Sharon Van Etten and Julien Baker Bond Over Making Devastating Music

Julien Baker, left, and Sharon Van Etten. Photo: Getty Images

Two years ago — give or take a week — a DM exchange on Twitter between musicians Sharon Van Etten and Julien Baker blossomed into an email back and forth which lead to the former escorting the latter around New York City, with both their phones breaking, leaving their “teams” frustratedly incapable of getting in contact with them. Eventually, Van Etten got Baker to her show at Mercury Lounge, opening for the Canadian trio Elliott Brood, after which the fast friends were inseparable.

Baker has come a long way since then, and is set to headline at Town Hall tonight. There wasn’t much fanfare when her debut, Sprained Ankle, came out in October 2015, but her acclaim has grown steadily ever since, leading up to today’s release of Turn Out the Lights. Van Etten, meanwhile, has a number of albums under her belt already and deferred her acceptance to go back to college to focus on her acting work in The OA and Twin Peaks. After having a son earlier in the year, she is now heading back into the studio for a follow-up to 2014’s Are We There. Needless to say, they’ve both been busy, but they’ve only grown closer, seeing each other when they can, and texting wherever they are in the world. What follows is a peek into the friendship of two of today’s most beautifully devastating songwriters.

On Touring

Sharon Van Etten: Where are you?

Julien Baker: I am in this little town in Ontario. We’re in a random highway village in one of those travel motels, on our way to Montreal today.

SVE: I’m in New York. I’m at home right now and I’m heading to the studio after this call.

JB: How’s your sweet baby boy?

SVE: You’ll probably hear him because he is in his sweet jolly jumper right now, and whenever I talk on the phone he starts going “blah, blah, blah.” I’m so excited for you to see him!

JB: This time I won’t hold him like I’ve never held a child before. Babies are so small and angelic that I’m like, “How do I interact with this organism?”

SVE: He is definitely tough and stronger than when he was a newborn. He’s crawling and pulling himself up and grabbing things and eating solid food. How much longer are you out?

JB: I am out for this East Coast tour until the 29th. Then I stay in Philly for a day and then the day after that we go to New York and we fly out of New York to Europe and start a tour in the Netherlands that lasts three weeks. Then I fly home for Thanksgiving and I am off for five days. Then I start a West Coast tour that ends three days before Christmas. I’m in the process of disintegrating. I’m just kidding.

SVE: You’re constantly relocating.

JB: But it’s good because this particular tour has been the best, most healthy tour I’ve ever done. It is predominantly ladies, and of those ladies its several queer ladies and a lot of my friends who deal with similar mental circumstances and stuff, so everyone is super accommodating. The other day Nandi [Rose Plunkett, of Baker’s opening act Half Waif] got offstage and was having a freakout and crying and everybody huddled around her and hugged her until she stopped crying. They’re so sweet, its great.

SVE: Is the pressure a little higher on this tour? You have a lot of support around you, but do you feel the anxiety because your audience seems to have grown and your shows are getting bigger and the expectations grow?

JB: Oh man, I felt more fear about the expectations before the whole release of the first album was happening. But now that I’m on the road, I just try to be present, because I realized that my anticipation of the thing was actually making me nervous.[My partner] would go to work, or class, and I would stay at the house for eight hours and rehearse because I was terrified of not being able to pull off the song. But being in these rooms has been more fun than scary. People that have been around me on smaller and more comfortable tours are here with me, so it’s like, “Oh, we’re just doing what we normally do.” That’s all done for me, so now I just get to release this thing out into the world. You’re about to do the same thing though. I remember when you were just getting your studio together and now you’re about to write a record. How much is done?

SVE: Yesterday was my first day and I have all of the stuff pretty much written. Like lyrics here and there I need to finish, but also I’m open to collaboration on the form of the song. I have all these demos I’m bringing into the studio to see what happens and see how someone else will interpret that.

JB: Nice. Are you working with a band?

SVE: No, it’s a couple of producers, but since it’s in the beginning stages I don’t want to jinx it by saying who yet. A couple of people that i’ve collaborated with before. Now we’re gonna take that and see how we can make sense of my crazy all over the place songs. There are weird pop songs and weird folk songs, you know. You’ve seen my practice space where everything’s scattered all over, and I run around like it’s a playground and there is an organ and drums, synths, guitar, bass. It’s in demo land, where there is no genre. I’m not one of those people that has a vision for a sound going into it, like, “I want it to sound like this record” When I was making a playlist for inspiration I was like, “You know what, this is the music I’m listening to but it’s not what I want the record to sound like.” So, I have no idea, sonically, but that will be the fun part, finding out what the core of the songs are.

JB: That’s why your music doesn’t really sound like anything else. There is no easily comparable derivative factor of it and that gives it a really important authenticity. Do you ever feel compelled to focus things? Something I want to be more ambitious about is writing songs for a full band.

SVE: I didn’t start writing with band arrangements until I was working on Tramp. I remember there were these really slow songs and I’m trying to think, how do you hear this being a rock song? I trusted Aaron [Dessner, who produced the album] who pushed me to see beyond the guitar and vocal demos that I played for him. It just takes a couple of people to encourage that and then once you hear yourself with other instruments you’re like, “Oh, hey, ok, alright.”

I don’t know what this record is going to sound like. Recording it in one studio will give it the roof that it needs because you’re working with the same instruments that are in the same room and you most likely work with the same circle of people on that record, so there is a constant there.

On the First Time They Hung Out

SVE: My friend Hunter, who I used to work with at Badabing records, sent me a Julien Baker track saying, “I think this is right up your alley.” He is usually wrong ,which is funny, but he is one of my favorite people and we go pretty far back. As soon as I turned it on, my eyes teared up. I looked you up right away to see when you were playing in New York and I think it was a week later.

JB: I remember that, because it was wild, I had known who you were because I went to MTSU [Middle Tennessee State University, where Sharon Van Etten also went] and there were legends of you. You had said something to me on the internet, and I was freaking out and screenshotted it and was like, “Sharon Van Etten sent me a DM!” And then I was like, “Yooo you’re really nice for saying all of those kind things” and then we traded emails, and you were like, let me know when you’re in town and I did and then… Oh my god do you remember the first time we ever hung out and both of our phones broke at the same time and we ditched Mackenzie Scott [The lead singer/songwriter of Torres]

SVE: Well, we ditched Mackenzie by accident. Both of our phones died and I was walking you around the West Village trying to get you some healthy vegan food and then last minute you got ask to do a song with Matt [Berninger, the lead singer of the National and EL VY], right?

JB: He had two shows, playing with EL VY. They had a show in Manhattan, which I played. Then the opener for Williamsburg cancelled that day and they were like do you want to add a show, but no one could get in touch with me because my phone died and yours broke and you were trying to get us to hang out with Mackenzie, who is, by the way, one of my favorite artists of all time. I’m convinced now that I will never be friends with her. I have so much admiration for that artist and I so desperately want to be pals and I feel like i’ve ruined my only chance.

SVE: Have you not met her yet?

JB: Ok, I’ve met her a couple of times but it’s always been in the green room or dressing room. Last time I played in New York City I straight up ran from my show three blocks up to see Torres because they’re my favorite. She was back stage and there were of course 15 million people in the dressing room and it just wasn’t the best time to introduce yourself or have a super in-depth conversation. We played a show together at Lincoln Hall, which was amazing, but I don’t like to intrude upon people’s pre-show routines.That space is so important for people’s mental health.

But anyway that was a crazy day. And I don’t know if I ever told you this, but in the process of trying to use your phone, I accidently synced my calendar to yours. So for a while I would get these updates on my Google Calendar that would be like “karaoke night with Zeke”

SVE: I had no idea. You probably know a lot more about me then you’ll ever let on, huh?

JB: It was literally the only thing that ever came up: DJ night, karaoke night, dinner plans. I felt so weird and voyeuristic but I’m also too technologically inept to know how to turn it off.

On Mentorship

SVE: I’m glad that Hunter sent me your song and that I stalked you online and that we found each other in the city and got lost together for a second and that you still want to talk to me.

JB: It’s so great to very early on to have been able to talk with someone for an extended period time, and be friends with and email like pen pals, with someone who has been doing the thing that I was just embarking upon. A seasoned veteran of that world to provide little nuggets of insight.

I’ve been thinking a lot about it on this tour too, for some reason. Especially with women in music there is this unnecessary competitive element. And, like, why? Why do people do things where they try to put peers up against each other?  It was such a good thing to have collaboration modelled for me by someone who had several more record making and releasing experiences ahead of me. To be like, “This is how you treat people.” I already knew that from growing up in the DIY world but seeing that translated into somebody who is a professional legend, who does not change the way everyone tells you it will.

SVE: Woahhh, professional? Legend? I don’t think I’m there yet but thanks [both laugh].

JB: I would call you a professional. You’re professional! What does professional even mean?

SVE: I don’t know. I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a professional, but I like to dress up like one. I have done this a little longer than you but I wouldn’t say I’ve been doing this a really long time, My first record only came out in 2009. But I’ve done it longer than you, and especially living in New York, I’ve seen different ways people burn out and different ways people succeed and different ways people feel nurtured and ways I’ve felt people have helped me along the way, and also ways I’ve gathered myself along the way, so when I see someone starting out in a really innocent place, where I respect their music and we connect on a personal level, there’s not any golden advice I can give or know better than anybody but I just want to support you.

JB: That’s maybe more insightful and more wise to just be a person who is candid and honest, with experience to draw upon. To just be there to say, “I see you, and I see what you’re doing. and I’m just going to gently exist here in a realm of support.”

It came across to me in our first conversation just how much, when you admire an artist, the way you go about forming a personal connection with them is so pure. It’s just nice to have people around and see people actively trying to construct a community of mutual support around music.

SVE: Well, I’m excited to see you.I hope that it’s soon. When are you in NY again?

JB: We are playing in Town Hall, but I don’t want to invite you to that… I don’t want our only interaction to be in this environment of chaos. It’ll be like a bunch of people are coming up to the show and I’m probably going to hide in a broom closet somewhere. And we’re not staying in New York. We’re leaving and that stinks.

SVE: Yeah, you’re doing a lot. You’re squeezing in a lot. You never have to feel guilty. We will figure out a time to connect whether it be this trip or another time, because I feel like our worlds are meant to collide and you can’t force that. But I miss you and I want to see you.

JB: I miss you too! The thing that is comforting about being a touring musician is whenever I say bye to my friends, I’m like, “I don’t know when I’ll see you again but it’ll be sooner than I think and if it’s not soon then it won’t matter.” There are people I haven’t seen for a year and we will do a show or something and when we hang out it’ll be this instant endearment. I’m like, “Our lives, the cosmos, are intersecting, and this will bring us closer together again. I have no doubt.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Sharon Van Etten and Julien Baker Discuss Their Friendship