Julien Baker Thinks The Tortured Artist Concept Is ‘Grotesque’

With 2015’s Sprained Ankle, 21-year-old Julien Baker made waves, quickly ascending from an unknown singer-songwriter to opening for (and performing with) Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. She’s now signed to Matador Records for her next effort, which is currently in production with the help of Cam Boucher of Sorority Noise.

Baker recently sat down with The Creative Independent for an eye-opening interview discussing her new work and the implications of creating one of the most devastatingly beautiful records in recent memory with Sprained Ankle.

On the success of Sprained Ankle:

I’ve heard myself say something in the past that isn’t totally precise, suggesting that I made Sprained Ankle only for me. Admittedly, it’s a very self-involved record that’s specific to my own experiences that I wrote as a tool, as a coping mechanism primarily, for what was happening in my life at that point. That’s how I’ve always used music. I grew up writing songs in punk bands and we would have the same conversation regularly, ‘Oh, this is going to be rad when we play it at a show!’ You would imagine people singing along and yelling out the chorus. So you have something that not only you’re trying to say for yourself because you need to say it, but also that you’re saying to the world, even if the world in your schema in this small community… even if your audience is just a basement.

On her new record:

I’m sort of always working on songs no matter what. You can’t not be working on a project if writing is just how you go about compartmentalizing your life. Everything that happens, every feeling that you have, becomes work. Since the end of 2015 — and keeping in mind all the life changes that year occasioned — I was writing quite a bit. I saw a latent theme start to develop, and then I was like, ‘Oh, well let’s pursue this.’ I now have a really good idea of what I want the next record to be conceptually. I think I can be more intentional with it in presentation, if not necessarily in construction. It’ll probably be sonically similar, because that’s the style in which I write.

On the idea that happy art can’t good art:

I remember a comment someone made about Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie: ‘Oh, he got happier and stopped writing good songs.’ I was like, ‘What a grotesque thing to say.’ How awful is it that our culture is geared in such a way. I think there’s inherent worth in all art and I never criticize the formal quality of art as long as there is genuine emotion there, but we’ll tolerate all kinds of cheesy heartbreak-related art just because of the subject matter. It’s much more difficult to pull off a joyful song. I’m always afraid that the public will scorn songs about happiness out of a disbelief that it is genuine.

On the stigma that comes from the concept of being considered a “tortured artist:”

When I’m on stage I try to think about things before I just rush in and say something silly… but I’m also quite silly. That being said, I’m not a Lorde or a Taylor Swift. I’m not someone who is playing stadiums and who has all these eyeballs on them. I don’t think I’m expected to be a role model. I’m not at that level. Still, people often take the slices of life represented in the songs and expand that to represent my total personhood. I think another task of mine is unifying Julien of life with Julien of the record, which often entails saying dorky, cheesy, positive things and making bad jokes on stage. Sometimes it goes over well, sometimes it’s like crickets in the audience and people are like, ‘What’s going on? This is too much of an emotional pendulum!’ and they look freaked out. Then I just play my songs instead of making more lame jokes. I think merely by existing and refusing to give in to the persona of brooding tortured artist, you prove the point of you do not have to be sad all the time. You do not have to be defined by your sadness. I think about these things when I write songs and when I play live shows. I am trying to break the spell, in some way, that when you see someone up on stage singing sad songs that there is more to them than that. Sometimes you can’t help but be perceived as a kind of persona, but why not be a persona that’s actually realistic?

Check out the incredible full interview here.