As Julien Baker’s new album, Little Oblivions, has arrived (conveniently reviewed for your edification here) and issues of mental health, faith, addiction and the fruits of honesty can be found among its lyrics, it’s worth remembering that these have been constants in her short but rewarding career so far.
As Wind Back Wednesday takes a short step back to 2016 - before her first tour to Australia and between her first and second albums - here’s a chance to see the ticking heart of Baker’s search … for meaning? … and the ground on which these newest songs were nurtured.
Julien Baker would like you to know that she’s pretty happy. Not just chirpy and chatty, which is undoubtedly true, but happy all the way down.
Yes, the 21-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee, writes sad songs, deeply gouged out of troubled times (substance abuse, breakups) and questioning faith, but as she said once, “I write those sad songs so that I can afford to be dorky and just happy”.
That’s why she is amused by the reactions from people who “thought I would be a brooding, introspective, tortured artist” and then can’t get their heads around her effervescence and humour.
"You don't have to be defined by your suffering," says Baker who sings intense folkish songs in a voice devoid of tricks over little more than one or two instruments played by her.
Not that everyone on the Baker team has quite grasped that message. There’s something both right and wrong about this line from a press release announcing her debut solo album, Sprained Ankle: “Thankfully, now the world will be able to share in her passion and sorrow.” Yes, we can take value from sharing in her passion and sorrow but there’s something discomforting about celebrating our ability to thrive on her sorrow.
“There’s a learning curve for an artist who prides herself, as many of my heroes also do, on honesty and authenticity and vulnerability as a display of strength. Learning when to say I’m allowed to withhold parts of my life, for myself," Baker says. "But at the same time when I go on stage, I try to acknowledge that, yes, these songs are sad, let’s laugh about how almost comically sad they are. Then say, I can be a well-adjusted individual because the songs are so sad.”
This wasn’t meant to be some public exorcism after all: the songs were recorded mainly to have a record of material she’d written outside her school-and-then-college band, Forrister, and put up on Bandcamp for what she assumed was a handful of friends. Even when a small label approached her to release those songs she expected the album to drift away. Instead, Sprained Ankle has become a quiet storm and sent her on the road all over the world.
In fact, Baker should be at school right now, beginning another year of her literature degree (with a double minor in Spanish and secondary education) that was she really enjoying – "I feel like such a dork but I loved school" - but success has complicated matters.
She's moved from the marvellously named college town of Murfreesboro back to her home in Memphis with the view that “I’m going to pursue this avenue of my life until it becomes non-sustainable and then I will return to school because I don't want to divide my efforts and give less than 100 [per cent] to either”.
That’s not so much sensible as typical for Baker who is both practical and passionate about just about every aspect of her life. Including faith. On Sprained Ankle she is asking questions of her faith, which doesn’t mean she’s lost it - far from it.
There’s an almost ecstatic declaration of (flawed but still vital) belief near the end of the album, called Rejoice, which says "I think there is a god and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain”.
How does she feel about the argument, flowing from the idea of us drawing comfort from her sorrow and pain, that the value of god can sometimes be as simple as someone we believe we can talk to. Someone who hears, even if there is no response or return on faith.
"To me the same thing applies: you have texts which you must interpret and that's what blows my mind about people who are not willing to allow for some mystery or lack of clarity about what God is and persecute other people based on their interpretation,” she says.
If you were to believe in the divine maybe you would see it in the art of someone like Baker.
“It makes me think of a Patti Smith quote, like ‘god is in all art and art is ultimately a reflection of God’, though I’m probably butchering [the quote] to no end,” she says.
“There's certainly something of the divine, to me literally the Divine, in art because when I play a show the communication possible between two people are experiencing music, or visual art, is indicative of a grand design."