Julien Baker is tiny. When she stands on a stage with her guitar in front of her, she almost disappears. But the minute she opens her mouth, it's easy to forget that she's only 20 years old. Her voice has raw honesty, depth, and a wise and engaging maturity.
Baker's debut album Sprained Ankle (2015) is an emotional, personal deep-dive into faith, self-awareness, and fear. It's an album as arresting as it is relatable. Like Julien, Sprained Ankle is gentle and careful and unstoppably honest.
I talked to Julien Baker about the warm embrace of the indie rock community, her faith, and her obsession with Jessica Jones.
To start off, can you tell me a little bit about how you wrote this album?
There was a lot going on at that time. It was my first year away [from home] and I had a lot of stuff changing in my life that led to some emotional turmoil. Your typical coming-of-age narrative. I was really isolated, but I had all of these songs and I just wrote them about the questions that were coming up in my own life.
I would stay out super late, because I had one friend total in college. I would go to the practice rooms and knock on the door and the custodian in the music building would have to let me in. I would stay there until 2 a.m. writing songs because I had nowhere else to be and nothing else to do. But it helped a lot to not feel so alone.
When I went and recorded them, I never imagined that [these songs] would have the audience they have now. It’s been kind of wild to realize that those were things I wrote just to get them out of me, and now they’re out there on stage.
At what point did you realize that you could actually tour with these songs? That they weren’t just for you?
I’d always known that music is more than just for you. There’s this propensity for every artist to say: I make art for art’s sake, and I make what I’m happy with, and the art is self-serving and the art is for me. And that’s true. I quote one of my roommates all the time that art has to be selfish to be honest. But you’re always aware that there are people outside of you.
I thought it would be a very small sphere of influence. When I put my album up on Bandcamp, I knew it would get heard by a few folks, but I didn’t think it would be more than that. It felt like, you know, sometimes you let your friends see your poems and you’re embarrassed. When the single came out on NPR, I was like, “Oh man, a lot of people are going hear that.” Not "a lot of people" like a lot of people listen to “Dark Horse” by Katy Perry, but more than I thought.
Wait, so are you embarrassed? Do you feel protective of these songs because of their intimacy?
Yes and no. I get embarrassed and really self-aware. It’s gotten better as I’ve been performing them again and again and again. You write them as a piece of art. You’re exorcising this from yourself. But once it is art, I can detach from it and view it in a more creative way.
You start playing these more formal tours. It’s not just a handful of kids, so you have to think, I’m displaying these emotions. Do I want to tear myself down on stage every night? Or do I want to choose to be open and honest?
I was at a Mercury Lounge show in New York, and I was just in awe. Like, here we are, a room full of people, and we share this intimate bond. They know my deepest secrets, and I don’t even know their first names. It’s a tough thing to get used to. But what’s so precious to me, and what makes it worth it, is talking to kids at the merch table and just hearing what they got out of the songs.
A lot of times we haven’t had the exact same experience, but something similar has happened. There was a girl in Columbus, Ohio who came up to me at a show and she said, “I see you have a rainbow guitar strap. I got thrown out of Christian school for having a rainbow guitar strap.” And I just told her, I’m so sorry. That’s not what God would do. Or I don’t think that’s what God would do. I’ll get embarrassed because I’ll think, like, “Rejoice” is too much. Should I even play this, because I’m going to freak people out? But I feel motivated to play it anyway because of that feeling of fear. You should get over yourself enough to say, “I don’t care if this is embarrassing if someone else gets something out of it.”
That’s my job as an artist, to curate emotion even if it’s painful.
A lot of songs on this album have elements of faith to them. Being a member of the LGBTQ community and a person of faith isn't always easy. What has your experience been like?
What’s been interesting is because of the emotionally charged aspect, especially where we are with the political and cultural climate, I expected to immediately get hate mail.
It was a little easier for me to work through my faith and maintain it instead of disregard it. When I came out to my worship pastor, which was a scary thing to do, I was sitting there all nervous and sweating and I told her, “I’m gay.” And she was like “So?” I thought that was the best response because not only is it full acceptance, but it was indicative of how little it matters in the scheme of your whole identity and what you can accomplish. So what if you’re gay? Okay!
But I know that is not the case for everyone. As fortunate as I am, I was fully aware of the hatred that exists in traditional churches. But I haven’t experienced that much hatred overtly. I’m sure there are people who might be aware of me being an artist who is gay and also Christian who don’t approve, but they haven’t contacted me or rioted at my shows or anything. I’m probably not at that level.
I’m a really small artist comparatively. But it also makes me happy because…queer inclusion is important in the non-mainstream as well. I see more and more female artists being candid about needing a stronger female presence in the music scene. I think that more inclusive atmosphere is developing enough that it might not be as big of a deal in 10 years. It makes me optimistic to have that overlap.
So you feel like there’s a supportive network for you within the indie rock community?
Oh, yeah. The first time I visited New York City, one of my heroes, Sharon Van Etten, sent me an email and was like, “Would you like to have lunch?” And I was like, oh my god. I would love nothing more than to have lunch with you. And the whole time I was sitting there like, "Oh my god, you’re Sharon Van Etten. You wrote Tramp." She was talking to me about how she hangs out with Mackenzie [Scott] from Torres, and all these other female artists. I think in the generation before mine and in my generation, it’s become a more explicit agenda.
We’ve acknowledged the necessity of teamwork. I don’t really see anyone trying to cut each other down. Female musicians in the rock world just relate about like, “Hey, I’m glad you’re out here doing this. I’m glad you’re making your music.” There are people like Sharon who reach out and are like, “Hey, if you have any questions or if you just want me to make you a tofu scramble, I’m here.” And that’s so encouraging, to know that you have a support system of people who remind you that what you’re doing is important, what you’re doing is reputable. There’s a lot more credence being given to the validity of female acts.
Last question! What's a piece of culture (song, book, or TV show) you're obsessed with right now?
I wish I were watching something new, but I’m rewatching Jessica Jones. I’m a Jessica Jones fan girl. I got a new Telecaster that’s blonde and I’m naming it Trish because it’s my sidekick. I think there’s so much subtext in Jessica Jones. It poses all these existential questions. You’re a superhero because you have super powers, but how do you use them? If you have gifts, are you necessarily responsible for how you steward your gifts?
I watched that show and I went on this self-improvement kick. I started running. It made me want to be a better person. I think it’s cool to see an independent female where all the romance narratives are secondary to her personal growth and maturity. She’s so focused on objective ethical rightness and objective moral goodness. It is 100% my shit.
Julien Baker is on tour right now. You can buy tickets here.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.