By Kristy Diaz
A striking thing about talking to Julien Baker is the readiness with which she talks about others’ music before her own. Discussing her current tour, she enthuses about playing with Petal and Half Waif, “just as a fan”. When talking about her new record, she acknowledges her collaborators first. “So much of what keeps music fascinating is how it’s translated between multiple people, and how they interpret the same musical idea to mean different things.”
Particular praise is reserved for Camille Faulkner, who performs strings on the record. “When I asked Camille to come play, I didn’t write out a part, I was like, ‘here’s the song, I want to hear your ideas for it’. I don’t play the violin at all and so I remit that control to someone who I admire and trust as an artist and I think there’s a lot to be gained from that collaborative approach to music. I was really glad to be able to do that on this record.”
It doesn’t stem from a place of reluctance or modesty, or even her trademark politeness – it’s a pure and unwavering passion for music, whether it’s that made by her friends or her influences, often both, that she absolutely cannot contain.
Turn Out The Lights, Julien Baker’s second full-length and follow up to 2015’s Sprained Ankle, introduces a suite of additional layers alongside those new collaborations. “I wanted to try and expand the type of instrumentation I was using and explore other possibilities sonically while maintaining the same sparseness of the first record,” she says, drawing a comparison with the process of writing and producing her debut. “I think that contributed to focusing a lot on the lyrics and incorporating only what is essential to the songs to serve them well.”
In the tradition of great songwriters, she tells real stories as they are. Authentic, and distilled only enough to deliver the greatest impact. This scenario sees Baker as the editor of her own experiences, although it’s a word she’s reluctant to use. “I don’t want to say edit because that makes it sound like there was a lot of censoring going on, but I had a lot of time to think about and construct the poetry of the songs in a very intentional way.”
A key shift in constructing Turn Out The Lights was turning her view away from her own feelings to those of her loved ones. “I wanted to do less narrating where the songs were completely idiocentric and focused on my experience. In ‘Sprained Ankle’, the admissions are honest and valid and necessary because those emotions are true, but there’s little self-examination.”
“Every character that’s not me in the songs should be a variable that’s acting upon me… so that the stories and narratives about relationships are more about empathy and an exchange than they are just cataloging my hurt, or injury.”
But this new filter is a difficult one to look through, and in drawing this new perspective, Baker finds herself particularly self-critical. On opener ‘Appointments’, she sings “You don’t have to remind me so much how I disappoint you.” It’s a heavy weight to bear.
“It’s the exposition of a person who has not yet fully healed or wrapped their mind around what is healthy or what is necessary for coping and improving,” Baker explains. “Being honest about feeling like you disappoint others, or like there’s something intrinsically broken about you, is part of recognising that’s not exactly a true assessment of the situation.”
‘Sour Breath’ follows a similar thread, repeating the line “the harder I swim, the faster I sink”, building harmonies until her voice cuts through, acapella. It’s one of the record’s starkest moments; luminescent, like turning all the lights on at once and showing only yourself in the barest reality.
The line describes what Baker calls “cyclical thinking” using a quicksand metaphor, “the harder you fight against something, the faster it overtakes you… But that kind of thinking results from not being merciful with yourself and not giving yourself the same grace that you would give others.”
“‘Appointments’ and ‘Sour Breath’ are particularly despairing because they occur earlier in the record and I pushed it that way intentionally so that you have this illustration of what it feels like to grapple with those things. Then, throughout the record, you realise that it isn’t the harder you swim, the faster you sink. It feels that way, but progress is being made whether or not it looks linear and just because it’s invisible to other people doesn’t mean it’s not real and true and valid.”
In the past, Baker has described her music as being ‘simple’, which feels reductive for such impactful songs and emotionally complex subject matter. But it isn’t. Simplicity, both lyrically and musically, continues to be the foundation on which her art flourishes.
“I know that I have a propensity to be wordy and verbose,” she admits. (It’s true; when speaking with her, she pauses regularly until she has the perfect description, sometimes taking three or four attempts before settling on the exact word she wants. The poetry she uses, even in casual speech, is intimidatingly sophisticated.) “So when I’m writing, I try to get all of the raw material out there, like a lump of clay… then when I go to edit and refine the song I try to always, when I can, employ normal conversation.”
“The pieces of conversation that end up being lyrics are actual exchanges I’ve had with friends. They are artistic and poetic because it’s the natural poetry and drama of life and I would rather capture that in a simple way than try to construct an elaborate metaphor. And that’s true of my songwriting process, too. Instrumentally, instead of relying on a maximalist production approach, I want to impose parameters on myself that make me have to be resourceful by necessity and accomplish the most poignant thing with the least excess.”
“You think about an artist like Bruce Springsteen,” bringing the conversation back to her influences, “he can make Born To Run and have like a minute and a half long saxophone solo, but I think it’s because he can also make Nebraska and have a record of songs that are just on an acoustic guitar, and they both hold up.”
I can’t resist, at this point, asking what her favourite Springsteen record is. “I have the biggest emotional connection to Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” she responds, before interrupting herself to ask me a question: “Do you listen to Pedro the Lion?” (I say yes, perhaps over-enthusiastically.)
She continues, “When you listen to songs from Control [their 2002 album] or you listen to songs from Darkness On The Edge of Town, there are lyrics on those records that are just things that you could overhear two people say to each other at a bar or a gas station. They’re things that people think all the time, and that’s why they feel comforting and familiar and accessible to us.”
“Putting them in the context of a song makes us recognise deeper implications of what we’re saying when we say ‘I’d never divorce my wife without a good reason’ like [David] Bazan says in ‘Options’, or [Springsteen’s ‘Something In The Night’] where he says ‘Figuring I’ll get a drink, turn the music up loud so I don’t have to think’. Who hasn’t done that when they get off of work at their shitty job and they just want to turn up the radio and not think about anything?”
It is the same realism depicted in Julien Baker’s songs that will ultimately solidify her as one of the defining artists of the genre, moving deftly across emo, punk and the ever-elusive singer-songwriter category. Her descriptive accounts of the emotions associated with mental health difficulties, of being disappointing, or inadequate, or a failure, are so universally felt. The conversations she has on Turn Out The Light voice our innermost thoughts. Her struggles are ours.
In its concluding moments, her thoughts on those struggles are “unravelled and revealed”. On ‘Claws in Your Back’, Baker’s most extraordinary vocal performance to date, she discovers how to coexist with them: “I’m better off learning how to be, living with demons I’ve mistaken for saints / If you keep it between us, I think they’re the same”.