Julien Baker Stewards Her Blessings Into Song


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Julien Baker Stewards Her Blessings Into Song

The young songwriter is driven by Patti Smith, Kathleen Hanna and Jesus.

​On the eve of her first Australian tour, and only second outside the United States, 21-year-old Julien Baker​ is excited but keen to deflect attention from some of the qualities that have helped her stand out from the raft of young singer-songwriters.

"It's not a new thing to be Christian with doubt," she says. "It's not a new thing to be a queer person in the South, it's not a new thing to be a female musician and it's not a new thing to be a person from DIY punk rock scene trying to navigate non-alternative music scenes."


Late last year, Baker, who hails from Memphis, Tennessee, quietly released her debut record Sprained Ankle, ​one of the most beautiful and stunning albums of 2015. A collection of personal and heartfelt songs, it drew praise for honest songwriting that called on elements of 90s indie rock with a deeper strain of classic-country.

Baker is walking the streets of Memphis as we chat. It's not the first time she'll try to divert attention, accolades or suggestions that she is in some way worthy of the hype she's receiving.

Despite protestations, Baker has very much been embraced as a queer Christian female musician who is new. The acclaim and impressive sales of Sprained Ankle - and the extra shows added to her upcoming Australian tour - are testament to the ability of her sparse paeans to self-doubt and quiet revelation to connect with a growing number of listeners.

"I'm absolutely at a loss to explain why my songs or my record had a particular impact on people," she says, her southern twang softening her words. "The more I find myself consuming media of any kind, the more I'm not looking for a specific genre, but something accurate and relatable. It's not like I set out to do that. I feel so bizarre when I perform a show in front of 100, 200 people and I think, 'within each of these people is a world of experience and a world of knowledge and maybe hurt and joy and why are they not on this stage?' And I think that's what makes me appreciative every day when I wake up and have this be my job and my cosmic position, because I know that it could just as easily not be. It's my job to steward those blessings and remember that it's not just about me."


In that sentence lies the essence of Julien Baker. Phrases like 'cosmic position' and 'steward those blessings' speaks to her childhood of Bible readings and the importance of the supportive communities she's known; her family, her church, her band Forrister and the DIY punk scene in which she became a musician and songwriter.

It could have easily not been the case that her friend Michael Hegner snuck her into Spacebomb Recording Studios, where he was interning, to record her debut album. It could have gone unnoticed when she put some of the recordings on her BandCamp page, and 6131 Records​ may have missed the hype that was slowly building around her corner of the Internet. But all these things happened. "I never had an ulterior motive," she says about making Sprained Ankle. "I didn't shop it around to people. I didn't expect anything to come of it at all. I really wrote it just to write it."

While her stark use of electric guitar and plaintive voice is what draws people in, it's the content of Sprained Ankle that has piqued the most curiosity. Her songs take in celebrations and questions of faith, a serious car accident in which she was rushed to hospital, self-harm and accepting faults. The title track opens with "Wish I could write songs about anything other than death." This has lead to a lot of intimate conversations about faith, childhood, her broken family and where to draw the line between private and public.


"It is strange," she says. "I used to feel I couldn't withhold any information because I would feel I was being dishonest. I want to prioritise honesty in my work and in my personal life, so there are some interviews where I've discussed a particular subject at length and then maybe the interviewer will take out a bit and then skew it to be more dramatic than I would have had it. It's an ongoing lesson to me to be explicit. If I'm going to make a remark about something negative then don't leave to be inferred there's hope and that I'm not a sad brooding artist, and don't allow that to be the narrative because the narrative I want is one of hope and redemption and renewal, and people being able to heal and share something beautiful in the face of suffering."

It's a theme that underpins the album. Songs reference pain, frustration, learning, escape and acceptance. Baker refers to herself as unworthy, "a pile of filthy wreckage", and makes lyrical allusions to medication and drug use. Whether this is literal or metaphorical is something she'd rather leave to the listener. She is happy to be explicit about her faith, a subject that marks her out as almost unique in the field of hyped indie musicians.

In Body Piercing Saved My Life, his book about the American Christian rock scene, Andrew Beaujon made the observation that, "worship music is the logical conclusion of Christian adult contemporary music. It's not just unappealing but unbearable to anyone not already in the fold."


In that sense how is that Baker is able to sing about her relationship with God to a mostly unbelieving audience?

"Because I have a non-traditional way of practicing my faith people think that I have a loosely-defined spirituality, but I identify as a Christian that believes in Jesus," she explains. "It's just the mission statement gets lost a lot, especially in America and a growing issue that I don't feel like I can skirt around is…" she pauses to sigh deeply. "There's a huge rift between traditionalist right-wing judgemental theology and what I think that Christianity is actually about. I think that the God that exists and created humankind loves the thing that he made. Why on earth would he be this vindictive and punishing and hateful entity? I can't wrap my brain around that way of thinking."

Image: Sachyn Mital

Coming out as a teenager, Baker is quick to single out the acceptance she felt among her church community as one of the reasons she is still committed to it. "Growing up and being a queer person in the South, I was met with acceptance at best and at worst people who just didn't care: 'who you love is your business.' This right-wing aspect to Christianity is an ideology that is so deeply ingrained that I had to work through the cultural milieu of judgement to not see myself as a sinner."

The strength that Baker credits with her success from such an unlikely background isn't wholly spiritual in nature. She describes Patti Smith's book Just Kids as "life-changing", Kathleen Hanna's "messy angry chords" as showing her a new way to think about being a female musician, and Memphis hardcore punk house parties as opening a new world of social and musical possibilities. Ask her if she identifies as a feminist and she responds with an enthusiastic "yes".


"I think about feminism in the same way I think about my identity as queer. They're both components of the identity of Julien Baker. I'm aware of the realities of the world that is unfavourably stacked against the queer population and the female population, and I've been uniquely fortunate. When I hear about women getting beaten up or preyed upon at shows, I just think of the telepathically understood code of ethics that I grew up with in the Memphis DIY scene and how that [behaviour] would never ever fly. I grew up going to hardcore shows and hardcore is somewhere where everyone who's a freak or outside the usual bounds of society is welcome. It's like a family. Every opportunity I have to speak about it is to promote inclusion and redefine what those terms mean to us."

Though many of her songs are now three to four years old, an eternity for someone who has grown and experienced so much, new songs are appearing at live shows and new recordings are coming soon. While similar in style and content, Baker doesn't seem driven to change the simple arrangements, in both senses, that got her here."To be honest, I just hope that these song empower other people by some proximal force. I just get this microphone placed in front of me and say 'this is what happens to me and this is how my life is going'".

Julien Baker Australia Tour 2016: 

Nov 18 - Brisbane at Woolly Mammoth
Nov 19 - Mullumbimby at Mullum Music Festival
Nov 20 - Mullumbimby at Mullum Music Festival
Nov 21 - Sydney at Newtown Social Club 
Nov 23 - Sydney at Newtown Social Club SOLD OUT
Nov 24 - Sydney at Newtown Social Club SOLD OUT
Nov 25 - Melbourne at NGV International
Nov 26 - Queenscliff at Queenscliff Music Festival
Nov 27 - Queenscliff at Queenscliff Music Festival
Nov 29 - Melbourne at Northcote Social Club SOLD OUT
Nov 30 - Melbourne at Northcote Social Club SOLD OUT
Dec 1 - Fremantle at Fremantle Arts Centre
Dec 3 - Berry at Fairground
Dec 4 - Hawthorn, SA at Secret Garden SOLD OUT
Dec 5 - Adelaide at Crown and Anchor 
Dec 6 - Melbourne at Northcote Social Club

​Image: Love Police