Julien Baker's new single, "Funeral Pyre", is filled with a despair that feels depressingly of the moment. As with all of the Memphis-based songwriter's songs, she sings alone while fingerpicking a reverb-heavy electric guitar. Her voice is honeyed in inverse proportion to the brutal directness of her lyrics:
I wake up with the same pain every night
Digging a hatchet into my left side
Clearing my chest of something to burn
Ash for a decorative urn
Baker uses precise imagery to capture the pain of watching something that you love self-destruct. It's a feeling that's all too easy to relate to right now on a national level. Baker concludes ambiguously, saying "And it's true / It's nothing that we could do", leaving the song in a state of total uncertainty. Even though the song was composed several years ago, the music takes on new new applicability, morphing to fit the new context. When it feels like the world is going crazy, works of art can take on new meanings. A song that's intensely personal can feel like it suddenly captures the spirit of a nation.
After the wide acclaim that met her first album, Sprained Ankle, Baker recently signed to Matador Records. Now she is playing shows around with the country, sometimes alongside the likes of of Ben Gibbard and the Decemberists, while working on her next album. To get ready for her show at the Accord this Saturday, I talked to Julien about struggling to figure out how music works in times of turmoil and how, even though her music may sound delicate, it draws more from emo and hardcore than from folk.
Smile Politely: A number of your songs talk about facing down despair and grappling with tragedy and intense emotions. Do you still find new resonances when you play them?
Julien Baker: Absolutely. I think part of the challenge of playing those songs, in some cases three years after they're written, is assigning new meaning to them. I have to look at a song and say, "I used this as a tool to overcome a personal obstacle in my life, and I don't necessarily feel this way anymore." But what's important, especially in a live setting, in the sharing of music between artist and listener, is that that listener gets to imbue the song with whatever meaning they need it to have. I like permitting them that agency. I'll never tell a person that a song is not about that, because to them it is, to them the song is whatever it needs to be.
But to me, when I'm up there, singing the song, sometimes I have to think about it in context of where I was then and where I am now. Now I speak in a much more positive way and I try not to perpetuate those things that are pretty negative, but I think it's also important to acknowledge them as valid emotions. These songs are about me, Julien Baker, the single entity, and they're bordering on self-indulgent in their personal-ness. I place such a higher priority on things that are going on in our nation right now and trying to find ways to to open up a larger community dialogue about whatever it might be, queerness, mental health, religion. So it does something positive for others and isn't just me wallowing, and I can use that to politicize or employ my personal experience for something that could benefit other people.
If I didn't believe in that sharing aspect then I wouldn't want to sing those songs because they would just be about me. But if they could provide any comfort or solidarity for someone else then they're worth singing.
SP: It feels like music can be a force for both expression and social change. What do you think music can accomplish in turbulent times like this?
Baker: What do I feel like music can accomplish in turbulent times like this...
SP: Or what would you like to see it accomplish, say.
Baker: Oh, no no, okay. I'm gonna give away a little of my dorkiness. That's an AP-kid ingrained behavior, to repeat the question so that I'm clear on what's being asked. So I wasn't mocking, I just always repeat the question, for me.
I've been grappling with that a lot recently. I feel like, if the current political situation has shown us anything, it is that you cannot create change passively. So you cannot simply pay lip service to ideals without backing them up with action. I felt this way on election night, I was on tour with Kevin Devine and I was in Texas. It was like, of all the places, this the best and worst place to be. And what do we do? Your guitars and instruments and songs as tools start to feel really frail when you think about the actual physical violence and systemic injustice that is out there, that is so big, and you feel so small.
But I think what music provides that is so valuable is that, at the same time that there are political organizers, and organizations like the ACLU out there that are doing tangible work, music and musicians create a platform for discourse. We keep these things at the forefront of the public's mind by talking about them and discussing how they're wrong, they're not okay, we can't normalize injustice and we can't normalize oppression.
It also provides a levity and a bit of a respite from what would otherwise be a really bleak world. I think the thing that will absolutely cement defeat is when you get into despair. When one gives into despair, you lose all possibility for victory. Because then you're admitting that there's nothing we can do, there's no way to ever stand up against the powers in place and it's just not going to work. I think what music does is empowering listeners and trying to create some sort of solidarity and hope, which is a valuable way to recharge that energy. So you can bear to go out every morning and be the kind of person you want to be, and fight the good fight that you want to fight without it becoming overwhelming.
SP: You talked about how it's been years since you wrote the songs on Sprained Ankle. How has your approach to songwriting changed in that time?
Baker: When I write a song now there's a lot more reason for me to pour over the songs. One of the biggest challenges is knowing when to stop editing, when to say "this is enough". I want to maintain that balance of the way that a song comes out when I first write it. Musically I do a lot more editing, I want to be more meticulous and capture how it actually sounds. But poetically, lyrically, something really important to me is when I start to think "I shouldn't say that, because people might think..." Then I feel "Oh, well, no, now I have to leave it in there" and I feel compelled to be honest and not to censor myself. Because, likely, those things which are hardest for me to imagine making public are the things that deserve to be talked about and worked through.
You know, I'm not going to be writing a bunch of third-person protest songs. At some point I wish almost that I could, but I don't think it's in my nature as a songwriter to do so. I think the obstacle becomes finding ways to use those personal songs written out of my life to approach larger issues and situate them somewhere in that conversation.
SP: You recently played some shows with Ben Gibbard, how was that for you?
Baker: It was awesome. It was an unusual circumstance though. I went up and played a Milwaukee show and two Chicago shows, and the final show was on inauguration night. So it was, on a micro level, one of the coolest things that ever happened to me in my life. From the time I discovered Death Cab when I was in middle school, all of his projects, the Postal Service and Death Cab For Cutie, his solo stuff, I mean, I listen to All Time Quarterback... I'm just a huge fan.
So I get to share a stage with my musical hero who informed all of my songwriting sensibilities. And he was so kind and welcoming and engaging, willing to have conversations that I never thought I would get to have with someone that I looked up to so much. But it was bittersweet that it had to be under those circumstances, where we were having conversations about the healing power of music and art as an impetus for social change, how those things are really necessary right now. It was under the shadow of social upheaval, but at the same time there was no place I would have rather been to weather out that day. So I'm grateful.
Baker: Yes. I kept saying, if I had known that these shows were going to come about I might have chosen a different song because I didn't want to look like a super-fan. Even though I am a super-fan. But he was cool because then on the last night he asked if I wanted to do "Photobooth" together and I was like... [sighs] Of course I do. I learned your entire discography when I was thirteen, when I was trying to teach myself guitar, of course I want to play "Photobooth" with you.
SP: Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carraba recently released an EP with a cover of your song, "Sprained Ankle". Did you talk to him about that?
Baker: Chris is a good friend. He also covered "Using" by Sorority Noise, and Cam [Boucher, vocalist/guitarist of Sorority Noise] is a good friend. Chris actually lives in Nashville, so we met up and traded numbers and hung out. He's just such a personable and down-to-earth guy. I remember listening to Vindicated in my room what I was in junior high and getting emotional to it, and covering it and teaching myself the guitar. Someone who wrote these incredible songs that gave birth to a genre and paved the way for this kind of radically vulnerable music, and he's standing in front of me, having a beer. I was like, wow, this is amazing.
It always seems to me that when I talk to Chris or Cam, or I email them about a question I have, or say "What do you think of this song?" It seems like they're giving me a little bit of their precious time and I'm, not unworthy, but I'm the one benefitting. So when Chris texted me and said, 'I hope it doesn't make you feel weird that I covered your song, I just love it,' I was like, do you understand what it means to me to have Chris Carraba say "I love your song" and then cover it? I'm trying to be chill about it, but you're a hero of mine, dude, I look up to you a lot, and your guidance means a ton and your friendship.
Those dudes are committed to being the best musicians they can be. That means not just hitting all the right notes, giving the best performance, and writing the best songs, but being the best person and pouring themselves into their work for their fans. I think that's so admirable and wonderful. I'm sorry, I could literally talk about how much I love them for an hour, so you're gonna have to cut me off.
Baker: Yeah, it's crazy because I grew up playing in bands, and Forrister, and listening to heavy music. I love the punk and emo and hardcore scene, and it's so bizarre that this is what ended up being the thing that I do musically.
It's funny, when I was rehearsing "Photobooth" with Ben, he said "You could put some flair in there, some guitar solos." And I was like, "I used to be in a metalcore band, so I dunno if you want those kind of guitar solos." Forrister was kind of like an alt-rock band, and way way when I was younger I was just covering metal. The heavy music scene, the punk scene, the hardcore scene, it informed my songwriting. I think that looking at people like Chris, but also people like Touché Amoré, MewithoutYou, those kinds of bands, your Converge, your Thursday, your Thrice, that are hardcore-adjacent. They illuminated the idea of being radically vulnerable with your lyrics.
I remember when I started listening to really aggressive music I thought, I get it. I get why these people are screaming in their songs. I got really attached to that totally raw emotion. I feel like that translates to any genre, the authenticity of emotion. You can tell, no matter where it is, country or pop or hardcore, whether you're screaming or whispering, that kind of mentality translates to whatever you do.
About the author:
Nathaniel Forsythe is a writer living in Champaign. During the course of their phone conversation, both he and Julien were startled by dogs.