The first sound of Julien Baker’s sophomore LP Turn Out The Lights is the creak of a door, as if it’s an invitation into her world. As the door slams, footsteps follow. A body sits on a rickety bench, then slams on a low minor key on the piano, a musical scream that echoes in a wide room. “Over” begins with rolling piano notes, before strings are introduced and the song takes on the body of an emotional soundtrack to an unseen drama, one that exists only within the head of the composer. As the piano fades out, it is replaced with the familiar looped dissonance of Baker’s electric guitar of the album’s lead single “Appointments.”
Thus begins Turn Out The Lights, a gorgeous assembly of eleven heart-wrenching tracks that observe the contradictory aspects of life and begin to reconcile with the fact that they might be able to coexist. This might sound like a colossal task for an artist to take on — especially for someone who is only 22 — but Baker handles it with grace and candor, perfectly balancing personal sentiment with stories of those that surround her.
Chatting with me from a cell phone while walking down the street in Washington, D.C. after recording her second Tiny Desk session for NPR, Baker gets interrupted mid-sentence by a bus roaring past. She yelps in apology for the volume, but quickly regains her train of thought, explaining the differences of her live set-up as she begins to transition into supporting Turn Out The Lights, her first effort for Matador Records. Baker’s newer songs utilize more instruments in addition to the sparse, dissonant electric guitar and yearning vocals that earned 2015’s Sprained Ankle massive critical acclaim, with strings, horns, and piano accentuating the sonic landscapes and filling out the sound.
As can be said for many artists with a debut album that launches them from relative obscurity to an international sensation, Baker faced an inherent struggle when sitting down to put together the songs that would become her second album, Turn Out The Lights. “I wanted to make the record that I wanted to make but I wanted to execute it in the best way possible because I knew that, unlike last time when I was just making a record for fun, there is a listenership that is invested. I have more resources available to me in the sense of being on Matador and so I wanted to explore all of the possibilities to make the best thing that I could.”
In the wake of success, some might travel the route of erring on the safe side to employ methods of retention, keeping their messages vague and bipartisan in an attempt not to alienate any of their listenership. Baker, on the other hand, embraced the new audience and resources and made an active effort to subvert this trope by refusing to reject any lyrics or themes that initially seemed too heavy for inclusion. “If I was going to write a lyric about something that was painful or ugly or difficult that might embarrass me in an emotional sense, I would have an impulse to overwrite a metaphor or to obscure maybe the story I was telling, that I tried really hard to overcome and did not censor myself. When I felt uncertain about a lyric I would recognize that that’s the lyric that should be preserved exactly the way it is, to maintain the honesty that I think is so important in songwriting.”
Perhaps part of this decision to focus on honesty as the most important aspect of songwriting comes with Baker’s sense of growing obligation to be deliberate in her work and spread the wealth of the opportunities that come her way. “When the audience grows, whether that be the metaphorical audience or the literal size of the venue, then I feel that the responsibility also grows. Especially with everything that’s happened in the last year. Growing up in the DIY scene gives you a very communal idea about how music should be performed but I think that’s something that’s continually reinforced when I see whatever monochrome of recognition that I have for my work grow. I think that I feel a corresponding need to be intentional and deliberate and truly purpose the resources and opportunities I have to create something that’s going to be useful for the audience.”
For Turn Out The Lights, Baker tried to use her voice as more of an instrument, an effort that becomes clear on tracks like the title track, “Shadowboxing,” and the closing “Claws In Your Back.” Both of these tracks see her voice reaching new heights to bring the song to a point of emotional catharsis. “I changed my mind, I wanted to stay,” she nearly yells over a repeating piano line on “Claws In Your Back,” a chill-inducing way to close the album and provide a final embrace of the paradoxical parallelism that exists across the album. “There’s knowing that things will ultimately not turn out alright because it’s life, and inevitably you will have problems and you will have experiences where everything goes wrong and you hurt and you feel pain and you feel embarrassed. But we also believe it will turn out alright because as a function of existing and having the strength to continue living, we have hope. And sometimes that hope results in us like coping with our present circumstance enough to make our own bearable happiness out of it.”