Memphis musician Julien Baker has just released what is bound to be one of the albums of the year with Turn Out The Lights. Only just into her 20s, Baker has already been heaped with praise for her fresh take on folk music. There is unbridled emotion and catharsis as Baker sings of the difficulty in maintaining hope when overcome with despair and depression. CHRIS HAVERCROFT speaks to Baker about mental health and the writing of her highly anticipated sophomore album.
Turn Out The Lights feels like it is very honest record. Do you worry about giving too much of yourself in the music?
My music is mostly autobiographical. It is a coping mechanism and a way to process the things that happen in my life. It’s about getting the raw material and then forming that into a song.
Obviously music has a very strong role for you in processing emotions, expressing yourself and healing. Did it evolve into a career or what there where it was always headed for you?
I didn’t really see music as something that would give me gainful employment. I always thought that I would have to have a ‘real job’. Sometimes creative endeavors get relegated to hobbies, particularly when you live in a culture that indoctrinates children in a way that they have to have a certain purpose and approach to their schooling. I went to music school, but I thought I would be a school teacher and that I would have to tour or weekends and holidays. It is quite wild the way it has turned out.
How was the recording of Turn Out The Lights different to the way that you approached (debut album) Sprained Ankle?
Sprained Ankle, I wrote it in school so when I wasn’t in class, I would be writing songs and then I recorded them in three days. When I went to make this record, it was songs that I had accrued over a year and a half of touring so I was able to record demos and listen to them and identify how I wanted them to sound. I had the time to be able to identify a theme that was developing with the musical motifs. I wanted to make something that was a bit intentional as I had the time to be able to. I was also given the opportunity to record at Ardent, which is a legendary studio in Memphis which was just the right mix of professional and comfortable. I was able to pursue all these little embellishments for songs that maybe started out sparse, and became a little more dynamic or varied.
There is a lot more songs with piano on this record…
I moved back to Memphis for a while and my actual piano is there. I had a bit more time to write on that instrument and I wanted to have more variance on this record. There is only one song on piano on Sprained Ankle, but piano is the first instrument that I learned. I probably feel more comfortable with piano than guitar, but mostly they are different instruments and writing experiences and I thought i would challenge myself towards a different medium. I have friends who are painters and when they get burnt out, they decide that they will only do sketches, or they will only work with charcoal for a while. Not that I was burnt out, but I didn’t want to make the same record twice.
Writing on piano is a bit more intricate of a process. Switching my brain to that modality changed the nature of the songs and made the songs sound like they have a bit more going on. It is hard to explain. I feel like a crazy person talking about the difference between piano and guitar, but it is a bit like walking. I feel like I am walking through a place that I have never been, and I come across something and think “I had a feeling that would be here”. That is how it feels when I find a certain chord on the guitar. With piano, I am more familiar with it and it feels like I am walking through a familiar neighbourhood. They are different vibes on each instrument.
Cameron Boucher from Sorority Noise makes an appearance on you album. He is a gentleman who sings about mental health and loss with his band. Is that shared experience how the connection started between you both?
I had always been a fan of Sorority Noise since their first record Forgettable. I saw that he had covered a song of mine and I just sent him a message saying “I know it sounds weird, but I am a big fan of yours and thank you for covering my song”. We then met at a festival somewhere and then we just continued to run into each other. We kept in contact and we talk to each other almost every other day. He is probably one of my best friends in music.
Cameron writes a lot about mental health and it has been really interesting to watch the journey of the vocabulary that he uses around mental health and healing and interacting with his own feelings, and how they change and evolve. That is something that I would like to do. I would like to be more self aware and cognisant about the way that I speak about the events in my own life.
I think the way that you are able to succinctly talk about managing wellbeing in your songs is powerful. People could be forgiven for listening to your records and thinking you have a horrific life and quite a struggle as you don’t always write about the other sides your life…
I think there is perpetual negotiation of what do I want to focus on and how do I want to engage with what is going on internally. On this record, I wanted to be much more intentional about the way that I confront those issues. Writing songs and making music is probably always gong to be my primary mode of therapeutic processing of the difficult events in my life. For Sprained Ankle, I was making the songs with no audience in mind. The songs were valid emotions and were worth acknowledging, but now that I have an audience, it is way more important to me to reference the realistic possibility of improvement. Not in a trite or artificial way.
People who listen to Sprained Ankle think that I have this horrific life, and sometimes interviewers are taken aback when I am chipper or positive person. I channel all of that stuff into music so that I can have a seemingly normal life. I have wanted to just reconcile the good with the bad on this record and discuss how the ugly or painful parts don’t negate or void the joy that we are capable of as human beings.
Today is a pretty morning and I have been able to talk on the phone to my love ones and I feel connected. There are some days that aren’t like that and i don’t feel this solid. I think that is the paradox that I inhabit. I am trying to step outside of myself. There are moments that are painful and feel insurmountable and that is crushing, but when I find myself thinking those cyclical thoughts, I am trying to assert at least the possibility of hope in a realistic way.
When you played live in Fremantle it was quite a joyous experience…
I remember that show being an incredibly fun show. Some shows feel reverent and the audience is engaged in a polite way, but they have come there to look for an emotional experience and that plays into the energy in the room and affects the way that I feel. Sometimes people come and sing along and make jokes from the audience, and that crowd in Fremantle was especially chipper and funny and I had such a great time at that show.
It is very ironic and an oxymoron that even in the worst and saddest corners of my life that I have no other way to deal with except to make music about it, and then they get re-purposed into the most joyous times of my life because sometimes people will sing along to the songs and it just blows my mind as I will start smiling and it will be to the song about me being in an awful space. The version of myself that was writing these songs, never thought that I would be in another continent and people would be singing along to my music and that is so beautiful.