Julien Baker: Same As She Ever Was


Videos by American Songwriter

If you ever have the pleasure of speaking with Julien Baker, you may be surprised by the startling dissonance between the voice behind her songs and her real world personality. Her bubbly, sometimes nervous speaking voice, which delivers thoughtful strings of ideas and revelations that seem well beyond her twenty years, and her occasional friendly “Yes, ma’am,” don’t quite match the sad, singular voice on her critically acclaimed debut album Sprained Ankle. It’s moments like when Baker giggles after expounding on the songwriting process she’s honed finely enough to produce heartbreaking songs like “Everybody Does” that you remember she’s also a college student.

Born in Memphis to churchgoing parents, Baker grew up straddling the line between her Bible Belt upbringing and her desire to be a musician, which manifested itself early on in Memphis’ lively hardcore and DIY punk scene. She grew up around bands, and is part of Memphis rock band Forrister, with whom she still plays when she’s able to head back home on weekends and breaks from her time studying the recording industry at MTSU.

“It’s a very tight, woven thing,” Baker says of the Memphis music scene. “But what’s cool about it to me is that once you’re in it, you’re family. People go off and they tour and they come back and it always feels like, when I come back to shows it will be a

super weird bill, but as long as you’re there just because you enjoy music, there’s a space for you. I’ve always appreciated that family aspect of Memphis.”

She hadn’t considered a solo career until she headed three and a half hours eastward to attend college. Her dorm, the walks on campus in between classes and some after-hours time spent in campus practice rooms served as the birthplaces for the songs that would eventually form Sprained Ankle.

“I would just hang out by myself and write for a very long time,” she explains. “That seems kind of strange but I didn’t have many friends at all, especially the first semester of college. I moved there and knew zero people, so I would just hang out and knock on the door and get the custodian to let me into the music building where there were practice rooms.”

That solitude becomes palpable over the course of Sprained Ankle’s nine songs, which tackle such heavy topics as sobriety, God, heartbreak and death. Despite her young age, Baker handles these heavy themes without ever sounding heavy-handed, giving the album a confessional feel without venturing into the voyeuristic.

“The record is autobiographical. Artists like Defeater, a post-hardcore band I love, or David Bazan, they’ll invent fictional stories to get a point across or explore an idea,” she says. “But it doesn’t mean that happened to them or that they have personal stake in that feeling. And it can be cathartic while being artificial. But I’ve never been able to do that as well as I’d like. So all of the stuff that I discuss ends up being about my own life. On some level, I feel like that’s self-indulgent because it’s just me talking about me. So I try to make it a little bit broader, if I can. Or with the stuff I’ve been writing I just try not to think, ‘Woe is me.’

Because maybe Sprained Ankle fell a little in that camp, which I’m conscious of sometimes.”

If Baker is anything, it’s conscious. After recording the album at Richmond’s Spacebomb Studios with a friend who happened to be interning there (“I think the misconception is that it’s a Spacebomb record in the way that a Matt E. White record is a Spacebomb record,” Baker adds. “But I only briefly met one of the other staff members.”), she found herself listening back to the final recordings, wondering if those final tracks truly were finished. “I try not to listen back through Sprained Ankle because without a doubt I’m like, ‘Ah, I could have done that take again,’” she says. “When in reality I couldn’t have done that take again because the way we recorded it, it was on free intern time that we were using at Spacebomb. I think having those limitations in place made it easy to say, ‘This is how the song has to be.’ I know that’s the Achille’s heel of some artists. So I try not to let it be.”

After finishing the album, Baker uploaded it to Bandcamp and posted a link on Facebook. Before she knew it, outlets like the New York Times and the New Yorker were singing her praises. That sudden fame hasn’t changed Baker, though. She still rides the Greyhound home to play with Forrister. She still records song ideas on her phone and listens back on walks to class. And, though she has a laugh that can only be described as infectious, she’ll still write music that moves the rest of us to tears.

Measure For Measure: Major Melancholy

Gearing Up: Inside The Stax Sound