The Intersection of Hope and Despair: Talking with Julien Baker

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There is something magical about watching a person from your hometown make it big in the music industry. You watch them graduate from playing living room shows to selling out 2,000-seat theaters. You go from reading their name on hastily made Facebook fliers to seeing it printed alongside Grammy winners on festival lineups. You see their grainy YouTube clips turn into network television debuts on late-night talk shows.

Such was the case for Julien Baker—only I wasn’t paying attention. We grew up in Memphis’s close-knit indie music scene, played on the same small stages, and had a few mutual friends, but I didn’t hear Julien’s music until her 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle.

The intimacy of Sprained Ankle’s instrumentals and Baker’s candid meditations on subjects like depression, addiction, and faith propelled her into the national spotlight. Since then, the twenty-two-year-old Baker has twice appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk series; opened for acts including The National, Jason Isbell, and Death Cab for Cutie; and headlined national tours of her own.

Julien and I recently discussed her latest album, Turn Out the Lights, the ways in which she approaches writing about difficult subjects, and the redemptive power in being open about sadness.

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Rumpus: Until recently, you were pretty busy touring overseas. What have you been reading or listening to on the road?

Baker: During the tour we listened to Paramore’s After Laughter so much, as well as the new Manchester Orchestra record, A Black Mile to the Surface. On the West Coast run in December I really fell in love with Moses Sumney’s Aromnaticism, and also Cntrl by SZA. The SZA record I particularly latched onto, it’s probably the album I have returned to most in the past few months.

Recently, I have been reading a book called Evicted by Matthew Desmond. It’s one of the best nonfiction books I have read in a very long time. The purpose of it is to show how deeply connected housing is to the poverty crisis in America and expose how flawed housing law is, how it shapes neighborhoods and cities, how it contributes to structural inequality. But the book is written in the form of a narrative. Desmond just chronicles the lives of several people living in Milwaukee to create a vivid depiction of the reality that they face. It’s unlike a lot of books that I read about policy or economics in that it’s extremely human, rather than a solely academic argument.

Rumpus: There’s a bit more happening on Turn Out the Lights compared to Sprained Ankle, in terms of instrumental work and extra vocals. Why?

Baker: This record felt very conceptual to me. We were only in the studio for six days to record it, and while we did a lot of experimenting and tampered with production choices there, the bulk of the songwriting happened with me making endless drafts and versions of songs and collecting them all in a spiral. The songs accrued during the year or year-and-a-half after the release of Sprained Ankle, and once I had written several of them I tried to see what latent themes were developing, what kind of subjects I kept returning to, so that I could organize them into something that felt like a narrative body of work instead of just a collection of random thoughts.

I wanted to explore the use of new instruments and arrangements because I wanted to expand the artistic arsenal a little bit, to make this record feel more dynamic by exaggerating the gap between the most powerful and most timid, the most complex and the simplest sounds. Particularly with the vocals, I was more ambitious with how the voice is used as an instrument and what kind of mood could be evoked by where the vocals are in the mix. I tried to let the subject matter of the song and the image I was trying to convey dictate if the vocals should sound close or distant, whether there are a bunch of overlapping harmonies or a solitary voice, to try to mimic the emotion of the words in the musical performance.

Rumpus: You’re known for writing about difficult subjects, such as addiction and mental illness, but a few tracks on Turn Out the Lights in particular deal with these subjects in the context of a relationship. What do you think you’ve learned through writing these songs about how someone in a relationship might empathize with the other person who’s dealing with these issues?

Baker: I wanted to leave a little bit of ambiguity as to the type of relationship discussed in the songs. I didn’t want to continue writing solely about the topic of romantic heartbreak. I realized that many of the songs on Sprained Ankle focus on love in a romantic context, and I wanted to explore the emotional depth of friendships and familial relationships that can be just as meaningful and complex. But you’re right, whatever kind of relationship it is, the record largely focuses on how those issues, namely mental health, addiction, and trauma, are played out when another person is involved.

When I began writing for this album I was more analytical of the work I was creating. Sprained Ankle felt more immediate, the songs were just catalogs of thoughts collected as-is and put into a song. But when I had to tour, perform, discuss, and revisit those songs I had to confront the assertions I was making in them, and it made me want to be much more deliberate about what I really wanted to say in a song. Instead of considering simply the need to expel something negative in a sort of therapeutic lament, I wanted to take another step in defining the cause. Instead of singing about hopelessness, for example, I was trying to figure out what caused the hopelessness, if and how I can change it, what impact those feelings might have on the people in my life observing me, and what versions of hopelessness they might feel that are similar to mine.

Talking about that intentionality and searching for connectivity in these songs parallels a change that happened not just in my writing but also in my life, when I began to try to step outside of my myopic perspective. It is of course impossible to feel exactly what another person feels, and I think that there will always be an isolation about struggling with mental health, but I think that’s what’s so beautiful about art, music, and songs. They give us a platform to try to understand and be heard, and when we can place ourselves inside the mind of someone else to practice patience and compassion, it makes us more compassionate with ourselves and equips us with the empathy we need to heal both individually and collectively.

Rumpus: When I think of sad songs, I don’t think of yours. I think it’s because, while your songs are deeply personal and often painful, they also address some universal human emotions. Sure, they’re sad, but they offer a sense of solidarity.

Baker: I think you’re exactly right. There are many, I’m sure, who would contest [that] and say that I do indeed write very sad songs. But I would like to think that there is a redemptive power in being vulnerable and forthright about the very real feelings of despair and sadness. Especially on the newer record, and partially because the sadness of Sprained Ankle seemed to become its primary attribute, I wanted to give a more nuanced approach to that sadness. Because it’s not as if the difficult and heartbreaking parts of life are going to be solved and suddenly disappear at some point. They will always persist, but if I were to write two, three more records documenting sadness, I fear it would become trite or self-indulgent, so I wanted to introduce the possibility to accept sadness and pain as a certainty and yet maintain the provision of hope and positivity. Maybe being honest about sadness is part of that, but the other necessary part is being willing to let hope coexist with despair. The intersection of those two ideas is what I really wanted to explore on Turn Out the Lights.

Rumpus: You have a line in “Sour Breath” where you sing, “I don’t do too well when nobody’s worried about me.” It’s lines like that, in the context of a larger narrative, that really stand alone as almost a universal truth. Do you think about those lines that way? Are you aware of how it will resonate with people?

Baker: I think that song, but that line in particular, is a vestige of the same kind of mentality I was wrestling with on Sprained Ankle. Many of the lyrics are unedited thoughts or pieces of conversation that, whether they are rational or not, are an honest admission of how a situation is framed for me. With that one, even though obviously it signals some codependent or unhealthy ideas to say that one’s health is dependent upon the attention and care of others, it’s something that happens. I think it’s important to be able to admit those sometimes irrational thoughts as a way to parody them, almost—to get some perspective on them. When we articulate exactly the thing that we’re feeling, we can recognize how the logic might be skewed by our perception of the situation. So I think it’s useful to admit thoughts or feelings that are maybe unhealthy but that are still undoubtedly relatable as a means to try to make sense of them.

Rumpus: Your shows are very communal and inclusive—almost worship-like. What do you hope you can accomplish, aside from entertainment, when performing for a group of people with diverse backgrounds and faiths—some of whom may have been ostracized by their faith communities or kicked out of church?

Baker: Music provides people with the license to express themselves outside the constraints of normal communication, and when an artist performs they are essentially inviting an audience to be more than a spectator, but to participate in that process of self-evaluation, healing, and expression. I think honesty is vital for that process. The artists that move me most are the ones who are willing to give something of themselves in order to initiate the exchange of emotions, who can be vulnerable with an audience so that those people can see vulnerability modeled in a positive way and be more vulnerable with each other. In that way, I think live music is more like a group exercise than just a musician putting on a show.

In the church culture I grew up in, music was a big part of worship, and the rhetoric around musical worship stuck with me. Playing in a worship band is interesting because the purpose is very different from playing a regular show; you come to the performance with the understanding and expectation that the attention is to be deflected from you, that you are supposed to be serving a larger, shared goal with the congregation, which is to participate in something holy and very beautiful. I’m not saying that this is always the case—there are certainly churches out there that allow the performance to take precedence and end up obscuring the communal connection and human-ness of the idea of “worship.” But that’s where I think, in both musical contexts, the object for me as the artist should be to get out of the way, to create a communal atmosphere instead of a crowd of observing strangers.

Rumpus: You said in an interview with the New Yorker that you’re “getting less willing to censor” yourself on the subject of faith, church, and how many churches try to monetize their message—which often includes pretty divisive rhetoric. What else are you getting less willing to censor yourself on, especially in this extremely divided time?

Baker: It’s interesting that you mention churches monetizing their message, because to a certain extent, it makes me hyper-aware of the fact that I am a musician as my profession, which means that I make a living off of monetizing my art. And while I try to do that in a reasonable and fair way, and while the core of the art is not profit-motivated, it’s still a reality that I am paid for my art. Don’t mistake that I am somehow playing devil’s advocate for churches who are profit driven, pastors who prey on followers to turn church into a revenue stream—that is awful. I’m just saying in my admittedly self-deprecating way that I realize I exist within the same bizarre system. But I try to use that awareness to drive me to be diligent in how I go about my life as a musician, the things I say and promote, and to be aware of how I use my platform.

It’s an interesting paradox, because so much of what I was taught and indoctrinated with—about becoming a “servant” to others—has to do with self-efficacy. And while I can try to be as humble as possible, there’s not much self-effacing about getting on a stage. I still struggle with feeling like, here I have this privilege, a larger-than-normal platform, but knowing that I didn’t necessarily deserve it any more than any other person in the audience. Words like “deserve,” “earn,” and “owe” have always been slippery concepts for me anyway. What I mean is, every person has their inherent value as a human being. They have a world of lived experience, they have so much to teach me. So how could I presume to think that my ideas are superior or take precedence, enough to have a microphone?

These are things I have grappled with for a long time, but I think that the best piece of advice came from my friend Ryan Rado, vocalist of the hardcore band Worker, and coincidentally, the artist who painted my album cover. I told him I wish I could just give the microphone back to the crowd when I’m onstage sometimes, and he asked me, “Why? Why would you want to argue why you have the microphone, instead of doing the best thing you can with it?” That was a very powerful idea for me. My awareness of others’ struggles should not result in a guilt that produces inaction. I will never be able to revoke my privilege, as a musician, as a white person, or what have you, but I can be aware and deliberate enough to utilize that privilege in the interest of others who have less.


Jonathan McDaniel is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s Nonfiction MFA program, and his work has most recently appeared in The Point Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, and at The Rumpus. He works as a copywriter and lives in Chicago with his dog. Find him on twitter @JonathanMcD. More from this author →