Festival Frequency is a monthly look at music festival-related topics that step beyond the shadow of the Ferris wheel, discussing everything from the performances to the inner workings that make this a global phenomenon.
Julien Baker‘s music is a tidal wave. Over the course of two brilliant albums, 2015’s intimate Sprained Ankle and 2017’s more expansive Turn Out The Lights, and then solidified with her work with Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers on the Boygenius project, Baker has quickly mastered the art of overwhelming the emotions. Her songs can devastate, leaving listeners turned upside down and inside out through her unflinching vocals and open-hearted lyrics. Don’t be fooled by the gentleness of the arrangments, Baker does not write music in which to float. These are songs that could level buildings.
This week, the Nashville-based songwriter will expand her talents to include event curator as she presents to 2019 edition of Sled Island Music Festival in Calgary. The annual event has been a Canadian institution since 2007, turning the Alberta city into a music Mecca for a week in June, and Baker joins an esteemed group of past curators that includes Kathleen Hanna, Flying Lotus, Peaches, and Deerhoof. Baker’s selections to perform this year don’t necessarily mirror her own aesthetic — they include everything from hip-hop experimenter JPEGMAFIA to pulverizing rockers Bully — but many do reflect her own sensibilities in terms of creating ambitious, left-of-center, and brave music.
In a time when artists from Dave Grohl and Bon Iver to Tyler The Creator and Damon Albarn all have their own festivals, Sled Island’s history of artist curation feels prescient, tapping into the unique programming that can come when a musician is given the keys to the party. And in Baker, they found a creative that would take the task seriously, excited to share the music that both inspires her and by which she wants to be surrounded. The resulting festival feels like a snapshot to where the indie music world is heading, with more diverse representation than ever that gives a platform to people who may not have had it in the past.
We caught up with Baker by phone ahead of the event, and spoke with her about what went into curating Sled Island, along with how she maintains her intense music fandom and what’s coming next for her as a musician.
How’d you get involved with Sled Island?
They approached me, actually. They asked me if I wanted to be the guest curator this year and I said yes, even though that’s a huge and pretty daunting task. Or not daunting in a negative way, but just big.
Yeah, I feel like there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. Is this your first time taking the role of curator at an event like this, and how do you approach that responsibility?
It is and it’s bizarre because we’re also doing a House Of Vans show in Chicago, which I also got to pick artists that I wanted to display there. It was just very interesting to have to do both of those things. Obviously, with Sled Island, the magnitude of the responsibility was bigger because it’s an entire festival and not just a single show. But yeah, it felt like a lot of responsibility, but then I try to not let obligation to the presumed desire of the audience entirely govern my choices. Do you know what I mean? Like, to not think about what everyone wants to see on a festival and think more about what I wish was at more festivals. Which is maybe selfish, but also maybe not? I don’t know. I get to see all my favorite artists perform, so I’m excited.
Tell me about some of the acts that you’re bringing in.
Oh my gosh, there’s so many. Lots of them are people that I met or know through music. Torres is playing, and I am so excited. I’ve been a nerd fan of Torres since that Sprinter came out, and we got to play some shows together. She’s such an emotive performer, it’s so captivating every time I see Torres perform. And also, she just did an article recently, not an op-ed but just prose, that was brilliant.
Okay, I’m going to spend the whole time talking about Torres because I’m a superfan, but something that Torres embodies as a band that the rest of the acts also do which I’m proud of — not in an ownership way, but just an I’m happy how this turned out way — is that we make music that defies categorization, and really begs the listener to engage with it. I think Japanese Breakfast’s music does that, too. Huge Japanese Breakfast fan. That last record is so devastatingly gorgeous.
But also, there’s artists like JPEGMAFIA who I really like, who are completely different stylistically, but still are doing something within their genre that their peers are not. And there’s for lack of a better word, like, queering the norm. In the critical literary sense of queering, like taking something and splitting it to where it’s just outside of the parameters of normal and make people really consider what they’re looking at, and how they engage with art. I just wanted to pick stuff that is different. It’s fascinating to me whose narrative is edifying.
I feel like by picking the stuff that’s maybe a little bit different than what would be at other festivals, you have captured a slice of what some of the most interesting stuff that’s happening in music right now. It feels very in tune with where music is going, what music should be. I don’t know, it feels very futuristic in a way, which is cool.
That’s like a huge compliment to me, because I find myself being a person who is not extremely plugged in to the rapidly evolving culture as it exists right now. I feel like a Luddite sometimes because I just will miss entire things that are huge on Twitter and I feel like I’m behind a lot of things and I am just not aware of trends or news or information.
But the one thing that I do engage with is I voraciously seek out music. And so it’s a huge compliment that you’re like, “Oh, it’s futuristic,” because no one in my life would probably ever call me futuristic. They would probably call me a hermit. I’m just like holed up in my house listening to music.
As someone that’s played a ton of fests now in the last few years, what do you think makes a good festival?
I think it’s given me some perspective as a performer to see a ton of different types of festivals, because usually I’ll just finish my set and watch music because I love music. But the festivals that I’ve been to that I’ve most enjoyed are festivals do a good job of curating a diverse lineup, and also are small enough that it’s not overwhelming. So, there’s not like four stages and they’re all really far apart and they’re competing and you end up thinking that you’re going to see a whole bunch of your favorite artists and you can only see like two because everybody’s playing at the same time.
One of my favorite festivals I ever went to was Homecoming Fest that The National put on in Cincinnati, and there were these two stages and they just ping-ponged back and forth, so there was never an artist playing while another artist was playing and you could just watch music. And I think it made people more inclined to stay for acts they’d never heard of. Which is another great thing about a festival, too. I think it’s good to make music available and put it in front of people’s eyeballs that maybe wouldn’t listen to that music in another context. There are some festivals that have the rock stage, and then the hip-hop stage, and then people don’t get exposed to things that aren’t in their wheelhouse. I really like when festivals will mix a lineup and have a crazy rock band, and then a hip-hop act, and then a pop act.
I remember one of the first times I saw you was the last time I was at South By Southwest, which was 2016 I think.
Oh man, that was the only time I was at South By Southwest.
Yeah, you played like in a church, and it was very nice. But then I remember seeing you just walking around checking out music throughout the week, and you don’t necessarily see a lot of artists doing that when they’re in-between performances. Is that something when you’re going to festivals now that you’re still trying to do?
Oh, absolutely. We played at Primavera Sound in Barcelona recently and after I was done playing was Danny Brown, and then right after that was Christine And The Queens, and then I think Interpol, and I was so happy because then I was like “oh my gosh, I get to watch all this great music.” And I think with the taxing nature of touring, it’s really easy to lose perspective and for artists to not want to overexpose themselves to music because their entire day is comprised of making and performing music. It’s hard to want to go and put yourself in her environment any longer.
But, it helps me preserve the genuine appreciation for what music does and what musical performance does. When I’m home, I go to three shows a week or more, just random shows, just to sit there and absorb it and remind myself there’s a bigger picture of music, instead of just focusing on it as my isolated pursuit that is also my occupation.
Can you tell us about what’s going on with you musically? Boygenius was last year, and your last solo album was the year before. Should fans be getting ready for new music anytime soon?
I’m working on a new record through the end of this year. I’ve been making demos with friends in town, and traveling to visit friends who have studios in other places, and just taking my time on a record because the last two records that I put out were made in under a week because that’s the only way that I knew how to make records. So now I’m trying to accrue songs in a very organic way, and just see where it goes. But I’m probably going to be finishing up a record at the end of this year.
Sled Island Music Festival takes place from June 19-23 in Calgary, Alberta. Get tickets here.