Julien Baker

Interview: Julien Baker

I had the opportunity to speak with the extremely humble and extremely talented Julien Baker about her recent album, Sprained Ankle. We covered everything from the album’s recording to spirituality and, naturally, we nerded out over David Bazan. Baker is a young songwriter with a lot to say, and luckily for all of us, it seems her career is only just beginning.

So the album is currently streaming and releases this Friday. Do you feel relieved? Are you happy with the response so far?

It’s…surreal, you know? It’s not like ‘I’m playing Wembley’ surreal, but it’s weird for my friends and I to get used to any press whatsoever. It’s like, a year ago, we put out the album unmastered on Bandcamp, and it was just an EP until 6131 got ahold of me. And now I’m having to get used to NPR, and Vulture, and freakin’ AbsolutePunk. [Laughs]

As a student and musician myself, I have to ask: how do you find the time to be an independent artist while at school?

I don’t. I mean, I have to, and one of the hardest parts about that has been transportation. I didn’t have a car, so I would end up Greyhounding home at 8 a.m. after a show with the Menzingers and have class in an hour. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t have weekends to go out with my friends. If I’m touring, I’m planning that two, three weeks in advance so I can have weekends where I fly to Memphis or wherever. So it takes a lot of dedication, but I think it’s absolutely worth it.

I’m also a person who thinks studies are important, so I’m taking time off, but I’m still enrolled in classes because I think everybody needs to be exposed to an academic environment. As someone who’s going to be a teacher if this doesn’t pan out, there’s nothing more important than knowledge and education. Even as far as things that have influenced my lyrics…so literary, so poetic, and things that have influenced my life decisions…I finally ended up taking some time off because of [poems like] “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, because I think those things are important. It’s tough, but I think any musician knows what it’s like to work a dead-end job or be stuck in the place you have to be while creating art, you know?

Have your parents and teachers been understanding of that?

Oh, definitely – more so than I ever could have hoped. It’s interesting, I spoke to my advisor and the professor of some of my upper-level courses about taking some time off, pushing back graduation, and he literally pulled out the texts I mentioned earlier for reference and told me not to waste my life, that knowledge without experience was like food without sustenance, etc. It was so encouraging.

So then I sat down with my mom and dad, who I worried about because they were broke and had to work their way through college while I got scholarships, but they said they’d never dream of holding me back, and it was really cool because I know a lot of people don’t have that kind of support. I never want to take that for granted.

You mentioned earlier that most of these songs had already been release once, albeit being unmastered. How long have some of these songs been around?

The songs have been around for over a year, and even longer than that if you’re talking about their inception. We made the record at SpaceBomb [Studios] about a year ago last summer, released it as an EP that winter, and then I took it down once 6131 contacted me so it could be released formally.

So were “Vessels” and “Brittle Boned” then written specifically for the album?

Actually, they weren’t! Those were the only two that were not recorded at SpaceBomb. They were written shortly thereafter, but we just didn’t track them for whatever reason.

Maybe it’s a good thing, maybe it’s a sad thing, but I always find myself creating this really large volume of songs because all of my musical heroes say things like, “Always write, write a song a day,” etc. So I’ve always got notepads and voice memos lying around with half-written songs. One of my friends from Memphis, Toby Landers, reached out to me while I was home on break and I said, “Let’s dick around and make some songs,” so we did. We wanted to round out to like 10 songs so it could be a full-length.

Do you have a favorite song from the album or a favorite song to perform live?

Hmm…so the singles were “Sprained Ankle” and “Something” and “Brittle Boned,” and I like those songs sonically. I think they’re put together well. But the song that I always find myself performing, whether I feel trepidation about its awkwardness that night or not, and the song I’m most attached to, is actually “Rejoice.” That’s probably my favorite one, only because in that song, I’m not really veiling anything. It’s clear what I’m trying to say, and it’s cathartic for me to be able to express the ideas I express in “Rejoice” so candidly, and to just freaking scream into a microphone, you know what I mean?

Absolutely. And for those reasons, for its content and the fact that it is so loud and upfront, I remember that song separating itself from the rest of the record in a really interesting way the first time I listened to it.

And like, because it’s so aggressive and so clear with its lyrical intent, there have been plenty of shows where I’ve been like, “Should I play this song? It’s gonna creep people out or make them uncomfortable either because I’m screaming at them, or because it’s got spiritual content, or because it’s got very personal content,” but then I’m always like, “I need to do that song,” in spite of and especially because I feel that way. And I’m always glad I did.

You mentioned your spirituality even more in that recent Vulture interview. Has that topic always been a part of your lyrical content, or was a song like “Rejoice” something new for you?

Ever since I’ve been in bands, spirituality has played a big part in my lyrics because that’s where you figure things out, you know? Part of your lyricism is directed at your listeners, sure, but a lot of it is self-serving, and I’ve always found myself writing about religious questions or writing about spirituality in a way that was more accessible than praise and worship music. It’s like…it bums people out. It’s a somber topic, but it has this dual nature about it.

It’s kind of strange to be so explicit about my spirituality, because you run into a lot of issues…being homosexual, that’s not usually something you talk a lot about, but in my mind, those are both equally important and not separate issues. So being so open and honest about those things can be really hard sometimes. On one side, you’ve got these kids when I play basements that I’m afraid are going to be like, “Stop singing about God, that’s lame,” and then I’m also afraid the wonderful relationships I’ve found through church and through worship are going to be torn because I’m not living an “ideal” lifestyle, but fortunately, I’ve found communities that are much more loving than that.

And that focus on spirituality mimics the writing of some of the artists you’ve mentioned influencing you, like mewithoutYou, Pedro the Lion, etc. What are some of your favorite albums by those artists and how were they formative to you as a musician?

Oh my God.

Feel free to nerd out.

So first off, Aaron Weiss is, like…the paragon of lyrical quality to me. I love his stuff. Like…I can’t even talk about it. Death Cab for Cutie, interestingly enough, is the band I always credit for kind of broadening my musical horizons, which is a long and ongoing process. When I was younger, I would hang out at the skate park and listen only to, like, deathcore and metal.Speaking of heavy music, Underoath was hugely formative, especially for their ability to toe that line between secular and spiritual and be honest with themselves. I mean, Define the Great Line…holy crap.

But anyways, I was only listening to aggressive music because I was a pissed-off pre-teen, and then I bought Transatlanticism out of the blue in a record store, and it was so, so great…that’s one of my ‘desert island’ records. Catch For Us the Foxes is the other one, by mewithoutYou, and Control by Pedro the Lion; there is not a more cohesive album than Control. So yeah, if I were to be shipwrecked on some desert island with only those three records to listen to, I think I’d be okay.

Oh yeah. Something about the fall always brings me back to David Bazan’s music. Lately it’s been Control and Curse Your Branches for me.

Oh God. I remember being in such turmoil when [Curse Your Branches] came out because I just loved his writing so much — how candid he was about God — but then, “All fallen leaves should curse their branches/For not letting them decide where they should fall/And not letting them refuse to fall at all,” I mean, how do you even respond to that, you know?

Because of the extreme personal nature of these songs, are any of them particularly difficult to perform live?

“Go Home” is really hard. It took a little warming up to perform that song live. I don’t want to say it’s one of my favorites, but it was rewarding to make because it was written in particular reference to two very close friends of mine and incidents that have occurred in our actual lives, but because it contains such dark subject matter…it’s very emotionally taxing to perform “Go Home.”

But it’s getting better. Even in [my band] Forrister, there were some songs where I just pointed my head down toward my pedal board and plead for it to be over because I wrote them in self-hatred, and you have to relive that. So I think that you develop a sort of ‘brain callous’ and get over it, you know, which I guess fits in with the theme of the record, which is getting over and getting through things.

So whether you know it or not, Sprained Ankle developed a pretty dedicated thread in our forums, and one of the users would like to know whether or not you have plans to tour the west coast?

No way, that’s awesome! I sure do!

It’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you, and hopefully we can do it again sometime. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Hmm…not particularly, I think we’ve covered a lot of great stuff. I’ve read the site for quite a while, so it’s been an honor doing this interview!

Aaron Mook Aaron Mook is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @vancemook on Twitter.