Indie

Julien Baker Tells Us How She Made Her Best Album, ‘Little Oblivions’

“Are you my therapist?” Julien Baker asked me toward the end of our interview last month. We had just spent nearly an hour talking about addiction, religion, the cult of personality around indie-rock singer-songwriters, and the best album of her career, Little Oblivions, due out Friday. Baker, 25, is known for emotionally intense indie-folk songs that have the candor of religious confessionals. Talking with her sometimes has a similar life-or-death urgency.

“In some Baptist churches, there’s this thing where to be absolved of sins, you have to confess them to one another,” she continued. “You have to stand up in the middle of church and be like, ‘I cheated on my wife,’ or whatever, or ‘I stole from a tip jar.’ I wonder if that just comes from human beings desperately needing to be seen, like human beings wanting to be understood and the weight that carrying around an unseen part of your life puts on you.” Baker was talking about the central impulse behind Little Oblivions, an album in which she writes with incredible (even uncomfortable) candor about a fraught period in her life when it seemed, from the outside, she should have been basking in her greatest professional success yet.

After gaining glowing critical notices for her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle — which established Baker’s brand of introspective self-laceration laced with her anguished, near-operatic vocals — Baker entered the world of indie stardom with 2017’s Turn Out The Lights and the 2018 Boygenius EP, a collaboration with fellow rising 20something-year-old singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. A busy tour schedule got even more frenzied as media coverage lingered on the thoughtful, idealized humanism professed by Baker in her songs. Unlike Bridgers, who has a playful and occasionally acerbic public image, Baker was backed into a corner of public piousness. In time, she found that she was playing a version of herself in public that didn’t ring true to her private self.

This all started coming to a head in early 2019 when Baker stopped touring and suddenly felt adrift. In magazine profiles, she had professed her own sobriety, but now she found herself slipping back into day-drinking. The schism between the “good” Julien of her songs and the “bad” Julien of reality started weighing on her. She enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University and wondered if she should do something else with her life. And then Covid happened.

“I think I realized I’m more of a homebody than I thought,” she said. “Basically, I hadn’t lived in the same place for longer than six months since I was 17, and I was just couch surfing and here and there, renting rooms, being on tour, not wanting to get an apartment. Now that I’ve been home for a really long time, it feels like, I don’t know, it’s easier for me to be healthy. I didn’t realize that I was just maladapted to a really unnatural way of life.”

When she began writing songs for Little Oblivions, Baker was determined to put down a true representation of the “real” Julien. The result is a record in which she is often very hard on herself. “Blacked out on a weekday / is there something that I’m trying to avoid?” she sings on the album-opening “Hardline.” “Start asking for forgiveness in advance for all the future things I will destroy.” In one of the album’s best songs, “Relative Fiction,” Baker wonders “do I get callous or stay tender” after rueing another weekend bender. “Ringside” might be the most punishing of all: “Beat myself until I’m bloody / And I’ll give you a ringside seat.”

The contradiction of Little Oblivions is that it’s the most musically inviting album that Baker has made yet, with extra heft added to the guitars and rhythm section nudging her closer to a full-on rock record. But the emotional brutality of the lyrics somehow melds with the uplifting beauty of the music, perhaps giving Baker some peace in the process.

You’ve talked about how burned out you were at the end of your last tour cycle. What happened?

It’s rare that I let myself talk about this to people who aren’t my friends — who are also touring musicians — because I feel so weird complaining about the best job ever. But I had a rigorous attitude, I guess. It wasn’t even really that I had a rigorous schedule, but I would get up at 4:30 and run, every day. I was running so much on tour, in 2018, that my iliotibial band was fucked up and my knees got all fucked up, and I wasn’t taking days off because I was running out of anxiety. And then I came home.

The reason why we had to cancel shows wasn’t because I was burnt out on touring, it was that people around me were like, “You can’t tour anymore.” I was desperately like, “No, I don’t know what to do with myself when I’m not on tour. This is my life. My life is, every day, I wake up and there’s some sort of travel, I get on a train or a plane or in a van, and then I set up my stuff, I sing my songs, and I go to bed in a hotel.” When I was home, I started to realize how little identity or structure I had built for myself in my life outside of being a touring musician, and I was just like, “Wow, what do I do?”

I think in that empty space, it just opened up the door for me to slip back into negative relationships with substance and anxiety. I didn’t realize, until I stopped performing, that when I was a kid, I was playing music because, at my core, I identified myself as a musician who was in love with and enthralled by and obsessed with music and its making. And then I started touring and never really stopped, and I became so fixated on myself as a performer. And because I didn’t want to be disingenuous, I was like, “Okay, well, all the things I am on stage, I need to be all the time, to everyone.”

Was there ever a moment, before Covid happened, where you thought, “Maybe I’ll walk away, and just do something else”?

Yeah.

What was your thought process?

I registered for school, I had already missed the registration date, and I was talking to the people on my team about tours being canceled. And I was just like, “If I don’t try to do something with the rest of my year, I feel like I’ll have all the time in the world to just destroy myself.” So, I just looked at it as something to clear a stopgap, at first, and then the more I got into it, and I was studying all these things that had little or even nothing to do with music, I realized I could be fulfilled by them and still play music at my home and not feel like I’d lost something massive. And then I started thinking, “Maybe I don’t ever play music again.”

I don’t know what it is about myself, but I always think every record is going to do really poorly, and I just operate under that assumption. So, I was like, “I’m going to make a really weird record that I wouldn’t have made because I would have been scared to jeopardize my career as a musician.” When I went back to school and realized that everything could go away and I would still be alive and be making music, I think it became easier for me to do things without those high-stakes fears.

I think you’ve reached the point in your career where you could make a weird record and people would be into it.

It’s actually not that extreme, it just feels extreme for me. I’m like, “Drum machines, wow.” I’m slow to change, I’m slow to changing who I am as a person. It takes me a while to adjust to stuff. So, I thought of this as a weird record.

In a way, you just answered my next question, because I know from interviewing you in the past that you are among the most analytical musicians I’ve ever met. You can really step back and deconstruct your own work, in a way that a critic would. As a journalist, I really appreciate that. But I wonder if your intense self-analytical nature ever gets in the way of your creativity.

Sometimes, yes. I think being an analytical person in general — and I would even go as far as to say obsessively analytical — to the point where it gets in the way of me making decisions or having conversations, it makes me awkward because I’ll not say a thing just quite right and it’ll make me panic for days after a conversation. I spend so much time just trying to figure out how to do things the best way. Everybody has a different definition of “best,” but, to me, especially with Turn Out the Lights, it’s like all of a sudden I had people listening to my music on a scale that I had never dreamed of. And I wasn’t playing stadiums, I was just playing clubs, but it was still unthinkable to me that people would roll out in places that weren’t Memphis to listen to my music.

And so I was like, “What do I need to do — as a person of faith, as a person who isn’t just making art in a vacuum, but who is contributing art that is going to have an effect on all these people?” I just considered all these possibilities so much because I felt like if I’m going to be given a seat at the table of being a musician with a platform, I wanted to do the right thing with it. I put my duty as an artist being a good person in the world ahead of the art itself, like ends over means. But I didn’t realize that I was making something that was, I don’t know, corny. Maybe “corny” isn’t the right word, but well-meaning, yet obviously withholding something. I’ve messed up so hard that I think it was good, on this record, to just let go of the prospect of ever being able to be a fully good person. It produced a lot different lyrical content, because I wasn’t listening back to the songs with a lens of myself as a puppet representing an ideal. I was just like, “These are reports from my life.”

When you were talking just now, it made me think of “Song In E” from the new album, where you basically sing about feeling like a phony. The lyric in that song that stands out to me is, “It’s the mercy that I can’t take.” You’re awfully hard on yourself.

I always talk about it in the context of not being able to accept love because it’s almost more painful for a person to show you graciousness or mercy when you know that you have failed or hurt them in some way. I find myself, often, wishing for punishment because that would make sense in my brain. That would even out the abacus of right and wrongdoing, and that would make everything feel okay. And when someone doesn’t respond that way, it makes you feel even worse because you’re like, “Wow, I did something mean to you and you don’t even have the decency to be petty.”

That’s a very, dare I say, Christian way of looking at things, the idea that you have to be punished for your sins in order to be absolved.

Exactly. “Song In E” is a great example of what’s so uncomfortable about common Christian understandings of propitiation or Christ fulfilling the need for God to punish humans. I think so much less literally about my faith now, and I feel … I don’t know, I have said some things in the past that were pretty naïve and idealistic. I’ve had a lot of time to really evaluate how religion can be really damaging. I don’t know that I would identify as a Christian person, even though I would still say that I’m a person of faith. I’ve just seen that institution wreak havoc in obvious and subtle ways in so many people’s lives, including my own.

This idea that you’re taught, from the very beginning of going to Sunday School, about Jesus being brutally murdered because you were born bad, because of things that God knew you were going to do. That is destructive to put into a child’s psyche, and yet millions of people are walking around, saying that they have no worth except for that God benignly decided to torture and kill a quasi-deity on your behalf. So, what does that teach you? There’s such a disconnect for me there of saying you’re worthy of love.

When people talk about your songs, there is an assumption that there’s no separation between Julien Baker the person and Julien Baker the artist. And it seems like that has also been difficult for you. I mean, your songs are intense, and I imagine that gets reflected back on you with equal or greater intensity.

To me, that’s what was so distressing about being a performer, because you can do it in terms of being a good person or a bad person, or being a fake or an honest person, or being a punk or unpunk, but I felt like I didn’t get to make that distinction. If I wanted to be an artist, I felt like it would be disingenuous for there to be too big of a schism between Julien Baker, the person, and Julien Baker, the artist, and all the things that I say I believe about the world and kindness and healing and recovery and God. But then, instead of trying to bring my music closer to who I really was as a person, I just tried to bring myself closer to the ideal. But, of course, that’s impossible.

Every time somebody would come up to me at a show and talk to me, it would break my heart to ever respond to anybody in a negative way. So I just would be like, “This person cares about your music, they are a human being on this Earth, they deserve love and attention and to be taken seriously.” And then I would just slip into this dissociative world of totally intellectualizing a conversation I’m having with a person and being like, “This is a minute part of your duty to the human world, to be kind to this person right now, even when you feel like your head is going to explode.”

But in that person’s mind, they’re interacting with your record and what they project you are on your record, not necessarily who you actually are.

Exactly. But that kind of thing is hard to see when I held myself to this impossible standard of genuineness because I didn’t want to be a fake. Who wants to be a fake?

And, also, you have a feedback loop of your narrative being reinterpreted for you by other people and then retold to you. I wish I were immune to it, and I did so many mental acrobatics to try to keep my ego small and not become whatever monster of celebrity that is dreaded by people. But when someone writes something about you, you want to read it and you want to see if it’s true. And I think reading other people’s impressions of me, it’s like hearing your voice on a video. Do you ever hear your voice back and you’re like, “God, I sound like that?”

Maybe that was the thing that tripped all these wires and made me just start blowing my life up when I got off tour. It’s a head trip, and I’m still navigating it.

You write a lot about substance abuse on Little Oblivions, and often in very tough, even brutal ways. But there’s also this weird history of songs that make addiction sound like hell, and it actually encourages people to take drugs. Like, so many people somehow decided that heroin sounded amazing after hearing the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin.” I’m sure this is something you’ve thought about.

Oh my gosh, I remember I used to print out lyrics and tape them to my bedroom wall. My dad, who smoked pot and drank as a teenager, he came into my room and saw that I had these Nirvana lyrics posted on my wall about sniffing glue, and he was like, “What is this? Why would you listen to music about sniffing glue? It’ll ruin your whole life. Why in the hell does that sound fun to you?” At that point, I was young, I hadn’t formed a relationship with substances. It wasn’t even a forecast of a thing that I wanted to emulate. But I think in a more complicated way, seeing someone with a similar self-loathing as yours sing about the sorrows of substance abuse, it almost seemed natural to me then to start when my friends all of a sudden had drugs. Because the self-loathing is familiar to me, the desire for escape is also familiar to me, and beyond that, the belief that I deserve the self-harm through substances.

I worry about that a lot. I talked to a whole bunch of my friends, who are musicians, about my fear that in disclosing all of these things in the record. But I needed to be like, “Hey, people ask me in interviews about being sober, and I spent a whole year day-drinking and blowing up my life, please don’t trust me, please don’t put that on me.” I wrote all these songs with that kind of urgency to tell everyone I’m a bad person, or that I’m just fallible. I was so afraid of sensationalizing it though.

How much control do I have over people’s situations and their family environments and their experiences that make them graft themselves onto songs that make them feel understood and consciously, or unconsciously, emulate that behavior? Do I have control over it, totally? No. But I think the whole reason that stigma continues to exist is because people confuse sensationalizing with normalizing. I stole that phrase from Lucy Dacus. She and I were talking about this recently, and she was like, “Yeah, there’s a big difference between sensationalizing something and normalizing it, and being like, ‘Why don’t we talk about these things? Why do we continue to hide them from each other?'”

Little Oblivions is out Friday on Matador. Get it here.

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