It’s amazing what a year can bring.
Twelve months ago, Julien Baker was cold calling venues trying to line up a run of shows. Hell, any show would do. These days, she’s headlining her own tour around support slots for El Vy and Torres. She was just named to Best of 2015 lists at Stereogum, Paste, A.V. Club, and NPR and has been hailed by everyone else (Pitchfork, New York Times, you get it). It’s the sort of quick thrust of attention available in the digital age, the instant limelight for which most bands are praying (or paying).
Yet here’s the separation factor: Julien is the real deal, a substantive artist who happened to receive what looks like flash-in-the-pan notoriety. She’s a generational voice, a rib cage ripped open to expose the veins, the wires, the heart within. In the end, she evokes the one response she wants to hear most: “Me too.”
Stereo Subversion: From the outside looking in, it feels like you went from complete unknown to staggering amounts of attention pretty quickly. Then you’re on best of lists.
Julien Baker: It is surreal. [Laughs] To have all these things to apply to what is happening in my life right now, it’s difficult to cope with. To me, all these things are huge deals. It’s a crazy thing. It’s just how fast it’s happened. It seems like people say, ‘When you dedicate yourself to something or you’re motivated and work hard at your passion, then it pays off.’ But I think I felt like it wouldn’t be so sudden.
It seems like people say, 'When you dedicate yourself to something or you're motivated and work hard at your passion, then it pays off.' But I think I felt like it wouldn't be so sudden.
In the beginning of last year, I was waking up at 6:30 in the morning sending literally a hundred emails each week just begging. Just cold calls to venues to do shows! And then to get a call like, ‘Oh, a publicist picked you up.’ I had no idea I’d ever have a publicist, period. I didn’t even know what a publicist did until my label told me. And then for that publicist to be like, ‘Oh, your song will be on NPR.’ I literally started hyperventilating in the grocery store when I got the call. I listen to NPR! And this had been like an unattainable pipe dream for so long that for it all to be happening is like… it’s just kinda crazy.
One thing I really try to be conscious of, is keeping my head on my shoulders, because my biggest fear is becoming not jaded, but getting too big for myself, starting to flatter myself. I want to always have an attitude of eternal thankfulness, and know that this is an incredible blessing, and I appreciate it in a very genuine way. But I also know that these things are transient, and I don’t want to look for shallow recognition, but take it as a beautiful experience. I feel like the danger in looking for recognition would be like, ‘Oh, hell yeah, this magazine checked me out, so that’s what my work is about.’ I want to understand that my music would be valuable either way.
SSv: As you hear from people who resonate with your music, are there a few things in common that seem to be reaching them in particular?
Julien: Well, I think that I don’t know. Because this is where authorial intent, to use a lit major word, comes into play. Of course I wrote these songs and I thought eventually I will perform them, and what do I want them to reflect? But a lot of it was just to express emotions that are particular to myself. I think that what ends up happening is, when you speak candidly about a human emotion, that is bound to have occurred with someone else.
I thought some of the events would be alienating. I thought the writing was really personal; it can be really sad. I thought that might turn people off. I thought maybe people might like the lighter songs, but what’s amazing is I’ll get a Facebook message or an email, and it’s someone who listened to the record. They loved this song or that song and they say, ‘It spoke to me in this way,’ and I think that’s the greatest gift of all. To know that somebody has been emotionally effected and gotten something out of a shared experience.
Sometimes it makes me sad because I hate to hear that people have gone through the same things, that they’ve had the same experiences and tragedies and trauma, but it also makes me happy to have been given this platform, I can see how it enables people to form relationships and relate to each other and not feel so alone. People seek darkness to rid themselves of it, like a channel to get it out, so maybe that’s what resonates. I’m not sure, I have no idea. I didn’t think anybody would like the record!
SSv: I think you’re in touch with it though, because you basically described my own experience with the album, especially the end. I was listening to it in the background and suddenly I’m struck and can’t do anything else but listen to these personal lyrics and find my own ache, if you will, within the listening experience.
Julien: Yeah, the authors I love most or the lyricists I love most will take experiences that definitely just happened to them, but somehow they apply to something larger, you know? Like you write about finding old photos in your glove compartment, those archetypal songs of lyrical specificity, but you can all relate to when you accidentally stumble upon old photos and it crushes you. In a way, I think that’s what I want to do. They say the way to build relationships is to be vulnerable first, because it makes the other person feel comfortable being vulnerable back to you. So I’m like baring all these things and singing on the record. I’m like, ‘Here it is.’ And I guess I want that to enable people to be honest with each other themselves and me, even, if they come to a show or they want to message me.
SSv: Speaking of the last song, I wanted to ask about that one specifically because as I think it’s fading out, I suddenly hear this set of chords and I’m thinking, ‘Wait, is this a hymn, because I think I know…’
Julien: Yes! First of all, that’s so cool. I get really excited when people know that song. It’s like a litmus test. It’s an easter egg hidden in there, and when people know it, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, you grew up in church too!’ I’m still in church. When I say you grew up in church, it’s not like I have since rejected it, which I think is a weird clarification that I am having to make. Like the expression of doubt is not a bizarre thing where I am rejecting church. Doubt exists, but that kinda leads into the answer of why it’s there in the first place.
That song [“Go Home”], I wrote it at a time when I was experiencing a lot of doubt and confusion of where I was at in life. Everything was going wrong. I didn’t have any answers, and I didn’t see a way out. I was like, ‘Why is this happening?’ You start to feel hopeless, like you’re stuck and you feel like God isn’t answering you. That’s what “Rejoice” is about too. All those songs are just expressions of things that I needed to get out about my own question and my faith.
I wanted to put “In Christ Alone” on there because I connect with hymns so much. Obviously, I read scripture too, to fill in theology because you must, and I go to church, but the poetry in hymns is just unparalleled in beauty to me. I love the lyrics of “In Christ Alone” because you struggle with… One thing I’ve always struggled with especially as a person who sees all the media persecution of homosexuals, is inherent sin versus worthiness of salvation. So I would remind myself that it would be okay with “In Christ Alone.” You know, like ‘No guilt in life, no fear in death, no power of hell, no scheme of man.’ I can just grip that and know that it’s true even though “Go Home” is about the, pardon me, fucked up things going on in the world.
There are these comforting truths that I would sing to myself when I was sitting along at the piano. I would just play it, so I put that on there because it sounded like the rest of the nights in my living room. But then the guy preaching, that just happened, It just came through the mic, like radio interference, so we left it on there! It is crazy. There’s a lot going on in that song.
SSv: Was there any fear of revealing these songs that are obviously so vulnerable in places?
Julien: Yes, and no. I think there is always fear in baring your soul about things. The first time I released the record before 6131 officially picked it up, and I took it down off Bandcamp, I went on a short two week tour with my friend Ryan. We were performing these in tiny venues, and we played this show in Detroit in the basement of a church and it was January. There was no heat. [Laughs] It was crazy, but even then, there were like ten people there and I was nervous. I was like, ‘I’m going to freak people out and they’re going to wonder why this girl is singing about these crazy things.’ But then I thought when you’re reluctant or scared to share part of yourself, that almost indicates that you need to. That something needs to be let out.
I played “Rejoice,” and this kid DM’d me on Instagram and said, ‘I’m so glad you played “Rejoice.” That song made me reconsider some things about my faith and it was good to hear somebody speak candidly about it.’ I was like, ‘Wow that was all the proof I needed to feel okay about sharing these parts of myself.’ Because it is embarrassing to admit that you are a broken person, if you’re like really, really, really broken. But then other people who are really, really broken can feel not so much like there’s no one else like them. That’s more important than my individual shame. So when I get apprehensive and think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t let someone see that part of myself; maybe I should.’ It always ends up paying off when I do the latter and I allow that.
SSv: Have you been misunderstood yet? Do you feel like you’ve read a review, going what in the world are they listening to?
Julien: Well, I feel like not misunderstood necessarily. In person, I am almost annoyingly chatty and goofy, and so I want to make it clear that I am not this broken artist person. Because I think the reviewers, they’ll ask what the songs are about, and I will say, ‘Oh, these are parts of my life, yes. There were periods of my life that involved substance abuse or spending time having to go to the doctor a lot.’ And I think people use that to make it out as a self-pitying, brooding, sad thing, and it’s not.
I’m not trying to create an image that is intentionally dark or play up those parts of my life. I just want to be honest about them. And when you’re honest about things, they’re ugly. Life can be pretty ugly. but that doesn’t mean that I’m like, ruminating on them, or intentionally trying to crop up sadness on purpose for the sake of being like, the Poe of singing songwriters, so I want people to understand I am not sad. I’m not sad. Everyone gets sad, but I’m not like a nihilist.