Last year, Julien Baker put out one hell of an album—Turn Out the Lights, a record so devastating it could move a mountain. But with great sad-song writing ability comes great responsibility. Baker spoke to GQ about what it means to make people feel.
Julien Baker makes enormous music for enormous feelings. Live, the most impressive thing about her—aside from the “ouch ouch my heart” sensation you will feel—is witnessing how much noise she can create as just one person with two instruments and a loop pedal, with the occasional strings accompaniment. Writers often comment in dramatic tones on her diminutive stature, but we’ve seen short people scream before. Short people are great at screaming. Just look at a toddler. Baker jumps gracefully from small to large sounds and back again, from gentle longing into high-pitched catharsis. And then there are the heaps of silence. They take up more space than any scream could.
Baker’s second solo album, Turn Out the Lights, came out this past fall. It’s a slightly more hopeful—and more produced—extension of the shaky, white-knuckled vulnerability of her first album, Sprained Ankle. Both records deal with addiction, recovery, mercy, grace, and a faith she maintains despite the great temptation of giving up; Baker grew up in Memphis in a very Christian home, came out as a teenager, struggled with substance abuse, and is now sober. Her current vices are chewing gum and caffeine: If she walks into a room with an aeropress machine, she will immediately flock to it, seek to bond with you or whoever is there over her love for the tiny and portable coffee-making device, and then continue talking about coffee until she switches to talking, just as joyfully, about music again. For a person who loves sad songs, she is really fucking enthusiastic about the nice parts of life.
This past February, GQ spoke with Baker at a coffee shop in Nashville, TN, an hour or so away from her home in Murfreesboro. She was home for a full month—a rarity these days, given her touring schedule—and had mostly been running, writing poetry alongside a group text that posts a poetry prompt every day, and recording some demos. Baker talks with a pointed thoughtfulness, pausing often to collect her thoughts or drag herself for being too self-serious. She seems to want to get things right.
GQ: You’ve been touring for years, first with your band Forrester and then as a solo act. Has playing bigger venues changed your perspective on the songs that you’re singing?
Julien Baker: If 1,500 people are gonna see me and they each pay $20, I want to give them everything that I possibly can. They just made an exchange that allows me to live a dream of mine since I was a child. And that’s not lost on me. So I want to expend every ounce of power and energy I have.
But also, the songs that took shape and the musical sensibilities I was given from the intimacy of a living room or house show or a basement are the kind of tools that I still think can be used to fill up space in [a larger venue like New York City’s] Town Hall. You just have to be willing to confront that amount of vulnerability. It’s scary sometimes, right? Not even just the fact that it’s less instrumentation, like just a piano, or just a guitar, but it’s scary to just scream in front of a bunch of strangers. But what moved me when I was a kid was DIY bands coming through and just screaming at strangers. Because they just want to be heard, and they want strangers to hear what they have to say so badly, because we have such a hunger for communication and connection and relatability. That’s, like, the fundamental human craving, a need for understanding. And I think there’s something very beautiful and precious about that.
And it’s also like a shared catharsis, right? I mean, being in a room screaming with a thousand other people, without a lot of instrumentation, is wild.
Yeah. And sometimes there are shows that throw me off. Or they don’t throw me off, they just take on another form. Some shows feel very reverent—when you’re in a seated theater, no one really sings. I love it when people sing! I wish people would sing all the time. Because one of my favorite things when I get to do as a musician is step away from the microphone and listen to everyone sing together. Which is a kind of churchy thing—or in my mind it’s churchy, but I guess there are secular people who just think of that as, like, a festival show.
I see what you mean about churchy, but I think it’s probably enjoyable to people even without church backgrounds.
Right, and I do recognize that, and it has all these permutations in the secular world. It’s just something that always summons to mind church to me, because of that being a deeply ingrained part of culture. Like when everybody’s just singing at the same volume and there’s nobody who’s the focal point, except for this shared experience.
And you’re singing with strangers about personal pain and anguish that you wouldn’t talk to them about at, like, the coffee table after church.
Right, and with a hymn, you see Linda, the 45-year-old lady who may not have as many tools, emotionally, expressing her deep pain or deep suffering. The thing about music is that it gives voice and names to anguish and also addresses how to comfort it. And so—that’s why it’s amazing when I see older people at the shows, or people that are grown who bring their kids. Because for a lot of my musical career, there was a very narrow window of people who enjoyed our music. It was like, ages 16 to 25 at a cool punk bar or at a house show. So if a 60-year-old man comes up to me and says, “I really related a lot to your music?” It shows you what a powerful thing music is, then. Because we have so little in common [outside of it].
Do you think of writing relatable music as a specific skill or objective?
I think that to try to sit down and write a song with the foregone conclusion of “this will be a relatable song, I’m going to pick a human emotion and write about it and make it relatable,” that will end up artificial-sounding and people will be able to identify that it is fabricated. But there’s a way that you can write reality leaving enough space—not making it ambiguous in a pretentious way—but ambiguous enough that another person can insert themself in the story. I like that mutability.
It’s just how I was raised. But a lot of the artists—we were talking about MewithoutYou before—those bands that so vividly depicted the anguish of negotiating a difficult relationship, a lot of times it was unclear whether it was a brother, or God, or a parent, or a lover. And that gives it this remarkable versatility to be just anguish in general. And I think that’s very valuable.
I talk about this all the time, but one of my friends said this to me one time and it changed my world. I was like, “I feel like I just talk about my feelings—there’s so much going on and all I do is talk about my feelings.” And he said, “Art has to be a little selfish to be honest.” Because you live inside the realm of your own brain. So all I can do is offer you my accurate and truly represented experience. It’s almost a questionnaire, like, “Have you ever felt this way?” Which sounds like a Zoloft commercial. Have you ever felt….sad? Have you ever felt…..alone?
And the reason that those commercials are so creepy is that it’s so unremarkable to feel that way. And yet we feel deeply known by it. Contrary to our logic, we’re like, “Yes, affable doctor on the television, fix me!”
Is there a certain responsibility that comes with writing such sad songs?
The music I create, and the idea that “sad songs make me feel better”—[it almost implies] that wallowing is the answer. And I fear that, because I think that can be very dangerous. For a long time, one of the songs that bothered me most was a song off the first record, “Good News,” and it just goes, “I ruin everything” and I just am screaming “I ruin everything, I ruin everything,” and I think so frequently that if I had known I was going to have to stand on a stage in front of a thousand people and tell them I ruin everything, I wouldn’t have written that, because you know what? I don’t. But people feel like that all the time, and that’s a real human emotion.
So before that song I try to exclusively say, “This song is about thinking about you ruin everything and then finding out that that is a lie. And I feel different about that now.” And I think just taking the time to say, my perspective on these songs changed, does the dual function of giving credence to the reality of the emotion, but regards it as impermanent and able to be manipulated. Also just trying to write with the provision of hope. It’s weird.
How does the feeling of catharsis differ between writing a song like that and listening to one?
I think about my music almost in terms of conversation with myself or, like, prayer. When I am writing alone I try to just write for myself without thinking, like, this will go on a record. So really it becomes a context within which I can have an honest exchange with myself in a place of safety. It feels a lot more like releasing a paper boat of things you would never tell another human being and releasing it into the water and thinking, There it goes! Except then the paper boat becomes extremely public.