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Julien Baker is Still Learning

Singer-songwriter went back to college, confronted her relationship with sobriety, and embraced a full-band sound on the way to her latest album

Alysse Gafkjen*

Julien Baker stops herself to apologize. “I don’t know why I’m now telling you the footnotes of my thesis,” she says, with a typical dose of self-consciousness. 

It makes perfect sense that Baker has slipped into full academic mode, talking about jazz and “the subjectivities of language” — because, lately, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter has spent much more time in a classroom than on stage. Last year, feeling worn out and struggling with some long-brewing personal issues after three years of non-stop touring, Baker decided to pause her career and finish college at Middle Tennessee State University. “We cancelled Austin City Limits, and I went back to school,” she says. 

Baker was relieved to get back into the routine of attending lectures with students who did not care, or even know, that their classmate was one of the most acclaimed and adored indie singer-songwriters of the past half-decade. “It made me use my brain in a completely different way and return to a daily application of my mind to literature and the study of music and language, something that was not wrapped up in my ego as a musician or the expectations that I built for myself,” she says. “That was really helpful. I am going to sound like a big old nerd that everyone hates, but I love school… I was just, like, hanging out in the library.”

After graduating in December 2019, she headed directly to a studio in her hometown of Memphis to begin recording her third solo album. That record, Little Oblivions, which will be released in February 2021, is not only the most richly produced, pop-aware release of Baker’s career, but also her the most unsparingly honest in its messiness. 

If Baker’s first two solo LPs — 2016’s spare, spectral Sprained Ankle and 2017’s morose, meditative Turn Out The Lights — explored questions of faith, identity, and mental health, her latest work is much more directly rooted in the corporeal. Baker’s new songs are full of bodies and blackouts and benders and blood. Many of them take place in beds and bars. Perhaps most notably, most of them also have drums.

That Baker’s first full-band album is also her most focused on earthly concerns is not coincidental. As the album’s sole producer, Baker uses her newly expanded rock palette to tell a story of the reckoning and renewal she’s undergone over the past two years. On “Relative Fiction,” she slowly builds on a typically sparse, moody arrangement before the drums announce themselves and Baker suddenly interrupts the doom-and-gloom ballad with a thrilling pop chorus: “I don’t need a savior/I need you to take me home,” she sings as the band swoops in behind her.

When Baker was writing Turn Out the Lights, she was “driving around [performing] Sprained Ankle tunes and reading compulsively, just consuming theology and philosophy and political ideology. I was so obsessed with doing right,” she says. “It was this very metaphysical space for me. And I thought so much about these huge things, like, ‘What is altruism?’ Just a bunch of Chidi-from-The-Good-Place questions.” Since then, she says, “things happened in my life that made my world smaller.”

Baker has not played a proper show since July 2019, and the last time she was fully in the public eye was in the fall of 2018, when she released and toured behind the successful Boygenius EP with her newly-formed indie supergroup with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus.

“Gosh, two years, so much has happened in that time,” Baker says. “Man, it was not a good year. 2019 was not a good year.”

When she finally got off the road, in November 2018, things quickly went downhill. “It was like riding a bike, slowly,” she says. “When you don’t have the momentum anymore, you start to falter.”

Around that time, in January 2019, Baker was featured alongside musicians such as Steven Tyler and Jason Isbell in an extensive GQ feature about the relationship between sobriety and creativity. In the story, Baker, 23 at the time, discussed and reflected upon her six years of sobriety.  

“Yeah, that was ill-timed,” she says today with a nervous laugh. 

Baker has a tough time talking about this time period, the specific details of which she keeps she prefers to keep private. She’s understandably wary of the risk that her specific, personal relationship to substance abuse, which dates back to her preteens, will become, as she puts it, “novelized.” She’s well aware of how the deeply complicated stories of artists who struggle with addiction and sobriety are so often crammed into neat scripts and easy talking points for album-promotion cycles. “I don’t want to construct a narrative of this sort of oscillating prodigal redemption,” she says. 

Still, she is keenly aware of the dangers of being overly obscure about what happened. “I don’t want to omit things in order to create a narrative where I speak really vaguely about mental health in a way that continues to underhandedly stigmatize it,” she adds. 

So, Baker begins to explain what she can. After the last Boygenius shows took place in late 2018, she says, she dealt with the pent-up stress of having spent her early twenties touring “in some very negative ways.”

“I just didn’t realize how much was there that I hadn’t dealt with, and how much my negative coping mechanisms were going to continue to add new problems,” she continues. “I re-examined a whole lot of things: My relationship to substances and my identity as sober or straight edge, and how those things are all different and what that means. That was a very loaded process, and I didn’t handle it well.”

Seeing herself presented as a sober person in a national publication led, Baker recalls, to “a confrontation of my own fallibility. It was something I had taken a whole bunch of pride in. Then, me having to re-negotiate starting over from the bottom with that, and figuring out how to help re-navigate it all over again.”

“I just didn’t realize how much was there that I hadn’t dealt with.”

Baker also found that the way she talked about her past self in that story reinforced a mindset she was just beginning to try to move past. “I was like, ‘Wow, I spoke with a lot of self-assurance about this very clear, binary path to the present: Old me to new me.’ When people say, ‘That wasn’t me’… I don’t know, I would love to say that all of the harmful things I’ve done to my friends are not me, but they are.”

This marked a radical new mode of self-reflection for Baker, who began writing many of the songs for Little Oblivions that very January. “It’s so hard to be wrong about something you were so sure was right,” she says. “I feel like Turn Off The Lights, the whole premise of so many of the songs were the two parts of the self facing each other, the antagonistic part and the good, triumphant, idealistic part. It’s been a process of understanding those are the same person, and instead of overcoming and defeating and subduing this negative part, trying to understand mercifully assimilate that into your understanding of yourself.” 

It’s a lesson that she admits she’s still learning. She’s been trying her best to apply it to not only herself, but also to her politics and a larger sense of community. “It’s easy to despise the things in others that we don’t like about ourselves,” she says. “It’s so useful to make something you don’t like about yourself personified as an other, in order to hate it. And not have to deal with it.”

Baker played through her scheduled festival dates in the spring and early summer of 2019, but by late July and early August of that year, she began cancelling the rest of her European festival dates due to, as a statement put it at the time, “ongoing medical issues.” That July, she wrote the second batch of songs that wound up on Little Oblivions. The album, she says, “is quite a bit of just documenting 2019.”

To describe the record-making process, which, for the first time, involved several rounds of demos, shifting arrangements, and more than a year of tinkering before ever entering the studio, Baker, clearly a recent college grad, turns to a Wordsworth quote: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” If Baker’s first two albums represented the first half of that quote, Little Oblivions, she says, marks her first album driven by the latter.

By last August, Baker was driving out to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to finish her degree at M.T.S.U, where she had paused her studies back in 2016 with just one semester left.

When she graduated and entered the studio, she knew she wanted to make an album with a full band. But she also sprinkled several quieter, solo moments on the album — in part out of concerns that her sonic leap might be misconstrued. “I didn’t want to put out this vibe of, like, ‘I’m in a band now! I have a reason to have distortion on my pedal board!,’” she says. “I mean, I am very happy to have a reason to have distortion on my pedal board. But I didn’t want it to feel like a gimmick. I just wanted it to feel like songwriting with drums.”

Little Oblivions at times nods back to Baker’s high school-era hardcore-adjacent band Forrister. “I missed that energy,” she says. “And also, on a really surface bro level, it is so fun to just play heavy songs again. It makes me so happy!” 

Another source of happiness: Baker’s new dog, Beans. (She plans to one day get a second dog named Cornbread.) “I became one of those ‘who saved who’ people,” she says, just a few minutes before her pup starts acting up. “Oh my gosh, this dog is so loud. Holy shit, Beans!”

On a strictly personal level, Baker has found her time at home in 2020 to be somewhat of a blessing, a way to stretch out a period of extended stability that she sought by going back to school in the first place. “I’m retroactively grateful for things having been forced to slow down,” she says. Baker has spent the last six months visiting doing things like seeing her friend’s new baby, spending time with Beans, saying hello to neighbors. But, as is often the case with the exceedingly reflective singer-songwriter, there’s a caveat. 

“I’m careful, because that sounds romanticized, and I know there’s no ultimate thing that I’m going to find that’s going to be, ‘This is right,’” she says. “I think it’s been about moving away from the conceptual into the physical experience, trying to be more present.”

Baker stops herself once more. “I just made some woo-woo hands when I said ‘present,’” she says. “I don’t know why I do that. It’s a perfectly normal, healthy thing to be present in your body.”

From Rolling Stone US