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2017 Artist Survey: Julien Baker

Baker on 2017's Best Albums, Which Breakfast Club Character She Most Identifies With, and Why Stars Wars: The Last Jedi Isn't That Bad

Feb 09, 2018 Photography by Crackerfam (for Under the Radar) Julien Baker
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For Under the Radar‘s 15th annual Artist Survey we emailed some of our favorite artists a few questions relating to the last year. We asked them about their favorite albums of the year and their thoughts on various notable 2017 news stories involving either the music industry or world events, as well as some quirkier personal questions. Here are some answers from Julien Baker. The Memphis singer/songwriter released her acclaimed sophomore album, Turn Out the Lights, in 2017 via Matador, her first for the label. It was Under the Radar‘s #2 album of the year in our Top 100 Albums of 2017 list and landed her on the cover of our print magazine (read the 2017 cover story here, and read a cover story bonus Q&A here).

For our annual Artist Surveys we emailed the same set of questions to musicians about the various sexual harassment and assault allegations, the “Me Too” movement, the chaotic first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, the Charlottesville alt-right rally and racism in America, embarrassing moments, professional regrets, which Breakfast Club character they are most like, the end of the world, and much more.

Top 9 Albums of 2017

1. Phoebe Bridgers: Stranger in the AlpsThis is a perfect record to me. First of all, because it contains some of the best lyrics of 2017, I just had to say that first. But what really solidifies it as number one for me is that the musical production works in tandem with Phoebe’s expert storytelling. Much of the record uses little instrumentation-tracks like “Killer,” “Smoke Signals,” “Chelsea,” etc.-lean heavily on only a piano or guitar, but they still incorporate careful, sporadic embellishments that grab the listener’s attention and give the record a really unique depth. The songs are delicate and bare, but every once in a while a slide guitar or a synthesizer that sounds like a Theremin will protrude into the music just enough, adding something interesting but not distracting. On tracks like “Georgia” or “Motion Sickness” where the instrumentation is more involved, all of the layers still work very cohesively as a platform to enhance the song that’s already there. All of the tracks are structured in a really balanced way that adds dynamics while maintaining the focus where it should be, on the record’s beautiful poetry and song-crafting.

2. Paramore: After LaughterI loved After Laughter because it was a full-length musical paradoxthe record’s playful, upbeat rhythm and colorful pop-melodies house lyrical content that is actually quite bleak. Songs like the undeniable dance party banger “Rose Colored Boy” describe the anguish of artificial happiness, the refusal to feign optimism for the comfort of others when there is sorrow and suffering which needs to be expressed. It seems the apparent disconnect between the stated emotion within the songs and their performance is intentional, the irony is part of the genius of the album. Also, the choice of musical direction is a perfect accommodation for the concept of the record. Paramore have been no stranger to experimentation, but their continually evolving sound is still entirely their own, and in this most recent iteration they have managed to create something wholly novel, completely innovative.

3. Sam Smith: The Thrill of It AllI was pretty surprised (in a good way) by this recordnot because I ever doubted Sam Smith’s musicianship (the vocal talent on the previous record Lonely Hour is unbelievable), but because I didn’t expect for the content to expand so much in scope. The Thrill of It All combines insanely ambitious vocal performance with lyrics of deep introspection. Tracks like “Pray” and “HIM” sound like the soundtrack to our human drama. Smith puts the political and social in personal terms and creates anthems out of deep turmoil. The record still contains songs that are about individual relationships, but woven into stories about a lost romantic love are pieces of applicable wisdom, larger truths to be extracted, and that’s something that I think speaks to the skill and emotive power of Sam Smith as an artist.

4. Manchester Orchestra: Black Mile to the SurfaceThroughout Manchester Orchestra’s long career, they have managed to put out records of enduring quality, and this one is no different. The most recent addition to their catalog is possibly my favorite. The band seems to take more risks and experiment more on this release. Songs like “The Sunshine” display the band’s restraint and tastefulness while “Lead, SD” and “The Wolf” contain the same heavy, riff-driven darkness that has become a hallmark of Manchester’s music. However, this variance in sound is accomplished without sacrificing the meticulous artistry of the album. Tracks with recurring melodies blend together like movements of a classical piece, moving the listener through the narrative of the record and uniting each song as a single, masterful body of work.

5. SZA: CtrlI was literally floored the first time I heard this album. I heard it once in the car and then for months I didn’t want to listen to anything else. SZA’s music has always felt a little trance-like to me, and Ctrl is a perfect example. Languid vocal melodies meander out over the thick percussion and wavering guitar and synth chords in a way that seems almost improvisational before finally settling into a super-gratifying chorus hook. The immaculate production of the record gives it a hypnotic continuity. It seems like each track bleeds into the next and just drags you deeper into this lush electronic soundscape, serving as the backdrop for a really incredible narrative. The record’s lyrical theme of romantic ambiguity is one of the most honest portrayals of modern relationships I can remember hearing in a long time. SZA captures the messiness that makes attraction and emotion more complicated than we allow, somehow successfully writes not how love feels, seems, or even how we wish it were, but how it is, complete with its inconsistency, ugliness, hypocrisy.

6. Stray From the Path: Only Death is RealThe new release from Stray From the Path could not have come at a better time for someone who, like me, may be looking for a receptacle for angst and disillusionment at the current state of the United States’ political sphere. On this record the band does what they do best: hand out uncompromising political discourse amid bouncy breakdowns, lead vocalist blurring the line between an MC and a hardcore frontman (even featuring Vinnie Paz on a track). Only Death is Real literally pulls no punches, coupling seething indignation with furious vocals and Stray’s signature chaotic guitar sound for a record of perfect, gratifying aggression.

7. Charly Bliss: GuppyGuppy is a totally addictive album. The band has an abrasive yet accessible sound, taking the best parts of garage punk’s over distorted sloppiness and the polished, tight execution of a pop band to create a hybrid filled with immediate hooks and fuzz-drenched guitar solos. The theatrical vocals and up-front guitars give the record a very stylized feel, but beneath the playful, catchy sound of the record are lyrics that are concise, smart, more than clever, everything that a person could want in a self-aware pop record but done in the sonic style of a grunge record.

8. ‘68: Two Parts Viper‘68 have long been identified by their unmistakable brand of rock and rolltheir signature erratic, tempo-defying, experimental song structure make the band’s live set endlessly engaging, and Two Parts Viper has effectively captured this perfectly in a recorded format. The rock duo work with a limitless palette of noise, using extensive production and massive guitars as a backdrop for frontman Josh Scogin’s legendary vocal performance, the calculated sloppiness resulting in an album that is the packaged version of a live set’s raw energy, and honestly (barring negative connotations and the cheesiness of the phrase) the most intrinsically rock and roll thing I’ve ever heard.

9. Lomelda: THXTHX by Lomelda is record that sneaks up on you, expansive but understated, its profundity delivered in an easy, delicate form. Maybe that is what was so inspiring about this album and what drew me back to it again and again, although the album is populated by warm, muted acoustic guitar and dry, mellow drums, it doesn’t sound at all like a mellow acoustic record. Lomelda’s intelligent, thoughtful song composition economizes words and sounds in a truly astounding way, conveying so much in a few bars with plain affirmations like “sometimes there’s romance, sometimes, we’re useless…why are you laughing, listen here, this is serious.” Floating out through slow crooning vocal lines, the poetry of these songs collapses conversational minutia and scenic imagery into lyrics that are candid, moving in their gentle honesty, much like the instrumentation that accompanies them.

Which Breakfast Club character are you most like and why?

When I was a kid and watched this movie I always subconsciously aligned myself with John, Judd Nelson’s character who made rebellion and rejection of authority seem noble, and also really struck at the heart of what it feels like being and outsider to societal norms. But if I’m being honest I think I am probably most like Brian. That character is also on the perimeter of societal normalcy but rather than act out destructively and rejecting the system like John, becomes neurotically preoccupied with achieving, making good grades, accomplishing things in order to earn validation and prove his own merit. See the lamp monologue. The perpetually relatable depiction of the fear of disappointment as motivation.

CHVRCHES and Tegan and Sara are appearing in the new The Archies comic book series as themselves, interacting with Archie and his friends. Which comic book would you like to guest star in?

Definitely Alias or New Defenders, just because Jessica Jones is my favorite Marvel character by far. Either that or the A-Force comics would be pretty cool to temporarily join the ranks of a female super-army.

Which band, album, film, or TV show that was generally disliked by critics do you genuinely like and find yourself defending to friends?

I saw the newest Star Wars recently and loved it. I didn’t even know that it had such a mixed reception until I was talking about it later to movie-buff friend who assured me it was awful. I’ve been told my privileges to give opinions on Star Wars films were revoked following my dreadful admission to enjoying Episode I, and fair enough, maybe I am the least qualified Star Wars fan. But that’s where my case for The Last Jedi lies. It encapsulates everything that makes Star Wars so massively accessible. When I went to see this movie I was reminded of how well these movies tread the middle ground between the sort of esoteric fantasy franchise that garner dedicated support of a niche following, and popular blockbuster action films that choose spectacle over substance. In its purest form, film incites wonder, momentarily makes the fantastic plausible, but also retains enough realism and humanity to illuminate some truth and shows us a mirror of ourselves. The Last Jedi does exactly that, inspires awe while remaining relevantthere’s much to be learned about the difference between doctrine, tradition, and real belief from Yoda and Luke’s exchanges about Jedi texts. There are lessons about pride, sacrifice, and the cost of revolution that we can extrapolate from the Rebel Alliance power struggle and division of leadership. To me, the ethos of the film is more important than its uniformity with canon or stylistic consistency, maybe that’s why I loved it. Also, as a closing note: the silly comic relief of the little Porg creatures took it from a 9 to a 10call it pandering if you will, they were adorable.

Who most influenced your musical tastes as a child and teenager (be it a family member, friend, teacher, etc.) and what do they think of the music you make now?

My friends that lived around the corner in junior high I think were the first primary influencers of my music. We would all stand at the bus stop and share MP3 player headphones to show each other new music, that’s how I heard heavy music for the first time and got to know most of the bands that I listened to at that time. I think the social element of it was what made it so funeveryone standing around at the corner sharing new bands that we had found on MySpace or Live Journal and were really excited about felt special and a little secret somehow. I guess it was just an activity all our own that broke up the drudgery of school, ha ha. Now that we’re all adults those friends of mine are still extremely supportive of the music I make, which is very sweet.


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