Julien Baker Geeked Out on Cults & Sci-Fi While Making Her New Album

Julien Baker
Alysse Gafkjen

Julien Baker

How the acclaimed singer-songwriter 'figured out how to be proficient at making bleep bloop music' on her new album, 'Little Oblivions.'

Julien Baker recorded her first album, 2015’s intimate Sprained Ankle, in two days and her second album, 2017's cathartic Turn Out the Lights, in six. By those standards, Little Oblivions, Baker’s third and fullest-sounding rock album, took an eternity. Recorded over two months in Memphis, the project is out Friday (Feb. 26) on Matador. “It’s really hard for me to be patient,” says the Memphis-raised, Nashville-based singer-songwriter. “I’m like, ‘I want to do it now and have music out in the world!’”

But well before the pandemic arrived, 2019 forced her to slow down. After wrapping a month-long tour with boygenius in late 2018, Baker, 25, returned home feeling unsteady. So she went back on tour, despite concurrently dealing with a lapse in sobriety until friends intervened and told her to take some time off. “I didn’t want to because I didn’t know what else to do. This is the pursuit that’s been the highest priority to me since I was 16 years old,” she says. “I was like, ‘What do I do with my life now?’”

Baker found her answer by returning to a once-familiar routine: sitting around her apartment, going to school and writing songs. She commuted two days a week to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro to finish her Bachelor of Arts degree, which she did in a semester. Back at home, she sifted through the 20-odd demos she had at the start of the year, discarding most of them, and making only two or three new demos at a time. “I think that helped me a lot as a musician, being able to sit on the songs and work with them,” she says. “It was nice to do it that way for once.”

Baker played nearly all the instruments on the demon-battling, searingly personal Little Oblivions and recorded it with producer, engineer and longtime friend Calvin Lauber in December 2019 and January 2020 at Young Avenue Sound. The album’s other collaborators include her boygenius bandmates, Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, who contributed backing vocals to “Favor.” The trio put out an acclaimed EP in 2018, and Baker confirms that there will be more to come. “I don’t like it when people create mystery,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Oo maybe boygenius will get back together.’ But yeah, we’re probably going to make an LP together. We just haven’t been able to all be in the same place. We share songs back and forth all the time in the group chat.”

Now, to celebrate her album’s release, Baker spoke to Billboard about what inspired her during the making of Little Oblivions.

Sci-fi Books 
Baker went through a phase in 2019 of trying to challenge herself to engage with things outside of her comfort zone, leading her to give sci-fi books by authors like Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler a go. Baker says their thoughtful explorations of relationships spoke to her more so than other sci-fi books she’d attempted in the past. “It’s not like Dune,” she says. “I like sci-fi when it reveals or comments on society or interpersonal relationships and the nature of people, but I don’t super care for planet alliances and sand monsters.”

The drive from Nashville to Murfreesboro takes about 45 minutes, so during her twice-weekly school commutes, Baker devoured the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Uncover: Escaping NXIVM, a podcast about the cult, its leader and a member who wanted out. “I was then obsessed with cults,” she says. “It was interesting to me the lengths people will go to to assign meaning to their lives and how vulnerable every person is.” She was less enthusiastic about The Vow, HBO’s documentary series about NXIVM. “I know it’s condescending of me, but I don’t want to admit that I like a thing that everybody else is making a media sensation about. I didn’t want to talk about how I watched Tiger King, but Escaping NXIVM really got me.”

Empress ZOIA 
Baker primarily plays guitar and piano and never envisioned her music working well with the sound of a synthesizer, until she got the Empress ZOIA, a modular synthesizer in pedal form. Using it required a deeper understanding of attack, decay, sustain and release, as well as lessons from 13-year-olds on YouTube who explained how to download and install plug-ins. “It is really its own art form, to take assembled notes and then mess with their volume and the other parameters of the sound to get them to fit harmoniously together,” she says. “Me and Calvin jokingly call it the bleep bloops. I wanted to figure out how to be proficient at making bleep bloop music.”

Drum Machines 
As Baker learned how to incorporate synthesizers into her music, she found inspiration in the work of other artists, like Japanese House, Alex G and Lomelda. “I really became interested in small and over-distorted drum sounds and the sounds of drum machines placed on top of an acoustic guitar,” she says. Listening to other musicians do exactly that showed her how it could be done in a natural way. “I was like, ‘Wow, why should a drum machine be off limits?’”