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Photo by Nolan Knight

Julien Baker Is Quietly Getting Louder

Avery Stone

As the 22-year-old singer songwriter tours the world off her incredible sophomore record 'Turn Out the Lights,' she is plotting what's next.

Photo by Nolan Knight

Whenever Julien Baker feels anxious on tour, she runs. The irony of this does not escape the Memphis-born singer songwriter, who is known for writing devastating guitar and piano ballads that explore topics like loneliness, self-destructive urges, sexuality, and religious faith. During Baker’s live shows, audience members often stare in rapt silence as she sings, her eyes squeezed shut. In some moments, she near-whispers as if confessing to her audience; in others, she full-on howls. Either way, she hardly retreats.

Yet usually, upon arriving at a venue, Baker likes to escape—if only for a few minutes: “I’ll just sprint as fast as I can,” the 22-year-old says over the phone, “Until I feel like it evens out my breathing and my thinking and gives me a lot of clarity.”

In at least one case, running also helped Baker write her latest album, this past October’s

Turn Out the Lights (Matador Records)—a record that expands on the diary-like intimacy of her first LP, 2015’s Sprained Ankle. On her debut, Baker chronicles her own despair with gutting intensity, both lyrically and vocally. On Turn Out the Lights she broadens her emotional range and is all the better for it. She lets herself be angry (“The harder I swim, the faster I sink,” she repeats in a strained scream at the end of “Sour Breath”). She also lets a bit of optimism creep into her sadness: “Maybe it’s all going to turn out alright,” she muses over sparkling guitars on “Appointments,” the album’s first single, “And I know that it’s not / But I have to believe that it is.”

And so, on a run before an August 2016 show at Mississippi Studios in Portland, Oregon, Baker penned the chorus of “Everything that Helps You Sleep,” a sparse and affecting piano ballad; the singer tells me it is about feeling like you’ve failed despite knowing you’ve done good things in the world. “I was kind of freaking out,” she says of that day in Oregon. “[The show] was in a big cap room! So I went across a [nearby] bridge, where there’s just a whole bunch of gas stations and weird diners, and I was singing into my phone—a voice memo of the chorus.”

"So I went across a [nearby] bridge, where there’s just a whole bunch of gas stations and weird diners, and I was singing into my phone—a voice memo of the chorus." —Julien Baker

This particular chorus is textbook Baker in that we see her wrestling with herself at a moment that feels both private and universal. Her vocal delivery is quietly expressive and almost hymnal: “’Lord, Lord, Lord, is there some way to make it stop,” she pleads, her voice fraying, “‘Cause nothing that I do has ever helped to turn it off / And everything supposed to help me sleep at night / Don’t help me sleep at night / Anymore.”

“I was having a hard time sleeping on that tour,” Baker explains. “That was the last tour where I let myself read philosophical nonfiction on the road. I was reading like, [Austrian philosopher] Rudolph Steiner and rereading [Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s] Fear and Trembling … I thought if I just figured out enough, or if I just consumed enough information, or if I just read one more obscure philosopher, then I would have a better grasp on reality.” She laughs. “But there’s no amount of Kant that you can read and make yourself immune to anxiety.”

Baker has stage fright. She loves spotlights, she jokes, because they blind her. The reason she closes her eyes onstage is simply to focus on her execution. If she slips up, she says her first instinct is to curl inside herself. But now—in the midst of an international tour supporting Turn Out the Lights that returned to North America on April 5—she notices a shift in her mindset, an ability to manage her anxiety in the moment.

When Baker played a wrong note on the piano at a recent show, her own reaction surprised her. “It sounded like a Stooges sound effect,” she laughs. “It was awful! But then I just stopped—there were like 900 people there—and I was like, ‘Um, I made a mistake and I’m sorry, but I’m a human!’ I just tried to laugh about it. And I think that’s more disarming, but it’s something I absolutely do for my benefit [too]. Just to tell myself verbally, out loud, that it’s okay.”

Though Baker played in an alt-rock band, Forrister, as a high-schooler, she has typically performed alone since releasing Sprained Ankle. But this time around, she has company onstage: Camille Faulkner, a Nashville-based violinist who also lent strings to five songs on Turn Out the Lights.

Baker and Faulkner met while attending Middle Tennessee State University. “We were in the same music program before I jumped ship and became a traitorous liberal arts major,” Baker says of switching her major from audio engineering to English literature. “I think we’ve known each other so much and been in the same circles of writers and performers that we just clicked [in terms of] our musical sensibility,” she says of Faulkner. “It’s really nice, actually, to have somebody else onstage so I can just look at a physical anchor. Like, ‘Oh, we’re in this together.’ You know? It’s not just me up here trying to salvage something, if something goes wrong.”

By adding a sonic richness and depth onstage, Faulkner’s accompaniment also highlights Baker’s greatest strength as an artist: communicating her very personal emotions with both rawness and grace.

“I think what I do is just relay anecdotes about personal experience on a very micro level,” Baker says. “Post [the 2016 presidential] election, though, I think that people cling to art that make them feel comforted, or that they see a reflection of themselves in, even more [than before]. And that’s something that’s really powerful. I remember having conversations with my manager—like, how am I going to put out [Turn Out the Lights], when it’s really just about me and my friends, in this political climate. It felt self-indulgent. The task for me then becomes intentionally trying to shrink my ego and remove my own ‘persona of the artist’ from the songs, so they just become a space that people can inhabit in whatever way that they need.”

Perhaps listeners continue to find a home in Baker’s music because there is no objective good or evil—just flawed people who are questioning and hurting and hoping and, ultimately, trying their best to survive in a fraught and complicated world: “But you can't even imagine how badly it hurts,” Baker confesses on “Shadowboxing,” “Just to think sometimes / How I think almost all the time.”

"I think that people cling to art that make them feel comforted, or that they see a reflection of themselves in. And that’s something that’s really powerful." —Julien Baker

In considering the writing she admires, Baker recalls a short story by the American author and poet Raymond Carver. The story, “Gazebo,” centers on a man and a woman who are married and manage a motel together.

“It becomes apparent that both of them have been disloyal in their relationship,” Baker says, “Which is a detail that I love because there’s no moral superior. Both people have failed and both people have done manipulative or negative things, or have committed some infidelity. There’s no real resolve. There’s not even a climactic part where they say, ‘Despite this awful pain and hurt, I still love you and we’re going to work through this, sweetie!’ There’s a middle-aged ennui of like, ‘Well, we’re together, and I don’t know how to make myself love you again.’” Baker pauses, then sums it up: “Not only, I think, do we have to confront the ugliness in things, but [we also have to confront] the fact that sometimes everyday painful things are not even, I guess, romantic.”

Avery Stone is a writer based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.

Catch Julien Baker on tour:
03/12 Manchester, UK @ Bridgewater Hall +
03/13 Cambridge, UK @ Corn Exchange +
03/15 Brighton, UK @ Dome +
03/16 London, UK @ Troxy +
03/17 London, UK @ Troxy +
03/19 Liverpool, UK @ Philharmonic +
03/20 York, UK @ Opera House +
03/22 Gateshead, UK @ Sage +
03/23 Perth, UK @ Concert Hall +
03/24 Edinburgh, UK @ Usher Hall +
03/26 Dublin, IE @ Vicar Street +
03/27 Dublin, IE @ Vicar Street +
04/05 Columbia, MO @ Blue Note *
04/06 Lawrence, KS @ Granada Theatre *
04/07 Iowa City, IA @ Mission Creek Fest
04/09 Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Hall *
04/10 Detroit, MI @ El Club * (SOLD OUT)
04/11 Grand Rapids, MI @ Calvin College *
04/13 Ithaca, NY @ Hangar Theatre * (SOLD OUT)
04/14 Burlington, VT @ ArtsRiot *
04/15 Providence, RI @ Columbus Theatre *
04/16 Northampton, MA @ Academy Of Music *
04/17 Jersey City, NJ @ White Eagle Hall * (SOLD OUT)
04/19 Lancaster, PA @ Chameleon Club *
04/20 Pittsburgh PA @ Carnegie Lecture Hall *
04/21 Lexington KY @ The Burl * (SOLD OUT)
04/28-04/29 Cincinnati, OH @ Smale Park (Homecoming Festival) w/ The National
05/25-05/27 George, WA @ Sasquatch Music Festival
05/25-05/27 Cambridge, MA @ Harvard Athletic Complex (Boston Calling Festival)
07/08 Winnipeg, MB @ Winnipeg Folk Festival
07/20 Chicago, IL @ Pitchfork Festival
07/21 Minneapolis, MN @ Surly Brewery Festival Field w/ Courtney Barnett
07/24 Washington, DC @ Anthem w/ Courtney Barnett
07/25 Brooklyn, NY @ Celebrate Brooklyn w/ Courtney Barnett
08/04 Toronto, ON @ Fort York w/ The National, Father John Misty, Jenny Lewis
08/30-09/02 Larmer Tree Gardens, UK @ End of the Road Festival
+ supporting Belle & Sebastian
* Tancred supports