US - Tennessee - Full Moon 242 - 05/21/16
an interview with...
"Every day has the potential to be poetic!"
Sprained Ankle [originally self-released through Bandcamp, re-released by 6131 Records], the debut solo release from Memphis singer/songwriter Julien Baker, is a stunning work of devastating beauty. In the past, the 20 year old from Memphis has half jokingly described her songs as "sad bastard music", seeing that they are an often brutally honest, but wonderfully poetic and intimate look back on her wild teenage years. Sadness is a prevailing theme on the album - in fact, on the title track she sings "I wish I could write songs about anything other than death" - but in the end she is doing quite the opposite, finding life affirming things in her deeply personal stories about addiction, loneliness, heartbreak, losing faith in God and religion or a brush with death (detailed in the opening track, "Blacktop"). On the sparsely orchestrated record - the songs are usually just Baker's voice and a single electric guitar - you can hear flashes of Sharon Van Etten's early work, of Torres and of Waxahatchee's brilliant debut American Weekend, but ultimately, Baker's cathartic songs are even more arresting. Elliott Smith's masterpiece Either/Or is one of the few albums in the last decades that truly seems to come close to this in terms of emotional impact. Already attracting a lot of press attention and large audiences in her home country, she now makes her European stage debut with a tour running through the end of June. Before she set out on her first ever trip to Europe, she talked to Luna Kafé about her album, her unexpected and sudden rise to fame, faith and her love of Academia and literature.
Luna Kafé (LK): What's it like to be Julien Baker in the year 2016?
Julien Baker (JB): "Wow, what's it like to be me? It's crazy! Right now I'm at home and after being out on the road with no schedule at all, I crave normalcy. When I'm home, I try to keep everything very routine. I wake up at the same time, go running, make the same breakfast and stay really normal and calm, because when I'm out of the road, it feels so surreal. I never thought I would do half the things I get to do. Like, on this past tour some of my favorite artists came out to the shows, coming up to me, introducing themselves and I never thought I would get to play to this many people or meet these people."
LK: Your album Sprained Ankle didn't come out of thin air, though. For the uninitiated - can you give us a quick rundown of what came before?
JB: "Ok, I started making music when I was a kid and played in local line-ups and bands and I played coffee shop gigs. Then in high school I met the drummer for my band, Forrister. It's still a band, but we are taking a bit of a break while I do solo touring. We played all through high school and we would play anywhere: house shows, basements, church venues - every single weekend we would be practicing and playing. We would go on these short tours in the North or the South or the Midwest and it was just us in a van. Then I went on a solo tour with my friend Ryan Azada, doing the same thing. We were in a little Acura, a little sedan, driving around playing anywhere. Then 6131 put out my (solo) record and I started playing bigger venues. I'm still not really used to it."
LK: Did you enjoy playing these makeshift venues or did you think: I can't wait till I get to play Mercury Lounge or whatever?
JB: "No, no! When we were in high school, my drummer said something that has always stuck with me. He said: If there are three people at a show, we need to blow those three people away! We always have to give everything we have, whether there's just one person in the audience and it's our friend, who's here because they feel bad for us or if it's a thousand people - you have to treat every show the same. There's something about house shows, too, growing up around that and playing punk music. It's like a family. People will cheer for you, not because you are so amazing at your instrument (and maybe you are), but because they can see and recognize honest emotions and genuine dedication in music. It's not because you are the coolest or the best - you mean it!"
LK: Yeah, there's just a different kind of energy there if you are sitting on somebody's couch two feet away from the performer. You can't compare that to being at the back of a bar where you can hardly see the performer.
JB: "Yeah! Even on the last tour I went on, I liked the smaller shows the best. I played a couple of places with raised stages and there was a gap between me and the audience - and it just felt weird, it felt like they were far away. You know how people say "Don't put an artist on a pedestal?" and they LITERALLY put me on a pedestal! (laughs) And I said: "No, I wish I were standing on the floor". That makes me feel so much better, when the audience is an arm's length away from me and I make a joke and I can see their faces, laughing. But sometimes it also makes me nervous, because the more people are at a show, the more I feel pressure, and I feel all these people looking at me and I get me incredible socially anxious. Then I usually pick out one person and look at the top of their head or something!"
LK: Do you feel that you are making progress, now that you are a little more used to playing bigger venues?
JB: "Yeah, a little. What I have to learn is to take myself less seriously. Not that I take myself so seriously. I'm amazed every single time a person walks through the door to see me play. There's six billion people on this Earth, why do I get a microphone, why am I special? So I am grateful and amazed, every time there is a full house. It's not that I take myself too seriously, but I think I stress out and I think: "Everybody's gonna hate me if I mess up" or something..."
LK: Fortunately, there's an increasing amount of people these days who realize that the imperfections are often the best part of a performance, they are the things you react the most to as a listener.
JB: "Exactly! I have a friend you said to me after a show: "That was perfectly imperfect." That's great! Actually, I just read an interview that Matt from the National did. He said: Part of performing is being willing to humiliate yourself for art! Knowing, that you are going to mess up, but that's okay, because everybody is in it with you. They paid money for a ticket to see you because they care about what you have to say. So just try to do the best you can and understand that it's a community, not like performer and audience as a separate entity. It's everybody enjoying art, together. At least that's how I try to think of it in my head (laughs)"
LK: Now for something completely different: Before Sprained Ankle, you made a record with your band Star Killers (now renamed Forrister). On that record you embraced the kind of sound that people associate with your hometown Memphis a lot more than on your solo album. Is that influence just bound to creep in if you are a young musician in Memphis, making your first album?
JB: "Yeah! I often get asked: "How much are you influenced by blues?", I call it "Memphis canon music", and I'll admit: Quite a bit! Everybody growing up here is listening to that stuff. You listen to your parents' records and you get your first footing. But then there was a second wave of Memphis punk bands like Wicker and Pezz and all the bands that would play at old venues like the Antenna and Crosstown Arts. Going to see those shows added a second element of contemporary music, and when the old blues rock met the contemporary punk scene - what came out in our little high school musical psyches was the Star Killers (laughs). It was a subconscious thing, I guess."
LK: Interestingly enough, Sprained Ankle kind of happened because you were moving away from Memphis to go school in Murfreesboro, I guess?
JB: "Yes. I never planned to make a solo record. But I had all this material that didn't seem right for the band, because it was slower and not as heavy. So kept those songs aside and continued writing other songs with Forrister. Then I got the opportunity to record with my friends [at Spacebomb Studios in Virgina], but they couldn't make it to the free studio time because it's several hours drive away. I didn't want to waste this opportunity, so I thought: "I'll just record what I've got and see what I can do within the limitations of just being one person." It was these songs [on Sprained Ankle] - and then this happened... (laughs)"
LK: After you listening back to the recordings - were you ever surprised by the raw honesty of these songs? I guess it's quite different compared to the songs you wrote with your band?
JB: "Yeah, I think when you are writing collaboratively, it comes out more conceptual, because you are kind of workshopping the lyrics. I never showed up to a practice with a fully written song. All of the band songs were written by all of us together and that's why they have a more polished aspect about them. For Sprained Ankle, I was just writing the songs and leaving them the way they came out. Maybe that resulted in a bit more artistic license to just have them be direct and simplified, because I didn't feel the need to craft them as heavily."
LK: If I would call these songs kind of a self-therapy - could you agree?
JB: "Oh, yeah, absolutely! (laughs) That's how my music always has been, but it might have been a little more veiled in the Star Killers lyrics... Especially, I was in high school, when we made that record! I hadn't fully developed the poetic voice all the way. You are trying out all these different moves to express yourself but that's the only way that I have to get that giant weight out of my brain - to put it on the page!"
LK: Obviously the songs on Sprained Ankle are full with wonderfully poetic lines. How do they come about? Do you actually think in those terms when those situations occur or do you sit down at home afterwards, trying to express things that happened to you in a more colorful language?
JB: "Often, with the more thematic songs, a simile will occur to me and I will just let my brain explore that. Thinking of the title track: emotional pain being like a sprained ankle that you have to walk on. Once that simile occurs to me, I just let my brain naturally meander through lines. When a song feels forced, I know it's just not going to be a good one. If I have to squeeze out imagery, I should just abandon it. But I think the human mind makes observations in a poetic way. Have you ever just heard someone you are talking to say something and you think: "That sounds like a line in a movie or a song?" Every day has the potential to be poetic, if you capture it and recognize it."
LK: Another interesting aspect of your album is that of faith, especially since it seems to be less about the organized Sunday morning version of it, so to speak...
JB: "If you grow up in a counter culture, that's represented in the punk scene or alternative music, you have all these questions that don't get answered or you are told that certain things are wrong and you don't understand why. For a while in my early teenage years, I was really disillusioned with the church and I rejected the idea of religion entirely. It took this untraditional group of people at this very small church, who through some friends reached out to me and just the way that they lived was indicative of this bizarre... (laughs) I say bizarre, it was bizarre to me at the time that people would behave with grace and kindness and love to this degree and I didn't know why. Why were they doing it? So I just kept hanging out with them and they showed me love, even though they knew that I was living kind of this crazy life. They were just very patient with me and I was like - why? They invited me to going to church with them and I saw a different side of it, finally. It wasn't Sunday morning, starched white shirt, it was just a bunch of really messed up people doing the best they could for each other - because that's what you should do."
LK: You have also mentioned in previous interviews, that you try not to separate between Julien Baker - the artist and Julien Baker - the person. Isn't that becoming more difficult, now that your music is getting a lot more attention?
JB: "Yes and no. There are certain superficial things. I have a personal Facebook and Instagram account that I keep just for my friends and my family, because I feel like that kind of anonymity is something that I want to preserve. But I also... I think what I mean when I say I don't... It's not like I want to air my personal life for everyone to see and call that being authentic. But I don't want to invent a persona for Julien Baker - the performer and playact at who I am in interviews or assume some kind of role and not live those things out in my life. I don't want to get up on stage and say: "These songs are about how life sometimes sucks, but it gets better" and then be a negative person in my real life. It also goes both ways: I don't want to be devout and proud of my faith in my personal life and then shy away from it in interviews, because that would be false. It's a huge part of my life, so of course I want to talk about it."
LK: But still, did you experience any "What have I done?" moments, when you felt the implications of singing these deeply personal songs on stage?
JB: "Yeah. It usually doesn't happen when I'm on stage, because I get really, really focussed on just the actual performance of the songs now. I used to kind of let it get to me and it was a little bit of a head trip, but now it's more before or after the shows that I think: "What am I doing?" It's the same thing I was talking of earlier: There are six billion people on this earth and right before I get up on stage I look at the crowd and think: Why? What do I have to offer these people? Is it hollow or is it worth anything? What I am doing? Why am I singing these songs to these people? Do I think I'm that important? It's a difficult thing to reconcile with yourself every night."
LK: But obviously you must be getting a lot of positive feedback from people who are touched by your songs, who can relate to them, because they experienced something similar. I guess you get that a lot, too?
JB: "Yes. But I don't wanna be like (adopts kind of showbiz interview voice) "Yeah, I get that a lot" (laughs) When I go out to the merch table and when I talk to people after the shows, when I individually interact with people who say: "This song has meant a lot to me!", that makes it all worth it. Every doubt or fear or awkwardness about showing that part of myself is instantly worth it the second that somebody else is made happier by having heard it."
LK: A lot of people start making records because they don't know what do with their lives. You, however, went to college, so you kind of had a plan apart from music, I guess?
JB: "Music is your passion, but it's kind of unheard of to throw all your eggs in that basket, to put all your stock, all your hopes in that as a career. It's just not very, um, I guess, responsible (laughs). In our culture it is important to get a marketable degree. But I wanted to work in music and I was good at fixing amps and tinkering around with guitars and I had done sound for local venues and stuff, so I thought I should get an audio engineering degree, and that would be a marketable way for me to still kind work in music and do what I want while having a day job. The more I was doing that, the more I realized that it was a little bit more commercial than I wanted it to be. I learned a lot in my first couple of years, just technical skills, but then I didn't want to do the thing where I was climbing the ladder, going to conferences and seminars and meet all the right people. So I decided to keep playing music and if the only places I ever got to play where bars and basements, then that would be enough for me. At the same time I was taking these literature courses and I thought: "I wanna go to a class just because I'm interested to show up and participate." So I switched my major to something where I could do that, where I could take these courses, where I wanted to read and talk about the book. That's
why I switched to English Literature."
LK: Yeah, the classes I wanted to take at school were always more fun for me as well compared to the ones I was forced to take. Being able to do the things you like changes everything, I guess!
JB: "Exactly! So the idea was: If Music doesn't work out, then my fall back plan can be to be a teacher, because the organizations I worked with in Memphis were really closely tied to youth and youth outreach stuff and I always loved that. I think that possibly the most important work you can do, to invest in young people. It sounds cheesy, but it's true. If no one would have invested in me, if no one had been like: "Here's music and here's a healthy outlet for all of your feelings", then I don't know where I would have ended up. That's why I wanted to do something like that and then all of a sudden I got the opportunity to tour full time and had the chance to pursue music and my advisers at school were like: "Go! You can always come back to school, but you need to have these experiences and you need to be out in the world." So I'm glad I did. But I love learning and at one point in the future, when touring slows down in five or so years, I want to go back to school because I like academia."
LK: This may be a silly question, but why do you think you could be a good teacher? Do you have any skills that qualify you for the job?
JB: "Well, I think the thing that I identified in all of my favorite teachers was that they genuinely were passionate about their subject, you know, and they genuinely cared about their students. I love working with kids. I was camp counselor at this art camp in Memphis and we used to do benefit shows for different musical organizations. When I did my observation, it made me so genuinely happy, when a kind would say: "'I'm having fun". Also, being able to enjoy sharing knowledge with a kid and feeling that this is important... You should know this - not because you learn it on a test but because it's gonna make you a more whole human being and its going to open new doors for you. Genuinely enjoying working with kids that way makes you a good teacher. The downfall of some the professors I had was that they could be brilliant, but they didn't care about their students, because they only cared about what they wanted to say. They should write a book or do research, they shouldn't be hanging out with kids. Hanging out with kids is about: "How I can help you fall in love with this, whatever it is: literature,
biology, maths, science. How can I help you fall a little bit in love with biology (laughs) and help you see it's important and meaningful?"
LK: Do you feel that having been through the things you have been through helps you to do that? Maybe that professor you mentioned never experienced any kind of personal hardship and doesn't really get the concept of giving back something to the community because of that?
JB: "I don't think you necessarily have to have gone through hardship. It might help me to sympathize with kids and moody adolescents, because I was a moody adolescent, but we all were. Everyone at one point was a child and required patience and required a bit of steering and direction - someone to help them along. I'm sure they don't do it on purpose, but sometimes I see adults how get very frustrated because they think kids are just disobedient, instead of just being patient with them. But I don't think that necessarily you have to have endured some great hardship. Certainly, if I met a kid having a really, really rough time, I might be able to relate to them better than someone that never has experienced the things that they have, but I think it's more about priorities. Are you prioritizing the ultimate gain of your students? Do you want them to benefit? Because it is for their benefit, not for your own!"
LK: Even though your major used to be English Literature, you are also quite interested in German writers. How did that come about?
JB: "I love world literature. I think it's kind of easier to stay in the narrow classics of British and American literature, but so... I have tattoos from a Spanish author, that I really love (Marquez), but then I took a Modern European Literature class and I had already read Goethe's "Faust" once by myself and I loved it, but when we went over it in this class, and we coupled with his poetry and his other works, I was like: Oh my gosh, this is brilliant! I love "Faust"! It's one of the books, well, technically, it's a play, an epic poem, a play told in epic narrative poem style, but it's one of the works that has spoken to me the most."
LK: And I've heard you talk about Rilke as well?
JB: "Oh yeah. I just told a friend of mine to get "Letters To A Young Poet", because it's awesome, and I've referenced the "Duinno Elegies", which Rilke claims he has written them all in a three day period where he didn't sleep or eat and he was just vomiting prose out onto the page. It's incredible. I would love to know German. The man who taught my class could speak German fluently and that's why I liked Spanish literature. I can speak Spanish fluently, it's a second language, but I when I read Spanish literature and poetry, I can put it up against the original text, and see things that may be lost in translation. That's something I wish so badly I could do with German prose and poetry. I feel it would be worth it."
LK: Well, I guess you are spending some time here this summer, maybe we can teach you some German!
JB: "Yes, please, teach me some German! (laughs)"
LK: That brings me to my last question: You are touring Europe for the first time in May and June - what do you expect from that trip?
JB: "I've only heard great things about Europe! I've actually never been out of the country. It's weird because I've had study abroad trips planned and they always got cancelled and I wouldn't have enough money to study abroad, and here we are, several years later and I get to play music abroad! What an incredible blessing that is! One remark that I've heard is: For the tour, don't send over t-shirts, because Europeans don't want t-shirt, they want records - that's awesome. That's not to say that t-shirts are a bad thing. I've got more band t-shirts than I can count, because I want to represent a band and I want to say to people who see my shirt: "Hey, check out this band", but I think the preoccupation with the literal, tactile version, the medium of music itself is pretty cool. The comment that many people have made to me is that European people love their music, not the music scene. I love that mentality. It makes me feel less worried about projecting some sort of image, because I feel like it's just music."
Copyright © 2016 Carsten Wohlfeld
Photos copyright © 2016 Jake Cunningham