At the risk of disagreeing with the person who probably knows best, “boring” is not a terribly apt description of Julien Baker. Over the course of an hourlong phone conversation with the Straight, the Memphis-based singer and songwriter proves endlessly fascinating, expounding on everything from the early impact of all-ages punk-rock shows to her battles with depression and anxiety.
Baker is happy to talk about how her stripped-raw debut album, Sprained Ankle, became one of the most critically celebrated records of 2015, and to discuss the way luck can be as important to a career as God-given talent or a bullheaded work ethic. The tribal followings of ’80s hardcore bands like Minor Threat and Rites of Spring amaze her. And she opines eloquently that the best thing about success is that it enables her to support the DIY musical community that she’s proud to be from.
Whatever topic she’s discussing, Baker is not boring. The party that defined her teenage years has stopped, but that doesn’t make her any less interesting.
“I have the predilection towards anxiety and darkness or what have you,” the 20-year-old artist says as a Memphis thunderstorm crashes away in the background. “But it doesn’t get out of hand anymore because I’ve learned that just gives you cascading issues that only make your situation worse. There is no escape in that path. And that’s particular to my circumstance—I have tons of friends who’ve experienced the same issues of substance abuse at various levels, whether it was alcoholism or a serious drug habit. And I’ve got tons of friends who can have one beer with dinner. You have to know your personality type. All the creative people that I know are very extreme. But I’m not even going to introduce that variable into my life now. I’ve made that choice. Which is why I’m a boring person.”
A better way of putting things is that, after spending years drowning out her demons with mind-altering chemicals and liquids, Baker has discovered a better way of dealing with the traumas of everyday life. That’s abundantly clear on Sprained Ankle, for which the singer came up with an admirably cathartic set of solo songs, plugged in a guitar, and then rolled tape.
The result was one of the most stunning dark-horse records of 2015, at times leaving you wondering exactly how bad things got during Baker’s lost years. At odds with the bright-eyed guitars on “Brittle Boned”, the singer declares, “I know I’m a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you’d never touched.” Darkness and despair rule on the discordant indie rocker “Good News” as Baker wrings every bit of drama out of “I know I shouldn’t act this way in public/I know I shouldn’t make my friends all worry/When I go out at night and grind my teeth like sutures.” Anyone who’s ever been through a devastating breakup will have zero problem relating to “I know you left hours ago/I still haven’t moved yet” in the skeletal “Something”.
The singer had some issues to work out on Sprained Ankle, through lyrics so personal that she admits she sometimes feels funny singing them now that she’s in a happier place.
“I talk with a friend of mine about how we don’t like the term It gets better,” she offers. “It doesn’t ever really get better. What happens is that you choose how you are going to confront the daily challenges and obstacles that you face. You can choose to try and turn your brain off with substances and hide from your problems and not address them. Or you can stick things out, grit your teeth, and try to make the day the best possible day that it can be for yourself and others around you.”
That philosophy is one Baker took a while to embrace. She grew up going to church in the Christian South. And as much as the church in America is beyond crazy sometimes, when Baker came out as gay it was members of the church who were there to listen to her and accept her. Learning to accept herself, however, took a while longer.
“I hadn’t learned the lesson of ‘The world is acting on me and I’m helpless,’ ” she recounts. “You have to come to the realization of ‘I’m running away with something that I haven’t dealt with yet.’ And you have to choose to be bigger than these things.”
Music helped with that. Baker’s father took her to all-ages shows, which taught her that anyone can be in a band, and that the best shows are the ones where performer and audience come together as one. That notion would be solidified when she joined her first band, the emo-leaning agitators known as Forrister. And it’s something that’s stuck with her as crowds have embraced her as a solo artist.
“I come from a scene where the shows are all floor shows—the performer isn’t elevated above the crowd, so physically you’re on the same level,” Baker relates. “That puts you emotionally on the same level—there’s no separation between performer and observer. That’s something that I really like. The bigger the gap gets between the stage and the floor, the more uncomfortable that I get.”
The challenge is to accept that those gaps are in all likelihood only going to get bigger. Because if Julien Baker is discovering anything, it’s that a record she arguably made for herself has a growing list of admirers. Predictably, she’s anything but boring when breaking down what she’s accomplished.
“Self-esteem is tricky. For a while I wanted to be self-effacing, because part of my personal moral code is to put less emphasis on me as a person, and to use what success I have to promote a general positivity. As cheesy as that sounds, I feel like that’s the responsibility that comes with making art. But it’s dangerous to always deny, deny, deny, and to discount your own self-worth. So I really have to be mindful about telling myself ‘Your record is not a piece of crap that’s the worst thing ever.’ But I equally don’t want to be overly proud or seem arrogant.
“The challenge is to practise accepting that maybe things won’t work out the way I think they will, and to be content with that. I think that contentment is a lot more precious than achievement. So if I play a show and it’s sold-out, I’m overjoyed. If I play a show and it’s halfway to selling out, I’m amazed that even that many people care what I have to say. And if one person shows up, then it’s me and that person, and we get to hang out and sing some songs.”
Julien Baker plays the Cobalt on Tuesday (August 9)