A First Date at a Vegan Donut Shop with Julien Baker
The Memphis singer-songwriter is about to tour the UK and Ireland – we hung out with her earlier this year to talk about Frank Ocean and eat sweet treats.
Julien Baker’s music is sad. Her songs are for reflecting, for thinking, and for lying on your bed with the curtains shut, wondering if you actually have a concrete idea of who you are. As a result, much of the conversation surrounding Baker—a 22 year-old singer songwriter from Memphis—tends to be dominated by the almost confrontational darkness in her work, which is noteworthy precisely because it is so candid.
Baker's songs square up to the worst thoughts we have about ourselves, and that's been a pattern across her output so far. From her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle ("You're gonna run / When you find out who I am / I know I'm a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you'd never touched," she sings on highlight "Everybody Does") to her emotionally exhausting experience of a second record Turn Out the Lights, released last October, Baker has crafted a musical identity out of unflinching honesty and looking despair in the eye.
Most recently, she's found contemporaries in Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, two other solo artists acclaimed for their mastery of expressing emotional nuance. Together, they've recently formed the supergroup boygenius, announced a tour, and released three tracks, each of which sees a different artist taking the lead. Baker's starring moment comes on "Stay Down," a track on which she flexes her gift for imagery ("Push me down into the water like a sinner / Hold me under and I'll never come up again"), her voice enriched by harmonies from Bridgers and Dacus, but still identifiably delicate and strong, like muslin cloth.
In boygenius and her solo work, the pairing of Baker's pure-toned soprano with her lyrics about existentialism, religion, and destructive loss make her live shows feel like spiritual communions and her records like gentle exorcisms. In brief, there is so much to say about the heft of what Baker creates that often, a little less is mentioned about the mind behind it.
Keen to find out more about this distinctive musician (who is about to bring her live show to the UK and Ireland, starting on Monday September 24 in Manchester), I met Baker in east London for donuts and some downtime during her stint on tour with Belle and Sebastian. As well as some great snacks, we had a conversation about intellectual elitism, DIY music scenes, empathy, and SZA.
NOISEY: Welcome to our date at this vegan donut shop, Julien.
Julien Baker: It’s great! I like the oat milk, they don’t really have that in the States.
I had it for the first time here—in the States almond milk is the big non-soy option. Have you ever watched that show The Good Place? I have never related more to anything than when Chidi is like “Why am in hell?! It’s because I used almond milk even though I knew it was bad for the environment!” That’s like, “Are you me?”
I love him—he’s probably my favorite character.
I identify so much with Chidi, always paralyzed by decisions constantly!
What a great show.
When someone told me it was about these people who are in heaven or hell, I thought it was going to be more like The Great Divorce by C.S Lewis: a very serious show about ontological principles of heaven and hell. I think people learn best and are more engaged when it’s just normal relatable situations that illustrate the principles they’re discussing. The whole point of Chidi’s character is that he was a moral philosophy professor who essentially taught no-one anything about world philosophy, because it was too obscure and too exclusionary.
I’ve experienced that exclusivity in basically all areas of academia. I think there’s so much of that in learning.
Yes exactly, there’s so much of that in academia, in literally every field, we try to elevate antiquity. There’s this austere need to prioritize things that have no relevance. Man, this is like a huge like gripe of mine—even in fields or genres of music that seem that they'd lend themselves to being accepting or egalitarian. So I used to go to a lot of punk and hardcore shows, and for so long it engendered the mentality that pop and mainstream music was superficial, or not as intellectual because it was not politically engaged, and that is just not true. Just the same as academia will tell you that there are these gatekeepers of intellect and taste that are canon. I don’t like to believe in canon.
I agree, punk and hardcore is a really interesting one actually, because a lot of the pop musicians I’ve interviewed in the past have said that’s how they got their start.
Within the community of punk and hardcore, and DIY shows, I felt incredibly supported, but it’s this nuanced thing. It sort of ties in with what we were talking about with academia—the people that were my best friends, who I came out to, that I was playing these shows with did not have the vocabulary around queerness. I didn’t know anything about queer theory or feminist theory beyond “women should be paid as much as men” until I went to college, and that’s sad but I just wasn’t exposed to it, especially in the South. It’s not like I was a teenager that grew up in Georgetown listening to Minor Threat. The way I learned to assimilate my queerness in the society I was around was by people saying “I don’t care if you're gay.” But I think that lack of vocabulary and not employing the right vernacular—especially now, with social media’s continual emphasis on wording and specificity—people take a condescending attitude towards it as if it is ignorance, and I wonder if that’s not dangerous, or if that’s not elitist in a way.
I think because we think everyone has access to social media, we presume that everyone should know the right way. And in some ways it’s cool because more people can access theory and vocabulary, and I’m sure I would have accessed it earlier and in a different way than I did. Because when I was going to punk and hardcore shows every weekend I was like 13, from there I learned about riot grrrl. But where I come from in the UK, the hardcore scene was super male. I think if I’d had the internet the way I do now I’d have got to feminism earlier, and not had a period of feeling like I didn’t belong in my music scene. I value the way I learned about these things but also it would have been nice not to have the feelings of being pushed aside.
I obviously knew women experience inequality and discrimination, and queer people experience inequality and discrimination. I could not put a name to it, because I was just not as well-versed in theory, so I had a need to overperform when I played guitar to prove that I am a girl who is good at guitar, and I had a need to prove myself continually to the predominantly male audience and friend group that I had. I never questioned life that way—not that I never questioned it, but I think I could not identify with the motivations behind me wanting to succeed. Like I never questioned how people viewed my queerness: “Now we will treat Julien like she is a boy.” I’m not a boy, I’m a gay female, I’m not just one of the guys. It’s a totally different thing, and explaining that got so much easier when I became engaged with my identity.
Do you think that came more with playing different kinds of music as well?
Yeah. I played with this one band called Run Forever. Those people were very political in their nature, and being exposed to those other bands who were a bit older, who had more nuanced political agendas, sort of made me reevaluate my scheme of the world.
In your music you often deal with complicated and difficult topics. Do you have a process of condensing verbose ideas down to something simpler?
One thing I’m super aware of in my music when I’m writing is: “Am I overcomplicating this?” I’ll write a song about some deep existential quandary and explore all these dumb thought waves, and then think “Is it effective to say that? Or is it effective to say one simple thing that communicates the feeling better?” Artists like Frank Ocean or SZA do not have to advertise to us that they are capable of understanding Sartre or Camus. They just inhabit the ideals they’re trying to discuss, and that’s hard for me.
I understand what you mean though. It’s when you’re not necessarily trying to tell a narrative story, but the things that influence you build to a larger narrative anyway.
Yeah, that’s the thing. there’s so much power in just painting an image, and even trusting that all the things you’re trying to say are going to be implied to your listener. I’m trying to think of a good example. I’m going to talk about Frank Ocean.
I’ve been revisiting that most recent record, and it’s incredible. Instead of writing a concept song where he details the intricacies of a political event, he just says “This person who was shot and killed looks exactly like me,” and all the things that are implied by that are more powerful than a really complicated essay that cites a whole bunch of obscure theorists. Not only that but they are able to be internalized by a wider audience. Or like, when Carly Rae Jepsen tells a story about her friend not caring that she broke up with her boyfriend—it poses us the question “Why do we make romantic and sexual relationships with the ultimate icon of self-actualization in our culture?” without using any of those ten dollar words like ‘self-actualization.’
Imagine if instead of EMOTION it was SELF-ACTUALIZATION .
I wanna make a meme, like a graphic of the album cover that says like ‘Posing a counter-thesis on why we elevate romance as the solitary method of self-actualization.’ But yeah. Those people are able to do those things in a much more simple way, and it’s because they’re like true to life, you know?
And SZA, as you say, she’s just saying it as we see it.
That record changed my life, it is so good. You know when you feel like “Man, I’ve listened to this record five times, I should listen to another record, just to diversify it,” but you can’t? Because all you want to hear is “Supermodel” for the millionth time. It completely defines and exposes all these realities about relationships, because even in modern pop we would typically have a song of longing to a person who's not yours, or a love song between two people that’s monogamous. But here, SZA introduces the very real, common reality of a heart that is with more than one person at once. Love is not this noble finite thing, it’s actually disgustingly, painfully messy. And I think that’s very, very brave.
It’s just so truthful, and I feel like maybe also there must be some pain involved in that, with baring everything, especially on such a massive level. Is that something you experience? Is there some pain every time you perform?
For me, I’m actually comforted that I have the opportunity to re-assign value to experiences that were negative. So it’s like, those experiences that changed me or shaped who I was that were, you know, instances of trauma, or sadness, or suffering, or loss. When I reflect on them, if I am willing to do the hard work of discernment, I can mine lessons from them. And if I am able to share those lessons, and see comfort brought to other people, or just expel them from myself, it doesn’t negate that they happened, it’s still painful, but it now sort of balances it out with the addition of this new purpose for them.
On Sprained Ankle I was just talking about myself only—only my relationship to God, my broken heart. The more that I write, the more that I just want to hide within the fascinating and really meaningful stories of other people.
I’m really interested in and how that works musically on Turn Out the Lights. I think the new fullness with which you’re kind of viewing human experience really expresses itself in the musical largesse of it. It’s different to Sprained Ankle texturally, your scope has widened, and as a listener that’s great to hear on every level.
I didn’t know that Sprained Ankle was ever going to be released so I feel that there was a little bit more refuge in the anonymity of it. I thought I was just going to get my honest, bare thoughts out in to these sparse songs, and then I’d release them all on a Bandcamp and 10 of my friends would hear them and they’d say, “I know what that’s about,” at a coffee shop gig or something, because they know the sitcom of my life. And then it became a successful record.
But Sprained Ankle was step one, right? Like, admitting how you’re feeling, it was just an expulsion. I was doing all the work of being honest and vulnerable by saying, “This is how I feel, and it’s real even if it’s uncomfortable,” but I wasn’t discerning and asking why. And then, when I had to stand on a stage, and not have a band and not have anyone with me, and go to France and Germany, Australia, and all over the United States, and say these things again and again, I was constantly having to ask, “Why did I write this song?” Because I would say things like in “Good News”: “I ruin everything I do.” And then I would think “I don’t think that anymore, so why would I say it?”
So, on Turn off the Lights I would do the same thing that I did on Sprained Ankle because I believe that’s a good way to be vulnerable and honest. But I wouldn’t just say “I will now write a song about healing,” I would say “I feel like everyone hates me and that I’m evil at my core—but why do I feel like that?” And so, taking it one step further into “why.” And I think doing that too with “I feel angry with this person. What might they be feeling?” is something that we think either you have or you don’t. We think empathy is innate, but it’s not. It’s a muscle you’re working. And I think that I just got a real crash course in that, with music.
Julien Baker tours the UK and Ireland in September:
24/09: Manchester, Gorilla
25/09: Glasgow, St. Luke's
27/09: Dublin, Vicar Street
29/09: London, Shepherd's Bush Empire
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.