Nov 11, 2021
By Matt Conner
Photography by Crackerfarm
Issue #68 – Japanese Breakfast and HAIM (The Protest Issue)
The worrier in Julien Baker is losing ground. Steadily, over the course of each new album or project, Baker is slowly learning from community and experience to trust the muse, to lean into the moment, to let the songs say what they will. Damn the opinions or reactions of others. Okay, maybe not quite so much.
Ever since it became clear that Baker’s melancholic songs were finding a much larger listening audience than she would have ever predicted upon the 2015 release of her debut, Sprained Ankle, Baker became increasingly concerned about her platform and the way she uses it. She was an artist. People were listening.
“Look, I’m not a mega-star. I’m just an indie musician, a singer/songwriter, with a decent group of people listening to me and I make my living off of it. I’m very grateful for that. But even that modicum of power was so overwhelming and disorienting for me. I was like, ‘Now I have this responsibility,’” Baker says of realizing her position.
What Baker terms as a “decent group of people” is a sizable audience who have flocked to her headlining tours thanks to two critically acclaimed albums; a turn in supergroup boygenius next to Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus; and her work with The National, Hayley Williams, and Justin Vernon, to name a few.
Baker points to her background as a punk musician in Memphis, along with her Christian upbringing, as key informants of her artistic mindset.
“Punk music is built on an ideology of equity and then you’re in a place where there is absolutely no equity,” she says. “You’re on a stage. You don’t know any of these people, but they know you, or at least what you disclose in articles and songs. All of a sudden, you have power you didn’t know you were going to have. Now you have the responsibility of stewarding that. I just wanted so badly to use it for something good. That sounds really corny, right? But that’s what I wanted.”
Standing in the lights, however, makes it difficult for anyone to live up to that sort of ethos and Baker said the tension became too much to handle.
“Now I have resources. I have a label. I have a booking agent. I have a manager. There are people working in the mechanisms of press to show my music to even more influential people so that even more people will care about it. That butts up against all of my radical punk ideologies that I thought I was following perfectly, which nobody ever is,” she says. “It’s that Jawbreaker song [‘Boxcar’], ‘You’re not punk and I’m telling everyone.’”
While Baker’s work has always been noted for its vulnerability and honesty, she describes her latest album, Little Oblivions, as even more so. The leap from Sprained Ankle to her 2017 sophomore album, Turn Out the Lights, brought out a longing to provide hope in the midst of darkness, to leave the listener with something meaningful. “I felt like I was talking about things when I didn’t even know the half of it,” she says.
Little Oblivions is true to the moment without (as much) worry of cleaning up the moment or hinting at a light in the darkness.
“On this record, there’s a lot of stuff in there where I was like, ‘Should I actually say this?’ I feel so used to trying to figure out a hopeful salve and when you write a lyric like some of them on the record, it’s just a big bummer for people. I know that people have characterized my lyrics as dark since I’ve been a musician, but I feel like being honest at this point is penance for not being honest with myself in the past. As a function of that, I was also not completely awake or aware to what I was actually saying in a realistic nature of what I’m talking about when I talk about hope or when I talk about what love actually looks like.”
Part of Baker’s ability to shrug off some of those previous worries of providing that “salve” might stem from her friendship with both Dacus and Bridgers. After touring together, the sessions to record and tour for boygenius gave way to further collaborations on the new album (both Dacus and Bridgers appear on Little Oblivions). Baker credits her musical friends for embodying a way to be distant from the fears that marked her previous releases.
“Yeah, they rub off on me,” says Baker. “They execute it very differently but I think they’re both able to compartmentalize what people will think of x or y. Me? Maybe not so much. I care about what people will think. I don’t care superficially but it’s all the same, right? I don’t care if somebody calls me ugly, but if someone calls me cruel or if something is problematic, I hate it. I can’t stand it and I’m perpetually afraid of doing the wrong thing. Maybe neither of them would say it about themselves, but they have so much self-assurance as artists that I am amazed by it.”
[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 68 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online.]
Read our interview with Baker and boygenius.
Read our 2017 cover story interview with Baker.
Also read our 2017 cover story bonus Q&A with Baker.
Read our 2016 interview with Baker and our 2015 Artist Survey interview with her.