Interview: Julien Baker talks Little Oblivions, songwriting, boygenius and creative freedom

Julien Baker

Singer-songwriter Julien Baker is all set to release her forthcoming album Little Oblivions later this week. Officially released on February 26th, the album delivers a sound that is bigger, bolder and more expansive than the sparse intimacy that we’ve come to expect from Baker.

Recorded pre-COVID, Little Oblivions might be a sonic shift for Baker, but there’s no dip in quality. Instead, it’s perhaps her best work to date, and showcases an artist comfortable to play with, and push against expectations. And, as you would expect from Baker, the songwriting remains very much first class. 

We caught up with Baker late last year, shortly after the release of lead single “Faith Healer”, to chat about the new record and its creation. 

Congratulations on Little Oblivions. It’s a fantastic album. It’s so clearly a Julien Baker record, but there’s also been a real shift in your sound. Bigger, perhaps bolder, certainly, more expansive. Did you feel more freedom to play with your sound on album number three?

Yeah, I mean, I guess it’s like I had always had the freedom to play around, but had considered myself – just because of the nature of everything that happened around me getting signed and making music that was radically different from being in a band setting – I think I saw myself as somebody who excelled in minimalism and then kind of arbitrarily made that a conviction of my songwriting. That I was going to try to do the most artistically with the least amount of musical instruments I suppose. And, I just realized that I was doing that for no good reason.

Yeah. So I thought I would make… This record is also different because I used to write everything for solely myself, and then just come into the studio and do seven days of tracking. And, that was the record and it was done. This one took a year to make. So I think there was so much more time to sit and think about the nuances of like the percussive elements or if I wanted there to be synths. Or think how those things can serve the song in a tasteful way. But yeah, it was neat. It made me happy to open myself back up to that again in a way I hadn’t since high school.

November was the fifth anniversary of the release of Sprained Ankle. Looking back, what do you feel has changed about the way you go about writing, playing, recording? Equally, what do you feel has stayed the same, been a constant?

I like that you made room for both. For the things that have stayed the same and what’s changed, because it’s interesting.

When I was making Sprained Ankle, I was making it for no audience that I was aware of. I really didn’t expect the record to do well. And, I had pitched my band, at that point, to the label that was trying to sign me for my solo record. Then that became my main gig and I put out another record.

But with that record, I knew I had a label and these resources and a booking agent and a budget. And I wanted to do something deliberate with my music because of the gifts that I’ve been afforded. You know?

So, I think I took on this bizarre… I don’t want to say bizarre because that maybe sounds negative. But a very serious cerebral approach to songwriting. And as a matter of course then like a cerebral approach to evaluating my own past and my feelings, then trying to wrap them up in philosophy and theology and make a for hopefulness or like the ultimate triumph of love.

With this record, I took a step back from touring and really re-evaluated how I saw myself in the world when I wasn’t being a public persona. And, I feel like it made me return to songwriting as a place to eject all of my thoughts that I couldn’t say anywhere else, because they were weird. Like thoughts that were bleak, but were too uncomfortable to discuss with my friends or my family. So, it’s been a very cyclical journey I feel like.

Talking about songwriting, does it remain a cathartic experience for you? Do you still write in the same way?

Yeah, I would say I do. I mean, I’ve always written in the same way. But, I think maybe I edited my songs differently. All of the songs have their origin in me feeling an intense emotion and needing to write.

I was going to say several songs, or like try several versions of a song, or make several voice memos that are about just a raw outpouring of emotion so that I can have some time with it and then look at it with some perspective. And that’s how the songs have always been.

But I think maybe with this record I tried intentionally to leave in the things that were a little bit more candid, and the things that maybe were cringey.

You’ve always struck me as quite a literary songwriter. There’s a poetry there, that is not always present in a lot of songwriting. Are you influenced a lot by writers or poets in your writing?

Yeah. You know, and I think it’s interesting because especially man, I have such a vivid memories of doing interviews with people around the last record that I was releasing and the kind of books that I was talking about. And they were all like, I was referencing [Rainer Maria] Rilke and [Søren] Kierkegaard and [Walt] Whitman and very… I don’t even want to say antiquated, because it’s pertinent stuff now still, but it’s like just kind of austere.

And I’ve been over the last year or so, I’ve been trying to challenge myself to detach from thinking that non-fiction holds a superiority over fiction. Or not a superiority, but like that it’s clearer and to the point about the answers that I am trying to find out. I’ve been reading more novels, like getting more into storytelling and how storytelling and even in a fictional pretense can really be just as illuminating about human emotions, human experiences. I mean, at the end of the day, songwriting isn’t the reporting of a study. It’s just proof to whatever extent humans can be true with their biased opinions, or account of your story.

So, what books, or even just art in general, would you recommend then that fans explore to get a better sense of Julien Baker, the musician, the songwriter, and the artist? What have you been reading this year?

What have I been reading this year? I finally read Catch 22 and I really liked it. I read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. And it was incredible and spiritually affecting.

I read this book, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. And it’s one of my favorite books I’ve ever read, in all of time. It is so good.

And, I just recently read this book about this kind of clandestine queer community in rural Appalachia called Stay and Fight, that I really like.

Just beautiful stories. Yeah. And I mean all of those are fictional. And I mean, they were just things that were extremely nourishing to my mind that were still outside the realm of reality, I suppose.

Can you see that sort of fictional writing coming into your song writing a bit more? Maybe I guess sort of treating the song like a miniature short story kind of like?

Yeah… no… I mean, it does kind of feel that way, when I think about the lyrics on this record. They’re so much more detailed, and specific vivid detail and emotion based than it is focusing on feelings and concepts.

And of course, I feel like I have a bias against this, not to be tedious about it. And, yeah, it’s not to say that that’s all Turn Out the Lights is. But, it’s such a stark difference for me I suppose. Because, I am familiar with those songs and the associations I’ve imbued them with.

So, maybe other people don’t think that about my songs. But, that’s something really easy for me to recognize in my own songwriting. Yeah. So, I don’t want to say something that would change a person’s opinion of them. Yeah. I’m like: “That’s probably just me because I wrote the songs,” and it’s just me being self-conscious.

I wanted to quickly talk about boygenius as well. Looking back on the project, how would you say it’s maybe influenced your craft as well?

I think it’s made me feel less… Gosh, less restrained by my projected expectations of people. Whether, that’s my label or my manager or the people that listen to my music or my friends. Yeah, and that’s not even entirely just them as musicians, even though I am such a genuine fan of both of them.

It’s more just the modeling that they do in our friendship. I mean, we all are friends outside of this band that we have that is publicly perceived. And, yeah, I think they contributed to me, sort of, re-examining the parameters that I had around my life, and like wondering if those were of my own making or not. You know what I mean?

Yeah.

Just kind of reorganizing priorities and stuff.

Is it a project you hope to return to as a group?

Yeah. Oh yeah. We all very much do so.

Speaking of the group, Phoebe Bridges has been nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Performance, in a category that was dominated by women and female led bands. I was just wondering how important a statement you felt that was?

I felt like… Lucy and I are just here to hype Phoebe because we love her and she’s our friend. And, I couldn’t be more excited for her. And, it’s kind of weird, because for so long I had kind of, I don’t know, not dismissed the Grammys. But, categorized them in this realm of something I don’t know how I feel about, and as an institution that is inherently flawed. And, even though it is a great honor, I don’t know how accurate or representative of a media topography it is.

But, then it’s like Phoebe got nominated and I saw all the nominations. Brittany Howard is in there too, incredible! And I mean, it’s significant to me obviously because of emotional investment in my friends having achieved something so great.

But then it’s also like, I recognize that although this might be a fundamentally flawed institution, it is now recognizing the pushback of people who have critiqued it. And, instead of choosing to go right along on its course, it’s now acquiescing to a norm, or what I hope to become a norm of more inclusion.

It’s always that thing when Target makes shirts about Pride or about things that are related to racial justice. Like sure they’re like a corporation that is profiting off of this because the scales have tilted in their favor for it to be more favorable for them to be progressive than conservative.

But, to me, being aware of that reality doesn’t preclude that it’s amazing that the collective consciousness is trying to tip the scales towards inclusion and that that’s being represented in things as massive and as austere as the Grammys. Does that make sense? That was super convoluted.

No, that makes sense. It’s sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s they’re aware that if they do this, it might I guess be viewed. I don’t like using the term, ”virtue signaling”. But, you know it’s sort of going “Look, we got it right.”

But, also with the whole Target thing, it’s got to the point where they’re comfortable making those decisions and that obviously there’s been enough of a change within society that, “Yeah, we’re going to do this and we know we’re going to make money from it.”

Exactly. And I mean, it sucks. It sucks to know that it is motivated by profit, but it also is like-

It’s a kind of glimmer of hope in the background.

Yeah, exactly.

They’re able to profit off it, because there has been that change.

Yeah. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism. From there we can move on to doing our best.

So, I’m guessing thanks to Covid, that you haven’t had a lot of time to tour this year?

No. It’s funny. We took some time off in 2019, and then right at the beginning of 2020 in, like, February. We had a whole bunch of dates lined up and I was ready. Within my personal life I felt ready to get back at it and hit the road. And then quarantine happened in March.

Or at least that’s when I guess things became acknowledged like on a wider level in the United States. And then yeah, we’ve taped a couple of live sessions and that’s the only shows we’ve played all year and it’s been, man, it’s been sad.

Are you the kind of artist that road tests your material beforehand? Do you play it live before you record?

Oh, okay. I see what you mean. I played most of the drums and all the other instruments on the record. And then the engineer, my good friend, Calvin who made it with me at Young Avenue Sound, he played drums on one song and did some synth and programming.

But that record [Little Oblivions] is essentially a studio experiment with a whole bunch of chopped up drums. And so, it’s been… actually such a nice change to differentiate from making music alone at my desk right here, where I’m talking to you, and to be in a practice space, trying to translate songs that weren’t written for a formal band. But, that have layers and layers upon weird experimental sounds that are just some kooky thing I did on the synth pad one time and trying to integrate those all into a cohesive song, without it being an exact reproduction.

That’s been giving me a lot of joy recently, because I haven’t otherwise, I… I’ve just been making music alone in my room.

So, when the album comes out in February, is this going to be the first time that the majority of your fans have heard it?

Yeah. Yeah. It will be. Yeah. The record comes out in February. I don’t know. I think that’s the US release date. But, yeah, we haven’t really had a chance to play any of the new songs live. And, we reworked a bunch of the old songs. I was really excited to perform that live before we dropped a full band record, to kind of, you know, negotiate that gap.

But COVID got in the way.

But it is what it is. I’m excited still for whenever I’ll get to perform live.

Excellent. To wrap up, are there any songs in particular in the album that you’re most keen for fans to hear?

Oh man.

Yeah, sorry, you’re not supposed to tell people your favorite, are you?

I actually, you know what I love, I like this song “Highlight Reel”. And, I like this song “Hardline”. I’m sorry, neither of those are out yet. “Hardline” is going to be a single, but Highlight Reel is not. But, both of those songs remind me so much of the music that I listened to growing up. Just very heavy, dark indie rock, or I guess Hardcore adjacent maybe.

It’s the music that, I guess, I would’ve been making when I was in high school and there’s still something in my core that loves a Manchester Orchestra, big guitar halftime, double chorus. And, I’m really excited to be able to play that kind of music live for people again. I hope that that’s what they want. I don’t know. But, that’s what I wanted.

Little Oblivions, the third album from Julien Baker, is out February 26th via Matador / Remote Control Records. Pre-order the album HERE.

You can keep up to date with Julien Baker via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and via her Official Site.

Header Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Simon Clark

Books Editor. An admirer of songs and reader of books. Simon has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. All errant apostrophes are his own.

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