On the heels of her triumphant Matador Records debut Turn Out the Lights and the critically acclaimed EP as one-third of boygenius (not to mention recent team-ups with Matt Berninger, The National, and Jack Antonoff), Julien Baker has been on a creative hot streak as of late.
Baker is an astoundingly powerful voice in modern music, and it’s that voice that immediately draws one into her sparse, devastating and emotionally cathartic ballads. With songs that tackle delicate issues such as trauma, mental illness, and substance abuse, Baker doesn’t just count her battle scars, but ultimately champions their inherent strengths. Her voice is singular, hauntingly powerful and crystal clear. With her highly relatable storytelling, creatively ambient guitar work and perfect poetic choices tucked into every line sung, she has developed an earned reputation for captivating audiences across the world. Although it could be easy to describe Baker’s repertoire simply as “sad songs’’, it is so much more than that. You will hear heartache, of course, but you will also hear hope, delicacy, self-acceptance, artistry and perseverance. She’s a master at reminding that without the bitter, the sweet just isn’t as sweet.
In our new interview, Baker discusses her role as guest curator at Sled Island 2019, her indie rock supergroup Boygenius, growing up in Memphis, and more!
When you were curating the lineup for Sled Island 2019, did you have a specific philosophy? Can you tell me a bit about your process?
It’s a massive task. It was sort of intimidating because you think about the responsibility of choosing something that will appeal to an audience and not compromise your own taste in order to cater to the presumed desires of that audience. So I wanted to choose artists that… all of the artists that were my picks, I would consider favourite artists of mine, but I didn’t want to choose only folks that I liked, purely for one style of music.
I wanted to choose acts that had a very unique sound or brought a special narrative to their work because I felt like the vibe that I got from Sled Island is that it was one where people are willing and open to discovering new things. I thought if I could put music in front of an audience that’s going to entertain them, but also be challenging to the norm of what they’re used to seeing, I would rather do that, so I tried to choose artists that I found innovative and unique.
That’s one thing I’ve noticed from Sled Island, that it’s one of those festivals where you can really look at and even though you likely don’t know many of the artists, it’s one you can go to and just learn. Big festivals are always polluted with mainstream and there’s not much of a way to find new music in that environment unless you go to something like Sled Island and explore it.
Definitely! I completely agree.
Who are some Sled Island artists that you’re most excited to see?
Oh, man. That’s hard because I don’t want to be preferential. I’m really excited to see JPEG Mafia [and] Torress is a long time favourite of mine – I’m excited to see her. Japanese Breakfast too, I’ve been a fan for a long time but have never seen them live, so that’ll be wonderful.
Were there any that you wished you could have had on the bill but couldn’t get?
I think Charly Bliss, they’re in the middle of doing a… I don’t know why, but I presumed it was because their album cycle was beginning. But yeah, I love that band and I love the record that they just put out. Another time.
You released your last album in 2017, is there any new material in the works for fans to look forward to in the near future?
Yeah. We’ve been working on a record… we (laughs). I’ve been working on a record. It’s just that I tour with a group and there are so many people that I work with around the logistics of recording and touring that it’s selfish to say me. So I’ve been working on a lot of new music, I’m probably going to finish up a new record in the fall and hopefully release it this year.
It’s nice to hear the credit be given to the people that, while you’re the creator, are definitely still other hands in the pot.
So many of them! Without which, I would not be able to do one a lot of the things that I do. It’s so odd to use I outside of just personal opinion because there are so many other folks involved that are working as hard, if not harder than I am and doing very difficult tasks.
How would you say your process differs when you approach collaborative songs with Boygenius, as opposed to your own work?
I think it was actually quite liberating, to work with Boygenius, because it made me have to relinquish some of the control, but also relinquish some of the responsibilities. Instead of being entirely in control and the sole determiner of what a song sounds like, you have the resources of two other brilliant minds that if you are willing to delegate some of the creative processes to, you realize these amazing insights that you never would have reached yourself. It’s very inspiring.
Would you say it’s a lot different, the process that you took, rather than when you’re writing for yourself?
I would say so, yeah.
What would you say the major differences were between the two, that you found?
I don’t know, in some ways they were similar, I suppose. In that, we made the record in a very short amount of time, so things were very intuitive and immediate. The way that I go about writing lyrics, or forming a melody, or putting together a chord progression – even something as simple as that is going to be very different from the way that Phoebe (Bridgers) or Lucy (Dacus) would do those things.
It was also interesting because I had not in so long turned over the writing process to be in the hands of other folks and sort of released a half-written song into someone else’s hands in the faith that it would turn into something good. Not that I thought that with Phoebe and Lucy, who are amazing, that anything but that would happen, but you know, it was much different than being in my own little isolated world.
Yeah, it’s like your baby – that’s the best reference to use with anything that you’ve poured yourself into. It’s like taking your baby… it’s hard to give her even to your sister. It doesn’t matter who it is or how much trust you have, it’s hard to relinquish that control.
Yeah! It’s also so seldom that I have to talk about the lyrics or really analyze the song to anyone until it was a finished song and it was really challenging to my confidence (laughing) in the song itself. I’m very shy, which is God’s cosmic joke because I’m a performer as my profession. It was difficult to be more open and more vulnerable with the songs as they were being written and as they were in this malleable form, rather than being able to present the finished product.
How did you split the writing process with them? Was it more of a session, or pieces coming together naturally?
We all brought one demo or half-finished song to the table and then we spent a day just writing with each other, letting things evolve. It was honestly really natural, it’s hard to answer the question of how we delegated writing because it happened in a very organic way that felt like everyone was contributing to it in real time and nobody really had an ego that impeded the process so the songs developed in a very beautiful way.
That’s good. It can be really hard to share the writing, especially with three people who are so prominently good with it. The egos can for sure get in the way.
Yeah, but they’re two of the most ego-less people that I’ve ever met, so it was actually easy working with them.
Can we expect new Boygenius songs in the future, or do you think it will be more of aone-off collaboration?
Mm. (laughs) We certainly hope so. All of us have solo tours so it’s hard to match up our time, but we’re hoping to make some more things in the future. I know we’re all really excited about that prospect. To be determined, but probably, yes.
Your last album, Turn Out The Lights, was mostly written on the road. Where does most of your creative motivation come from while touring and how would you contrast that to writing off the road?
It’s maybe the same principle that I apply to both instances. Much of art is spontaneously inventing something out of the ether of yourself and much of it is just allowing yourself to be a conscious observer and to be engaged in what’s going on around you and notice when something is significant or artistic or when one of your friends says something in a conversation that is poetic. Most of the time it’s the everyday things that happen in life or the conversations that I have with people combined with my own life experiences or whatever I may be processing at that time that end up being the core material of the songs.
Your songs are derived from your own personal experience. Is it important to you to always grab inspiration from your life or do you also pull inspiration from observation and other people’s stories?
I think especially when I was writing Turn Out The Lights, “Sprained Ankle” was mostly, if not entirely rooted in my own experience and my own perception – the things that I was feeling and how others actions affected me. Then I tried to make Turn Out The Lights a little more of a relational record, whereas it’s still from my point of view, but it explores the relationships between people and tries to approach things in a more empathetic way.
I think that’s really valuable when writing, not to only write from an isolated, single self-perspective and to remain cognitive of other people and weave the things that you learned from their experience to give it perspective.
Would you say there’s a specific person that has given you inspiration throughout your life or situation?
I don’t know, it’s mostly my friends, the things that I watch them go through and the ways that I see them deal with things. My closest friends, the people that I tour with, I would say that [is].
How did growing up in Memphis impact your music, if at all?
It’s hard to say. I have a huge love for Memphis, it’s my home town, so I have a lot of hometown loyalty for it. I think the scene there is very unique, in that there are somewhat limited resources compared to other bigger cities like Atlanta and Nashville, that are close by. In Memphis, I think that scarcity forced the cooperation and that was to everyone’s benefit. Learning how to appreciate music and work with people who made music that was so different from your own sort of engendered a mentality in me of collaboration and cooperation and that that’s how music is supposed to be, not [to be] competitive at all, just more for music’s sake. So then when I was in other musical contexts in different cities, I think that it was something I really held close to my heart, that that was the kind of mentality around me that I had grown up with.
As you said, there’s a lot of places really close by, like Nashville. Tennessee is a very musical place. Do you think that’s part of why you have such a closeness and are so akin to music, or do you think that had more to do with upbringing or outward forces?
I think it was probably a mix of my social environment. When I was a kid I felt understood by music in a way that I felt understood by the artists that I admired and the music was something that gave me a respite and a place to feel understood. Then when I started getting into the punk scene, those people became my makeshift family and I had such an affinity for that world that I completely fell in love with it and all I wanted to do was make music. I think just growing up in Memphis around the DRI scene is what gave me that love for music.
The punk scene really gives a sense of wellness, it gives a sense of connection with people that you never thought you’d really get. People don’t tend to understand that when they’re looking in from outside, it’s a very misunderstood scene that people think it’s so aggressive when it’s quite often the opposite.
Oh yeah, it’s full of love. I mean it is aggressive, but it’s a safe space for aggression to go. It’s a place where aggression isn’t repressed, a place where aggression is validated and your anxiety and your fear or confusion is recognized. Somebody says “oh, I feel that too,” and that ends up being very comforting. A lot of the kids that came out of that scene ended up being some of the most well-adjusted people that I know.
Yeah, it’s a misfit area for people to go and find people that feel the same way and where your feelings aren’t bastardized in the way that most areas of society do.
I like to end my interviews by asking the person I’m speaking with, for a funny quirk or character trait about themselves, because personality tends to get lost in a lot of interviews. Is there anything you can think of that would surprise people, that you haven’t spoken about publicly before?
I’m trying to think of something that’s not cliche. Everything that I think of is either boring or way too far weird. I’m trying to think of a happy medium. (laughing)
Well, I like way too far weird, personally.
(laughs) Way too far weird, okay. I love… this is why I thought it would sound way too cliche. I was between saying I long distance run and I’ll run for like two or three hours, which is crazy because I grew up in punk, I was never good [at and] I hated organized sports. I’m not good at them – I’m not athletic at all. But I will just run, I’ll run for two and a half hours. I was between that, which is just boring, like what’s up? Hundreds of people run.
I [also] always bring a 3D puzzle on tour. I used to have a Rubix cube that I’d bring on tour. I’m saying this because I’m looking at this massive pile of them on my coffee table. Then I got a four-sided one, then I got a 10 sided one and I always look like the biggest dork, trying to solve a dodecahedron Rubix cube with like 10 or 12 sides and people are like what in the hell is going on with this girl? (laughing) It’s very mindful for me. It’s not infuriating because there’s no one standing over me saying you better solve this, right now! It’s also just engaging enough that you can’t let your mind cycle through anxieties. Especially when I’m in a place where I can’t run, or do something physical, like on a plane or a train. I will just sit and do these obscenely difficult 3D puzzles, which is a little bit whack, but it’s okay.
It’s definitely much better than letting your mind be completely taken over by a machine of some sort. You’re not sitting in front of a screen or going into a show that’ll completely turn you off.
Oh my God, yeah. I realize that the only two things that I divulged to you are different methods of anxiety control, but that’s basically the human experience. Anxiety and damage control, figuring out what keeps you sane and allows you to be in your body and present, so that’s it for me. Before a show, I just sit, I do my 3D puzzles.