Julien Baker: An Old Head On Young Shoulders
Sometimes great wisdom comes from the mouths of babes. 20-something-year-old singer-songwriter Julien Baker lives and reflects deeply.
Julien Baker is a celebrated musician and songwriter known for her sparse instrumentation and honest lyrical explorations of sadness, anxiety, substance abuse, and her queer Christian identity.
Born in 1995 in suburban Memphis, TN, Baker grew up in a religious family and was introduced to music at her church. She played in rock and punk bands as a teen, touring extensively with her band Forrister. She began recording as a solo artist while attending Middle Tennessee State University, initially releasing the songs from her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle on the independent music website Bandcamp. The album was picked up by an indie record label and included on many year-end best-of lists.
Her followup, Turn Out the Lights (2017), reached the top ten of the Billboard alternative and folk charts. Her third record, Little Oblivions (2021), topped the folk charts and reached number 39 of the Billboard album charts.
In 2018, Baker formed the indie supergroup boygenius with fellow musicians Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus.
For Julien Baker, joy is a skill, not a temperament.
Julien Baker: Joy is learning how to apply optimism to despair, and being able to identify positive things where there seem to be only negatives. Not tricking yourself to believe that there are no negatives, but learning how to feel and come to terms with your own feelings, and inhabit both joy and sadness at the same time.
The preternatural wisdom of this young and already cherished singer-songwriter came at a psychic cost. An only child born in the South and raised in a conservative, religious home, Baker hid her understanding of herself and her sexuality from the family she loved. The angst and despair were crippling, precipitating acts of self-sabotage and thoughts of suicide. Baker’s slide towards darkness later emerged in songs like “Sprained Ankle,” the title track from her first, self-produced album.
When Baker did at last come out to her father, his response was neither nuanced nor partial. It was, instead, a saving grace—a message of acceptance that shifted Baker’s view of how she might be loved for precisely who she is, and how she might keep on living.
Baker: When I tell that story, sometimes I worry that people misunderstand and think that my dad grabs this Bible off the shelf and tells me why it’s gonna be okay, because God loves me anyway. But the important operative phrase is, it’s not that God loved me anyway, even though I did this abominable thing by being who I was. It’s that God loved me in the first place. Which are two very different things.
Baker was a teen when she began to sing with a band called The Star Killers, who would later become Forrister. She traveled to what she’s called “pockets of progressive mindsets.” Today, she’s known in the U.S. and beyond for her self-exorcizing lyrics and haunting, fragile voice. In her music, she is no one but herself.
Baker: Slipping into the medium of music, and using that as a mode of communication, I think allows us a loss of inhibition that we don’t find many other places. We’re allowed to have the liberty and freedom and comfort to talk about things and express them as art without fear of, you know, any kind of recourse.
Baker’s second album, last year’s Turn Out the Lights, continued the story of her search for hope within the context of uncertainty, but in new ways.
Baker: I wanted to be more deliberate about the way I was presenting those stories and give them more than one facet—give them multiple alternative outcomes. Because, while it was therapeutic and cathartic to sing about hopelessness and very bleak emotions on Sprained Ankle, when I had to sing them over and over again and really analyze them, I realized that I didn’t give myself much room for it to be a “process.” It was just a documentation of a feeling, which is valid. But I wanted this record to be just a point along a constantly-growing idea of who a person is.
Indeed, Baker has become adept at describing a state of mind that cannot be easily summoned or defined.
Baker: When I say “doing better,” it’s not as if I have had some grand epiphany and now I no longer experience anxiety and depression, or sadness or loss. But I think what’s different now is that I’m more deliberate and able to grapple with those things in a healthy and productive way. I think more importantly than saying, “I have less anxiety attacks,” or “I am sad less frequently,” is saying that it is not a failure when I am sad. It is not a bad thing when I am sad. And that, in itself, I feel like is a tool of coping that’s very valuable to me.
Three years ago, Julien Baker admits, she might not have allowed herself to dream of being older than she is right now. But that perspective, too, has shifted.
AJC: Do you now think of 35, 40?
Baker: Oh yeah.
AJC: 50, 70?
AJC: And does that excite you?
AJC: Does that scare you?
Baker: It scares me a little bit, more because I don’t know what the world will look like. And as terrifying as it is, I’m also excited to find out because I realize that I have a role in shaping that.