Julien Baker’s Vulnerability
Tennessean’s “Museum of Self” welcomes all
By Libby Webster,
9:00AM, Thu. Dec. 14, 2017
Julien Baker embraces flaws. On 2015 debut Sprained Ankle and October’s Turn Out the Lights, the 22-year-old Memphis native deftly navigates the darkest corners of herself: mental illness, recovery from substance abuse, her faith, and the relationships with those around her. She plies hymn-like singer-songwriter sonics at Emo’s on Monday, Dec. 18.
Austin Chronicle: Where does this ability to be so incredibly vulnerable in your work come from?
Julien Baker: I don’t know! My music taste and how I engage with art has always been a very emotional process. I think even when I was younger, I had a penchant for dramatic and very evocative music. I was drawn to aggressive styles of music like hardcore and house shows – that kind of very raw, intimate setting – because I felt there was something rewarding and disarming about it.Catharsis is one thing, but I think there’s a lasting impact of choosing to be vulnerable and living your life in that way, or seeing others choose to admit things onstage that validates your emotion and empowers you to be more forthright with those feelings.
AC: So music has allowed you to get to that place, or have you always been that way outside of your art?
JB: Performing with [Forrister] when I was in high school, all of the songs were just very personal to me. I didn’t know art, from the time I started making music, was a tool to investigate my own feelings and kind of sift through that. Even when I was in high school, the things I was writing about were just what was going on in my life at the time, whether it was hard or ugly. I did a lot more poetic lyrics then. I kind of tried to obscure it under metaphors and a whole bunch of big words, which is maybe also being a teenager.
But when I put out Sprained Ankle, I imagined it as just being a solo project that was kind of demure and reserved musically. I previously felt the more complex something was, the more interesting it was, and so it was cool to see the merit of simplicity when people responded to the record.
AC: Does the person you were on these records feel like a stranger now?
JB: Touring Sprained Ankle and having some time and better perspective to write Turn Out the Lights helped me figure out stuff in my mind. I was trying to compartmentalize myself into a formal “museum of self” of mistakes I’ve learned from, or people that I was that I no longer am instead of just allowing them to be facets of the same being.
Those are still valid experiences that are part of me, and I can’t choose to just eschew them and be ashamed of them. Sprained Ankle is a very idiocentric record, and I admit that. But it was necessary that I honored those feelings and those painful things, because they’re real. I think you can allow yourself to build layers on top of who you are, where the past is at the bottom, instead of eradicating, you know?
So the short answer is yes, I think they’re still relevant to me as a person.
AC: Mental health is being discussed more and more now. You’re at the forefront of that dialog thanks to your work, normalizing something stigmatized. Is that something you ever expected? Does that feel crazy to you?
JB: It does feel crazy, and no, I never expected it – just to answer your question directly, right off the bat. It feels crazy, but I also think the task of me as a musician is to try to separate myself from the art, and to make art that is vulnerable and a challenge to myself, and to hold myself to a higher standard of authenticity, but then never allow it to be an accessory to my ego. The whole point of making art is that it’s intrinsically flawed.
I just wanna be something exemplary that’s happening at a period where it can empower other people to do their thing in their own imperfect way. I think the most important part of being an artist with any sort of platform or having any modicum of success is knowing how to share that, and how to purpose it and give it away. It’s hard to conceptualize myself at the forefront of anything.
I used to completely abstain from acknowledging having a platform at all because it felt self-aggrandizing, but to do that and to deny access to outlets for the sake of a performative, pious humility would squander my ability to say something potentially helpful. I try to take it as seriously as I can, but I think sometimes it drives me insane, like, “I have to say the right thing and do the right thing all the time!”
AC: In that vein of decentralizing yourself, with the music shifting to a communal experience, what’s the balance of music made for you versus music made for the listener?
JB: Hmm. I recently read this Amanda Palmer post where she said, “I make music for me, for you,” and I thought, “Wow, that’s a six-word explanation of something I’ve been trying to explain in paragraphs forever.” But I think that those things are a little bit muddled for me. When I started making music, the ultimate apex of why was for the live performance, and the live experience of singing the songs along with my friends. It was almost like what I discuss is for me and what I need to get out, but I’m now more mindful of it being for others.
On Sprained Ankle, I didn’t know those songs were gonna be heard by people besides my friends. I felt like I was just saying things as they occurred to me, without – I don’t wanna say filtering them because I didn’t filter a lot of Turn Out the Lights – but I chose to discuss the sadness I was feeling. Now that there’s an audience in mind, I think I was more deliberate in including a provision of hopefulness instead of just allowing the record to be completely bleak. That was as much for me, because I needed to learn a lesson of, “You cannot be this discouraged all the time, you have to allow for the possibility of healing.”
Ultimately, I think touring Sprained Ankle is one of the things that taught me that there’s this beautiful possibility of music to re-assign a value to something that’s so personal to you. All of the painful things in my life don’t have to remain that thing. I wanted to be able to share that with an audience, because that’s what helps me. It’s almost a selfish endeavor either way, but somehow that includes a listener and hopefully makes them feel like it’s more of an exchange, instead of just me providing a narrative.