Julien Baker on the Art of Trauma and a Million Other Different Thoughts

Music Features Julien Baker
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Julien Baker on the Art of Trauma and a Million Other Different Thoughts

When asked by Oprah Winfrey where he went for intellectual stimulation, laconic American author Cormac McCarthy, now 87, had an unusual response—New Mexico’s brainy Santa Fe Institute, he said, a nonprofit think tank devoted to the study of complex adaptive systems, where on an average day visitors could rub shoulders with biologists, Nobel-prize winning chemists and theoretical physicists for a noon lunch and proceeding 3 p.m. tea. The conversations were incredibly thought-provoking, he swore, and it was, all told, just fun to hang out with “interesting people with interesting things to say.”

Mercurial folk-rock whiz kid Julien Baker—at only 25—would fit in well at such a lofty research facility. This deep thinker’s mind is always industriously whirring, like the background machinery in a David Lynch film, and her conclusions—both in song and in casual discussions—are usually quite epic in scope. You don’t so much sit down to listen to her expansive new third album Little Oblivions (or to have an ensuing interview with her about it) as much as steel yourself for the lyrical deluge of what might appear at first to be non sequiturs but are, upon deeper inspection, a shimmering stream of consciousness. And both leave you with the sense that she just doesn’t belong here with us—she belongs with her own kind, sharing synapse-sparking observations with other souls whose thinking is just as elevated. Such as fellow singer/guitarists Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, two lightning-quick artists who recently joined forces with her as the lower-case harmonic convergence called boygenius, which has already: released an eponymous 2018 debut EP; backed Paramore’s Hayley Williams in sessions; and reunited for one “Oblivions” track, the quirk-poppy “Favor.”

The Santa Fe Institute’s watchwords are “We’re asking big questions.” And Baker started asking her own when she was very young. Raised Christian, singing in church, she became curious about secular music—as the fable goes—when she first heard Green Day, and by 17 she felt comfortable enough with her initially conflicted sexuality to come out to her family, not an easy announcement in any religious household. She soon discovered she was ordained to be a center-stage star, via her stunning 2015 all-acoustic bow Sprained Ankle, wherein her verdant vocals wreathed vine-like around a trellis of gentle guitar notes. She had, um, found her special purpose. Her questions grew more profound on its 2017 successor Turn Out the Lights, and more imposing still on her Dylan-goes-electric Oblivions, on which she played almost every instrument, including bass, piano, banjo, mandolin, drums and even synthesizer.

Which perfectly frames faith-doubting, conversely hard-partying, self-flagellating lines in the wave-crashing “Hardline,” a chiming “Faith Healer,” the buzzing march “Ringside,” and Defending Your Life—frank reassessments of past sins like “Repeat,” “Crying Wolf,” and “Highlight Reel.” Minus the droll Albert Brooks wit, of course. This isn’t a joke. It’s Baker’s life, which included a recent relapse into substance abuse. Or, as she puts it on the disc, “I’ve got no business praying/ I’m finished being good.”

So Baker—who sings with such diehard crescendoed conviction she resembles a Bizarro World Celine Dion—hasn’t found her perfect think-tank home yet. Currently, she’s in Nashville, living in a converted attic/studio in a house with four other friends. “And at first, I thought that having so many roommates would maybe be taxing, or cramped,” she admits. “But I think it’s a lot better than having just one roommate that you’re constantly forced to engage with. Because with five people, there are little sub-dynamics of people that can engage with each other fluidly, and you’re not constantly aware of—and observed by—just one other person.” So the conversation that follows may not rival a subliminally loaded exchange between The Judge and The Kid in McCarthy’s definitive Blood Meridian, per se. But hopefully, it’s Santa Fe close.

Paste: An off the wall question to start. Have you seen the great little indie film Yes, God, Yes? All about bible camp and its innate hypocrisies?

Julien Baker: No. But that sounds like something that would be right up my alley. I’ve been trying to get a couple of friends to have a remote viewing of But I’m a Cheerleader. Do you remember that movie? With Natasha Lyonne?

Paste: Yeah—it’s great. But, in a weird coincidence, the movie Fur just came on my TV a few minutes ago, with Nicole Kidman playing the amazing photographer Diane Arbus, and it’s a fictionalized biography, attempting to show what drove her to such edgy work. But it’s directed by Steven Shainberg, of the Memphis Shainbergs and Shainberg’s store-chain renown. Your hometown! Spooky!

Baker: Yeah! Shainberg’s! And Arbus took photos of all that outsider culture! That’s awesome.

Paste: Point being, I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t stared into the abyss for their art. Remembering, of course, that the abyss stares also.

Baker: Yeah. And first of all, I wonder if it’s a little bit chicken-and-the-egg to think … because I don’t … Sorry, I have a million different thoughts bottlenecking inside right now. So I’ll start it like this. I recently read this incredible book by Olivia Laing called The Lonely City, and it was about the childhoods of several artists who lived in and around New York City. It’s kind of centered on isolation with these artists that are on varying levels of recognition, like Andy Warhol but also Valerie Solanas, and some maybe lesser-known artists of the era. But it’s really interesting how some of these artists, like Andy Warhol and John Cheever, talk about how all-American and fine and uneventful their childhoods were. But then when you dig into it, well, were they? Or was there some sort of longing for unmet need there still, despite the fact that their childhoods weren’t catastrophic or traumatic? But I guess it’s more to the point that something happened to all of these people, something went wrong or maybe wasn’t ideal that somehow made them artists. Like, I dunno—you could maybe do that with my childhood—nobody’s childhood is perfect. Everybody’s parents are just doing the best they can. Maybe. I mean, I don’t know that for a fact, but mine were. I truly believe mine were. But I go back and forth about artists having to be damaged, inherently, or having their entry point into art be from a point of pain. And if you’re going to use that reasoning, I think that only works if all artists are hurt people. But then there are so many hurt people that don’t make art, so it supposes that art is catharsis, or art is a sophisticated response to trauma. So what do you make of a person who is not artistic at all, but who has experienced radical violence in childhood? Or sexual abuse? Or neglect? Or even intense poverty? So it’s like art is less of itself the salve to trauma—it’s more like people are just trying to be understood in whatever way. That’s what I look at art for. I am trying to write a story, I am trying to construct a narrative, I am trying to tell a story from my own life, in a way that is evocative and illustrative, because I want to be understood, you know? But that’s not just true of artists. I think maybe I got so into music because when I said that I wanted to try and play piano, my parents bought me a little $50 Yamaha keyboard with 48 keys and encouraged it. And that’s not everybody’s experience. Some people are not encouraged in the realm of music, so then they don’t ever allow themselves to develop in that way, creatively. But it doesn’t have any bearing on their emotional depth. So I’m trying to get away from the idea that artists and writers and musicians have heightened emotional depths. I think everybody has the same emotional depth, and people—just through their experience or their genetics—have varying levels of comfort or willingness to explore those emotional depths. If that makes sense.

Paste: Not necessarily. The guy sitting next to you on public transit might have no more knowledge of art—or emotional depth—than to know that he likes what he occasionally likes, so he might buy the new Pearl Jam CD because it’s on sale at Target. But he can tear your car engine apart in an hour and fix what’s wrong. Everybody has their own unique thing to contribute, art notwithstanding.

Baker: Yeah. And everybody has got something about themselves where they need acknowledgement. Or fulfillment. Everybody wants a pat on the head. And usually people go about getting that in different ways, or maybe they reject it for certain reasons. I dunno. I dunno how we got to talking about the supremacy of artistic endeavors!

Paste: But that fits right in to today’s self-obsessed social-media culture, where everybody needs a pat on the head. And not just for the Warhol-era 15 minutes, but every 15 seconds. “Look at what I had for breakfast! How important am I?” Ya know? Not really …

Baker: Dude. It’s weird. I was just talking about that. I was on an interview before this, and I felt like I was starting to bum the person out. I was like, “Do you ever stop to think about how small you actually are? And how you’re just a blink, a twinkle in the eye of the cosmos? And that it’s all just going to move on without you?” I dunno. Realizing that and really internalizing that gives you this weird, backwards sort of freedom. Like, I can make the music that I want, and I can say whatever I want, because I’m not even going to be a footnote in history eventually. I have only a modicum of power, if any power at all, and I can only really truly influence the people who I cultivate relationships with, and try to better the lives of the people that I love and the people around me in my community. And that is so much less of a daunting task than “I’m gonna be a musician and I’m gonna have all these intelligent things to say, and I’m gonna be a great thinker and change the world!” I mean, sure, there have been great musicians and great thinkers that I’ve heard about, that maybe were long since dead by the time I was born that I’ve gotten a lot out of …

Paste: The saddest part are the people around you who mistakenly view what you do as “power.”

Baker: Dude! It is sad! Honestly, it’s just sad. And that is so complicated to explain. Like when I get congratulated. It’s not even that they think it’s power, but that it’s something that I think will fulfill me. Like when people congratulate me about being on Seth Meyers, or that they saw that you had an article in The Wall Street Journal. And I guess these things make me feel good, but then I always find a way to bum out my friends and family with, “Yeah, I guess that’s cool … ” And it makes me sound jaded, but I’m not jaded. I’m not unappreciative of these things that are happening for me. But I’m just hyper-aware that all these publications are … not just ephemeral, but just because of the space they occupy in the public imagination or the public trust doesn’t mean what you’d imagine. I mean, if they’re a tastemaker or a gatekeeper or whatever, that’s great—these people are promoting my music, and that will maybe in a roundabout way help me be financially stable so that I can continue to take care of myself and to make more music. But their opinion of me is immaterial. Like, how do you quantify my work in terms of being in The New Yorker adds to it? Because that’s the total extreme that this record will allow, because I’m not touring, or playing in front of a live audience, who are getting a live experience or who I’m having a musical connection with. It’s just me, seeing people say nice stuff about my record on the Internet. And that’s great, but that’s not why I make music.

Paste: I listened to a frontline healthcare worker on NPR last week, who they’d followed for the past year through the pandemic. She’d started out last March kind of shaky and uncertain, but she was now totally confident and angry—she said she was tired of being called a hero, since that was a careless way of shifting individual healthcare responsibility onto her shoulders. The real heroes, she said, would have maybe stayed home on Thanksgiving, not had that mask-free outdoor wedding, not driven several states away for Christmas.

Baker: Yeah. And I love that, because my mom is a home-health physical therapist, and it’s something that she’s also expressed. And at the height of that—when people were cheering in the streets as frontline workers came home—my mother expressed a similar sentiment. I dunno—this is gonna be maybe self-centered to relate it back to artistry, but I’ve been having this conversation with many of my friends who are artists, about moralizing people in the public sphere, and expecting them now to represent the narrative that has been applied to them. It’s almost as if—like with two inverse lines on a graph—the more people become aware of you, or your thing or your art or what you do, the less complex your personhood is allowed to be. Because it’s being parsed out over pull quotes and totally limited. Like, there’s maybe two hours of music and me singing that I’ve created in the world. And collectively, it’s not actually all that much. And as much as I’ve tried to make myself understood, and I obsess about trying to phrase these things in the most articulate way, I recognize the limit to being understood by the person on the other end of a Zoom call, who has then got to write this whole article about myself as a person. And that’s then their complete image. And I’m not even saying that in an angry way—journalism, especially music journalism, is challenging for that exact reason. You’re trying to make a sympathetic, nuanced character appear with only a limited amount of engagement. That’s not easy. And I think a lot of people do it really well, but there’s still a limit to it. And then it’s like, “Okay—so some of my thoughts on where I am now are understood in this very limited way, because of the necessary limitations on how much information can actually be shared with a person about me.” So it’s like, then you become a caricature of yourself who was using a character to navigate the world. I don’t know if that even makes sense.

Paste: Judging from what I’ve read about Little Oblivions so far, when the pandemic hit, initially you were like, “Hooray! Isolation!” And not long after, you thought, “Uh-oh. Isolation was my problem to begin with!” And substance abuse ensued.

Baker: Yeah. Exactly. I think sometimes I find myself to be very introverted, and sometimes what I think I need is isolation. But that just allows me to get deeper into my own brain, so it’s good to be brought back into the present by something as simple as conversation with my roommates. And as far as where I’m at now, I would venture to say that I’m in a much more stable place now than I was. It’s crazy. I was beginning to piece this record together two years ago, and now I’m finally seeing the full contrast of how destroyed I could be.

Paste: And you know you’ve finally made it out—speaking from experience here—when you look at your old drug friends and go, “Whoa! I was hanging out with them?”

Baker: Sure. And I will say, you were talking about Diane Arbus at the beginning of this, and her wanting to take photos of outsiders. And not only outsiders, but just individuals who are maybe polarizing and extreme, or just live in a strata of society that we don’t understand. And I dunno—this is a big thing to say about myself, and I’m not calling myself a saint. But I feel like there’s always been something in me that’s … I don’t wanna say curious about each person, but especially about people that become social pariahs. People who experience chronic homelessness, people whose drug problems make them physically haggard, or people who talk to themselves on the subway. I’ve always been—not curious in an exhibitionist kind of way—but curious about what it was that happened to that person, when they went from child to teenager to this person that we get the social right to to disregard and avoid eye contact with, for some reason, because we believe that that person brought these circumstances upon themselves. I’ve always hated that. I have always fucking hated that. And again, I’m not trying to be like, “Oh, look at me! I’m like fucking Mother Teresa!” It’s more an admission of the fact that there’s something more complicated in the reason why I’ve always been drawn to them. And it’s actually really humbling. I’ve always been drawn to volunteering, even as a kid. And it probably has something to do with church and being on a mission in your city. Even after I stopped thinking of it as such a proselytizing thing, I still wanted to go and hang out with people who were forgotten and ignored and abandoned by society. Because I felt like I grew up in a relatively stable home, and I had all these advantages. And I had heard all these people around me, in the Bible Belt and in Tennessee, going, “Don’t give a homeless man money, because he’ll only go spend it on drugs.” And I was very young when the thought occurred to me, “Yeah—if I lived in a sleeping bag under the Interstate, I would probably buy drugs, too.” And also, do you think that person really wants to do this? I mean, I don’t wanna speak out of turn here, because I’m not an anthropologist, I’m not a social worker, and there are so many nuances to understanding unhoused people and addiction psychology. But I’ve always felt like there was something in me that felt like an impostor in normalcy, that didn’t want to be—or didn’t feel comfortable—in my popular friends’ houses.

Paste: Iggy Pop once told me, “I’m the kind of guy—if you dragged me to some fancy mansion dinner party—you’d always find me in the kitchen, talking to the help.”

Baker: Boom! Dude! Yeah! Again, there’s also this kind of thing where people from lower-middle class—or with tangentially rural family—backgrounds will try to brandish their self-awareness in a retaliatory way, like, “Well, I’m not like you big-city folk—I’m just a country mouse!” And I don’t ever want to do that in order to construct something about my personality, in order to put this other piece of endearing information into the character that I am as an artist. So I’m just saying—and when we’re talking about outsiders, and what it’s like to be in rehab or to be in therapy, or to be wherever you are among people you wouldn’t normally talk to on the street—all that it did when I found myself in those situations was confirm how similar I am to these people that are constantly alienated by society. It’s like we exist in different classes, but we really don’t. We just have different experiences. So I feel like that same person all the time, whether I’m using or not. That’s just me, just my psyche.

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