It’s noon in Nashville, Tennessee, and Julien Baker is lit from the left hand side, as she’s beamed onto my laptop screen in dark and dreary London. As the 25-year-old musician drinks coffee at home, she informs me that she has spent her morning learning to play Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” on the guitar.
Since coronavirus took over the world, Baker has been taking care to play the instrument every day. Aside from preparing for the release of her third album, Little Oblivions, on Matador this Friday (the 26th of February), there’ve been other ways of passing the time, too: “I've been drawing more – trying to draw more intentionally. I’ve been practising songs, writing them,” she lists. “I've been doing quite a bit more mixing and editing – just grinding YouTube tutorials trying to figure out how to use the tech in my life.”
It sounds to me like a quarantine well spent, focussed on the quiet improvement of skills, but this wouldn’t be a conversation with Baker – a songwriter best known for her ability to articulate the hard truths of introspection – if her descriptions of her life didn’t also come with a side of self-analysis. “It's just like, all of these things are sort of self-fulfilment,” she reasons. “And it makes me feel weird because there's no touring, and without having any job that really exists in any structured form, it's hard to feel like I'm spending my time in worthy ways.”
Many who’ve found themselves out of work, furloughed, or otherwise marooned from their ordinary lives will have identified with such dissatisfaction at some point over the past year, left with only time and the inside of their minds, once the trappings of social life were stripped away by lockdowns. For Baker, however, this feeling is not an entirely new one – she remembers a time when something similar set in a couple of years ago. “2019, for me, was a lot of the exercise I hear people describing in quarantine, because I had come off of the road,” she tells me. “It wasn't healthy for me to be touring anymore. And I just had to exist in this new, unfamiliar space where I was not constantly collapsing my own identity with the persona that I and other people had cultivated for me as a performer.”
This “persona” developed because Baker’s profile grew exponentially around her second full-length record, the rapturous and critically beloved Turn Out the Lights, which came out in 2017. The album built on her more lo-fi 2015 debut Sprained Ankle, in an unexpected manner. Over email, Baker’s contemporary and bandmate Phoebe Bridgers describes her ambition and innovation: “People loved that first record, myself included,” Bridgers writes. “If Julien wanted to, she could have stayed in her lane and made that same kind of record over and over. Instead she decided to play drums and deconstruct guitar pedals and scream. By the time people (me) were trying to copy the way she sounded on Sprained Ankle, she didn’t even sound like that anymore.”
What Baker had created instead, using organs, loop pedals, and cavernous-sounding production, was a new canvas upon which to display her almost unmatched gift for facing down the parts of the psyche that many of us shy away from. Indeed, the most accurate description I have heard of what Baker does comes courtesy of the poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib, who accurately describes her as a master of “what whispers in through the cracks of a person’s time alone.”
After touring internationally behind Turn Out the Lights, Baker formed the band boygenius with fellow solo artists Bridgers and Lucy Dacus in 2018. She took part in another tour, another press campaign. The whole time, she’d been giving interviews where she discussed the topics that were important to her and her music – her queerness, her past experiences of substance abuse, her sobriety, her Christian faith.
Eventually, she felt the media version of herself weighing on her: “I'm trying to steward this tremendous platform that I don't feel entitled to or deserving of,” she tells me, remembering the balancing act she felt she was attempting at the time. “And to do that, it's like my whole being and my persona as an artist have to be the same if I don't want to be called a hypocrite. So then it's like, I find myself trying to enact the best possible version of myself – to constant failure because I'm a human – and then feeling like an imposter or a liar.”
Detailing this feeling on “Relative Fiction,” a song on Little Oblivions, she describes herself as “A character of somebody's invention / A martyr in another passion play.” “I guess I don't mind losing my conviction / If it's all relative fiction anyway,” Baker sings, addressing the disconnect she was beginning to feel between the way she was written about, and the facts of her reality. The track, then – as most of those on the album do – explores this period in Baker’s life as one when she had to, in her words, “re-approach” her “relationship to sobriety.”
“Saying that I was sober for a really long time, and that I went through a period of being deeply, destructively involved with substances again – it felt like a failure at first,” she tells me. “But now, it feels like understanding that recovery, growth, or any sort of ideal of self improvement isn't linear helps your world not implode when something goes wrong.”
Little Oblivions sounds like a record made by someone who has had that realisation, and is comfortable and even happy in it. This emotional progression is mirrored sonically, as the record builds out from Baker’s catalogue so far. Some songs feel like direct continuations – second track “Heatwave,” for example, recalls the simplicity of Sprained Ankle’s “Everybody Does,” before swelling into a full band ending, while “Favor” employs the backing vocals of her boygenius bandmates. Others, like the first single “Faith Healer,” with its electronic inflections, try something new, though Baker’s voice – by turns delicate and powerful, so gilded-sounding that to hear it on these new songs still feels, in a manner, holy – remains its guiding principle.
Comparing the process of making the new album with her older work (wherein, she says “there was something about the essentialism of making very stripped back music with very few instruments that felt like a good exercise at the time”), Baker describes a more free-flowing process: “I wanted to have less arbitrary perimeters around music,” she tells me. “I tried to use sounds very conceptually on previous records. And on this record, I think it was more about just collecting noises that sounded interesting to me.”
Like Baker’s previous music, however, the album does not shy away from self-recrimination or accounts of hurt caused, though it does seem that perhaps she has gained something different from displaying such candour this time. “Although it is pretty masochistic to make a record that is like a laundry list of my failings to myself and others,” she laughs, “it’s relieving. It’s relieving to like, disappoint, in a way. It builds a more earnest relationship with someone, when you allow yourself not to be perfect. And I think it also makes you more merciful, with yourself and with others.”
She gives a typically self-effacing example of how her experience of making Little Oblivions has changed her approach to her own work. “The last record, we finished recording it, and then it was the 2016 election, and Trump was elected. And I was like, ‘What am I doing? Like, what am I doing, asking people to pay attention to my art right now?’ Now I'm a little bit more able to detach from feeling like that. I have a different idea of what makes art valuable now. Art is valuable because it is soul-nourishing. And because it's a report of the human experience.”
Baker’s art is particularly special because she is willing to go to places within the human experience that other, lesser artists would struggle with. Over email, her bandmate Dacus explains to me how she views Baker’s approach: “Somehow Julien manages to be very grateful and considerate of her audience while not really considering them when it comes to making music,” she writes. “She said this more eloquently than I’m remembering it, but she told me once that the best art is selfish or self-centred, which came as a surprise since I would describe most of her life to be guided by selflessness.”
I suspect that in Baker’s case, the art goes hand in hand with her compassionate nature: her work has become so precious – revelatory, even – for her large and diverse fanbase precisely because of how specific she is willing to get about her own self-examinations. That is something which remains inherent to Little Oblivions. But what is striking about the work, in comparison with its predecessor Turn Out the Lights, is that it does not end in resolution, and there is no narrative imposed – the hope Little Oblivions offers comes not via a light at the end of the tunnel, but in the album’s very existence, all the experiences it crystallises, and the way in which it manages to do so. There is no redemption arc; in fact, the final track “Ziptie” finds its narrator mid-“fight,” not after one. For Baker, this is an important difference that symbolises a change in her thinking over the years.
“You know, Turn Out the Lights, I did organise as a narrative. And that was the whole point of that record,” she says. “In my mind, I was like, ‘I'm gonna make this concept album about, like, redemption and healing all these wonderful, noble ideas.’ That's great. That's a noble pursuit. But it feels a lot better not to constantly have to apply meaning to pain. It makes space for you to just confront suffering.”
Little Oblivions, then, comes from what she terms “sitting with discomfort” (she knowingly calls this a “very ‘therapy’ idea”), and from allowing her music to simply be what it is, unfettered by the “need to make good out of bad things.”
“Now, it's easier for me to just have made songs that are fulfilling to me, that are a documentation of my life, and then just release them,” she says, the Nashville afternoon still lighting up her home, and, by extension – thousands of miles away – my laptop screen.
“It’s felt really good to release this – I mean, like, among everything else happening,” she smiles. “Almost just like an exercise of allowing myself to be seen and witnessed.”
And how lucky we are to witness Julien Baker’s art, and to feel communion with it – as Little Oblivions only further attests.
Little Oblivions is out on the 26th of February via Matador.