Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Julien Baker (Photo: Nolan Knight)

Julien Baker doesn’t just want to make you cry

Julien Baker (Photo: Nolan Knight)

Julien Baker is unfailingly polite. After the release of her 2015 debut album Sprained Ankle, several profiles made mention of her manners, along with the fact that she addresses interviewers with “ma’am” or “sir .” And when I meet her at her Chicago hotel to discuss her new album Turn Out The Lights, while I don’t get a “sir,” she pays me a compliment all the same: “Is that an Iron Lung shirt?” she asks. “That’s sick.”

Baker has this way of instantly disarming people, making them feel welcome in a matter of seconds, both in person and through her music. This was obvious from the immediate response to Sprained Ankle, which 6131 Record picked up from the EP that Baker self-released to Bandcamp. Vulture and Stereogum gushed over it before it was even released. The New York Times got on board less than six months later. Baker’s candid reflections on her faith, sexuality, addiction issues, and mortality instantly resonated with people, her hushed singing voice and delicate guitar lines inviting listeners to let down their defenses and join her in the intimate space she built.

Before long, Baker was opening for the likes of Death Cab For Cutie and Belle & Sebastian, having her songs covered by Brand New and Dashboard Confessional, and being tagged in an untold number of tweets about how her music makes people cry. When she announced Turn Out The Lights, her debut for indie powerhouse Matador Records, preorders for its exclusive vinyl were gone within the hour. The cult of Julien Baker came on quickly—and intensely.

That burden of expectation naturally falls on Turn Out The Lights. With Sprained Ankle, she’d immediately conjured the kind of connection that artists spend a lifetime building, her music taking mere seconds to carve out a space in even the most jaded hearts. It took people by surprise; now they anticipate it. It’s something Baker is aware of, but rather than giving her anxiety or unease, she says it’s only increased her focus.

“I don’t want to say that Sprained Ankle was hastily recorded, but it was just as many songs as you could do in as little time as possible and still have them sound good,” Baker says. “I had a lot more time to conceptualize this record. All these songs were accrued over a period of me touring and music being my job. I had so much more time to sit and let the songs evolve mentally, and make a whole bunch of voice memos and demos and think about what I wanted the instrumentation to look like.”

The result is an album of even more nuanced songwriting and instrumentation that, while still sparse, feels downright robust in comparison. Turn Out The Lights doesn’t deviate from the sound of its predecessor—it’s still chiefly ornate guitar passages flanking Baker’s often whispering vocals—but it’s more richly detailed. First single “Appointments” captures this complexity, with Baker, playing guitar backed by piano, crafting a song that builds to a disorienting climax of overlapping vocals pinging against one another.

“I wanted to have multiple dissonant and competing tracks in ‘Appointments,’ because it’s supposed to be a sonically thematic representation of competing ideas and cognitive dissonance—having two competing yet concurrent ideas,” Baker says. “All the multiple vocal tracks, some are closer and some are farther away, and depending on the lyrical content, its position within the mix reflects the headspace of the narrator.”

That word—“narrator”—draws an important distinction between Sprained Ankle and Turn Out The Lights. “Appointments,” like much of the album, is focused on mental health, and whereas Baker’s debut was concerned primarily with her own, this album takes a more holistic approach, drawing on the experiences of her friends and loved ones in its character-based vignettes. “Discussing Sprained Ankle,” Baker says, “I felt like that was sad and kind of self-involved. So a lot of these songs are about other people, and how to deal with grief and healing and coping in the context of knowing you’re not the only person in your sphere.”

“Playing [Sprained Ankle] songs every night made me learn I’m not the most important thing,” Baker adds. “Allowing myself to shrink over two years of touring, the more I shrink, the more subject matter comes from other people and empathizing with them… There’s the [Sprained Ankle] song ‘Good News,’ with a lyric like, ‘I ruin everything I do.’ If I had known I would be singing that to a room full of people, I wouldn’t tell those kids in the audience that I ruin everything I do. It’s okay to express that, to feel like someone else has shared in that despair, but what’s not okay is to never take the time to say, ‘That can’t be the way you think all the time. You cannot go on telling yourself that you ruin everything, because it’s just not true.’”

On Turn On The Lights closer “Claws In Your Back,” Baker offers the most direct rejoinder to that sort of self-pity. “The last track on Sprained Ankle is this sort of very dramatic petition to God, saying that I’m done with all this temporary suffering and I would love it if we could move on to the next plane of existence,” she says. “Which is, you know, a really bleak thing to say. ‘I’m done living. I’m tired of life. I want to move on, ostensibly, to some place that is better.’ And [“Claws In Your Back”] is, hopefully, the antithesis to that. Discovering that, despite all those things that we experience, that I’d rather stay.” The whole album plays with this dichotomy, ruminating on the deep, darker moments of life but resolving not to get mired in the messiness. “Songs like ‘Appointments,’ and ‘Happy To Be Here,’ and ‘Claws In Your Back’ are about inhabiting paradoxes of thought—feeling like there is no hope, but choosing to believe that there must be,” Baker says.

That may come as some surprise to fans who tell her, over and over again, about how she moves them to tears. “If you want to slate me as the thing that makes you cry, that’s fine,” Baker says. “Because my music makes me cry, mostly because it’s drawn from personal experience. If that’s what you need to take from my music, then I don’t mind that. That’s okay. The only thing I wanted to do with this record was say, ‘Look, that’s fine if you want to cry to this music, but I don’t want it to be stagnant, wallowing, self-defeating music.’ I don’t want it to be music that’s enabling a trend of thought to inhabit and remain inside of sadness.”

Baker’s compassion for other people is evident in the way she talks about them—the way she beams when I bring up her old tour mate Mackenzie Scott in Torres, or Sorority Noise’s Cameron Boucher (who plays on Turn Out The Lights), or her hometown of Memphis (especially Memphis), when she becomes the unabashedly joyful person that fans only ever see in flashes. And it’s there in her music, which gives its listeners the chance to hear their own struggles reflected in hers, to find some levity in their shared experiences, which is something that can so often give them a lifeline. Asked about her proudest career achievement so far, Baker tells the story of a woman she met in Amsterdam who gave her a letter explaining how Sprained Ankle had helped her through a rough patch. As a result, the woman decided to go back to law school with a focus on human rights.

“I don’t have to punish myself for making art about me, for not quitting everything and going to work for one of the social-work organizations in Nashville,” Baker concludes. “It is enough that I feel like this has contributed in an incremental way to what she does. I feel like it’s my biggest honor to have imparted that.” Baker pauses for a second, then adds, quite politely, “That’s the best compliment I ever got.”

David Anthony is a writer living in Chicago. Krill forever.