There are no sets, no backup singers, just a girl, her guitar, and the weight of crosses the Memphis singer-guitarist seems too young to bear.
All photos by Jennica Abrams
When Julien Baker came out to her father at 17, he reached for his Bible.
“I was like, ‘I think I’m going to hell.’ He said, ‘Okay, stop,’” the now 20-year-old singer and guitarist remembers. “He went over and grabbed his Bible off the shelf and I was like, oh no, I think I’m about to get holy watered.”
Fair assumption. After all, hers was a churchgoing family—she considers herself nondenominational—living in the buckle of the Bible Belt: A 2013 Gallup poll of the most and least religious states in the country revealed Tennessee to be in the top ten, and Memphis, where Baker grew up, borders Mississippi, which claimed the number one spot. One of her friends was thrown out of his house when he came out, and another was shipped off to Love in Action, a “pray away the gay thing,” as Baker calls it. But she was wrong about her father.
“He spent the next hour saying, ‘I’m gonna prove to you that you’re not gonna go to hell.’ I told my mom [I was] afraid and she was like, ‘If I’m human and imperfect and I love you no matter what, how much do you think a perfect being loves you?’” Baker continues. “Here my parents are [saying], ‘We love you. God loves you.’ I think that’s why I wanna talk about it so much. This exists. Tolerance exists.”
It’s a chilly Friday evening in LA, and Baker is seated in the basement of the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts preparing for her show, the latest stop on her first West Coast tour. She is five feet tall, fine-boned and, thanks to a hardcore cold brew habit, seems poised to spring up from her chair. Her nails are clipped to the quick, her hands look like they belong to someone twice her age—the result of playing guitar since she was 12—and her soulful, cartoon-big eyes give her an alternatingly worldly or childlike affect, depending on the angle.
She’s articulate and down-to-earth, quoting Gabriel García Márquez one minute and joking about swilling “tall boys” of Mountain Dew the next. When she gets excited, her voice hushes as if she’s sharing a secret. A light Southern accent warms her words and softens her vowels. Hers is a voice that makes everyone’s throats catch a little when they hear it, a voice that seized the attention of critics and fans alike last October with the release of her studio debut, Sprained Ankle. Made up of nine simple, heartbroken, and heartbreaking songs accompanied by Baker’s plaintive electric guitar plucking, that pure, quavering-with-emotion voice belongs to a remarkable new talent.
Funny, then, that she never wanted to be a singer.
“Every girl is a singer. I wanted to learn the solos and play lead guitar. I would meticulously teach myself solos so when dudes were like, ‘Oh, you’re a girl, you can’t play guitar,’ I could rip these insane Telecaster blues solos and tell them, ‘Yeah, I can burn up a fret board,’” she says, laughing. “You’re not going to tell me I’m just some girl in the punk scene. I still think the timbre of my voice is weird. I’m no Mariah.”
The worst curse word Baker lets slip during our interview is “crap,” so it’s hard to believe she was such a hell raiser as a child. She partied, hard, and pierced her cartilage with a safety pin. She tattooed her side when she was underage and snuck over to a friend’s to listen to American Idiot because she was forbidden from doing so at home.
“I was super rebellious. You start drinking and smoking and staying out late and not answering your mom’s calls,” she says. “And I’m really embarrassed of that person. There are so many people in Memphis who have real reasons to be angsty, but I was just a suburban white kid with all this misplaced rage. Like, ‘Screw you, Mom and Dad, you won’t let me pierce my lips and I’m 12 years old!’”
What her parents did let her do was play the piano and guitar. She hated practicing, so her piano teacher acquiesced and allowed her to play songs she heard on the radio by ear. When she was in high school, she started a post-punk band, Forrister, with her friend Matthew Gilliam. They’d booked a gig but didn’t have a singer, so Baker volunteered.
“I think what’s interesting about growing up in Memphis is people immediately want to draw a long jump to the blues, Stax, Sun Studios. And that was there, my parents were into blues, R&B, country,” she says.
Lesser known, however, is the city’s thriving contemporary DIY scene, home to indie bands and veteran punk outfits like Pezz.
“Having that there was probably the most important thing shaping how I think about music,” Baker says.
In 2012, she decided “not to be horrible” and got sober, a choice influenced by the all-ages, substance-free DIY scene, notably Smith7, a local nonprofit record label that organizes shows spotlighting upcoming bands in the city.
“They were the first person to say, ‘You don’t have to be destructive to be countercultural,’” she says. “I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have this modicum of positive influences.
Heading to college at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), Baker’s growing interest in music led her to study audio engineering. She was good, but a combination of factors—her memories of being a camp counselor, a desire to be involved with community outreach, not to mention the seemingly impossible task of breaking into Nashville’s music industry—prompted a transfer to literature with a focus in secondary education.
“All my heroes are teachers. The guy who started Smith7 is a guidance counselor by day! I think that’s the best job in the world,” Baker says, her voice rising then dropping into her library voice. “Sorry, I get super excited.”
Sprained Ankle came into being at MTSU, too. Feeling spent after her struggles with substance abuse and self-destruction, followed by a gut-wrenching breakup, search for God, and general existential suffering, Baker began writing songs. Naturally, they were sad—in almost every interview she’s done, Baker is asked about the title track’s opening lyrics:
“Wish I could write songs about anything other than death,” she laments over gentle harmonic picking.
Recording was a happier process—and a low-pressure one: A bud in her audio program who had some free time asked if she had any songs she wanted to put down. They road-tripped to Virginia’s Spacebomb Studios, where they worked on and released the album independently last fall. They didn’t expect much.
“I wasn’t like, ‘I’m gonna be a big star!’” she says. “I chalked it up to: I’m a DIY musician, and that means I’ll do this as a hobby for the rest of my life and go to the grave doing it cause it’s what I’m truly passionate about.”
Instead, LA- and Virginia-based 6131 Records approached her and gave the record an official release. With its raw, blistering lyrics, and sparse, delicate builds, it’s no wonder it, and she, quickly became a critical darling.
“At first, doing songs feels like wrenching something out of you. I got kinda emotional at the set last night cause the subject matter was still fresh,” she says. “I realized I’m very invested in the lyrics. People singing along is so meaningful to me. Yes! You care about my silly words.”
The other thing that excites her is finding her way back to God following a bout of doubt, and into the open arms of the church she now attends.
“I was mortified but I felt like I had to [tell them about her sexuality]. I sat down with my worship pastor and I was like, ‘I have something to tell you. I’m gay!’” she says. “Her immediate response was ‘So?’ That totally refutes the idea of chasing you out with fire and brimstone. It was never like that for me.”
As far as challenges go, Baker has seen and conquered her fair share, particularly for her young age (last year, she even shook free of her one remaining vice, cigarettes). The hurdle she still faces—being a woman in the music industry, especially a queer woman—might never entirely go away. “People who say, ‘I’ll change your mind’ or ‘Can I join?’ are disgusting to me. If I ever want things to be safer for me and my tour manager Emma, someone has to be like, this is unacceptable,” she says.
But the pros are worth it.
“At the Mercury Lounge, I almost smiled during a sad song. I’m getting to say with my microphone, ‘There’s a God. He loves you and hears you,’” she says, eyes wide. “I get to say that every night. That’s my job.”
Upstairs, the Eagle Rock Center’s vaulted wood ceiling, exposed beams, and scrubbed white archways call to mind simple, rustic houses of worship. Fluorescent light from streetlamps spills in from the high windows, cordoning off the stage like a pulpit. Fans trickle in and mill about quietly. They may not be sinners seeking redemption, but they’re here to get release all the same.
Minutes later, Julien Baker is alone onstage. There are no sets, no backup singers, just a girl, her guitar, and the weight of crosses she seems too young to bear. Yet in the Bible, James wrote, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
“I rejoice,” she sings, fierce and insistent, the edge of her voice fraying. “I rejoice. I rejoice. I rejoice.”
Rebecca Haithcoat drinks tall boys of Mountain Dew. Follow her on Twitter.