Photos by NOAH SILVESTRY
BY NOAH SILVESTRY “I wish I could write songs about anything other than death,” Julien Baker sings in the opening lines of “Sprained Ankle, the title track of her acclaimed debut LP. She’s poking fun at herself, but the joke only draws half-laughs; Sprained Ankle ranks easily as one of the saddest – and most morbid – releases of 2015. As you might expect from a coming-of-age record by an artist who is, well, still coming of age – Baker is just 20 years old – the morbidity is means to an end. The album’s title says it all. “When you sprain your ankle,” Baker told me, “you’re supposed to walk on it more. You have to intentionally subject yourself to pain in order to get better.” And true to her lyrics, Baker’s debut is a full-on 26.2-miler on legs that don’t want to run.
Her bare bones guitar arrangements make way for her young, breathy vocals and devastating lyrics to raise hairs, rattle bones and wrench guts as she sings of breakups, car accidents, hospital visits, drug addiction and her faith in God. These somber tales are told so personally that you near want to excuse yourself for intruding into her bedroom until you realize that there’s a deep, dark hole in the middle of the floor, Baker is at the bottom, and you’re already falling in. It’s music so heavy it has its own gravitational pull. But weighty as her songs may be, Baker’s personality is nothing but buoyant.
Back in late December, I flew out to Aspen to catch Baker’s sets opening for The National at the Belly Up and find out what went into the making of her heartbreaking debut. She told me about her coffee habits, her favorite books, how she wished she could muster the courage to make friends with The National, and even joked about American Airlines losing her luggage – as they did mine, though I was a bit less forgiving. She’s not the person you’d expect to have written the type of record you put on when you want to have a good cry, but maybe that’s just because all that ankle-sprained running has done the trick. Decide for yourself when she plays The Boot & Saddle on Wednesday January 20th.
PHAWKER: You grew up in Memphis?
PHAWKER: Growing up in Memphis, what were you listening to?
BAKER: I grew up with aggressive music. When I was in 8th grade, I picked up [Death Cab For Cutie’s] Transatlanticism and that was responsible for broadening things. For a while, I was like a proto-hipster, and I was like, “Oh, these bands exist like The Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie!” and I spun those records a lot. But before that, you know, you listen to what your parents listen to, and so I was listening to The Scorpions with my dad and Fleetwood Mac with my mom. The first record that I liked that was like my introduction to being personally invested in music, it had to be American Idiot.
PHAWKER: How old were you then?
BAKER: I was in the 4th grade.
PHAWKER: That’s the time for that record, isn’t it?
BAKER: Yeah, that was 2004, maybe 2005. So I started listening to that and Welcome to the Black Parade, basically bands I was getting from bigger magazines. Like they’re still fringe culture, but they’re like emo, Hot Topic. And then I started going to shows at the skate park and listening to harder and harder stuff, like metalcore, and then I got into melodic hardcore. I went through like a White Chapel phase. Circa Survive was another one I picked up early, and I kind of think they transcend the genre that they came out of. And then I started going to house shows, and I got involved with the punk and hardcore community there. Actually, the guy that runs Smithseven Records, which is the little pocket of booking and DIY stuff in Memphis, he is at these shows because he was so instrumental in my life, growing up in music. He actually, a long time ago, let me see The National for free. So when I got these shows, I was like, I just felt so good because somebody who had invested so much in me when I was a little kid with, literally, a hot pink mohawk – I’m not even kidding, it went into a rat tail – and he was like, “Yeah, I’ll let you sing and play with your band in this house, and we’ll all listen to you and give you the time of day when no-one else would have.” I get sentimental about the punk scene.
PHAWKER: Not all of your music has had the Sprained Ankle sound. What other kinds of stuff were you doing before this?
BAKER: I was in a band called The Star Killers, and the LP that we put out was kind of schizophrenic. It’s got some Sunny Day influences, and there’s a song on there that’s almost Uncle Tupelo or Whiskeytown-ish because I liked alt-country, but then there’s ones on there that sound like a Manchester Orchestra song. We were kids and we put out this DIY LP. Anyway, we were The Star Killers because Luke Skywalker’s original name was Luke Starkiller. And were just kids in high school, so we were like, “Oh, that’s a wicked name! The Star Killers!” And then we found out there’s an EDM/house music artist called Starkillers, so we were like, “Well, we’ve already had it for this long.” But then we eventually ended up changing it to Forrister.
PHAWKER: Correct me if I’m wrong, but last night during your set, there was a song that had an additional verse from what was on the album.
PHAWKER: I’m pretty sure it was “Something.”
BAKER: “Something.” Oh yeah, okay. Since the end is repetitive, I’ll just let it go on in an improv-y kind of way, because I like improv-y stuff. And when you play random sets that you find out you’re on like an hour before, and everybody just shows up with their gear and you play every song differently every time because you’re just playing for your friends, you know? So it’s that very organic vibe. And still, bands like Circa [Survive]– Circa is huge – they’ll change songs up. Even The National, they’ll change around stuff, which is so cool to see the little affectations that they bring to the live set that makes it different, makes it individual. Anyway, that’s my justification, because sometimes I’m like, “Are people going to be pissed that, like, that’s not how it sounds on the record?” So I justify it because I’m like, I’m just emulating what I like to hear as a listener.
PHAWKER: Yeah, I guess that was my question, really. Like, are these songs still evolving or is it more of an impromptu thing?
BAKER: Yeah, I mean sometimes it depends on the vibe. Like, I’ll do “Rejoice” sometimes, and it’s like, I don’t want to scream it, I just want to sing it softly. And I think it depends on mood, like where you are, are you angry, are you hyped, subdued.
PHAWKER: I’d like to go through Sprained Ankle song by song and talk specifics, so I’ll start with “Blacktop”. There’s a car accident in that song, right?
BAKER: There is a car accident.
PHAWKER: Would you mind telling me about it?
BAKER: “Blacktop” is kind of a mush of a lot of experiences that kind of trace these weird brushes with dark or tragic or dangerous situations that I’ve had that have forced me toward some perspective. Trauma forces perspective. It’s not like these all happened at once, because I talk about substance abuse and stuff like that in that song, but I did not crash my car because I was under the influence. I think that is very irresponsible and I advise no-one to do that. I crashed my car because it was just an accident, you know what I mean? And what happened was, the first car I ever had, I wrapped it around a streetlamp and the windshield cracked in a million different places and you couldn’t see anything out of the windshield. And I was like like, “Shit, I don’t have the money to fix the bumper or the windshield!” But I didn’t realize that this huge concrete streetlamp was falling, and it caved in the whole roof of the car around my head, and I just started shaking. And when they got there and like pulled off the door and I got out, they were like, “You’re lucky to be alive. That should not have happened that way” And I was like, “Yeah, they say that to everyone.” And I turned around and looked at the car and it’s like, if my head had been six inches to the right I would be dead, or like, million-dollar baby, c1c2 complete vegetable. And I was like, alright, thanks, I guess I have stuff left to do, you know?
PHAWKER: The ambulance/hospital theme, it comes up there, it comes up on “Brittle Boned.” Why is there such a strong hospital theme on this record?
BAKER: Especially on “Brittle Boned,” like, I had some rando- medical stuff that I had to take care of a lot of last year, and just different issues where you feel like you don’t have answers and you’re not well and you don’t understand what’s happening. And you’re scared, because it makes you reevaluate what living and quality of life mean to you. So I had these things that were outside of my control, like medical complications that I could not foresee, and I had to go get tests and get my blood drawn, and I was scared. And it ended up being fine. Of course, people still joke with me that I’m like sickly-looking. But I started running, I quit smoking, so everything’s fine, I’m not freaking out. So those things are outside of my control, and it made me think so much more about the things that are inside of my control. It made me re-convinced about sobriety and even just the way you live your life, because I used to be so reckless. You take your life for granted, and even with things like having self-destructive behaviors – not even necessarily suicide – but when you act like, “I don’t care what happens to me, I’ll act how I want to act,” it’s like you’re not valuing what is so precious. And then, when you’re presented with the fact that life can be changed in a really negative way or lost, you’re like, “This is such a blessing! Why have I not been cherishing this all along?” Anyway, I feel like that was really important to this last year, and my philosophical and spiritual growth.
PHAWKER: As a side note, there’s a philosophy course at Yale taught by a guy named Shelly Kagan called “Death” that I think you might like. It’s less about death itself and more about the question of, “Given the certainty of death, how do we make our lives meaningful?”
BAKER: Oh my gosh, right? Existentialism, for a long time for me, seemed very bleak. And then it clicked in my head, with like deciding to be the best person you can be, making positive choices every day. The certainty of death is there, and I do believe in an afterlife because I have that spiritual aspect, but that doesn’t change that you have a finite time on earth, and you’re saddled with the burden – every human being – of determining how you want to use it.
PHAWKER: “Sprained Ankle” has that first lyric, “I wish I could write songs about anything other than death.” Was there ever actually a period where you were only writing songs about death?
BAKER: That’s interesting. I realized it’s like a jab at myself. A very important part of being an artist is having some levity, being able to laugh at the parts of yourself that are ridiculous. The reason that I can be a goob is that I can laugh at the fact that my songs are very morbid, you know? And they are for a reason, because those are real facts of life, but I discuss them quite a bit in my songs, and I know that. So I was joking with one of my friends, I was like, “I wish I could write songs about anything other than death,” and then I was like, that sounds like lyrical content, and it was a joke, so I sent a memo to my friend who is also a songwriter at MTSU, and he was like, “I really like this song. Keep it, it’s honest.” And I do wish I could, and I try to incorporate that. But I think it’s cheesy to just be like, rainbows and butterflies.
PHAWKER: “Sprained Ankle” is also the title track, and as far as the album’s content goes, a sprained ankle is, on its own, fairly innocuous. But in the context of that particular lyric, being a marathon runner with a sprained ankle sounds pretty painful. Anyway, why does that song and that lyric grace the album’s title?
BAKER: That’s an interesting story, sort of. I like to pull directly from life and directly from verbal communication and reality to make lyrical content because that’s how you get the most honest stuff. So there was an inside joke that I had with some of my friends when I was going through some emotional turmoil personally, existentially, spiritually, but particularly romantically, and I was like, “Man, it sucks, it’s miserable sometimes to wake up and have to confront this situation that’s uncomfortable and humiliating, and you feel small and like you don’t know what to do.” But you know the rub-some-dirt-in-it thing? My parents taught me that when you sprain your ankle, you’re supposed to walk on it more. You have to intentionally subject yourself to pain in order to get better. So I was like, that is the mentality! This is a Sprained Ankle I have to walk on. Every day, I have to wake up and do things even though it might be miserable, even though it’s painful, because if you avoid it, it only prolongs the period of pain. And so confronting emotional pain is the quickest way to overcome it. And so we’d joke around, like, I get a tick when I get nervous or anxious, and I’d be like, “It’s just a sprained, ankle, just gotta get through it.” And I ended up being like, that’s a good way to sum up these songs: intentionally confronting emotional pain. I’m not a masochist. I have an end goal. It’s not pain for pain’s sake. And I think that’s what I wanted to get across with this idea.
PHAWKER: You’re the only musician credited on the record, and “Brittle Boned” is one of two songs that even sort of have drums on them. And this isn’t just a guitar-and-vocals record, but why didn’t you decide to bring in a band? Why is this record mostly just your voice and guitar?
BAKER: Honestly, everything on this record was very – I don’t want to say spontaneous because I thought these songs through, there was some craftsmanship involved – but I didn’t set out to write a record. I was writing these songs by myself, so I composed them to be within the limitations of what I can do by myself with a loop pedal. And the reason why those two songs have drums is because those are also the only two recorded with my friend Cody Landers in Memphis and not Michael Hegner in Virginia at Spacebomb. And so I was hanging out with Cody, and I was like, “You know? I might mess with the dynamic and try some drums.” And it was just an experimental thing like that. It wasn’t a thematic decision. But I think the sparseness affords it a quality that a lot of people think might be more intentional than it is. But I think it’s actually the reverse; it’s a byproduct of me writing these songs for myself that makes it sparse. I didn’t say, “I want to write a record about my solemnity and estrangement from society so I’m going to make it sparse.” It just happened that way.
PHAWKER: “Everybody Does”, musically, is the most upbeat song on the record, and lyrically, it’s where you’re the most down on yourself.
BAKER: Maybe. That was the first song I demoed with Hegner at MTSU. We rerecorded it at Spacebomb. That was the first one that I wrote that, I went out there on a whim, like the guys couldn’t make it up to use this free recording time at the MTSU studios, and I was like, “I’ll do it!” So we made this song, “Everybody Does,” and I released it, and everybody was like, “Why is your music so sad?” And I was like, “Sorry!” Anyway, what was your question?
PHAWKER: I guess it’s that, with the lyrical content in mind, there’s some irony in how approachable that song is to the consumer ear, right?
BAKER: And that’s why I feel so weird performing it, because it seems a little poppy. But I remember writing that as just a thought of someone I was involved with at this period. I was like, I know this is going to happen, and it ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it came out as word vomit, like, these are my fears and this is what I’m thinking about it. And I think that may be why it’s so simply structured. Some of the other songs, even though they’re sparse instrumentally, they have weird noodle-y bits. I’m the noodle queen. The twinkly emo has taught me well how to noodle.
PHAWKER: “Good News” is next.
BAKER: Now that one’s ironic.
PHAWKER: The first thing I heard when I listened to that for the first time was the “Keep my nose clean/the blue out of my arms” lyric, so if you don’t mind, could we talk about how you address substance abuse on this record?
BAKER: I don’t mind. I will talk about it, but I try not to get very specific or anecdotal when I talk about substance abuse unless I feel like it absolutely serves the argument I’m trying to make, and here is why. It is in my lyrics because it is something I needed to work through, those memories and the guilt about being an irresponsible, reckless young person who hurt a lot of people around me while having that kind of lifestyle. But I feel like an easy thing to do is to adopt a brooding artist mentality. I’ll be talking about a band and somebody will be like, “Oh, you know they used to do coke and that’s what all those crazy lyrics are about!” It’s almost glamorizing or fetishsizing at that point. It happens sometimes when I give testimony, it’s like, “I used to do meth and now it’s all okay because of Jesus!” But like, I don’t want to fetishsize the idea that you have to earn your scars, to have cred and be like, I used to do crazy stuff and I put horrible chemicals in my body. I want to tell people, like, that was miserable and that was horrible. And I’m so glad that I changed my mind about that, or decided to pursue a different path. But I think that it’s worth talking about because when I was in those periods of sadness and self-destruction, it was comforting to know that there were other people who had felt those struggles. Is that the one where I have the lyric, “It’s not easy, but I’m trying really hard”?
BAKER: It’s like, you fail a lot. You don’t just decide to try to be better for yourself and others, and instantly you become a member of the cleavers. And I remember sometimes just being like, “I’m trying really hard.” And I think it’s good for people to hear that.
PHAWKER: “Something” is essentially a breakup song with a narrative.
BAKER: It’s a breakup song, yeah.
PHAWKER: Is it specifically anecdotal?
BAKER: It is a particular circumstance. It’s kind of like “Blacktop” in the way that I noticed this theme that is kind of a microcosm of how I am in relationships where I found myself watching people leave figuratively and literally. So the first girl I ever dated who I was in a very long relationship with, I have this vivid memory of getting in a huge fight with her and just the feeling of watching her taillights go down my street. And then that happened to me again with another romantic involvement that I had in college. And I was like, man, I keep finding myself in these situations where it’s just me in the parking lot. Sometimes when I get into less-than-favorable situations with a loved one or in a flight with a girlfriend, I will choke up, you know? And I’m like, why didn’t you say anything? I’ll just be silent, unable to say anything, and then I’m watching them get in the car, watching them leave. Have you ever heard that expression, “It’s the spirit of the staircase”? Right as they’re leaving, you think of everything that you want to tell them, how much you love them, and I should have said “I want you to stay” and I should have said I’ll do this or I’ll do that. So many things you should have said, and all you did was stand there with your mouth open like a fool. And there’s that crushing weight of like, there they go, there’s their taillights, I can never take it back. That’s really dark, but I feel like it’s also relateable. I’ve had so many people be like, “Yeah, you’re sitting across from someone you love so much and you just don’t have the words.”
PHAWKER: The other thing I wanted to say about that song is that the syncopation of the vocal phrasing is pretty off-beat, especially in relation to the guitar part. Was that at all thought-out or more organic?
BAKER: I wasn’t that intentional with those things. There are bands, and I respect this very much, that will mimic the narrative of a song with what’s going on musically, but a lot of times when I sit down, I’m just working out dynamic, which is where I do a lot of that. But things as specific as meter or syncopation are usually just me noodling around, and then I’m like, I like this lick. And if it happens to be oddly syncopated, that’s just how it comes out of my brain and mouth.
PHAWKER: “Rejoice” is probably my favorite song on the record.
BAKER: That’s so interesting that people say that. It’s probably my favorite on the record.
PHAWKER: I think the reason that’s the case for so many people is that the singing is the most dynamic. But there’s a lyric in that song that evokes a more ambiguous kind of addiction in the context of the song.
BAKER: “Give me everything good and I’ll throw it a way/I wish I could quit but I can’t stand the shakes”. That is speaking to the spiritual idea of being a steward. Say, if I’m not taking care of my body, hell, if I drink too much coffee my hands start to shake, it would stop me from playing guitar. I have been given a gift that I can use for positive ends, and I’m just like, screw it, I am in charge of how I use these gifts, and I choose to throw it all away, and I wish I could stop doing destructive things but I can’t stand to be uncomfortable without them. So I would rather the comfort than to use the everything good that I’ve been given. So I was writing as if I were still in that moment. So whether I’m complaining because I don’t have these crutches to lean on anymore like “choking to smoke” or “singing your praise”, there are still times when where I’m just like, well everything is really stressful, I could just get obliterated, but then I’m like, no, you need to meditate, say a prayer, think about what you actually want to do. So it’s like “singing your praise” even though things are horrible or things feel heavy, give praise anyway for the things you do have. Like, there’s God. He hears either way, whether I’m like, “This is awful, I’m a spoiled brat of a human!” or whether I’m actually giving praise to all the blessings I have.
PHAWKER: That’s actually the second lyrical aspect of the song I wanted to address, this really interesting dichotomy of rejoice and complain, but I think you’ve pretty much covered it, unless you have anything else to add.
BAKER: I feel like God is listening, fortunately, for me because when you have qualms with the Church or organized religion or you feel scorned by hatred, like “Why is my life hard? Why is there pain and suffering?”, you complain. You say, “Why God, why?” or you choose not to believe in a God that would do that to you. But that doesn’t determine the constancy of God. God was still there waiting to be like, “You’ll figure it out, and I still love you.” And that is fortunate for the world. That’s what I believe: God is just waiting to love you.
PHAWKER: “Vessels” has that lyric about “Vessels of brightness” – is that another tie to religion and faith?
BAKER: Yeah, and this is actually kind of an Easter egg for people who catch it, but there’s some veiled scriptural reference in that song. Or not veiled. I think “This present darkness” is an expression used by the apostle Paul. So “Vessels” is about the idea of being less self-aggrandizing, less concerned with what Julien Baker can achieve and more concerned with, there is a love that, the more transparent I become, the more it can be obvious to other people, the more that compassion can be expressed, the less I’m concerned about me. So the more I become a vessel for something else and not just a monument to my own accomplishments and my own desires, the better it will be not only for myself but for everyone around me because I get to love on people.
PHAWKER: On “Go Home”, the you that you’re singing about is kind of the cumulative product of all the shit that happens over the course of the record.
PHAWKER: And at the end of it you get to “Go Home.”
BAKER: Sort of. I decide to stay. And that’s the thing; in my life, I decide to stay. Because there’s this invocation – what was so cool to me is that I feel like suicide or sadness is very taboo in our culture and especially in religion, which is bizarre – and I talk about it too in “Rejoice” because I think that it’s important to admit that we have things that we don’t understand and we complain about. I always want to be thankful and count my blessings because that’s what a good person does, and sometimes I don’t. There’s this passage where the apostle Paul says, “It would be better for me to die,” because then he would be free of the suffering of the world, he would be in a perfect state, he would be face-to-face with love itself. So, like, how many times did I think this? For me, as a Christian, or if you’re religious at all, if you believe there’s something after this, it’s better than what we’re enduring now. So there have been times where I’m like, I wish I could just take the Mario Kart shortcut to being face-to-face with love itself and not have to do all this stuff. But what Paul also says is, like, “There’s stuff left for me to do here.” So “Go Home” is written to some of my old friends about some dark situations that they saw me through out of the grace of their hearts when I was being a very selfish person and being very reckless with my life, and as a result, with the lives and relationships of others. And I was just like, I’m tired of this and I want to go home. But “home” as in home home. Like, on the golden shore, eternal home. And it was important for me to figure out that there’s a reason why you can’t just decide, no, I’m not up to it. There’s stuff left for me to do. I would have never gotten to do this; I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you.
PHAWKER: It’s the only song with piano on it, and I read that the piano part at the end is from “In Christ Alone”.
BAKER: That’s another easter egg that, like, people who catch it catch it, and people who are peripheral to religion are just like, “Oh, it’s just an arranged part.”
PHAWKER: And over that, there’s some static-y radio. Do you want to tell the story of how that got there?
BAKER: Well, we were just recording it, and we set up the two small-diaphragm condenser mics at the piano to record it, I had my headphones on, and there’s this stuff coming through on the track. And we were like, “What was that?” So Hegner brings it up, and it ends up being that the pre-amps on the channel were catching interference from radio Gospel transmissions. And I was like, “That is so serendipitous and weird – we have to leave that in there!” Because so many times, there have been sound clips I’ve wanted to use of voicemails and stuff. There’s a voicemail sound clip on the Star Killers record from my ex – that was a low blow, I kind of regret that – but this happened organically, so we had to leave it in there. It’s amazing.
PHAWKER: Other than touring on this record, what is in your future, musically?
BAKER: I’m always writing new material because I think that’s what musicians do. Even if this was the last musical project that was ever successful and I ended up just playing songs in bars, I would still be writing songs because that is how I deal with life and it’s how all the musicians I know deal with life. We’re constantly churning out new material. I’ve got like thirty billion drafts on my phone. So I’m waiting to see how the record does and how touring goes. There are some things that are not quite set in stone, so I don’t know if I’ll do another full-length soon, and Forrister has all this material that we’re sitting on. I will probably do another full-length as Julien Baker, but as far as what that will sound like, I’m just going to let it happen.