Julien Baker Shares Summer of Pride Playlist & Talks Sobriety, 'Heinous' Conversion Therapy & Nuances of Identity

Nolan Knight
Julien Baker

Julien Baker has built a career on introspection. Known best for her intimate and heart-rending guitar ballads, the former English lit major at MTSU first attracted a global audience with the release of her debut solo LP Sprained Ankle in 2015.  Thoughtful, precise in her use of language, and insightful about the complexities of the human condition, Baker was always destined for solo success.

After a burst of initial buzz, the now-23-year-old inked a record deal with Matador Records for her sophomore effort, 2017's Turn Out The Lightswhich peaked at No. 3 on Billboard's Americana/Folk Albums chart. Since, she has toured with Death Cab For Cutie, Conor Oberst, The Decemberists, and Paramore, and performed on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, CBS This Morning and NPR’s Tiny Desk series. And in 2016, she co-founded the group boygenius alongside fellow rising stars Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, followed by a joint tour in support of their debut eponymous EP.

For Billboard’s Summer of Pride playlist series, Baker crafted a Pride-themed mix featuring empowerment anthems from Christine and the Queens, Sam Smith, and King Princess plus some of today’s queer indie talents like SOAK, Palehound, Gordi, TORRES and more.

The mix highlights the artists that Baker always returns to as a listener. “A lot of artists I like end up being queer,” she says. “Or maybe it’s a subconscious thing that you can identify of, like, ‘Oh this person understands the nuances of the romantic narrative of a queer person, or the social narrative of a queer person.’ And then you discover, lo and behold that they are a queer person.”

In addition to the overarching Pride theme, Baker chose to feature artists that aren’t “readily categorized,” she says -- “whether it’s Kevin Abstract, or Moses Sumney, or Torres, you know? They just sound like themselves, and they’re very comfortable inhabiting that identity.”

Baker is, finally, comfortable inhabiting her own skin. Raised in a religious household in Memphis, Tenn. -- which is still very much in “the south” -- Baker had many friends forced to attend nearby gay conversion therapy center Love in Action, as seen in Joel Edgerton’s 2018 film Boy Erased, based on writer Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir of the same name.

“I had a lot of fear about coming out as a kid,” says Baker -- who identifies as a lesbian -- though she does acknowledge her own “privilege” in having the support of her religious father, who walked in on a precarious moment with her then-girlfriend. She “had to” explain, she says. “It was quite obvious that we were more than ‘best buddies.’ [Laughs.] The old queer trope of being the best of friends.”

Instead of getting upset or enraged, her dad grabbed a Bible. “He spent the next hour pointing out, like, ‘Here’s this thing that says there’s nothing wrong with you and god loves you,” she adds, though the experience has made her “less sympathetic” to the argument that some people just “don’t know any better.” “Like, they don’t know any better? Woah. We all have an innate awareness of what’s hateful and what’s loving.”

Below, Baker opens up about Pride, conversion therapy, and how she is “coming for” Nashville politicians.

How did growing up in Memphis shape your perceptions of identity?

It is a big question! It’s interesting, I think a lot of just specifically the past year, I talk about learning new things or discovering new facets of yourself that had gone previously unrecognized, but that’s a perpetual process isn’t it? Especially for queer people, there’s an added layer of difficulty, because when you grow up innately knowing that you are part of something that society does not recognize as normal or something that is innately counter-cultural or marginalized, then you have all of this internal dissonance between the self and the persona that you create, and then you have to dismantle that and figure out what is actually true to you. And that doesn’t just apply to your gender or sexuality, it’s everything -- your convictions and your cultural biases.

Your dad ended up being very supportive when you came out. How did you make sense of that at the time?

I wish the scores of queer friends I had whose families banished or ostracized them could have had an experience like that, of just immediate instinctual acceptance. Seeing my dad model that love despite not being socialized in a particularly aware cultural environment, his instinct was to accept and to love. He didn’t have an instinct for hatred. He was just like, 'I don’t see how this would be a problem…' I feel really privileged to have gracious and merciless people with a lot of perspective and patience in my life.

The conversion therapy facility that featured in the film Boy Erased is also located in Memphis. What was it like to know that was happening so close to home?

There’s a local queer filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox, who was really involved with the dismantling of that with his 2011 documentary This Is What Love in Action Looks Like. They ended up having to close the facility because none of them were certified medical doctors who were just giving out psychological, psychiatric advice, which is so illegal and so heinous. There’s so many tropes of being bullied at school or being called a "dyke" or whatever, but when I see things like that it makes me really have to re-assess my privilege as a queer person, and what I had to go through vs. what I didn’t have to go through. 

You got support from the local punk and DIY scene as well via your band Forrister.

I had the great fortune of having one parental figure who was extremely supportive, and then being involved in the punk community, which is counter-cultural to the norm already, --so when I came out to them everybody was like, "We kind of knew before you told us, so we’re not very surprised…"

What does Pride mean to you today?

Pride is a very nebulous thing to me. When I was younger I thought of Pride in the very stereotypical way, of like the Pride parade, or the Pride parties, and I thought of it as being in that space with a whole bunch of queer people radically asserting their queerness. That is something that I love to see -- to have a space that people can inhabit themselves fully and not feel judged or reticent to do that.

I never know what to think of the discourse around corporations copping the queer culture in order to market to a lucrative or profitable demographic. It’s almost like an ends and a means conversation. If there’s a person who lives in the middle of nowhere, and they see small or big businesses openly endorsing and supporting the LGBTQ community, then that makes that person feel seen. Even though the machinations behind it are of questionable motivations, that doesn’t so much matter… or wherever you fall on the radical spectrum of queerness does not so much matter, as does your willingness to permit all of the iterations of queerness to exist, you know? [Laughs.]

Artists like Taylor Swift have become more vocal about the need to protect LGBTQ rights and in supporting the Equality Act. What is your take on that?

It’s almost the same thing that we were discussing with Pride, right? Where a person will pay lip service to the queer community where it benefits them, but then they will continue to do things that suppress or oppress other marginalized communities, or just work only in favor of the dominant white hetero cis male. So there are a whole bunch of politicians at the city and state level that are fine to say that they stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community but then they would vote against affordable housing legislation.

It’s difficult for me to figure out if this person is supporting me theoretically as a queer person -- but then they’re also doing these other things that are counter-productive for the larger goal of equity or social equality. Can I then call that progress? Because then that’s like a superficial acceptance of queerness, but not one that would actually effect any change. I’m not like… coming for you Nashville politicians [Laughs] but I so am… like, screw you!

Are there any organizations in the fight that you’d like to highlight?

I see a lot of failure to recognize the trans community within the medical system, and in just a public setting and there’s still a huge stigma around that. ACLU Tennessee does a lot of work with the LGBTQ community, but specifically the trans community, and it’s beautiful to see that changing incrementally.

I think there are a whole bunch of people who are very engaged with that who are also very young. Every time I go to a talk or seminar, I see so many people who are younger than me (and I’m 23). I just think, "Wow, it’s going to be okay!" [Laughs.] As a community it can’t really be done by traditional legislative means if those in power aren’t really going to truly advocate for all marginalized people in their community.

You first studied audio engineering at school. I’m curious if you’ve experienced any discrimination or sexism in the live space?

The live setting seems closed off to women, period -- but also to just queer non-cis men, because it is a job that has been unfairly gendered as “male.” I used to do crew work in college and run sound. I feel like it was always stigmatized and there was always a superiority complex with men I would encounter in doing my job. It depends -- sometimes we’ll play a handful of shows where the front of house or the lighting tech is a queer woman or a queer male, or a non-cis person, and it’ll feel very hopeful -- like, "Oh wow, finally getting to see people occupy these positions that are not just straight white dudes!"

My tour manager is a female, the violinist that I play with is female. Obviously I am female. So when we walk up to a show and somebody asks, "Where is the tour manager, where is the artist?" We’re like, "Oh it’s us…" and all of our directions on how to set up the stage and stuff are disregarded or just not taken at face value. That’s very frustrating, but I know that it’s because we’re women and not male, and we don’t have the implicit authority that males are given.

Do you think the tide is turning there?

There’s so much more inclusion now even just in the last five years. When I think about the music that I was listening to or the music that was popular or that circulated, it’s completely different now -- and I think that the voices of queer people, people of color, are very valued. But it’s beyond that. The people in power are still affluent white men picking and choosing token representations of that culture, so I think it’s very important to have an awareness of labels that are operated by queer people and by females, and by people of color, so that it isn’t still that as a queer person or a marginalized person, you’re not serving the profitable ends of someone who has never needed help to profit.

How has your own journey to sobriety shaped your feelings on addition within the LGBTQ community and music industry at large?

It’s something that has taken me a lot of time to work out my relationship to sobriety. Is this a decision that I’m making out of fear or out of self-control? How am I labeling myself -- as an addict or just someone who wants to be more in control of their body and their life? With many things, I’m aware of my privilege as a queer person, and being accepted despite being a part of a religious community, made me want to be a lot more nuanced with how I talk about religion and my faith, so I also want to be way more nuanced about how I talk about sobriety. To ever portray something in a black and white or a linear way is ultimately going to lead you to alienate folks and not understand other people’s journeys.

There are people that I know who are at various levels or places in their recovery, and I think it’s important as a person who abstains from a lot of stuff, to be cognizant that recovery looks different for everybody. Often I have found that people who aren’t necessarily self-identifying as former or current addicts or people with a dependency on whatever it may be, they still save some of the underlying issues that drive addiction, so I don’t know. It’s been interesting as an artist to navigate that.

What’s next for you? Have you started work on the third full-length?

I’ve been slowly demo-ing songs, traveling to visit my friends who have studios in different spots and being a lot more meticulous and letting songs sit for a long time. For Turn Out the Lights, I didn’t know any other process other than know all the parts before you get into the studio and then go in and execute them. No record I’ve made has taken longer than a week or six days [Laughs]. And it’s crazy because I get that when you’re a DIY band pinching pennies, time costs money, so you just get in there and make something very raw and immediate.

Now that I don’t feel rushed to put something out constantly, it has afforded me a lot more time to reflect on the songs and I rather like it. There’s been some weird stuff, or things that are outside of my usual palette, and it’s really interesting and challenging. I like it.