Julien Baker on quitting music and going back to school
Okay maybe not, but it almost did happen!
Julien Baker logs onto our Zoom call ten minutes late, apologising. As we’ll soon come to learn, Baker likes to take her time with interviews—an absolute blessing for any interviewer (especially one that is a fan), but probably more of a curse for her management team. Needless to say, we chatted for around 45 minutes of our allotted 15-minute time frame. Oops.
Perched in her studio, the indie darling is disarming, to say the least. She’s all wide smiles and sunny disposition—a soft-spoken and rather gentle presence. All in all, she’s not quite who you would expect as the face behind some of the most heartbreaking lyrics released in recent memory.
Put simply, listening to Baker’s music often feels like an intrusion of privacy. Lyrically, it reads like a diary; an open window into some of her most intimate thoughts. For example, her latest LP, Little Oblivions, is a confronting (and rather personal) reflection on her struggles with faith, family, and addiction. It’s a harrowing listen—at times almost too revealing. But therein lies the issue: Baker’s work begs to be listened to—while it is frank and uncomfortable in the themes it covers, it draws you in with its catchy hooks and clever imagery.
This disconnect is something she’s acutely aware of, though, and she takes no issue with it. In fact, she finds comfort in the fact that her music is out there for the world to hear. “I don’t think it’s difficult to be upfront in the writing process, because [my songs] are just about whatever emotional muck I’m sifting through at that point,” she says, eyebrows furrowed as she finds her words. “I actually wonder if it isn’t more comforting to document your failures, your discomforts and your heartaches, and then have them validated by other people than it is to just bear them in solitude.”
“It’s like the band Mount Eerie—there are two records that make me feel like I’m peering inside this person’s grief without permission. But, then again, this person documented all of this and put this all down and released this into the world of their own volition. They want it to be witnessed so that it is validated, that it exists,” she continues. “They want the hurt to be recognised so that it’s not something they have to bear alone. I think that’s true of most people. Most people just may not be fortunate enough to have the avenue that I have of broadcasting it to Spotify (laughs).”
When probed further about her urge to make music and her instinct to share her experiences, the musician explains that it stems from the influences she had when she was just getting into the industry. “I didn’t have any older siblings telling me what to listen to—I just had the radio and VH1, so I was listening to Fall Out Boy and Green Day on the VH1 Top 20 Countdown, and when I saw them, even though I knew that they were successful musicians, the persona that they broadcast was someone who had been ‘othered’, and who was singing about their ‘othered-ness’. I think that kicked off something in me that was like: ‘Oh, I can make music about my experiences, and in doing so, be seen’.”
“That was reinforced when I started going to house shows and punk shows, and everybody was just screaming about their own personal 16-year-old heartbreak,” she elaborates, smiling. “In those situations, I was singing to people in Memphis who knew me—who had known me since I was 10—so I was singing about my problems and they knew exactly what I was talking about, but it provided this less vulnerable space than just saying, out loud, in a conversation, ‘I’m struggling with this’.”
“I feel like when you can turn your experiences into art, it’s something that—even though it seems really vulnerable—is actually less vulnerable. When I say it in a song, I have the opportunity to sift through it, think about it and process it, and I think that’s very valuable.”
At its core, though, Baker doesn’t believe that she’s doing anything extraordinary. Rather, she believes that it is a human instinct to storytell, even if it’s in ways you don’t realise. “Some people write songs, some prefer to recount every minute detail of a breakup to a friend over coffee. Some people become stand-up comedians and tell tragic stories about their lives in a funny way. I really admire that because I can’t make my stuff funny,” laughs Baker. “It’s not funny.”
In short, the singer is no stranger to baring it all. That said, it must take a toll, which is why Baker found herself looking into other career avenues. She explains that before she began working on this album, she had gone back to school to get her Bachelor’s degree—a decision that had her second-guessing her career in music.
“The reason I went back to school was honestly because I wasn’t stable or mentally healthy enough to complete the tour that I was on. We’d cancelled it along with the rest of the tours for the year, and I knew that if I didn’t have anything to keep me occupied, I would self-implode.” she states, frankly. “I needed something else imposing a schedule on me and, honestly, for a little while I didn’t know if I could ever come back to doing music. I mean, I played my instruments and I wrote songs and I listened to music all throughout being in school because I love music, but I didn’t know if it would ever be my profession again.”
“I thought maybe my label would drop me or that no one would want to come to my shows, or that I wouldn’t be able to play shows anymore. So, I figured that I better have an undergrad because you kind of need that to get a job and make money,” she jokes.
Obviously, Baker has since come around on music, having released her latest LP Little Oblivions earlier this year, but she isn’t quite done with the education route. “[College] was actually wonderful. I loved it. I mean, I never liked high school because it was all about worksheets and arbitrary rules, but I really liked going to college where I had good instructors who cared about the material they were teaching.”
In fact, soon enough you might have to start addressing Julien Baker as ‘Master’ or ‘Doctor’: “College scratched an itch for me that I didn’t know was there. Now I kind of want to get a master’s. Or a PhD. Dr Baker—I’d love to be Dr Baker. Maybe I’ll be posted up at Penn State one day, teaching people instead of playing music.”
Until she starts livestreaming her lectures, though, she’s back in the music industry with a bang—she has spent the last year brushing up on her production skills with Little Oblivions and is currently closing up the last leg of her North American tour. All things considered, the future is looking bright for Julien Baker.
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