It’s not easy to deal with the music of Julien Baker. But it is astonishingly easy to deal with the person Julien Baker. That’s one of the first things you notice about the Memphis native, who’s now living in Nashville (that is when she is not on tour, of course; which is a rare occasion lately). With Boygenius, her project with fellow songwriter Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers simmering in the background, one wonders where all of that talent and will to connect might lead her in the future. Actually, you generally wonder where all of that wisdom, depth and warmness of Julien Baker comes from.
It’s a bright, warm late summer day when I talk to her prior to a show in Leipzig. Warm enough that later that evening, a woman faints during her show. After seconds of real concern, Baker asks if everyone’s alright; joking to ‘stay hydrated!’ just seconds afterwards. That’s Julien Baker in a nutshell: Empathetic but with an astonishing serenity for her age.
Julien Baker has a habit of going for a run before the show in any given place; that had to be skipped that day but still Baker seems to rest in herself while we talk. She takes her time to answer, tries to shut out any disturbing influences and starts with some afterthoughts on the running thing…
‘Right now I try to do the running one day, pausing the next. I used to go running every single day but started sustaining a lot of injuries. Caring for your body teaches you a lot about healing, figurative healing I guess too. You can’t force it to happen faster, there’s no way around having to be careful with yourself. You can’t keep running during an injury, and it’s the same with the mind…’
That’s the second thing I notice: How easy it is to underestimate Julien Baker. She’s not like your typical guitarist/singer-songwriter pouring over-emotional songs out on the world. The power of her music stems from experience with the outskirts of human interaction.
Growing up in Memphis in a very Christian environment, Baker early on struggled with forming her identity as a lesbian, punk music loving teenager. She developed harmful addictions and overcame them. She spent time studying literature and remains to be religious. Yes, there is a god in Julien Baker’s life. Despite how gruesome the community treated people like her, friends even, she found hope in her close family and other, more accepting branches of the church. All of that is part of her music. All of that is why it is as disarming as it is: There is nothing one-dimensional, shallow about it. It feels true.
Baker herself stated in interviews that she felt strange to release such personal albums in highly political times. I felt obliged to connect the dots there.
Do you think that there’s hope for all the people who voted Trump in America, for Brexit in Britain, who support right-wing leaders throughout Europe? In the sense that they can be won back by liberal, open, democratic forces, just like you have been won back by religion?
That’s a tricky question to answer. It really is. You know, right after the election, people said to their family members: ‘If you voted for Trump, you can no longer be in my life, because you’re toxic. If you did that, I consider that a hate crime.’ And it is! Every individual has to be aware of what they can tolerate and what’s toxic to them. And if you can not be around a person that spreads that kind of hate, then don’t subject yourself to it.
BUT. I think that, as difficult as it is to say, there has to be some kind of willingness to engage even with those people. Because approaching that conversation with condescension or hatred will just inflame them more. What I’ve seen being most successful in making people reconsider their habit of racism or their homophobic behaviour is humanizing that to them.
Angela Davis writes that in order to get people involved in a movement is to make them see how they are connected to it. Which seems selfish but it’s so easy to hate and dismiss a thing that you don’t understand.
What really achieves the goal of giving those people the feeling of empathy for refugees, the queer community or people who experience police brutality is humanizing it and putting it in front of their face in a way that is merciful but that they can’t ignore.
It’s hard, I know. Because the anger you feel towards a person who is racist is righteous. You should be angry.
I think there are some people who can’t be talked to right now in that manner. But you’re right: A lot of them are approachable. In the end, their behaviour or opinion is based on fear…
Absolutely! The easiest to see that is in people who are racist against immigrants. The reason for their anger or bitterness, they can’t locate it, but it’s based in their insecurity; because of their place in the economy, because it’s hard for them to get a fair wage or a job. If you would break down studies and sociological data: That’s not the immigrant’s fault, but of huge corporations. And the people who run those multi-national corporations have the money and power to put the propagandha out there, that it’s the immigrant’s fault when in fact, they could just pay you better or hire you for higher wages.
The problem is that confirmation bias: Those people with racist stances don’t understand a thing about the life of an immigrant. But it’s easier to hate them then to reconstruct their whole scheme of the world. It’s slow work to convince them otherwise. Even with my immediate family. It’s not like I would have 4-hour-long conversations with them. But every time they say something remotely racist, I’d ask them if they ever thought about that companies outsourcing jobs might be the problem, not the immigrants. It’s small little chips so that they might arrive at the conclusion themselves.
What irritates me the most is people not seeing who and what the actual source of their problems is.
Did you see Nanette already, the Hannah Gadsby stand-up? Isn’t that exactly the kind of statements we need right now? Personal stories that of course have political elements?
Of course I did and it’s totally true. Sometimes I feel it’s a little ironic that I am an artist because I have a really pragmatic mind…very logical and concrete. But I loved Nanette for that: Your personal experience, anyone’s personal experience is intertwined with politics. So it reminded me that what I try to be with my music is to be as honest as I possibly can be about the elements of my identity. And hopefully that will achieve something in terms of representation and in visibility of a queer female or visibility of people who struggle with addiction or people who experience both sides of a religious journey. Hopefully that will make people feel comforted and less alone, to see their story mirrored in someone else.
Not only from listening to your songs but also seeing you perform them, one can almost physically grasp the pain that birthed them. Did you ever get to a point at which you thought that it might get too much; too much attention for your pain, too much pressure to go out there and sing about, what I reckon, are rather painful memories?
That depends on me and how I handle my situation as an artist. I made the first album with no aspirations and now that I am able to do that on a large scale, I can either allow the pressure to feel like it’s isolating me or I can shift my perspective and try to think about the audience. I’m looking to establish a conversation and create an exchange. That helps me. I feel less pressure to know that it’s not just about me. I’m not making these songs just to rehash old emotional territory. I try to let that offer some comfort for someone else.
But the songs ARE based on certain memories or feelings. So it’s always in them, if you perform them…
That’s true. But the more you have to confront something the easier it is to deal with it. If I never confronted an emotion then when I finally faced it, it would be overwhelming. Revisiting it night after night doesn’t wear me down. I have to, as a matter of necessity, work through it and come to terms with whatever it is I’m singing about. Also, I really get preoccupied with the performance, the actual act of hitting the right notes – THAT causes me a lot of anxiety. That’s what I’m mostly thinking about: Am I connecting with the audience? Am I doing my job well enough? Sure, there are some songs that are about specific things that bring up images in my head. But it feels comforting to put that out there every night and release it. And although the stages are getting bigger lately I try to make sure that no matter the size of the venue, I’m still walking into it with the same desire to be disarming.
Somewhere during our conversation, the sound of church bells is coming through an opened window and Baker shuts her eyes for a second, interrupting her own sentence. She’s smiling, whispering ‘Sorry, that’s pretty’, more to herself than anyone else. There is something deeply focussed and anchored somewhere else in her in that moment. But later that night, she curses at herself for missing a note on one of her first songs. The perfectionist Julien Baker who, with her art, feels responsible for others is that other side to her. Probably it’s not even contradictory.
Maybe church bells are actually a good metaphor for Baker’s own music. It’s not like they would surprise you with when they ring or how they sound. But if you’re in the right mood, nothing hits as hard.