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).
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.
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.