Music Monday: The Gospel According to Julien Baker

An interview with the singer-songwriter on faith, hope, and the reason why music makes her feel less alone.

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I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior for the first time when I was five years old. Prompted toward redemption by a kind-eyed teacher who used to be a missionary in the Philippines and by the vivid pages of my Illustrated Children's Bible, which depicted sinners being cast into hell, I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed the prayer that I would ritualistically repeat until I was in middle school. I spent my Wednesdays at Awanas, my Halloweens at Hell Houses, my Saturdays at youth group, and my summers at Camp Calvary. I won catechism bees, memorized psalms, and attended church services from sunup to sundown on the Sabbath with my parents. By the time I was 21, I had attended Christian college, considered going to seminary, and been baptized three times (one of those times was even in a river). 

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During my years as a proactive believer, I also struggled with depression, self-injury, and an array of typical adolescent psychoses that I could not for the life of me pray away. I went from being a confident Child of God to a Doubting Thomas. Rather than turning to my parents, my youth pastor, or the Bible, I found solace in music. The loud guitars and guttural screams became the antidote to my questioning. Rather than offering an answer, those bands and their songs made me feel less alone in my doubt and in a way became my saving grace. 

Singer-songwriter Julien Baker admits to experiencing similar bouts of darkness and doubt while growing up in Memphis. Her debut LP, Sprained Ankle, although quieter than the albums that I loved as a teen, is just as emotionally visceral. Using songs like "Vessels" and "Something" in order to come to terms with issues like substance abuse, heartbreak, and loss, her lyrics are more than honest, they're testimonies to the resilience of the human heart and the transformative power of love. They're gospel truth. 

After listening to Sprained Ankle on repeat for nearly a month, I spoke with Baker a few weeks before the start of her spring tour about her album, religion, and how writing songs saved her life. 

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Dianca Potts: Many of the tracks on Sprained Ankle appeared first on your self-released EP from 2014, so it's been a while since you've written these songs. What's it been like performing them live? 

Julien Baker: When I perform a song live, the showgoers are quiet in a way that almost makes me nervous. I'm used to playing shows where there's a little bit of buzz going on, or if it's at a bar or at a punk show people are talking to the people around them, and sometimes I'm almost taken aback by it. Of course I'm appreciative of it because I realize that it's respectful and attentive, but there are songs with particularly little instrumentation, like "Sprained Ankle" or "Something" for instance. I'm always apprehensive about whether or not I'm boring the audience, or if they are engaged, or if it's dynamic enough, and I'm always pleasantly surprised that people aren't looking glazed over. It makes it a little bit easier giving out that every intimate part of yourself if you can tell that the audience is connecting with it; it's a little bit less bizarre from stranger to stranger. It was a challenge for me to write because when I was writing this record I was away from my band, so I had to rely a lot more on songwriting and feeling comfortable with the merit of a song because of its poetic value, its lyrical content, instead of just showing off this complex guitar part that I can do, so that was different for me. But I like the end product. It forced me to grow as a musician. 

DP: Tracks like "Brittled Bone" and "Blacktop" explore darker themes like sadness, loss, and pain in a really brave and straightforward way. Could you talk a bit about your intention in focusing on the melancholic?

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JB: I didn't know that [these songs] were going to have a broad audience, and so largely it was just a practice in exercising emotions, getting things out of yourself, like a cathartic experience. What's ended up happening as I've had to talk about these songs more and as I've been probed about the lyrical content, I have to self-analyze, and that has made me learn a lot about who I am as a person. But I think that the risk is being relegated to You wrote these sad songs, so you're a sad person, but the tone of the lyrics and the heavy content relieves me of a lot of that burden and allows me to be a regular, well-adjusted human. 

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I'm a nerd and will meticulously craft a song as much as the next artist, but [performing] live is so precious to me because when I see people singing along to the songs, or when they come talk to me [after a show], it reminds me that it wasn't a purposeless moment of suffering, it was cosmically ordained or intended. You had this emotion, you had this negative experience, and the ultimate end is that you can share it with someone else and they feel less alone. 

DP: The lyrical content in your songs is autobiographical at times. Is it hard for you to reflect on your life through song? 

JB: For me, songs evolve. When I wrote "Go Home," I [felt like] I wouldn't be able to [perform] it because it was too much, especially when I was playing for people that weren't just ten kids in a living room. It started to feel bizarre because I wrote it just to write it and I didn't imagine just laying it all out there for a group of strangers every night. It's like, when I had written for bands that I toured with, you kind of know that you're going to be performing [it] and I feel like I shaped it with a little more metaphor or fiction instead of writing directly from life. Moving forward, I have to make sure that I'm honest but not so self-deprecating that I become a caricature of myself. I don't want to exaggerate it and put myself on a pedestal of, like, I can write the most saddest song and have that be the only aesthetic that can be applied to my music. What I think makes negative emotions bearable is removing the taboo and the stigmatization of individual struggles. 

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DP: You've never been hesitant to talk about your battle with substance abuse. Did writing songs help you heal from that experience? 

JB: Absolutely. I would sit in my room and learn my favorite bands' records, and then I started writing songs during a really chaotic period of my life where everything was really screwed up in one way or another. I think I got into music because I wanted to emulate the people that I saw who made me think that it wasn't all horrible. I went to see Underoath at a skate park, and they were doing that song "In Regards to Myself," where they sing "It's all worth reaching for the hand to pull you out," and it's true. For a kid who feels like they have no support system and they're totally alone and they're angsty and they don't know how to get out of this shitty situation that they've gotten themselves into, it's worth reaching for it, and that's partially what attracted me to aggressive music. 

DP: Did growing up in Memphis influence your instrumentation in any way?

JB: I'm not into Graceland, because I grew up here taking Elvis for granted, but it's just part of the culture here. And there's a significant amount of blues influence in my guitar-playing that's there because it's inescapable. But I grew up listening to whatever was on the T-shirt wall at Hot Topic. I didn't grow up listening to Minor Threat or Black Flag. I had to learn that later by crawling my way back through the history, and it's the same with blues. But I think that having that there, it's so saturated in the culture that in a city like Memphis, in a city with such a strong musical history, you're exposed to it whether you want to [be] or not. 

DP: I was really excited to find out that you're a fan of Tooth & Nail Records and bands like mewithoutYou and Emery. Christian screamo and hardcore bands were so influential for me as a teenager and really shaped my relationship to my faith. How did your experience with religion shape you as a songwriter? 

JB: I grew up in the South going to church. My parents and I went to a really traditional church, and then they separated and one day we stopped going to church. Around the same time, I was becoming leery of authority and rejecting tenets of traditional society and felt like If there is a God, then why do bad things happen, why am I suffering right now, why are people suffering right now? That coincided with some of the worst decisions of my life, just not caring, because when you don't think that anybody is listening to you, when you don't think that there is a purpose, you don't care what happens to your body or the people around you or the people that you love, and it's really easy to just throw in the towel and say, I'm just going to be a self-destructive person.

What ended up happening is that I was brought to a church reluctantly by one of my friends, and it was a different experience. No one was trying to make me go to the front of the stage and lift up my sins and convert me. I was a total piece of crap about it, [asking things like] "How do you explain this?" or "How do you explain that?" And they were like, "I don't know, but I'll try to know by next week." No one has ever been honest enough with me to tell me they didn't know, so I continued to hang out with these people, and they would be like, "Hey, we realize that you haven't had dinner, we're going to feed you and not ask questions about why. We realize that for some reason you're stranded on the edge of time, and we're going to come pick you up and not ask why, and we're just going to love you." And I was like, "Why are you acting like this?" The ideal [example] of gospel love happened, and that's why I had less issues reconciling my faith, especially coming out as queer and fearing that pushback from the church. Turn after turn, I've had these fortunate examples of people who live out religion as an act of love and not as a series of things you have to adhere to to somehow earn God's love, so that influenced a lot of my songwriting. Now that I think that there's this purpose, that there is a God out there pulling all the strings, I feel motivated to talk about my faith. It's not just a thing that I do on Sunday morning, it informs all my decisions and how I interact with people at shows, what I want to tell people in my songs. Because someone is listening to you, someone cares for you, someone loves you.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Dianca Potts is an assistant at Lenny.

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