, like "Yes! We're out here living the life." That was the first time we made money off of tour.

I think it really took off when 6131 rereleased the record, and we did that tour. And Amanda [Pitts, Chromatic Publicity] got involved really early on and when the song was featured on NPR, I was like, "What? That does not seem right." I cannot mentally wrap my mind around how this is happening, because my songs should not be on NPR. NPR is where successful musicians go. After that, we signed with a booking agent and did some bigger shows.

After you broke through, did your friends treat you differently?

I wouldn't say so. It has never been for anyone in Memphis a point of contention. There has never been a shift in my dynamic with any of my friends. I think they're proud and vocal about being proud, which makes me happy, because when I first started to take tours and promote the solo record, I felt this immense fear of disappointing the guys in [Forrister], because I felt like, "Oh, no. They're going to feel left behind." And I had this really emotional conversation with them, where I was like, "I just don't want you guys to feel like I'm selling out." And they were like, "What are you talking about? You would be an idiot if you didn't take these opportunities. We're just so proud of you." And I remember feeling silly for how afraid I was being and proud that I am friends with people who are so supportive and selfless enough to be happy for me and do their own thing and join other bands. But I played Pants Tour this year. I filled in on guitar for a punk band called Wicker, and I think getting to still be involved in those ways is meaningful to me because everyone knows that when I come back home it's just the same. And everybody treats me just like a member of the Memphis family, which is nice.

Was it intimidating to make a second album and, on some level, have to justify the fact that you have an audience now?

Yes! Yes, it was. A lot of times I hear artists talk about preserving the authenticity of the art as maintaining it solely as a personal endeavor. But I think that you can have both. Nothing was falsified. I didn't write a song that I didn't like to try to become successful. I just wrote as many songs as I could, and I wrote the best songs that I could that made me happy. The reason that I took so much care and time is that these songs are things that are naturally coming out of me. They help me cope, and they're a byproduct of me processing. But then when I turn around and package and shrink-wrap that into a CD that I sell at shows, I want to be able to say that I gave every last bit of myself and my energy to make something great. Because it's also maybe taboo to talk about the fiscal element of music and art, but when you introduce a label it does become a fiscal endeavor. So I'm selling CDs for however much I'm selling them for, and people pay however much they pay to get into a show, and I want them to feel like I care about them. Listeners allow me to have my art recognized. This is my job, and it wouldn't be if people didn't buy tickets to shows. And Matador wouldn't be a label if people didn't buy records. Every time I play a show or sell one CD, I'm aware of that. I couldn't bring myself to give away something that I didn't entirely believe was the best I could do. And I want to impart something to those people that's not just a confetti canon and "Here is your $15 of performance." But to me doing the best I can is being as genuine as I can and hoping that what I give away is effectively communicating what I want, which is hopefulness and feeling or something much more valuable than that.

At this point, do you have a sense of what you want to do in the future?

Honestly, this is a question that when we were doing interviews for the last record I had trouble answering, and I still have trouble answering it. Every indicator or flag of increased success is a perpetual surprise to me. Not in a way that I have such a low opinion of myself that I don't think myself capable of those things, but I'm so content and grateful with the things that I have, so I would be overjoyed if get the pleasure of being able to consistently write and release good records that I believe in and tour and interact with audiences as my profession. Would it be amazing to play enormous venues every single night and sell out huge arenas? Maybe. Maybe that's in the cards for me, and maybe it's not. I think probably not. I'll just be happy if I get to tour and create things with other musicians and challenge myself on every record to make something that is interesting and contributes to a larger sphere of music.

[Note: This article originally appeared in the digital version (for tablets and smart phones) of Under the Radar's Fall 2017 Issue (October/November 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

 

www.julienbaker.com

 

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