Julien Baker Is Here To Remind You That Joy And Pain Go Hand-In-Hand

Nolan Knight
Julien Baker

2015 was Julien Baker's breakout year. After self-releasing an EP on Bandcamp, she re-released the tracks as the album Sprained Ankle, and the power of her voice stuck.

Two year since her debut, she's played shows with Ben Gibbard, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, and struck up a friendship with Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba (who released a covers EP featuring Baker's title track). She's become a household name in the indie music scene, but that hasn't changed her.

There's no one more grateful and self-aware than the Nashville singer-songwriter, who seems to become more of an old soul with each year. At 21, she's read 70 books in the past year (The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and the Lucy Dacus-recommended Gilead by Marilynne Robinson remain standouts) and she champions the importance of solitude and reflection. You can easily be convinced that Baker has lived a lifetime in just over two decades.

With the success of her debut LP, Baker could have fallen into the touring musician stereotype, but fame has just made her more grounded. "Fame is a bizarre word, but knowing that I have even a modicum of recognition motivates me in an interesting way," she explains. "It's an accountability system to me. I feel like there are people who recognize my art and praise it. I'm so grateful for those things. I feel the responsibility that I have to utilize that recognition besides simply my own aggrandizement. I feel like I have to be as authentic as I can be."

At this point, Baker knows what she needs to remain her best self. "I think I'm just a person who takes things to extremes and balance is something I have to be very aware of, so I know things that I need to steer clear of completely," she says without judgment. Baker's authenticity and candor is what has struck a chord with listeners, perfecting the art of crafting songs that oscillate between vulnerable whispers and bursts of valid rage. As a young, queer, Christian woman who has spoken openly about addiction and her mental health struggles, Baker brings an interesting perspective.

On the title track of her first record, "Sprained Ankle," Baker sings, "I wish I could write songs about anything other than death," accompanied by a series of bright guitar chords. She turns addiction and heartbreak into poetry that gives you chills on the album's final track, "Go Home," crooning, "But I've kissed enough bathroom sinks to make up for the lovers that never loved me." The juxtaposition of joy and pain has always been at the heart of Baker's music. Like a philosopher in the flesh, Baker says, "The presence of sadness or strife does not negate the presence or possibility of joy. Unfortunately that also means that even though there are positive and joyful things in life, that doesn't ever eradicate the reality of suffering and the painful parts of life." And just like that, Baker gives you hope.

Like Sprained Ankle, the new album Turn Out The Lights seems like a melancholic record on the surface, but there's optimism between the barebones balladry. It's something Baker has mastered the art of conveying. On her second LP, she doesn't shy away from opening up: in fact, she gets even more honest, mostly about the complexities of relationships and battling mental health issues. Baker isn't afraid to get real, and for people who are struggling with heartbreak, addiction, anxiety or depression, her words are spiritual comfort through paradoxical poetry. Joining Baker on her second album is former Forrister bandmate Matt Gilliam, Sorority Noise's Cam Boucher and violinist Camille Faulkner to help amplify her emotive songs.

For Baker, a second record came with an extra layer of pressure and a lot of creative freedom. "I felt a lot of apprehension about releasing another record, somehow a paradoxical fear of it being too similar and a fear of it being too different," she confesses. But she didn't let it get in the way of making the album she wanted to make. "I think what I try to do in the writing process is spin those fears and make the music as it naturally comes out," adds Baker. "I did not want to let my fear of writing an underwhelming record drive me to crowd a song with all of these unnecessary and extraneous embellishments."

Following the announcement of her signing to Matador and the release of her single "Funeral Pyre," Baker began working on Turn Out The Lights, piece by piece on the road -- a departure from when she cut her teeth songwriting for hours in her dorm room and recording in only three days. "With this record, I had time to think about the poetry, analyze the songwriting and really refine it," she explains. "That helped me to really establish a narrative arc." At the beginning of the year, she scribbled her ideas down into a spiral notebook. After the demos were complete, she spent six days in January recording the album for 12 hours a day.

The result is an album chronicling personal growth by coming to terms with the difficult parts of ourselves. It's something that is summed up in the first track on the record, "Appointments." "I put it first on the record because it seems like an exposition," Baker explains. "This is the point of departure for coping and healing that occurred on the rest of the record." Furthermore, "Appointments" illustrated the instrumentation and new sonic territory that that she tried to incorporate into Turn Out The Lights.

On the 11-track album, she grapples with conquering her issues and learning to accept them. "It's not so much the way my brain works or that my temperament has changed, but how I've learned how better to operate inside of that," Baker says. "I think that's the theme of the record but also my life." It's something she's struggled with, but has since embraced while oscillating from quiet to painful outbursts.

From confronting frustrations about anxiety-induced insomnia ("Everything That Helps You Sleep") to welcoming failure ("Shadowboxing"), Baker finds her own kind of contentment. "One thing that helped me was instead of categorizing my behaviors as good or bad, or positive or negative, was just understanding that they simply are," Baker concludes.