She’s uncomfortable talking about her drug and alcohol abuse, a near-death experience and failed relationships, but Memphis singer-songwriter Julien Baker sees her music as safe space to examine past troubles.
“They’re autobiographical songs taken from direct experience,” the 20-year-old college student says. “It’s vulnerable, (but) I think getting it out there in a song, you can call it art and put yourself up a wall.”
Musicians have built careers out of detailing the demons with which they’ve fought, and Baker’s skill lies in her narrative songwriting, which pierces her experiences to the bone. Her anguish is several years behind but still makes an impact, and Baker works daily to reinforce a healthy lifestyle.
“You have to be comfortable with those parts of yourself so that you can use them-I use the word ‘testimony,’” she says. “You need to be familiar with those things so you can analyze how they influence who you are today.”
Now, completely sober, having quit even cigarettes, with a critically praised debut album (Sprained Ankle) of beautifully arranged folk songs using mostly her voice, a guitar and reverb, Baker is looking ahead not only to completing her schooling, but, hopefully, a music career. That begins in earnest with her longest outing to date, a tour of the East Coast and Midwest in January, with the West Coast on the horizon the following month.
Baker grew up a self-described troublemaker to a prosthetic-maker father, who lost a leg to a motorcycle crash before she was born, and physical therapist mother. The family attended church regularly, and faith became an integral part of her life. Her parents divorced, but both supported her early love of punk music in a scene she describes as chaotic. Local music is always a favorite in Memphis, and the various layers, from punk, blues, country and bluegrass, and everything else, all intertwine when the younger musicians play with the mainstays.
“It’s rough around the edges,” she says. “We have Sun Studios, and everyone knows the canon of blues and jazz from Memphis, but everybody has some kind of investment in the local scene. (Visiting) Nashville was such a head-trip for me because there are a lot bigger, nicer venues.”
She got involved with Smith7, a Memphis organization/record label that organized shows for youths in safe, public spaces, oftentimes for free. In high school she and several friends started their own band, Forrister, with a post-punk sound in the vein of Explosions In The Sky. The band gigged around town, often having to travel to shows by bus.
At the same time, however, she became an addict. Although it’s difficult for Baker to talk about the specifics, the stories came out more easily in her songs, first with Forrister, and later as a solo musician. But performing those songs was more difficult.
“There was a period when I was performing with Forrister, and I would have panic attacks on stage and just be freaking out,” she says.
By the time she moved four hours away to Middle Tennessee State University, near Nashville, she had reined in most of her demons. Separated from her friends and Forrister bandmates, she began to write on her own. Out came lyrics about wrapping a car around a streetlamp, having more whiskey than blood in her veins, time spent in ambulances, of an unbearable break-up with her girlfriend, and facing mortality.
The new songs were more personal than her earlier efforts, and rather than take a poetic look at her misgivings, Baker decided to be more honest about the ugliness she faced. Before, she had thought she was over the past. Now, she realized that she could take her pain and use it to shape her future.
“You look back at ‘How does this affect who I am now? How does this change the decisions I make?’” she says.
The self-loathing in lyrics such as “I’m a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you’d never touched,” (“Everybody Does”), “I ruin everything I think could be good news” (“Good News”), and “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death” (“Sprained Ankle”) is Baker at her lowest point. Then she begins to fight back, until finally concluding that she won’t let her previous self define who she is today.
Her lyrical battles are not only with herself, but also with God; like Jacob wrestling the angel. In the end, she decides that God was there for her, even when she was lost. “I think there’s a God and he hears either way/When I rejoice and complain,” she sings on “Rejoice.” Baker’s faith is still a huge part of her life, even if she doesn’t identify with being a Christian music artist.
“That informed a lot of my songwriting,” she says. “The songwriters I looked up to were not afraid to confront issues of doubt because they were real. An unchallenged belief is no belief at all. These (are) things that end up making my belief stronger. I’ve never wanted to seem like I’m minimizing (religion) because, in truth, it’s a huge part of my life.”
Penultimate track “Go Home” has what Baker jokes is an Easter egg to those who share her faith, a simple piano arrangement of hymn “In Christ Alone.” The hymn held relevance and spoke to her about what was most important when she wrote “Go Home.”
“I think it’s cool because to people who don’t recognize it, it’s just a piano interlude,” she says. “It’s (also) another way to start that conversation. I don’t ever want to club people over the head with my beliefs … but I just love talking to people and hearing their experiences.”
Baker, who no longer battles panic when performing, says she’s comforted when her songs connect with others who faced addiction and self-doubt. She doesn’t perform the songs because she’s a masochist and enjoys pain, but because the connection with other people can create a positive outcome, “connecting people who have experienced the same negative thing so they can feel not alone.”
Baker wrote Sprained Ankle at school (where she’s studying to become a high school English teacher) and recorded it at Matthew E. White’s Spacebomb Studio in Richmond, Va. She self-released it, and after signing with 6131 Records, the label re-released the album in October.
Only after completing the album’s nine songs did she go through the difficult experience of having her parents listen to them. When they first heard the music, they asked if the stories were true. They had known about her rebellious phase, but were finding out some of the specifics for the first time.
“It must hurt on some level to know that your child experienced things that you wanted to shelter them from, and my biggest fear is that they think it’s any reflection of what they did,” she says. “I have so much respect for the grace they have shown in saying that you can’t let the person you were and that guilt determine your identity at the present.”
Julien Baker tour dates
29-30 – Aspen, CO @ BELLY UP, /w The National
14 – LOUISVILLE, KY @ ZANZABAR
15 – CHICAGO, IL @ LINCOLN HALL%
16 – MADISON, WI @ HIGH NOON SALOON $
18 – COLUMBUS, OH @ BIG ROOM BAR
19 – PITTSBURGH, PA @ CLUB CAFÉ
20 – PHILADELPHIA, PA @ BOOT & SADDLE
21 – NEW YORK, NY @ MERCURY LOUNGE
23 – BOSTON, MA @ THE RED ROOM AT CAFÉ 929
26 – WASHINGTON, DC @ DC9
27 – CARRBORO, NC @ CAT’S CRADLE BACK ROOM
28 – ATLANTA, GA @ AISLE 5
% supporting Torres
$ FRZN Fest with Wild Belle