You could say Julien Baker’s junior year of college has gone fairly well. In October, the twenty-year-old Middle Tennessee State University student released her debut album, Sprained Ankle, on 6131 Records. Though she’d put it out as a Bandcamp EP in 2014, the record’s proper release led to rave reviews from NPR, the New York Times, and just about every other outlet with ears. Eventually, her name started popping up in several of those Best of 2015 lists that blanketed the internet last month. And it’s easy to understand why: Sprained Ankle goes right for the heart, a devastating and intensely vulnerable album made irresistibly inviting by way of its spare arrangements and Baker’s haunting voice. It’s an album to cut through you and then mend that wound, all at once.
Baker would have total license, then, to let all that success go to her head as she now begins a year of heavy touring. Instead she displays nothing but openhearted gratitude for her growing audience, mixed with a certain disbelief that any of this is happening at all. “I’m just always so amazed,” she says. “Not that I think my art is crap, but there are 6 billion people on this Earth, you know? And nearly everyone I’m friends with is making music. It’s an honor.” Still, even if she’s become one of the year’s most-watched young artists, and one poised for even bigger things, she speaks with reverence for her recent DIY past. “It’s grueling,” she says about her years booking and promoting her own shows, “but it’s as rewarding as it is grueling. Because you’re so invested in every aspect, you see the personal returns for all of your work.”
Baker’s effusive, warm personality is a natural complement to the woman singing through her pain on Sprained Ankle. Generous and confident, she’s so articulate about her own feelings that it brings clarity to yours, too. “I try to be knowledgeable about how blessed I am,” she says, touching on both her graciousness and the faith that suffuses Sprained Ankle. She also recognizes how modern DIY culture often doesn’t make much space for religious expression of any kind.
“I think ‘alternative’ or ‘punk’ or any kind of aggressive music, even ‘controversial folk,’ are genres that, because they’re outspoken and represent a subculture, are diametrically opposed to traditional Christianity,” she explains. “Faith in my life is huge.” It’s also unavoidable, she adds, that it would come through in her music. “All of my songs are autobiographical observations or interpretations of my own life experiences. I didn’t set out to write a record where it’s like, ‘This song will be about God.’ But it’s inevitable, because that’s where my mind goes and those are the thoughts that keep me up at night.”
She mentions artists as disparate as David Bazan and mewithoutYou as examples of musicians dealing with faith without resorting to “contemporary neo-theological jargon.” Through their influence she realized that explorations of faith in songwriting could be more about “how I interpret God and what that means in my life” than about dogmatic, flavorless announcements of unquestioned belief. And Sprained Ankle bears that out in songs like “Rejoice,” which has Baker contemplating whether “somebody’s listening at night/With the ghosts of my friends when I pray.”
But Baker’s songs are universal in their raw feeling, whatever her listeners’ personal beliefs. It’s that candor, her willingness to share her doubts, her anger and sadness and — in the midst of it all — the moments when she finds grace, that have drawn so many people to her music. People are hungry for these kinds of songs, the kind without posturing, songs so clearly written for the bare sake of writing them, without any consideration of hitting it big or finding their author’s face on magazine covers. If she’s blessed, she’s paying it forward.