When we catch up with Julien Baker, she’s about to go for a run. In October of last year, the third-year college student released her debut solo album, Sprained Ankle, via 6131 Records. The songs—often featuring only Baker’s guitar and vocals—are sparse, intimate and heart wrenching. On the title track, she sings of a physical ailment: “marathon runner and my ankles are sprained.” Baker is about to go for a run, but she is not a runner.
Written throughout her first year at Middle Tennessee State University, Sprained Ankle captures feelings of loneliness and struggle as the singer dealt with being away from friends and overcoming an addiction. The album plays like an extended confession from a broken person. Some moments are all too real, like the car wreck on album opener “Blacktop” or the departing lover on “Something,” but other moments, like the sprained ankle, are just metaphors expressing feelings.
Baker describes her experience with sports as an “epic fail,” but has recently resolved to improve her physical fitness and by a fluke is running today. In much the same way, the sorrowful and broken protagonist of Sprained Ankle is not the true Julien Baker. That’s not to say that the album doesn’t represent Baker and her experiences, but that it serves as an outlet for her to channel those thoughts and anxieties through both literal and metaphorical songwriting.
“It’s a coping mechanism,” says Baker, who sounds far cheerier and more confident speaking than her songs would lead one to believe. “I make the joke that I make these sad, doleful tunes because otherwise I would be a sad, doleful person. And it’s not to say that I don’t have sad days or get really anxious, but I try to have a positive outlook on things. These emotions that would otherwise weigh on me and be pent up inside are released in the musical creative process.”
A year ago, Baker’s musical creative process was a much more private one than it is today. The Memphis, Tennessee, songwriter has been playing music for years with her band Forrister, but that group never received the attention her solo album has garnered. Sprained Ankle initially appeared to be following that same route as merely a DIY album in a DIY music community before 6131 Records found Baker and offered her a deal, but the story of the album starts much before that. Baker didn’t intend to write a solo record, but throughout her first year of college a number of conditions aligned to yield Sprained Ankle.
When Baker made the decision to leave Memphis for MTSU, she had to leave her Forrister bandmates hours away. The group would still unite when they could, but that left Baker largely alone to work on songs. However, with a randomly assigned roommate, songwriting could be a little uncomfortable. “I felt strange playing and writing with a stranger there,” Baker says. “I mean, she was nice, but I didn’t know her at all.”
Baker turned to practice rooms in the university’s music building, often staying late into the night in rooms just large enough to fit a piano and stool so she could work on music. These late-night sessions produced songs that would ultimately form Sprained Ankle after not finding a home with Forrister.
“My intention was predominantly focused toward the band,” Baker says. “What we didn’t use in the band, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll play around with these songs and I’ll have a repertoire and stuff that’s just my own.”
Perhaps these would’ve just been songs for Baker’s personal catalog if not for Michael Hegner, a friend in MTSU’s audio recording courses. When Hegner had extra studio time he would invite Baker to record demos; if Forrister wasn’t available, she’d record her solo songs. After building their relationship, Hegner encouraged her to come with him to record at Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, Virginia, where he interned. At that point, Baker’s demo songs began to transform into Sprained Ankle. “I sat down and thought of these songs I have,” she says. “Which do I want to try to do, which fit together best and are cohesive a little bit?”
In the summer of 2014, Baker recorded her minimalist songs at Spacebomb with few layers beyond what she could play at one time, sometimes using only a single take or room mic to capture the performance. What she had never intended to be an album had become a collection of songs tied together by stories about a particular time in her life. With the record complete, Baker turned to the internet and independently released Sprained Ankle.
“I left it on Bandcamp because I was like, ‘This is all it’s going to be,’” Baker recalls. “Then I went on tour with it, just a DIY tour with my friend Ryan Azada just for fun—that was the longest ends that I saw. I wasn’t trying to push it really hard.”
For most artists, this would be the end—and a fulfilling one, too. Baker received praise from her friends and had created the album she wanted. By a twist of fate, 6131 discovered the record and offered to sign Baker. To her amazement, the deal was followed by the stuff of DIY musician dreams: song premieres, interviews, NPR, The New York Times.
“It’s kind of a cultural mindset that it’s a pipe dream to have artistic aspirations,” Baker says, showing a humble understanding of her fortune. “I always thought I would be making music probably as a hobby. I just wrote off serious recognition because it didn’t seem realistic. I thought, ‘Who would even care about this little record that I did just because my friend happened to have time?’”
Despite Baker’s fears that Forrister would be upset with her achievements, her bandmates and the local music community rallied around her. Still, her success brought up some uncomfortable feelings. “I had these doors opened for me by these people that believed in my music and I felt almost bad about it,” she says, noting that she saw many other hardworking artists failing to gain the same opportunities. Still, her largest concern came in the interpretation of her lyrics.
“I’m not trying to make a pedestal out of the songs and say with such a heavy hand, ‘But there’s hope,’” Baker says. “But I hope that in being realistic and in being transparent and honest, even if it is a little bit awkward or embarrassing for me, divulging those parts of myself can connect with other human beings.”
Fortunately, the interpretations have been largely positive. Beyond the praise given to her by music publications, fans have been responsive as well. Baker says the greatest part of her newfound success has been hearing personal anecdotes of how her lyrics affected someone else for the better.
“When people say those things to me, it is encouraging and it reminds me why even if sometimes it’s difficult to share those things we absolutely should,” she says. “Because that’s what makes music such a wonderful experience and so I cherish those moments above everything else.”
Right now, the future is open for Baker. She’s confident she’ll continue making music but can’t say what that will sound like. For her, the important thing is living in the reality that Sprained Ankle has created.
“It could all flop tomorrow and then I would just go back to school,” Baker says. “As of right now, I think I just want to see it through to whatever can come of it.” S
A version of this story was originally published in Substream #50.