Some Songs Considered #038: Julien Baker talks to us about being Julien Baker
Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.
“I do not run that tight of a ship, you’re fine!”
This is what Julien Baker tells me when I apologize for being a few minutes late for our call, and it occurs to me now that the sentiment behind it – the cordial chillness and the amiable good will – is a theme throughout our conversation. It’s wrong to call it Southern Hospitality, but maybe it’s Southern Hospitality’s punk grandkid. Importantly, it never comes off as affected or spurious; like the disarming honesty of her lyrics, her kindness rings true and authentic in a way that little else these days does.
The 20-year-old college student and Memphis native is about to embark on a month-long East Coast tour to support her debut album Sprained Ankle, which earned a prominent place on our shortlist of the best LPs of 2015 and is a masterwork of intimate, yearning songwriting and reverb-drenched soundscapes with a pop punk esprit and the earned gravitas characteristic of acts like Torres# and Daughter#.
The other recurring motif of our chat is the imaginative brilliance that Baker effuses through a variety of subtle channels and crisscrossing conduits: the pitch-perfect portrait she paints of doing homework on tour, or the suggestion that The LEGO Movie contains dystopian themes and an implicit indictment of the audience# (which didn’t make it in the transcript but…wow). The impression you’re left with after speaking to her, even for just 30 minutes, is – “Yes. Of course this person is writing songs. And thank God.”
Which isn’t to suggest that Baker wouldn’t find success elsewhere; she’s still studying to be an English teacher, still weighing options. At the risk of denying high school kids an engaging LEGO Movie-infused lesson plan, we hope Baker is encouraged by the success of Sprained Ankle, and we hope her career in music ends up being less of a sprint and more of a marathon.
Your east coast tour starts today, but you’ve played a number of shows since Sprained Ankle dropped in October. The crowds you’re playing to at this point are mostly familiar with the album right?
It varies! Some crowds might be really familiar with the record, especially closer to where I’m from, in the South. When I played in Colorado – well, everyone was very respectful and quiet (laughs).
I still go about things as if no one is familiar with the record. I’ll play things slightly differently in the live set – I like to experiment and let songs evolve. It’s nice when it’s a blank slate. You can’t mar an idea that doesn’t exist yet, you can only make an impression.
What’s it like when you perform? Do you channel any specific performance styles?
I get very chatty on stage now, because it’s just me, and all of the pressure to entertain is centralized. I would hate for people to think that I’m brooding or self-involved by getting onstage and being mopey and disconnected from the crowd. I end up making stupid dad jokes, which breaks the tension of the macabre subject matter [of the songs]. I think I make sad music so that I can be a goober in real life.
Are you still studying to be an English teacher?
I stayed in school last semester, but right now, as long as I continue to be blessed with opportunities to tour, I want to pursue those avenues because they have an expiration date, and school doesn’t. It’s the most precious part of being alive, doing what you’re passionate about. I don’t want to postpone that for the sake of pseudo-practicality.
I had a lot of trepidation about taking this time off to tour – but I’m still enrolled in online courses. I brought a mythology textbook, and I’ll probably be sitting at the merch table turning in discussion questions online. Tons of bands do it! I remember hearing that Modern Baseball –
I love Modern Baseball.
I love Modern Baseball too! You’re Gonna Miss It All? Such a great record. It’s like they wrote it to me. It’s so relatable.
They’ve been having a real moment in the last two years. It’s been really cool to see them recognized by outlets like Pitchfork.
Exactly. And Dads — I’m partial because they’re on my label — but it’s like I’ll Be The Tornado. One foot in the punk world, one foot in the Sunny Day [Real Estate] world. These were sub-genres that were previously dismissed as childish art forms. Now they’re reputable and valued. I’ve been waiting on this my entire life.
Your lyrics strike a great balance between grounding specificity and the kind of generality that listeners can see themselves in.
The question for me is how much does one want to incorporate awareness of the listener? I write the songs how I write them, but when I go back and refine them, and I think about certain specific details, if I have a choice, I’m thinking “what’s the thesis?” Is it just a self-indulgent, mopey song? I used to think those were shallow, but it I’ve realized that those shallow emotions are real and valid and experienced by other people.
But then there’s smaller, even more specific decisions. In “Good News,” I used to say the F word. But I went back and censored it. I don’t have a problem with profanity and I think it’s kind of inconsequential, but if anyone was ever turned off from my music because of something like that…I’d rather lose that bit of artistic power—
—in favor of inclusivity
Yeah, because it’s better to convey a positive message than to die on the hill of “I’m an artist and I can say fuck if I want.”
Do you have a song on the album, or a line on a song, that you’re especially proud of writing?
Well there’s that MC Escher quote that’s like, “I think my art is beautiful but also hideous.” I try to receive compliments well, but I’m really critical of my art. It’s difficult for me to say I’m entirely happy with anything. But then, part of what’s valuable about art in general – my friend Dustin uses the term, “perfectly imperfect.” Lyrically “Rejoice” is the one that I…well, I make sure to do that one. If I have five minutes and a microphone, “Rejoice” is the song I’ll perform.
“Rejoice” is a song about faith and doubt, and having a complicated relationship with God. This seems to be a topic that Southern writers gravitate towards.
There’s what you intend to convey and what you unconsciously convey. Intentionally, I’m drawing from my favorite lyricists, Ben Gibbard, Andy Hull, Aaron Weiss. But then beneath that, there’s the cultural poetics of my environment growing up, affecting the way I shape songs. I grew up in Memphis, my parents exposed me to a lot of southern cultural influences. Growing up in the South has definitely affected my schema of religion, but [religion] is still something that’s important to me and I don’t regret that.
When you grow up in the Bible belt and you’re part of a counterculture or fringe culture there are a lot of people who reject the dominant; they all say “man, I wish I could move to San Francisco” or something. But I don’t regret growing up here. There’s a rich culture and there’s something to be said for living in a challenging environment, and figuring out ways to be who you are in a climate that’s not always accepting.
You’re a great vocalist. Is singing something you’ve always done? Is there anyone in music that you’re particularly inspired by from purely a vocal standpoint?
I haven’t always been a singer! I’ve always played guitar, and I would always describe myself as a lead guitarist. Then I started the band Forrister with Matthew Gilliam, and we booked shows but we didn’t have a singer! We tried to get our friends to sing. Eventually I just told Matt that I could do it, and he’s like the most passive person on earth, he’s like “I don’t care, you sing.” I had previously only sung in my room.
And when I started, I really only thought about my voice as a vehicle for lyrics. It wasn’t until I was touring more heavily on Sprained Ankle that I tried to hone that a little more. I also quit smoking which helped so much. I was prepared to dig my heels in the dirt and say “Norah Jones smokes!” “Ryan Adams smokes!” But really it just made it easier to sing.
You describe the sound of the album as “ambient.” There’s a really atmospheric sonic quality to the instrumentation that contrasts the directness of the songwriting. Was this intentional?
It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I have an affinity for reverb. I love my pedal board – I’m up to like seven pedals. Maybe it does help, but there are times when I want to be like Andy Hull, “$100.” When it’s just one person singing very aggressively, it’s chilling. Sometimes I really want to do that.
When you talk about Smith7# in interviews it makes me think of 242 Main Street, the city-funded youth center/DIY punk venue in Burlington, Vermont that Bernie Sanders and his wife helped found when he was Mayor.
Yeah, Bernie Sanders apparently had a lot to do with the early Burlington punk scene.
Naturally! I already feel the Bern. I just played a “Tennessee for Bernie Sanders” rally. I was like, hell yes. I support that dude 100%. When we get off the phone I’m going to ask my tour manager if we can make a stop there, because that’s incredible.
You would probably make a bunch of punk kids in Vermont very happy.
Well, now I have to root through Burlington and play this place!
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