Julien Baker interview: "I hope that my music makes the listener feel understood, and makes them feel mercy and grace."
Julien Baker arrived in 2015 with her debut album Sprained Ankle, an album that starkly expressed the complexities of the human condition as filtered through a poetic queer Christian teen songwriter growing up in Tennessee. It found praise and admirers far and wide, gradually increasing in notoriety over a couple of years, eventually leading to a reissue on renowned indie label Matador earlier this year.
On Friday, Baker released her second album Turn Out The Lights on Matador. It’s an album that takes the themes and raw emotions on display in Sprained Ankle and renders them in finer and more critical details, while amplifying the intimacy and ferocity of Baker’s expression.
We had the chance to sit down with Julien Baker to discuss the writing of the songs on Turn Out The Lights, as well as touch on her methods of combatting anxiety and some reflections on her childhood.
This is your first ever press trip, how does it feel?
It feels weird! It's already amazing enough to me that people care enough to want to come to the shows, so to think that there are people that just want to talk about the songs is pretty flattering and really amazing.
How does it feel travelling without any instruments?
It feels really naked. I don't like not travelling with my guitar, which seems like a typical musician thing to say, but I once went to a music festival and I was three days without my instrument, and I ended up going into a restroom and making a voice note like "and the guitar line goes like this" and then I'm humming it, I felt like "I wish I had it here so I could play.”
So you're constantly writing?
Sort of, yeah. There's like a hundred something voice notes in my phone that are just pieces of songs or songs to be developed into something later. But I like to try to stay taking in my surroundings and reeling them through a poetic lens or a musical lens. I use average conversation or daily activities, there is meaning buried inside each of these events and the artistic task is uncovering it. I think it was Whitman that said "the artist's task is recognising art that's already there in our natural surroundings."
I haven't heard that, but it's great.
I'm a Whitman fan.
You might make me into one.
What do you instead while you're on this press trip?
I read a lot. The things that I do that are outside of music are read quite a bit, I make visual art - by visual art I mean I draw, I'm not out here sculpting - and then I run quite a bit, which is a new thing. I started running... wow I guess I quit smoking almost 4 years ago, wow... wow! The year after I quit smoking I started running and it afforded me a little release, and doing some cardio helps to just kind of my head for a while and be out in the open air. It's been really helpful.
Have you been running around London at all?
Ironically, in Tennessee I went on a really long trail run out in the hills in the country and I got injured and I've been having to wear these ankle braces. And the last record was called Sprained Ankle and I thought no one can see me in these ankle braces! They're gonna think like "wow, this is life imitating art," "this girl's way too committed to the theme," "this is kind of kitschy." But seriously, I have runner's knee right now, so I've just been biking in place of it.
When you go running do you clear your mind, or do you think about songs?
When I think about songs I just kind of walk around, because running I have to focus a little bit more. Running is more when I'm having anxious cyclical thoughts where I feel - let's just dive deep into my mental health processing here - but when I feel myself starting to panic, or when I feel like an anxiety attack is coming, I'll go on a run, because two miles in my chest starts hurting and all I can think about is running. My favourite thing to do is listen to Every Time I Die, the metal band, when I go running, because it's loud, powerful, and I just try to transcend and get outside of it.
But when I need to think about songs I just go on a walk and get the blood flow working; listen to the song in my earbuds, which seems self-indulgent, like I'm listening to my own music walking around, but that's how this record came about. I made demos and I'd listen and listen and listen and think about how to rearrange the pieces and construct it into the best possible form, and put a lot more intent and specificity into the crafting of the songs. The last record kind of fell out of me, but I wanted to be a bit more meticulous with this one.
That leads into talking about the album; immediately on listening to Turn Out The Lights it feels bigger and more expansive than the first one. Was that always your dream, or did it come about naturally?
I think it came about naturally because I spent a little bit more time at home in Memphis and there's a piano there. I play piano, but I never got the chance to much when I was in college because I would have to go in the practice rooms in the middle of the night, have the custodians let me in, and in between classes I didn't have one at home. But this time I got to write more on piano as the primary instrument. I think I was afraid introduce more piano or embellish the songs or have strings, because I didn't want it to be too much of a departure from the last record. Obviously didn't know people were going to be into the last record, but I had no idea what it was that people connected with, and I hoped it was my lyrics, but maybe it was the nature of the songs, and so I didn't wanna change it and have people be like "go back to doing what we liked you for." But I think the fear that was bigger than making something that was poorly received was making something that was playing it safe and was too much the same.
Was it important to record in Tennessee?
I recorded in specifically Memphis and with an engineer called Calvin Lauber who is a person that I've known since I was 13 years old. Our bands used to play house shows together, and he just ended up being this incredibly talented and successful engineer in the city. We'd remained in touch, so when it came time to choose the engineer, Sean my manager, and the team and I were batting around ideas for engineers and I was like "how about we just do it in Memphis where I'm comfortable; my favourite city in the world, my home town. And we do it at a place that's got this legendary history that still is like accessible and chill, and then we use a person who I'll be totally comfortable with?" Because I think that's what made me feel so supported and comfortable in pursuing different ideas and experimenting with different sounds like using an organ or using strings, is knowing that Calvin and I had such a great rapport and that we were on the same creative page. It didn't seem like I was wasting time or inconveniencing him, and I know that might have been the case with several other people, but it was just an extremely nice experience, and took so much pressure off to record with a friend; I think it made it easier to just relax and flow naturally in the studio.
How many of these songs started on the piano?
More than half. I think only a few ended up becoming more guitar prominent songs.
Have you been writing songs on piano as long as you've been writing songs on guitar?
Piano was actually the first instrument I learned; my parents enrolled me in piano lessons. Because when you're a kid you do piano and soccer and karate, because you don't know what you'll be good at. My piano teacher - I was such a nuisance to him - he tried to get me to do scales, but I could not for the life of me ever read sheet music. Finally, he just caved in and was like "alright, you're better at ear training, so when you come to piano practice I'm just going to play a song on the radio and you figure it out," and that's what I would do. I could figure out any song just hearing it on the radio, but he'd put a piece of sheet music in front of me and I just froze; it took me hours, I'd pluck out the notes awkwardly. That's the first instrument I learned.
Piano's such a great first instrument because it's a one to one pitch position correspondence. On the guitar there's identical pitches at three different positions, so you conceptualise things in a much different way than on piano, and I think as far as composing goes it helped to have that as my first instrument.
When you write some lyrics do you know instinctively if it's going to be a piano or guitar song?
Sometimes I don't know. I like seeing what the song reveals itself to be. Sometimes I'll try to force it to be a guitar song, and then I'll put the chords on piano and play around with it, and I'll be like "oh no, this works way better in this position as this form." It's so cool playing piano, because since that's my first instrument, I've been playing it longest and I'm most familiar with the scales, so I can sit at the piano and play for an hour straight just improvising. With guitar, since I also taught myself and have no theory background, it's a little bit more like "I don't know exactly where these chords are going."
So with guitar, when I'm writing with the instrument it feels like you're on a walk in a wood that you're not familiar with, and you're discovering new beautiful places, you're like "oh, I've never seen this clearing before - I didn't know you could make an E chord here." But with piano it's like walking round a familiar suburb like "ah, and there's B minor, right where it should be." It's different but comforting... that was dumb to equate music to going on a walk, but... yeah!
When you started writing songs you never could have imagined people would be reading them and asking you in-depth questions about them. Does it make you think twice about what you'll put in your songs?
I struggled with that more on the first record. People would quote the lyrics back to me and I'd think "why did I say that? Why would I say something like that?" But I think I came to terms with them in saying to myself that was an accurate and true depiction of the person I was at that time, and I stand behind that art, if nothing else just as a documentation of my thoughts then. It doesn't have to remain true and applicable. What's that Emily Dickinson quote that's like "publication is the auction of the soul to the masses," so it's a little bit scary. I always think of that when I'm like "here it is! It's my soul! I'm gonna publish it!" And then I give it to you guys and you can analyse it now. So I'm asking for it.
This album reaches some pretty lonely and desperate places; do you have to be in that mood to write those lyrics?
I don't know, I think a lot of these songs just kind of come out as... something will happen, an event, or I'll be working through an emotion. Or even something will happen to one of my friends and it will break my heart for them, and in order to process it my coping mechanism is sitting down and writing about it and just saying whatever comes to mind, and I usually make a voice memo or type in my memo pad just all of my thoughts, just the actual things that I'm thinking or excerpts of real conversations. Like 'Appointments', the first verse is largely excerpts from conversations I've actually had, distilled into a depiction of what it feels like to be struggling with your mental health and have a partner you feel like you can't communicate very well with, and trying to overcome those things for the sake of yourself first.
So I don't think I have to be in that mental space to write or edit, but that the disproportionate majority of the raw material comes from those experiences. But then I'll be sitting there and write a song like 'Televangelist', where I'm thinking about like "must I always mine these parts of my life to make songs, and will it ever start to feel artificial?" Because to me it's not, to me I'm just exposing what I'm living through.
I can definitely hear those conversational tones in the opening lines of the album on 'Appointments': "I'm staying in tonight/ I won't stop you from leaving," which is a really nice introduction to the character of the album as a whole. Did you always know it would be the first song?
I knew it would be the first song because I wanted the record to be bookended - I also wrote 'Claws In Your Back', which is the last track, earlier on - and I felt the difference of where I was mentally between those two songs was so stark that I wanted to bookend the record with them. I wanted to make a record that's starting at zero, starting and feeling very low and isolated, and seeing how I'm going to get better and crawl out of this thing, whatever it is. And then songs like 'Happy To Be Here' and 'Claws In Your Back' are hopefully like signposts along the way.
On the title track, 'Turn Out The Lights', I really like the image of "the hole in the drywall"; do you often find your surroundings often reflect your inner feelings?
That song is about feeling weird on tour, and it's weird because I feel like a lot of my songs collapse a lot of experiences into one, and it's not necessarily chronological. But, long, long ago when I lived in my old house with my parents there was a hole that had gotten punched in the drywall and I always meant to go back and fix it with the little patch stuff from the hardware store, but I just never did and I got used to it. The last time I visited the house before they sold it, I thought here's this damaged part of our home that's honestly like a monument to poor coping mechanisms and lashing out, and instead of fixing it I just got used to it. So I thought about what an apt metaphor that was to apply to that song; when you turn out the lights, when you're alone, you have to face those things - you finally have to actually deal with those problems, you can't just ignore the hole punched in the drywall anymore.
Then I want to talk about the first image on 'Shadowboxing' which is "Born cutting teeth on the curb."
Oh, the curb stomp line! That's a reference to being a kid and having these behaviours of may be self-destructive or dangerous or questionable, that seemed to come from an inherent place in me. There's always something about myself as a kid that sought out mischief and then later things beyond mischief that are self-destructive or self-deprecating, and you wonder where those come from and how you're born into being the kid that scraps and fights with neighbourhood kids and stays out past curfew; that's like early on in life. And then you start doing things that are not as comical as just staying out past curfew and you wonder "where does this come from in every child?" So that's just a neighbourhood scrap line.
What is the role of God on this album?
I feel like there's a lot more explicit discussion of God on the previous record. There are two big moments on here though; the first part of 'Happy To Be Here' is all completely directed at God. Also 'Everything To Help You Sleep', where it's coming to terms with everything that I do to meet a moral standard of "ought" and "ought not," which kind of dematerialised before me when I realised that that's a fictional demand; that God is not a punitive entity and that we try to politicise God. A whole bunch of the taboo around me being a queer Christian is that it's perceived to be sinful in some religious circles, and I don't think that's accurate, and I don't think God is as punitive as we characterise him to be in order to advance our own ideas of morality. It’s when you realise that everything that you do just to sleep at night is really just to help you sleep at night - there's no getting "good enough" to be an upstanding person; you're fine.
A lot of this record is learning come to terms with those things and trying not to hold ourselves to such impossible standards. 'Happy To Be Here' is a song thinking about the parts of myself that are maybe not normal, but they're OK because maybe there is no such thing as normal. I think through the logic like "God made me, and God can't make mistakes, then why am I not like other people? Why do I have anxiety? Why do I struggle with these mental issues?" and asking God "is there a way that you made a mistake?" and understanding no he didn’t. I believe that human beings are wholly beautiful creatures and when you look at a person that has been told by society that they're broken and that there's something wrong or not normal with them, as you see in the Trans community or the conversation around mental health, maybe those people are made to believe that there's something wrong with them and there's not. There's no such thing as a creature that's made in a flawed way naturally, and so I think this record is about exploring mercy, and to me God is the most ultimate personification of mercy and the act of grace. All these songs are really just learning to direct that to yourself, instead of having a double standard where "everybody else deserves grace, but not me."
One of the central songs to the album is 'Televangelist', so I wanted to ask what your experiences with televangelists is and why that metaphor?
I have these really intense and vivid but disjointed memories from when I was a kid seeing on TV the guy in the all-white suit and the handkerchief who's telling you "that God will bring down a holy fire!!!" speaking in this really thick Texas accent, preaching hellfire and brimstone. I wrote that song thinking that the music that I write and the personal testimony about my life is meant to be comforting and encouraging to other people, and I give impassioned performances that I hope will encourage them.
In a sense my music has a missionary quality - I'm not getting high on myself, or assigning a lot of importance in a pretentious way to my music, I'm just saying I think it takes on that quality for me, that's what I hope. I don't hope that my music doesn't make much of myself, I hope that my music makes the listener feel understood, and makes the listener feel mercy and grace, and communicates those things. But if I want for my music to do that, and I'm delivering it in an impassioned way, is there not a danger for myself to become as theatrical and comical as this screaming televangelist that's like "what I have to say is important!!"? So a lot of this record is focused on others - and songs like 'Even' and 'Claws In Your Back' that are about my friends, and not even about me – it’s about letting the self shrink, and learning how to listen more than I talk; shutting up the voice that has good intentions and wants to use my platform to convey all these positive messages. Maybe the most positive thing I can do sometimes is to get out of the way.
So I think 'Televangelist' is a lot about negotiating that space, like the last line is "do I turn into light if I burn alive?"; if I'm out here destroying myself in the name of martyring myself to an ideal, that's not setting a good example at all, so maybe I should just learn how to listen to others instead of burn myself at both ends for some proclaimed ideal. Hopefully I can learn how to do that; how to be a person who's on a stage literally, but make it about other people more than myself.
Julien Baker’s Turn Out The Lights is out now on Matador.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 30th October 2018.