When you're 19 and you've lived through substance abuse, people like to tell you that you're wise beyond your years. It's something singer-songwriter Julien Baker gets a lot, especially after people hear her music, which is filled with the sort of pain you expect from someone well beyond her teen years. But Baker thinks everyone is wrong about her. She admits to "having to confront darkness" in her past, but she likes to think of herself as "eternally becoming." That's exactly what you hear in her debut album, Sprained Ankle, which Vulture is pleased to stream exclusively ahead of its release this Friday. I contest Baker is not wise beyond her years, but uncannily wise of her years; her songs are filled with indecision, self-frustration, and uncertain hope.
When I first heard Baker's music, I thought of Sharon Van Etten, but soon realized Sprained Ankle is more like Bon Iver's For Emma Forever Ago or the Antlers' Hospice, two recent classics of catharsis made by accident, out of necessity. Last year, Baker moved away from Memphis to study literature, Spanish, and secondary education at Middle Tennessee State University, leaving behind her band Forrister. With no friends or bandmates, Baker wrote alone about being alone, and the heavy, self-reflective thoughts one has when alone. She recorded demos, which led to her finding a producer and making an album that she thought only her friends back home would hear. Turns out the audience for her grappling with mortality, addiction, and loss of faith was a bit bigger than she imagined — and for good reason: Sprained Ankle will break your heart at least once, you know, if you are prone to such reactions. Stream it below, and read on for our equally candid Q&A with Baker. (Note: the stream says there are only three songs, but when you press play it will play the whole album.)
Do you think your music is sad?
I don’t say that it’s sad. I always say ambient, because I have four reverb pedals and three delays that I don’t need. But I’ve been told by many a person that it is. They’re like, "You make sad-bastard music." Okay! I mean, the lyrics are sad. I try to provide an element of positivity if not in the explicitly stated lyrics, in the overall feel, the overall message of the record. I don't just want to bum people out or be a self-indulgent broken artist trope. Still, it’s also important to just create a realistic, relatable experience. And so the sadness in my music I hope comes across as things that other people can relate to and can feel comforted by, and not "woe is me." "I went through a breakup – woe is me." "Woe is me, I had a drug habit, and now it’s better."
The first lyric of the first single, "Sprained Ankle," is, “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death.” It’s a funny thing to lead with, as a sort of mission statement.
They’re not all about dying! Some of them are about almost dying or being afraid of death or a relationship dying. I remember exactly when I wrote that. I was sitting in my dorm and it was almost a joke with myself. I was just writing these sad, bummer songs, and it was like, What is wrong with me? Why can’t I feel better? I wish I could write about something happy. I wish I could write something other than songs about frickin’ death. What if I just say that lyric in the song? I texted the lyrics to one of my friends, and he was like, "I love it!" So I kept it and it’s good because it’s an endeavor of mine to write songs about more significant things. I don’t want to dwell on negativity, but you have to confront it. It’s a weird balance to find.
Your song "Rejoice" is very raw in its recording, especially the vocals when you scream, "I think there's a God and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain."
All of the songs were about that specific time, asking God, where are you because there’s suffering – my friends are suffering and the world is suffering – and I feel brokenness and hatred? I’ve finally reached a more peaceful time. I can write these scathing songs or write happy tunes and it’s going to be constant, like there’s somebody there who knows who I am and my faults and are not dissuaded of love by them. I wanted that part to be really intense, because it’s that freeing notion of you have an ability to write songs, you can say whatever you want, and you can literally scream at someone. I’ve spent a lot of time as a petulant child, squandering my talents and time – essentially abusing the gift of life. When I realized how absolutely precious life was, I was like, "Thanks for sustaining me."
What made you realize that?
It’s been a long process. There was a time in my life when I was predisposed to substance abuse and I don’t talk about that a lot, because now all of my friends know me as 100 percent dry-as-a-bone Julien, who’s a grandma, but that’s how I have to be, and that’s okay. I’m a lot happier. But it took some really serious confrontations. There have been a number of times in my life where I have confronted the very real possibility of bodily harm and injury at the hands of self-destructive behaviors, which were coming out of sadness or feeling alone or feeling like God doesn’t love me and there is no God watching over me -- basically, there’s no one to love me. Well, I don’t even care about my life, so I’m going to destroy myself and drink and do drugs and put myself in harm’s way intentionally and just hope I should die.
When it was so close to my life actually being taken away from me, I realized, Oh, no, wait, there is so much evidence of God – whatever manifestation, if you want to say Christ or an undivided love. There is so much evidence of positivity in this world, and I couldn’t allow that to slip away because I’m so selfish. So I started writing these songs about how sad I was. Through writing this record I came to terms with a lot of the fear and self-hatred and loneliness that I needed to. Now, what’s so cool is that when I go and perform these songs, a lot of times people will message me or talk to me after the show and be like, “I needed to hear that.” It's precisely why I wanted to share this music with people. These are songs are about my actual life. It’s shameful – you feel dirty and gross – but then someone says, "That’s what I needed to hear,” and you’re like, "It was 100 percent worth it. God is real and he loves you."
So let’s say this starts happening on a larger scale, and you get to play festivals or you get to do TV. Are there any famous people you'd like to meet?
Ooooh. I always say this: I love Demi Lovato so much. Her music is great. She writes these incredible power-pop anthems. Also when I read interviews with her, on a serious note, she’s really candid about recovery, and that’s so awesome and important. I have a lot of respect for her. Also, I’d love to meet [MewithoutYou's] Aaron Weiss, but I’m afraid. If I got a chance to meet [Pedro the Lion's] David Bazan or [Death Cab for Cutie's] Ben Gibbard, I would freak out. But at the same time I don’t know if I should. They always say, don’t meet your idols. I’d also love to meet Taylor Swift. I’m such a 12-year-old girl. I love 1989 and everyone does.
Funny, I was going to ask you about Taylor Swift ...
Taylor Swift is a newfound allegiance of mine. When I started making music, when I was 12 or 13 years old, it was Take This to Your Grave by Fall Out Boy. I would play through those records. I would be like, "Oh, Taylor Swift is lame, preppy bull crap." Every teenager is really loyal to their music scene – especially being punk and hard-core. So my initial reaction to Taylor Swift was, "This is bubblegum pop nonsense and it’s not important and it doesn’t have heart." Well, that’s not true. For a person to be musically mature, you have to be able to appreciate all genres of music, and be able to listen to songs and find at least one thing you like about it. So I listened to Red and was like, "You know what? Objectively, this is a great record. I like Taylor Swift." I changed my mind. I became an adult instead of just a kid who was like, “If it’s not punk, get out of my face!” It doesn’t mean that I still don’t gravitate toward those other genres more. But I do love me some Tay, you know?