Julien Baker | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Julien Baker

Qualitative Research

Jun 16, 2016 Julien Baker Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

It has been two weeks since Julien Baker made a triumphal trek through SXSW, but she is still buzzing. Playing five shows in four days, the 20-year-old singer/songwriter became one of the festival’s breakout acts, taking a victory lap after her 2015 full-length debut, Sprained Ankle, became one of the year’s most-acclaimed breakthroughs. She even had what she refers to as the “quintessential SXSW experience,” sprinting to a club, guitar-in-hand, to be a last-minute substitution at Under the Radar‘s day party at Flaming Cantina (after she had already gotten a standing ovation performing at Under the Radar‘s official showcase the night before at Central Presbyterian Church). “I went on and I tried to play fast songs so that I didn’t bore everyone at 2:00 p.m. in a bar,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘I feel bad that you’re all having a good time, and I’m just going to bum you out.’”

Baker has no reason to fear. Like Elliott Smith and Death Cab for Cutietwo of her biggest influencesmuch of her appeal is located in her ability to connect with listeners through expressions of unfiltered pain. That connection has been immediate. Less than a year ago, Baker, then a college student who was training to be a teacher, was thrilled if she could get 20 people out to watch her play the hypnotically haunting ballads she was writing in her free time. Today she’s booking headlining tours and sorting through offers from the most esteemed American independent labels. She still seems unsure what to make of all of the attention.

“I’m terrified of anything ever going to my head, so I ask my manager to spare me certain information, like statistics and stuff,” she admits. “I think it’s safe for my psyche that way. I never want quantitative good news.

I don’t want to know how many plays I’ve had on YouTube or Spotify. I have no idea how many I’ve had. But it’s cool,” she says, her tone turning excited. “I got to meet the lead singer of one of my favorite bands, Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years. And I was like, ‘This is cool, because I respect you so much.’ But that was qualitative, as opposed to quantitative.”

When talking about her past year, that qualitative-quantitative divide is clear. Was she impressed that so many people showed up at her SXSW shows? Not as much as she was encouraged that she was able to tamp down her nervousness enough to stifle the impulse to constantly crack jokes throughout her sets. The highlight of the festival? Having a “family reunion” with the people who helped her book shows over the past few years. She’s now acclimated to the increased attention, she says, but she acknowledges that it has come quickly. Before her debut put her on the map, she was still getting used to the idea that the songs on it represented a coherent release.

“I didn’t really think of Sprained Ankle as formally being a record until we went to Spacebomb,” she admits, referring to Matthew E. White’s studio in Richmond, Virginia. “I was like, ‘Well, I guess these songs all fit together. I’ll just release them as a record. They all share qualities enough to call it a formal release.’” By the time she left Spacebomb she had what she thought was an EP’s worth of music. As she had done before, she posted the new tracks to her Bandcamp page with few expectations. This time, however, a labelthe tiny 6131 Recordswas interested in giving the tracks an official release. She still wasn’t sure the songs were ready to meet the world, but she soon realized that the raw emotions and no-frills arrangements infused the songs with an energy they otherwise would have lacked.

“That was what was so cool about the recording process for Sprained Ankle,” she concludes. “There was just no time. There was two days in the studio, so I didn’t have time to agonize over it. I just had to be like, ‘That’s how they sound.’” So, as much as Sprained Ankle has been a revelation to listeners, it was a surprise to Baker, as well. After spending years in the Memphis punk rock and hardcore scene, mostly serving as guitarist and vocalist for post-rockers Forrister, she never intended to write songs that were so homespun and intimate, let alone have those qualities be their defining feature. Now, as she agonizes over picking the label that will release her next album, she has a new concern. With far more resources at her disposal, how will she impose those limits on herself again?

“I worry that time will make me soak in it too much and be so critical that I end up mutating it instead of letting it be organic,” she frets. “I’ll change it too much. When I send my friends demos I say, ‘Please tell me if it’s shitty! I’m terrified that it’s going to be bad.’” With this, she takes a long pause and laughs to herself. “One of my friends says ‘Worries are the maintenance of blessings,’” she says. “So I’m okay with it.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s May/June 2016 Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]




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Wendy Redfern
June 17th 2016

Yes ma’am, I love this one.

April 24th 2019

Yes, she is great. I have repeatedly been on her speeches. Once I even had to buy research paper in college. Since I couldn’t write a research paper and to go to the concert because of the lack of time. But I was lucky. I got to the concert and got a great grade.