Julien Baker says she’s never been good at elevator pitches.
“I don’t want it to come off as sounding artificial,” the 22-year-old explains.
I asked the Tennessee-based songwriter something along the lines of “If you could sum it up, what do you want your listeners to take away from this record?” It’s the final question in a 40-minute interview that covered topics ranging from Baker’s album, Turn Out The Lights to signing with a new label to the role of mass media (it makes sense, promise).
It’s a fairly common question, one that opens the platform for the artist to give an over-arching sweep as to Why Their Art Matters. Still, as with all her responses—and music, really—Baker’s pensive, well-spoken and welcoming. She doesn’t dive into a canned, rehearsed response or shake the question with a clever, albeit distracting one-liner (both all too common). She’s sincere the way her music is sincere.
She pauses, collects her thoughts and gives her best shot at summarizing the work.
“The thing I most want for this record to be is accessible to this listener in a way that they could inhabit the stories on the songs and place themselves inside of it and derive any sort of comfort from that,” she says.
It’s a great response to a not-so-easy task; the type of comment I mark in my notebook to re-visit. It’s not artificial, as Baker feared. But leaving it at that one sentence wouldn’t do this album justice.
The music’s just that powerful.
She continues, sinking deeper into the question: “The narrative of the record is about starting off with this idea that because there are things about you that are challenging, difficult or ugly—or that you perceive as broken—that those things need to be eradicated because there are Bad things or Good things—capital B, capital G—and I just don’t think that that’s true. I’ve learned throughout the last couple of years from life that probably the [opposite] is true. That ugliest and most challenging parts of ourselves are often the things that make us most human and are our most precious tools in relating to each other.”
Let’s repeat that last part: “That ugliest and most challenging parts of ourselves are often the things that make us most human and are our most precious tools in relating to each other.”
The last sentence shows the sincerity in Baker’s work, an honesty and transparency that thrives throughout Turn Out The Lights. Listen to the record as a whole and you hear the complexity Baker describes. A track like lead single “Appointments”—with the chorus “Maybe it’s gonna turn out alright/And I know that it’s not but I have to believe that it is—teeters between having no hope and having nothing but hope. Similarly, the standout track “Sour Breath” takes the listener to a place of gut-wrenching, impassioned unrest.
It’s an album that’s not about a fake, predisposed happiness; it’s about knowing that within all of the chaos and moments where you tell yourself “this isn’t okay” that, actually, it is okay…that you are who you are, and within that, there can be happiness.
Because of that, it’s not for a second hyperbolic to say the album is probably the most beautiful record of 2017.
“These are the songs I have written to process events and challenging ordeals in my life,” Baker says. “The music that comes out is a byproduct of that feeling process. But it’s still largely idiosyncratic, right? A lot of touring Sprained Ankle and undergoing that healing process to be in a better, more positive mental place was about decentralizing the focus from me and getting outside of my own head and understanding myself and my experiences in terms of how they relate or influence others.”
Marked as one of the season’s most anticipated alternative albums, the release follows Baker’s 2015 solo, breakout debut, Sprained Ankle. The album dominated a corner of the indie world that year, gaining headlines in Pitchfork and earning acclaim from NPR. Baker found herself discussing the intense, emotional topics of her music to an audience far beyond anything she experienced as an independent musician in Memphis.
The media attention around Sprained Ankle was a process she learned from in the moment.
“I was gullible and naive,” she says, in regards to discussing her music with the media. “I would just rattle off complete nonsense and not be careful or intentional on how I crafted my response [on] kinda heavy topics. … knowing that people are going to be reading the words that I say makes me overwhelmed by the responsibility to say the most clear, the most diplomatic but the most honest thing.”
Still, with answering questions about her words and music, she identified previously unrecognized themes in her music. This, she explained, made her look at the Turn Out The Lights creative process.
“I had never been made to explain my writing so much as when I had to talk about the songs on the last record,” she says. “It made me want to think more critically and more analytically. …Exorcising—with an o—all of these negative things.”
Now, writing music of the utmost introspection for a newfound mass audience and, in turn, having that audience shout back “I feel the same!” is a feeling she’s not yet sure how to explain.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know exactly how it feels. It just feels like an almost imperceptible, gradual change. The lyrical content effects a change that occurs in my personal life. I want it to have more perspective on my own problems gained by being aware of others and practicing empathy. So I think that these songs came out of a brain that was changing.”
On Turn Out The Lights, Baker illustrates that change. She digs her heels into the emotional cocktail of being alive. A track such as “Shadowboxing”—with lines that sing “You don’t believe what you don’t see/And you watch me throw punches at the devil/It looks like I’m just fighting with me”—captures with beauty life’s innermost complexity beyond Baker’s described Good and Bad.
She says a number of the album’s songs tell stories of interactions with family and friends.
“[Some songs are about] watching their journey from a dark place into a better place and wishing that I had equipped myself with more worth of understanding and mercy to deal with that in other people. It broke my heart. I started to think ‘why’ those thoughts of what they’re telling me is what I think of myself. Why would I want to think that? And so if I want to change that in them. I have to change that in myself first.”
Baker enlisted mixing engineer Craig Silvey (Florence and the Machine, The National) at Memphis’ historic Ardent Studios (Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Big Star, R.E.M. and seriously countless others) to track the album. Sonically, it’s a deeper cut from what fans heard on Sprained Ankle.
It’s still Baker’s signature, transparent lyricism and enthralled vocal delivery, but with more musical elaboration. None shows the diversity better than the album’s title track, which delivers subtle string arrangements and reaches a climax of Baker bellowing “When I turn out the lights …” to reverberate power chords.
In her words, Baker says the album feels more like a body of work, and less like a collection of songs. A number of the songs, such as “Appointments,” were written shortly after Sprained Ankle.
“I enjoyed being able to have time to think about themes and motifs of the sound and try to weave the record together in a narrative style,” she says.
She continued: “I think [Ardent] put me in a positive headspace to experiment and try all different things. I wanted to not leave any idea un-sought after. I wanted to make something that would reflect the time that I put into the record and try to make it more intricate and complex,” she explains. “I think [at] the core of every good song, if it were just melody and poetry, it would be fine. It would be a good song. But then it’s not a bad thing to want to add or embellish things to give it more dynamic. I was very, very happy I had the resources to do that.”
The record comes via Matador, which announced Baker’s signing in January. The label’s a staple in the indie rock world—home to Kurt Vile, Interpol, Yo La Tengo, Spoon, Pavement and more. Baker described the transition from 6131 Records as “seamless.”
“They’re independently owned, [but] they’re still a monolith of indie rock,” Baker says. “I feared it would be intimidating or impersonal. To approach something that’s so huge like that—I felt like I didn’t know how it would go. But it’s actually been a very amicable process. I feel they’ve been very good about trying to make this record the … best record I wanted to make.”
She called her Matador interaction overall “safe” and “supportive.”
“Instead of me presenting a record and them trying to get it closer to their idea of a record, they wanted to help me make the best version of my art, which has been really nice,” she says. “It allowed me the freedom to involve several of my friends.”
Now, at the end of the elevator pitch, the last question of that 40-minute conversation, Baker shows her sincerity once again, a sense of realism that echoes throughout Turn Out The Lights that all but insists you dive head-first into her art.
“It’s not a matter of saying X behavior is bad [and] Y behavior is good and then adopting this unsustainable faux-self,” she says, in closing. “It’s about understanding that I don’t think that people are made with broken things about them. They’re made how they’re made and the challenge of every human life is to mitigate whatever obstacles that presents. Whether that’s your mood or your mental health … anything. So I hope that it’s a narrative that’s [an] alleviation of shame.”
*A version of this interview first ran in the current print issue of Substream Magazine, on stands now and available through our online store!