Julien Baker brings fresh perspective to local music scene

Memphis native singer-songwriter to perform at The Jefferson


This Sunday, the Jefferson Theater will host Julien Baker, a songwriter of remarkable candor, skill and poignancy.

Courtesy Julien Baker

This Sunday, the Jefferson Theater will host Julien Baker, a songwriter of remarkable candor, skill and poignancy. Baker broke out in 2015 with the LP “Sprained Ankle” — a set of songs she wrote largely while still living in a dorm room at Middle Tennessee State University — which stunned critics with its arresting beauty and striking sharpness. Baker sings of hope and hopelessness and of trust and doubt in both herself and her Christian faith. She is a queer Southerner in the Trump era — an identity in need of visibility today more than ever.

Baker came up in the Memphis DIY scene, playing in a band called Forrister all over Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee in various houses and small venues. The post-punk and emo culture she participated in then informs the stark, uninhibited emotional force of her solo work. After a nearly career-making viral NPR Tiny Desk concert, a handful of new singles, and some rigorous touring, Baker is poised to release a follow-up to to her first LP — “Turn Out the Lights” — Oct. 27. She spoke with The Cavalier Daily in advance of her performance at the Jefferson, sharing her thoughts on songwriting, DIY and her current place.

Arts & Entertainment: It seems like a lot has changed for you since you wrote the songs on “Sprained Ankle.” Is there anything you’re saying on this new record that you feel you couldn’t or wouldn’t have said then?

Julien Baker: The method of expressing and communicating my emotions has changed significantly since “Sprained Ankle,” and I think that contributed to a shift in tone on this record. While “Turn Out The Lights” discusses things in the same territory and is similar in having candor about emotions, I would like to think that the thought process behind the songs is more discerning and that that's because I've become more discerning in writing. There aren't things that I necessarily regret about the songs on the last record, but I think that having a more deliberate approach to writing has helped me not only in my musical but my personal life … While I can still write a song that explores the harsh realities of a negative emotion, I hope this record goes a step further, past description to confrontation, and documents the process of healing and improvement that can follow or accompany hurt or loss. 

A&E: You mentioned in an NPR interview this past January an idea posited by Jehnny Beth from Savages — that once a song is released, it belongs to the listeners and the meaning they ascribe to it becomes as valid as the meaning instilled by the writer. Do you think about your listeners when you write? Do you seek a sense of universality in your storytelling even as your songs cover such personal, experiential subject matter?

JB: I do think about my listeners when I write, and I know that for some artists that seems like something to be avoided, but for me I think it gives me perspective on the things I create. Art, especially music, has always been a collaborative, shared endeavor to me, so I think a lot about how music is a means of dialogue and how I can most effectively communicate, or allow others to communicate with each other even. Consideration of an audience or a listener doesn't so much motivate me to censor myself or assume an artificiality out of a desire to please a consumer of music, I think it actually does the opposite. Knowing that people are listening who have some level of investment in my art inspires me to make the most honest and authentic art that I can, even if it means being vulnerable. It seems sort of contradictory, but I think that making those difficult, very specific admissions that are deeply personal can achieve that, the ‘universality of storytelling’ where people feel endeared to each other by a willingness to share the personal or intimate. 

A&E: You have often spoken about how your involvement in DIY scenes growing up has shaped you as an artist and a person. What’s the most important facet of a thriving local music community to you? And can you put us onto some of the musicians you came up with in Memphis that haven’t broken out as widely as you have?

JB: I think that the principle, most crucial observation I could make or piece of advice I could give anyone in a local scene — or any musician in general — is to view your art collaboratively, not competitively. To always attempt to do things that are of mutual benefit to yourself and those around you. Don't think of opportunities as ultimatums, that either you get it or someone else does, but try to find ways to make opportunities the most advantageous for the people around you. The people and relationships that you invest in will be more rewarding than anything else. I think having a community and a network of support is always so much more helpful than some more fickle things like money or clout can be. As far as musicians I like, there are so many! It's difficult to narrow it down, so a few are Ryan Azada, Marco Pave, Pillowtalk — Calvin Lauber, who engineered my record, is in this band — Jadewick and China Gate.

A&E: Your guitar playing is often the only other thing featured in your music beside your vocals — I think as a result it often comes across as its own voice. How would you say the harmony and melodic fragments you choose to underscore your words develops their meaning?

JB: I try to write sparsely on purpose, at least when the songs are being formed initially because I place a lot of importance on lyrical content. I want to be able to write things that hold up and can be intact, strong songs, even if they are divorced from their sonic embellishments, if that makes sense. And so I always try to achieve the most out of the least extra parts, I guess that sort of self-limiting is a way I challenge myself intentionally to make sure the sounds or words I place in a song are essential. Trying to keep things as simple as possible I think forces an economy of words and sounds that is really helpful to songwriting.

A&E: What’s the best thing you’ve eaten so far on your current tour?

This is difficult! We've actually been between tours technically, doing one-off dates, and so I've been getting a little more time in Nashville — the best meal I've had there lately is at a place called LuLu. They have a vegan soft serve machine, that's about all I need to know about a place to love it. 

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