Music

How Julien Baker Learned to Embrace the Ugliness of Existence

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When Julien Baker entered the famed Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, this past January to record her second album, the 22-year-old songwriter had one goal in mind. “I wanted there to be more of an interaction between what’s happening in the narrative of the song and what the musical quality of the song is doing to reinforce that,” she says of Turn Out the Lights, out Friday on Matador Records.

In other words: Baker wanted to make a properly produced record. Three years ago, when it was time to record her debut album, Sprained Ankle, she road-tripped to Richmond, Virginia, to sneak in some studio time where her friend had been interning for the summer. She took just a few short days, and played every instrument herself; when she first self-released the album on Bandcamp, expectations were muted. She hadn’t even been signed yet.

But word got out, and Baker’s album became one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriter debuts in recent years, earning rave reviews in the New Yorker and the New York Times and leading to high-profile gigs at Newport Folk Festival and opening slots for big names like the Decemberists and Paramore. For her second time out, Baker finally had the resources and the time to make a carefully considered record. Once again, she would produce the album herself, but now she had a fancier studio and an expanded instrumental palette that included piano, strings, and — after quitting smoking and two years of experience training her voice to sing onstage each night — a newly expanded vocal range.

“There was not an analytical lens placed over the lyrics I was writing on Sprained Ankle — they were just a depiction of my emotions at that moment,” says Baker. “This record had a lot more deliberate and intentional choices behind it, there was a lot more consideration given to how the poetry of the songs would form. But I think you can have a really calculated piece of art that still preserves its honesty.”

When Julien Baker first released Sprained Ankle, she had only recently begun performing by herself. Baker, who grew up in Memphis and now resides in Nashville, spent her high school years performing with her friends in the indie-emo band Forrister. It wasn’t until Baker arrived at college at Middle Tennessee State University that she began to write the brittle, vulnerable songs that would wind up on her solo debut.

Baker spent much of Sprained Ankle negotiating her various identities — Christian, queer, Southern — on songs like “Rejoice,” which preaches a spiritual redemption and acceptance of Baker and her cohort of misfit friends. “I try to be knowledgeable about how blessed I am,” she told this paper last year. “I didn’t set out to write a record where it’s like, ‘This song will be about God.’ But it’s inevitable, because…those are the thoughts that keep me up at night.”

For her rapidly growing fan base (Baker is headlining Town Hall this week), Baker’s shows, which feature the singer performing by herself on electric guitar, are cleansing rituals of communion between audience and performer in an era when genuine emotional connection between strangers, onstage and off, can feel more difficult than ever. “These days everything is supposed to be so shot through with irony, so to hear something so plaintive and earnest feels new,” says Colin Meloy, lead singer of the Decemberists, who has toured with Baker over the past couple of years. 

“I was really blown away when I first heard Julien’s first record, but it wasn’t until I saw her spellbinding live show that it truly connected with me,” says Meloy. “I know, having done solo shows myself, how tough that can be, so when we first took her on tour we thought, ‘Oh god, this is just one woman and a guitar.’ But when she performs, it’s amazing to watch the crowd be completely silent and see how she’s able to command and work inside that silence in a way where you just can’t not be fixated.”

On her second album, Baker probes further inward, building off the personal work of her debut, on a collection that is primarily concerned with mental health, with the balancing act of reckoning with the parts of ourselves that constantly call our day-to-day well-being into question.

When recording Turn Out the Lights, Baker became enthralled with the idea of merging form and content. On “Claws in Your Back,” she mimicked the song’s emotional core by adding a “creepy, staccato” string section. On “Sour Breath,” a song about “cyclical thought patterns that are maybe self-defeating in nature but seem inescapable,” she drove home the oppressive weight of cyclical patterns of thinking by repeating a single line — “The harder I swim, the faster I sink” — over and over while the intensity of the backing track gradually builds.

On “Appointments,” the album’s lead single, she employed double-tracked vocals to acknowledge “multiple contradicting or opposing voices fighting to be heard or acknowledged in a single line.” “I know that I’m not what you wanted,” she sings in a near-whisper, before a chorus of vocal tracks suddenly appears to reflect the multiple voices the narrator is struggling to negotiate: “Am I?”

If Sprained Ankle was an introduction to Baker’s four-dimensional pain, to the way in which she uses her music to perform her own fragility, to render sadness and hurt as nearly tangible subjects in and of themselves, then Turn Out the Lights is a record about the process of managing and coping with that very pain, an ultimately optimistic statement of hope and peaceful acceptance of our innate brokenness.

“If it makes me feel better,” Baker sings at one point, “how bad could it be?”

The new song titles alone speak to that transformation: “Hurt Less,” “Everything That Helps You Sleep,” “Turn Out the Lights.”

“A lot of this record involves a division of self and of negotiating,” says Baker. “Is it a relationship of opposition? Is there a part of me that I like and a part of me that I don’t like? Is there a part of me that’s good and bad? Or are these just components of a single self that I have to learn to unite and embrace?”

That underlying message comes through most clearly on “Happy to Be Here,” an understated centerpiece, addressed to God, sung by a narrator struggling to accept themself.

“A diagram of faulty circuitry explains how I was made,” she sings. “Now the engineer is listening as I voice all my complaints.”

While it’s a mistake to assume all of Baker’s writing is autobiographical (many of her new songs tell the stories of close friends and loved ones), it’s clear just how profoundly personal “Happy to be Here” really is for the songwriter.

“That song was really a didactic tool for me — it revealed things that maybe I hadn’t fully perceived yet,” she says. “That song started out as a list of complaints: ‘Why am I me?’ Because from my perspective I am unhappy with my disposition or my temperament or the anxiety I experience, and I think something must be wrong with my brain, because this is abnormal and I need help trying to fix it. But articulating it in that way, saying that I’m broken and I need to be fixed, makes an assumption that there’s something wrong that needs to be reconciled. That’s in direct opposition with the belief that if I was made, instead of just coming into being haphazardly, that I could be made intentionally broken and so cosmically flawed that there was not a way to salvage those parts of myself. And I could not support that belief.”

“I could not continue to think I was purposely created in the way that I am and that that is irrevocably a failure,” Baker, who continues to draw artistic inspiration from religion, continues. As she goes on, it becomes more and more clear that she is not simply talking about “Happy to Be Here,” but rather, her entire artistic project, her fundamental approach to life.

“I started to entertain the possibility that if one of these things is false, then what if the thing that’s false is that I’m broken. What if, in fact, that’s not a mistaken part of my identity that makes me the way I am but rather that’s just another part of me, period, something I can repurpose and transform to use in whatever way I can. What if the parts of myself, the ugly parts, the parts that we are told are ugly, are something that can be just as useful, if not the most useful and valuable, tools that we have in connecting with other people and becoming who we are. So that song was me coming to terms with the fact that I am me, and that is inescapable, so maybe I should stop trying to escape that and learn to embrace it.”

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