Posted on January 21, 2019

Interview

Ahead of her upcoming debut show in Korea, we caught up with Julien Baker for a phone interview. Julien is an incredibly easy individual to talk to and what should have been a brief 20 minute chat turned into an hour of in depth conversation with one of the most exciting singer songwriters of our time. We have done a lot of interviews over the years, but rarely do we get to speak to someone as insightful and as personable as Julien Baker.


# Growing up in Tennessee, I’d assume you’ve been surrounded by plenty of blues and country music, but your music rests in this emotionally-driven folk sound. How did you go about crafting your own style?

I feel like I didn’t necessarily craft a style on purpose. The music I was making, especially for Sprained Ankle was informed by my technical limitations. I used to make music in a post-hardcore band, a post rock band or an indie band depending on who is categorizing. Then I moved to college, where I just had myself and a looper, I was very into ethereal music and so I wanted to create something that was ambient, but not just straight forward acoustic music. So these songs sort of took shape in the absence of a band, and me trying to work out how to fill up space and how to write songs that sound full while performing alone, as a solo artist.

# How crucial was it having that looping pedal to help fill the space that would normally be filled by other musicians?

There was some stuff with the looping pedal, but also there were some songs, especially on the first record that are just electric guitar and no loops. There is stuff I had seen performed that comes from the punk world, like Andy Hull (the lead singer from Manchester Orchestra), where he would do sets just played with an electric guitar. Or people like Billy Bragg, who are doing really emotional performances as if they were a band. They create a lot of vocal dynamics and are being very expressive, but all they use is a simple guitar.

I heard that you’re a big fan of hardcore, what got you into that scene and that style of music?

Like any kid I saw it on TV and was introduced to it by other kids in my class. What really solidified my obsession with it was when I went to see a hardcore performance by a band, and the band members were physically on the same level as the audience. They were right there on the floor and they would do this thing where they would put the microphone up to all the audience members (to have them sing along) and I thought it was so amazing. It was amazing to see a person screaming, it was a revolution to me that there was a context where all the aggression, fear and anger that I felt didn’t break some kind of social decorum and that it could be perceived as passionate and could have an outlet. It was also amazing that this person, who is in a position of relative power as the lead singer of a band, is choosing to involve the audience in the experience, even when they don’t have to. Then, it becomes a collaborative and shared exchange, I thought that was incredibly beautiful and comforting even.  

# That shared exchange between the artist and the crowd …. Have you wanted to incorporate more of that into your own performance?

Absolutely. I mean, my music is pretty subdued sonically I suppose, and people come to shows for a multitude of different reasons as well, so sometimes the attitudes are more reverent or quiet and nobody interacts much. It is more of an observance, and that’s ok. But, I do love it when people sing. That, to me is the most gratifying part of performing. Because for that moment the experiences which make these songs (which have quite bleak subject matter) get to be extrapolated from their personal significances to my own life and they get to become something more symbolic and can connect you to hundreds of other human beings at once. That feeling of not being alone is really important and precious to me. That said, it’s not wrong for people to wanna come to a show and just observe.

# In other interviews, I’ve realized that a lot of artists don’t like to look at the crowd during shows, and I heard you feel a similar way. So is it stage fright or just hyper-focus?

I am quite shy, inside. But my way of dealing with that anxiety is to be super chipper and outgoing person-to-person. Also, as a performer I have a desire to express the feelings that I have and I love sharing that with people. But I am also terribly stricken with stage fright. The most relaxing thing for me is when people are loud and engaging, because when it is really quiet, I can focus too much on the performance. I get very hung up on if I have hit the notes perfectly or not. The more silence there is the more I fixate on those things.  

# What is the main way you have dealt with the stage fright over the years?

Part of it is preparation, I practice like a crazy person. But you are still going to make mistakes and I think that is infuriating. No matter how much you practice and no matter how seriously you take performing, there will be times where you make mistakes, and that is ok. Preparation helps. I used to take a minute to myself before I went on stage, to clear my head. But then I found out that just lets my thoughts run rampant. So instead, I try to be in a good head space and be laughing with the other people on the tour or the other band. I try to be joking around until literally the moment I walk on stage. That makes me in a loose mood and I’m not thinking about all the people out there.

# What kind of things do you like to do to clear your head, loosen up and have fun with other people?

Just sitting around and talking. It’s interesting as a touring musician, when you’re at the show there’s nowhere for you to go. You just sit backstage and watch the other bands. Which is great for me, as I have the great fortune of being able to tour with artists that I really, really like. I have never done a tour with an artist that I do not deeply admire. So, it is great I get to watch a show and be amazed by a musician and then go out and play my own set. That makes me feel happy and lucky to do what I do. Throughout the day I try to run or do some sort of exercise everyday, because that is a really good centering practice I believe.


Ⓒ Nolan Knight

# Who are the musicians that you’re thinking of, or drawing from, when you play?

That’s a hard one. As a songwriter, probably Andy Hull from Manchester Orchestra, Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie, and David Bazan from Pedro The Lion. But it is interesting as a lot of my favorite bands, they don’t seem like they have an impact on my songwriting. My favorite band in the world is MeWithoutYou. They are a bizarre, folkey, hardcore band. It’s difficult because all the things I listen to, like Circa Survive, Mewithoutyou or Pedro the Lion, they’re dark indie rock or emo-adjacent rock. Maybe they don’t seem to to have an obvious influence on my music, but they would actually be the biggest ones.

# So would you say that the way you interpret these bands is different to the way most people would describe them?

I think that is safe to say. Everybody is filtering their experience through their own lens. So, for example when I try to teach myself an Elliott Smith song on the guitar … I’m not going to be able to photocopy what he plays. It’s going to be sifted through my own way of listening.

# I wanna ask about collaborations. I know you recorded a song with Frightened Rabbit for their Recorded Songs EP, you covered Bleachers’ “Everybody Lost Somebody” for Jack Antonoff’s Terrible Thrills 3, obviously your talent is in high demand. What has working with other artists been like for you personally?

It has been extremely fulfilling because it has given me a way to share with other people and create music that is collaborative and not just limited to my isolated perspective. I think for anyone, that can become pretty boring after awhile and it would be megalomaniacal and pretty self-obsessed to just think that your way is the best and right all the time. So getting to collaborate with other artists is one of the greatest joys of being a musician. Being able to learn and study other people’s methods and have that illuminate new ways of doing things. I feel like there is always something you can learn from every single person, no matter their formal skill level or status. Just playing with other people and spending time listening to them and observing is something valuable and it teaches humility in a really healthy way, and teaches you how to be a better musician and a more considerate person.

# You mentioned humility. You are an artist that is becoming more and more popular, with that in mind how important is humility for you?

Incredibly. It is the most important thing. I think a lot about perspective. I think the task of reassessing your perspective is a daily thing that you have to be very disciplined at. It’s really easy as an artist in an insular world, an insular profession, to start to see yourself in a skewed light. That could be positively, like an inflated ego or negatively in a deflated ego where you think the worst of yourself. It is really important to me to practice humility and I try to be aware of my perspective.

# If you could collaborate with another artist whose music is not at all similar to your own, who would it be?

I love Noname. I love SZA. I really like St. Vincent. There are a lot of female solo pop, rap, RnB, Soul artists. There is so much cool stuff. The Internet is amazing too. They’re like a funk band. It is so good. I would love to do something like that. I think it’s easy for me to say “Oh, I would love to collaborate with a hardcore band” because I feel familiar with that genre, but I think that part of being a musician is being able to challenge yourself and I am not familiar with funk at all. So it would be so crazy to collaborate with someone like that and see what their process entails.

# Now you’ve also formed the supergroup boygenius with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. I know you were touring together, but what in particular made this endeavor happen?

We knew we were going to tour together and we wanted to find a way where we could make the live show special. So we were batting around ideas, thinking about doing a cover together or perhaps writing one original track together. Then, as our excitement grew, so did the project and it snowballed into this thing where we were spending time recording with each other. We were going to just release it as a collaborative effort between the three of us, using our own names. Then, the more we started to appreciate this new iteration of all of our creative skills, the more we began to understand it as a completely separate animal. Then we decided to call it boygenius. It’s really nice being able to be in a band, everything I was just saying about collaborating with other musicians has been incredibly fulfilling and it has been really positive for my confidence as a musician too. Being able to work with people who understood where I was at was really healthy and a positive exercise.

# Was there a particular moment where you felt that just doing one song wasn’t enough and where you felt like you needed to do a whole EP?

No. It wasn’t necessarily that. We just decided as we were texting and emailing each other to get together and record all the songs we possibly can. The flood gates really opened up when we realized how excited we all were about it. Then we just started sending each other little voice memos and demos that we had recorded. Then we spent a day writing together and I think that helped even more for us to establish a rapport, because it sort of broke down the walls of shyness that you have when you are sharing something so deeply personal with other people. From there, it just got more and more exciting. To feel like you don't have to have the fear of being doubted, minimalized or delegitimized by your peers, because they are also women in the music industry and also younger than most of the people they are working with and they have experienced that same sort of adversity. So I think everyone felt extremely valued and comfortable.

# Why the name Boy Genius?

A common experience that we found when we were talking about our experiences and comparing notes with each other was that, as women who are musicians, the way women are socialised is to not take up too much space and to minimise themselves, to get out of the way when necessary and not to be heard as much. They are more easily questioned simply because they are women. Where as men, especially if they are gifted from a young age are often socialised to think that every idea they have is great and they are encouraged in all of these ways because, in men the quality of ambition is positively received. That same ambition in women though, can often be labeled as overbearing. Then women are taught to shrink themselves and to offer less ideas. The reason we didn't have a producer on this record was because we wanted to prove that there doesn’t need to be an older, superior male force shepherding all of the raw ideas of women. Women simply need to, not even be given the space, but to understand that they already have the space and entitlement to say their ideas out loud without fear of having their whole legitimacy questioned. So when we started operating as if we had no apprehensions, being in the studio as if we had the same entitlement and confidence that society would afford a man … it was such a better recording process because we felt at liberty to share all our ideas without pretense.

# Your first album Sprained Ankle came about when you were in your teens and probably still developing your own sound, but it felt rooted in these themes of feeling lost and questioning your place in the world or in relationships. What kind of ideas were you wrestling with at that point?

That record is really interesting because, on the second record music had become my primary occupation and I had all this time to consider the position of the artist in contrast to all these people I was seeing at shows, who were singing along with the music. It was really grounding and humbling for me. The first record is largely about my own personal struggles with god and my relationship with faith. There are songs about heartache, that are just about relationships. Then there are songs that are obviously about the turmoil of not knowing your position in the universe. They are not necessarily complainantative, but I think they are limited in scope because they consider only a single person and then somebody's action on that person (that person being me). So it’s basically about “How does God affect me?” “How does the person I am in love with affect me?” “How does my mental health affect me?” I think that while it was ok and valid to express those emotions and to really go deep inside of myself, I think it is a very self-involved record.  But there is some honesty to selfishness, because I think people need to hear that the feelings they are having are ok. We only really get to articulate those feelings when we ruminate on ourselves and we become more self aware and we try to articulate how we are feeling. There has to be a step past that. It’s not healthy to just simply ruminate upon how you are feeling; upon heartache or upon disillusion. I think you have to be able to articulate that and then say, “Ok, I have all these pieces, how am I going to piece together something healthier and something better to try to continue improving myself?”

# In a lot of cases, when it comes to discussions of faith we are not really allowed to ask questions. You are not really allowed to question why something happens, but you are expected to understand and accept that it just happens. Why did it feel important to be able to feel comfortable asking these questions on that first album?

That is a great observation to make. Oftentimes, within a faith context doubt is really discouraged, because it makes us feel like the quality of our belief is lessened when we question it. But, I think the opposite is true, because an untested belief is no belief at all. So, if I really want to apply the things that I have learned in faith, I have to be able to think about them critically. Another thing that is really important to me, at least in the way that I would live out my faith and spirituality, is transparency and honesty. Being willing to be vulnerable about the broken parts of yourself is crucial and absolutely mandatory for being able to heal. I think being able to say “I am hurt in someway, and it is making me question X or Y element of my faith”, that is crucial to being able to work out what I do and don’t believe. Then I can find some compromise or common ground. I can start to understand how to contextualise my faith in a new way. I can pick up the pieces of that hurt and can learn how to practice mercy with other people. How to believe that regrowth is something that is possible.

# You mentioned practicing mercy for others and growth, what kind of things did you learn about yourself from doing that first album? Did you see a change in yourself?

I think I learned the value of being vulnerable and the importance of recognising the ‘broken things’. I mean broken as in brokenhearted, I don’t mean broken as in ‘not working’. Another thing I learned through making the first record and the second is that, I think we have this binary ideology as human beings where our actions are either good or bad. They are either right or wrong. Our brains and our hearts are either broken or they are not broken. When you stop thinking about the painful or difficult parts of your life as ‘evil’, ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ and you start seeing them as just more complex parts of yourself, your are able to harness those things in a healthier way.

I have struggled with mental health my whole life and the thing that didn’t help me get better was saying “Either there is no God, and I am like this for no reason, or there is a God, and God made me this way on purpose and I am broken.” Instead of thinking like that, if you think of yourself as just one of the millions of human beings that has a highly specific and completely individual brain, you just have to learn how to use this system that you are born with, that you are not entirely familiar with. If you call it ‘wrong’, ‘bad’ and ‘evil’, then you are going to alienate it, push it away, and hide from it. But if you confront the darker, painful and more difficult parts of yourself and you move closer to it, then you can begin to understand it more and then you can have power over it. Then you can even take the dark, painful and difficult parts of yourself and use them to achieve positive things in your life. Learning to confront yourself as a means to have power over the dark parts of your personality.

# With the second album, Turn Out The Lights, it seems to carry a lot of those same heavy emotional themes. How did you approach this album differently compared to the first one?

I think with this record instead of just writing a song about a feeling and getting it all out there on paper and saying “That’s it for this song, I’ve conveyed how i feel”, I’ve taken some time to say what are the motivations behind this feeling. “I’m feeling this way, but why?” “What does it mean for others?” “And what impact does it have on my loved ones?” There are several songs on this record, like “Shadow Boxing”, “Claws In Your Back” and “Happy To Be Here” that are about not only my own mental health...“Hurt Less” is another one. I tried actively to listen more and to decentralize the focus from myself. To try not to have this myopic perspective that was completely absorbed in my own petty problems. I had so many friends that were experiencing really dark things as well, and through having conversations with them and trying to establish the connection to make each other feel heard. I think it helped me write songs in a way that considers more than just my own perspective and start to incorporate other characters into my writing.

# Is that part of why you have more instruments on this second album?

Yeah. Definitely. I wanted to involve other people. The reason it’s still so sparse is because I do believe in trying to not clutter the songs, not leaning on production and embellishment as a crux to make the songs good. I wanted them to be songs that were strong enough to stand in their most raw and stripped form, while still sounding dynamic. There are still little embellishments like having a friend play clarinet and another friend play violin. It’s so much more rewarding to make music when you involve other people. That goes back to what we were saying about collaborating with Jack from Bleachers, with Lucy & Phoebe, with Andy Hull, Matt Berninger and all the others that I have had the great fortune to collaborate with. That is the great joy and the reward to making art, it’s to share.   

# In the songs you’re very open and tend to share your experiences with other people in a way I would consider very brave. What does it mean to you to be able to lay your soul bare like that?

I have to remember that I am just a person, and that I can only offer a finite amount of what I can offer. And also, that I’m just a person and not somehow more significant or more superior than anyone because of my position as a musician. I just have, for whatever reason this unique opportunity that I feel an extreme responsibility for. I can’t think about it too much because I start to understand just how crazy it is that I get to do this for a living and I start to really understand the scope of the responsibility. I think if I fixate too much upon that I will get overwhelmed by it. Just to preserve the honesty for the songs, I try to keep a perspective on it and understand my responsibility as an artist, but not to fixate on it.

Has ‘I’m just a person’ become like a mantra for you? A way for you to stay grounded?

Sort of. It diminished my ego. I think a lot about the ego. I try to consider other people's motivations before I make any judgements about anything. I know we just talked about this in the context of boygenius, about getting out of the way. By getting out of the way, I mean getting out of the way by not making everything about myself. Not being only preoccupied with my needs and my goals. I think that is something you can practice, not only as an artist, but also when you are at the grocery store, when you are in a long line anywhere, or when you don’t understand people’s motivations. Getting out of the way of yourself means looking past your own ego and your own desires. Trying to suppose, identify or empathise with another person and hopefully respond to them in a more compassionate way.  

# With these heavy subjects, it can probably take you to a dark place, so are there ever times that you have to make a concerted effort to get back out of that dark space?

Yeah, absolutely. I struggle with anxiety a lot, so I have to be able to have practices or have people that I can reach out to, to help pull me out of that. Part of that is being able to say without fear or shame that “I am feeling anxious right now”, or ‘“These are the things that are going on in my life.” I feel like I have destigmatized anxiety to myself enough to be able to communicate with people that can help me about it.

I run a lot because I think that both chemically and anatomically it’s good for you. It changes your brain chemistry in a way that is very centering, also it is a chance to remove yourself from a situation.

That’s why it is so important for me to be open about the feelings I experience. Hopefully they destigmatize anxiety or anything else a person may be struggling with in a way that makes them more prone to talk about it or to seek help. To help them feel like they don’t have to be ashamed or to feel like they can reach out when they do need help getting out of that dark place.

# On to a hopefully happier topic, I saw that you’re a big fan of Spongebob Squarepants, is that true? I know Pharrell and NERD did tracks for one of the Spongebob movies. Is there a movie or a cartoon that you would really enjoy being able to make a song for?

Spongebob! I would love...even though the creator recently passed away, I was so sad.

# I meant for this to be a completely happy question!

Right, then you ask me and I brought up death! I love Bob’s Burgers. The National wrote the “Thanksgiving Song” for that. I would love to do a Bob’s Burgers song. That would be so funny to me. That’s my one.

# I think you could definitely do that, because Bob’s Burgers has its own way of getting dark at times as well. So, you have a Dunkin Donuts tattoo?

It’s just a donut, it doesn’t say ‘Dunkin Donuts’, but maybe i should go back and get ‘Dunkin’ on there too. I got that donut tattoo because I went on tour on the west coast of the United States and there are a lot of vegan donuts there. My crew and I ate vegan donuts every night, and it sort of reminded us of each other so we all got friendship tattoos done of donuts. We all also love Dunkin Donuts, but not for the donuts, for the coffee. The thing that I love about Dunkin Donuts is their insanely cheap coffee. You can get 32 ounces of it for like $1.50. It is so cheap! We drink a lot of coffee on tour. Also Dunkin Donuts is the first coffee chain to have almond milk instead of soy, and the rest of the crew is vegan, we really liked it. Anyway, we were drinking too much coffee. But I don’t go there for the donuts, I go elsewhere for the donuts.  

 

# We already talked about donuts and coffee, but is there a particular guilty pleasure you have?

Dang, all of ours are bougie and I feel bad. All of us want the same basic things. We want good coffee, a green smoothie of some kind. But these are healthy things, what's a good guilty pleasure? I don’t ever feel guilty about a green smoothie, I don’t ever feel guilty about a salad.

# Well you just said that it’s bougie, so you can feel guilty about being bougie.

Oh yeah, I feel guilty as hell about being bougie. Like when I go and get the green smoothie and it has got the wheatgrass and the spinach in it. I’m like “Damn, this is bougie.” But, I like it, we do like the bougie smoothies. That’s our thing. Taking a minute from being down-to-earth people to get a fancy smoothie. I was going to say Target. Is there a Target in Korea?

# Nah, no Target. At one point there was a Walmart I think, but that was a long time ago. There are other hypermarkets here though, similar things.

Ok. So here is a good guilty pleasure: gas station cookies. Surprisingly a ton of them are vegan and we eat them when we’re on a super long drive anywhere. I love gas stations. It’s a weird hang up about my personality, I am obsessed with them. I wanted to do a photography series where I took a photo of every gas station we stopped at, but it was too involved. Think about it, when you’re a touring musician you’re in a different city every day. Every day, all you do is drive and travel. The one thing you can always count on as being the same is a KIND bar. The sodas are always the same. Pepsi is always gonna be Pepsi. It’s an evil corporation built on awful consumer greed, but it’s always the same. A KIND bar is always gonna look and taste like a KIND bar. I love going to a 7-Eleven in any part of the world and feeling like I have some grip on something that is consistent and constant in my life where nothing is ever consistent or predictable. I can go into one of these places and it’s predictable. So we love gas station snacks for that reason.

The cookies are so good! They have those Lenny & Larry cookies that seem healthy because they say they’re protein cookies, but really it is not healthy as it is still a desert. You can tell yourself they are healthy because they are ‘work out cookies’. We love those things. We eat a box of Lenny & Larry a week on tour.  We love gas stations.

# This is not the answer I was expecting! Gas stations aren’t a big thing in Korea either, but convenience stores are huge.

When I say gas stations I mean things like Family Mart, Hypermart or 7-Eleven. It’s like a convenience stores or a corner store. All that stuff to me falls under the umbrella of gas stations. What I’m really getting at is the convenience store part. But I realise no one calls it a gas station, if they’re from a city. But I’m from the South, you know, like a place where everything is a gas station.

https://www.highjinkx.com/shows/julien-baker-seoul

Date: 2019. 02. 08. Fri 20:00
Venue: Rolling Hall (Hongdae)
Adv: 55,000won / Door: 66,000won
Tickets: Melon Ticket - https://goo.gl/hjLZjb

Listen to an audio version of the interview, by TBS EFM's The22nd Hour here:

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Interview : Anthony Baber
Korean Translation : 임도연
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For more information on Julien Baker, check out the following links:

Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/julienrbaker
Twitter : https://twitter.com/julienrbaker
Instagram : https://www.instagram.com/julienrbaker/

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Julien Baker

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