Acclaimed singer-songwriter, Julien Baker, has already done a great deal in her life. At 25 years old, she’s released three LPs, three EPs, a number of singles and earned great praise and recognition for these works. But, for Baker, it’s what she doesn’t know, what she hasn’t yet done that seems to fuel her more and more.
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With her latest release in February, Little Oblivions, Baker pushed her own creative boundaries, recording the LP over a longer period of time and with more musicians and soundscapes at her disposal. For much of her earlier career, Baker made songs with a more restricted scope, often performing live solo with just a loop pedal.
As part of Baker’s push toward sonic exploration, she is poised to soon release her next album, a five-song remix EP featuring reworked tracks from Little Oblivions. For the debut release from the work, Baker sought Helios frontman, Keith Kenniff, to offer his ambient and electronic expertise. The result is a new contemplative reimagination of Baker’s already thoughtful track, “Bloodshot,” which is out today (Aug. 10).
We caught up with Baker and Kenniff to talk about their collaborative relationship, how the newly remixed song evolved in the process, and much more.
American Songwriter: Julien, what was the genesis of the original 2021 album, Little Oblivions, and how did that blossom into the idea for your forthcoming five-song remix EP?
Julien Baker: This record came about—I don’t know, it was a long process. Usually, when I was younger, I would record very hastily, I guess. I wonder if it was just the mindset of never having a ton of money, resources or time, and just needing to get into the studio and cut tracks. But this one took shape over the course of over a year.
It was a much more experimental process than I previously had allowed my work to be. I’d always written songs— the limitations of my solo live performance precluded me from doing lots of things. But with this one, I just let myself do whatever I wanted. For the remixes, I just thought it would be fun to have artists that I admired bring their personality and their insight to the songs. Some people I know and some people I hadn’t previously met, but it’s beautiful.
AS: Keith, when did you first meet Julien and what did you hear in her work that drew you to want to collaborate on the “Bloodshot” remix together?
Keith Kenniff: I had known Julien’s work previously but we’d never met. So, her team reached out to me and said she was looking to get a remix done. Then I connected with them and connected with her. It was a pretty easy process. They asked if I was available and I had this nice little window of time when they asked. So, I got right to work on it.
It was fun to work on because sometimes I do remixes that are purely instrumental and in the same world or genre as the stuff that I do, which is more electronic or experimental. And her stuff was very singer-songwriter and heavy vocals upfront and that was the focus of it. So, it was interesting to take the stuff that I do, which is more textural, and have that mesh with something that was very vocal-centric. But, yeah, it was a fun song to remix, all these different elements. There were a lot of things in the stems she gave me to play with, that was nice.
JB: Yeah, we’d never previously met but I had actually been—not to make it weird or anything—a fan of your project, specifically, under the moniker Helios for a really long time. Since I was like a freshman in high school. Then I also followed the things you were doing with Mint Julep. But I’d always just had a very special place for the instrumental music you created and the production elements with the album, Eingya, which was the record that I first heard [or yours].
So many of the—it almost just sounds like found samples, these delicate noises that are composed in such an interesting way. I think that had a big impact on how I think about production and how I think about sound in general. So, I’m just hugely flattered that you were willing and available to work on this remix of mine. Yeah, it’s a big honor.
KK: Yeah, thanks!
AS: Julien, you touched on this before. But it does seem like you’re exploring more new sonic territory these days. How did the idea of the remixes or working with Keith, specifically, help encourage that path?
JB: I think a lot of the things I’ve been learning about music or what makes me happy or what makes me fulfilled about music is I think I tend to be very idealistic about things. Or I tend to seek perfection or try to distill the most powerful lyric or the most powerful production element or the most powerful production element, whatever it is. And then it became so much more exaggerated when I was inundated with music creation all the time because that was my livelihood.
So, for this record, it felt good to kind of detach from my identity being wrapped up in being a musician, and just try to find sounds that make me happy. I know that’s a little bit abstract—well, not abstract, but it sounds a little woo-woo. Ultimately, it felt good to connect to music as the process of discovering sounds that excited me. Like I said, I think I’ve been a fan of Keith’s work for a long time. For me, part of the process of turning over songs to other people is to just completely let go of my expectations.
Something that’s been freeing to me as I continue to do more collaborations within bands or with other songwriters, or with Calvin [Lauber], who helped me produce this record, or with letting other people remix my music—turning it over to be something that can be disassembled and reassembled in a way that another musician chooses. That feels really freeing to know that I’m just kind of throwing something into the ether to be chopped up. I don’t feel particularly precious with my music, or at least not as much as I once did.
AS: As you were writing Little Oblivions, did you intentionally make it so that it could be deconstructed, almost like building blocks?
JB: I didn’t set about creating the record so that it could be deconstructable. It’s more a function of the form, you know? How it was created, the space I was in. I was also creating it. I would track a host of tracks over a weekend and then with Calvin, we would send bounces back and forth and make little edits and share. So, I think there are just more sounds to experiment with within the palate. There are percussion elements; there are things that weren’t previously there.
But then also there is this element of disjointedness you can feel from it being such a long, drawn-out process, not condensed to two weeks of tracking and tracking and tracking and making something really cohesive. It was very slowly accumulated all these sounds.
AS: Keith, how did you approach remixing this particular song to add your own ambient, ethereal style onto the track?
KK: So, they gave me a list of songs. They sent me the entire album so I could take a listen to everything as a whole. I think a few tracks were taken at that point. So, they gave me a list of which ones were available and after listening to all the tracks a few times through, that one stood out. I was listening as a remixer and thinking how pliable it was. So, that one [“Bloodshot”] stood out.
As I got the stems, the separate tracks, normally what I do is I just take them and try to do as much with as little as possible, instead of throwing everything into the mix all of a sudden.
KK: So, I just started with Julien’s vocals and then took these different elements. I wanted to do as much with the elements that I was given as possible rather than just adding stuff and just writing a song around it.
KK: So, I usually take guitar parts or drum parts and then make other parts out of that, twist them around or reverse them or make them into a texture. So a guitar part is now an ambient bass or something like that. I just worked really slowly to take these different elements and try to do as much with them before I moved on.
So, I started with her vocals. I didn’t really mess with those too much in terms of the structure of them. That was the base of the song. Then I took these little elements and reworked them to make a different arrangement. But I wanted to keep the same vibe. I didn’t cut up the stuff so it was unrecognizable.
Then I just tried to inject the stuff that I do as much as possible while not messing up the song too much. Because it was a good song, to begin with. So, I didn’t want to mess with that too much. I just wanted to see if I could add something to it.
AS: Keith, just quickly, how did you become someone who remixed other people’s songs? What drew you to that aspect of music?
KK: Over the course of the 20 years, or so, that I’ve been doing this, I haven’t done too many remixes. Probably only 8-10. But initially, I was remixing people who were in the same genre as me. I think remixing it can be overdone sometimes. Or sometimes there’s not much of a point to it other than to just do it. So, each time that I’ve been asked to do a remix, I try to make it something that’s special. The initial song I’ve responded to, but I’m trying not to mess with it too much.
So, I’m just trying to make something new out of something that was already good. Trying to say something that wasn’t said before, rather than just going through the motions and saying, well, oh this was a singer-songwriter song before or an acoustic song, and now I just want to throw some beats on it, or whatever.
With this one and the other remixes I’ve done, I try first of all to do something I’ve never done before, to try and challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone. And then to also just have a new take on the song that hopefully means something more than just being technically proficient and putting electronics over something that wasn’t there before.
AS: Yeah, the original song is great and includes the fantastic line, “There’s no glory in love,” which I really like. So, given the new remix, does the song feel different to you now, is there a new meaning to it?
KK: I wanted to keep that same energy to the song, where production-wise and songwriting-wise, it has this introspective quality to it. So, I wanted to take that in a different—parts of this original song are more intimate and then you have some production stuff that’s pushing it into something more contemplative and epic with the drums. I wanted to stick with the idea of introspection and contemplativeness and just amplify it more.
I wanted to make sure what I was doing musically matched with the vocals and I wasn’t purely just bringing [the song] into my own thing without taking that into account. Each element, I wanted to keep it more ambient and thoughtful but at the same time, there are these different sections that change with the storyline or the narrative that the vocals are outlining. So, I wanted to keep that intact but put my own spin on it.
JB: Yeah, I think “thoughtful” is so appropriate a word to use with how I felt about the track when I heard it back. Like I said, I feel like I have this tendency to go to extremities with my own songwriting, with throwing my voice in whatever way. Or having 800 guitar parts or having a massive, epic drum section. And it was nice to see the song deconstructed and highlighted—I mean, there are even some changes in the chord arrangement.
It was nice to see the song unfolding as a poem over a different musical landscape, you know? And to be kept intimate and very thoughtful—gosh, what is the word I’m looking for? Oh yeah, it’s something that I never am! It’s tasteful. [Laughs] In my own production, I feel like I’m not very tasteful. I often do the most extreme thing.
But no, I mean, that’s another gift and privilege of mine doing something like this, to see how people reinterpret songs and to take notes on different production ideas and ways to maybe scale back or reimagine a song that I hadn’t even thought of before, that I hadn’t opened my brain up to. Yeah, it’s a pleasure.
AS: Julien, we touched on your interest these days in exploring new music and new ways of making music. So, now that you’ve, say, been through the “portal” or making this song, has it fueled you to do more?
JB: Oh, sure! I mean, at the end of the day, if nothing else, it’s a chance for me to get to communicate and share and learn from people that I know. Like Nandi from Half Waif or Sophie performing as Gordi. Or from people that I’m not personally familiar with but whose music I admire like Keith. So, yes, of course, it’s feeling.
That’s the thing that’s so fundamentally gratifying about making music if I really try to keep it in a healthy perspective. So, yeah, absolutely. It’s encouraging. And I like the act of—covers are the same. Well, no, they’re not the same. But it’s the same thing in that you as an artist are publically engaging with another artist and setting a precedent for exchange instead of isolation. I think that’s really important and I’m just grateful that I get to take part in it.
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen