Nine Songs: Julien Baker
Julien Baker has an unbelievable memory for song lyrics.
As the 22-year-old Tennessean talks through the songs that inspired her as a teenager she more often than not quotes their lyrics verbatim, only once reverting to her phone to double-check a particularly lengthy passage from Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland”.
We meet in a hotel in East London to a background noise of businesspeople bustling through the foyer, yet Baker is supremely unperturbed about talking about how important music is to her, pausing to reflect “there’s all of the roller-guys, rolling by…” Her connection with these songs is based on their emotional qualities and she says that talking about them makes her hair stand on end at points. “I’ve almost cried three times talking about these songs, I do that every time.”
The pivotal songs of her teenage years not only reflect her love of song lyrics but how they’re brought to life by the musical arrangements. After initially becoming involved in her local Christian hardcore music scene, Baker’s musical tastes evolved to embrace what she previously dismissed as preppy indie music and pop records.
Baker grew up wrestling with the big questions of the meaning of faith, sexuality and the nature of the self and in music, and especially the songs she’s selected, discovered a gateway for expression that provided her with the starting point for the wonderful songwriter she is today.
“mewithoutYou came out of a world peripheral to the Christian metalcore scene. It was kids that grew up in Church making really heavy music - punk, hardcore and metalcore - that had a lot of exploration of faith, but not necessarily always in a positive light.
“A lot of them took a straight hardcore approach but mewithoutYou’s records varied to what I could even characterise as indie music. What’s beautiful about them is that Aaron Weiss is one of the most poetic lyricists ever, the first single off their first record has a quote from the poet Rumi, ‘the cure for pain is in the pain.’
“On this song he sings in Arabic and what’s so mind-blowing is the band came about in the realm of kids that had grown up around Christian rock, but here’s this guy singing in Arabic prayer form within the context of a song that discusses the Christian God. I was fascinated by how a person was able to reconcile things that are - because of the cultural and political precepts placed around the religions - put at odds.
“They have so many artful combinations of philosophy and different faith traditions in their lyrics. The record that follows this takes stories from a Middle Eastern thinker and compiles them into analyses of God in the general sense, perhaps it’s not even the Christian God, Christ or Mohamed, but trying to find a sense of ‘What is this God figure we’re all searching for?’
“I’d never heard a band pull from all of those elements and combine them without it being like the New Age, modern lunch-plate style religion; ‘I like these elements of Buddhism and Judaism, I’m going to appropriate a bunch of cultures and be really insensitive.’ They managed to honestly inspect these religions and manifestations of people’s attempts to connect with whatever celestial prevailing presence there might be.
“I was thirteen when I heard it and it blew my mind because I grew up in Tennessee and didn’t meet a Muslim person until five years after that. To hear someone singing in Arabic when there’s all this propaganda in the South about the war on terror, to see that the things we allow ourselves to think about others and their beliefs are not true, that our beliefs being irreconcilable is because of our culture and bias, not because we aren’t compatible, was revolutionary.
“Approaching faith in that way revolutionised how I approached faith and lyrics. I’ve got two mewithoutYou tattoos, they’re my favourite band in the universe.”
“Manchester Orchestra are friends of mine, which is weird, because when I was a teenager they were idols in our scene. When I played house shows with my band, every band in the scene covered a different Manchester Orchestra song. Memphis goes ape over them.
“This song is just electric guitar and vocals. It’s so delicate at the beginning and then it rips into this high distortion guitar, it’s as if drums and bass should have come in, but no, it’s just overdriven guitar and screaming.
“I remember hearing it and that was a really powerful moment. I realised you can get dynamic variance with no band and no drums and that pure rawness really affected me. That this huge band could get that theatrical with just a guitar shifted the rules in my mind, until then I thought ‘if you’re not going to play with a band, you have to play an acoustic instrument, period.’
“Shortly after I became a fan of theirs I started going to house shows and there was this guy doing the same thing, he’d stick his Strat into this double cabinet and scream and there was no band. I thought ‘people are doing this and I can do it too’, it was wild.
“This song is so emotive. A couple of days ago I had a long set at a festival, I didn’t know what other songs to play so I played this. I play it when I get nervous because it just makes me feel good to scream, when you feel like you don’t know what to do and you want to get out how you’re feeling.
“The lyrics at the end are ‘I am fine, I am fine, I am fine’, my hair is standing up right now just talking about it. Onstage it’s like a joke with myself, like “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.’ Few songs have ever been able to comfort me in that way, it’s a really beautiful song.”
“So if we flashback to the mewithoutYou song, I got into heavier music and the metalcore scene because it was accessible to me in its angst and intensity. I started listening to heavier and heavier bands, going to hardcore shows and for a while the only thing I wanted to listen to was screaming and blast beats - if it wasn’t heavy then it was for Preppies. I was wearing my studded belt and fingerless gloves and I didn’t want anything to do with Preppy, acoustic music.
“Then I visited an older cousin who took me to a cool record shop and I bought Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie and Control by Pedro The Lion. When I heard ‘Title and Registration’ I’d never been so devastated by such delicate, quiet, soft and well put together lyrics. It swung my musical pendulum back into indieworld a little bit; that there could be depth, sadness and angst explored in ways that aren’t screaming. I’m still a fan of hardcore music, but I started to open my mind a little bit more to all the other music genres.
“There’s a thing Ben Gibbard does very well, but with ‘Title and Registration’ specifically, where he takes a small, apparently meaningless object or mundane event, like being asked for your title and registration and turns it into something meaningful and representative, that functions as this deeper metaphor.
“I think listening to Death Cab trained me. Hearing Ben Gibbard taking routine, daily experiences or small objects and finding them to be loaded with meaning trained me to view every moment, thing and conversation through the lens of poetry, through the lens of ‘this is the raw material of art, the experience of our daily lives’.
“That’s what comprises the songs I wrote later, processing my daily life. On ‘Title and Registration’ he’s pulled over to the side of the road, getting out his licence and he finds a picture of his ex-lover. You’re like, ‘what an image’, it’s so good.”
“This is together with ‘Title and Registration’, they’re both so important to me and I talk about this song all the time.
“I heard the lines on ‘Options’, ‘I could never divorce you without a good reason and though I may never have to, it’s good to have options.’ And then in the second verse he says ‘So I told her I loved her and she told me she loved me and I mostly believed her and she mostly believed me.’
“I’ve seldom been so devastated by something, that one important word ‘mostly’ takes it from being romantic and poetic. A pop song would say ‘I told her I loved her, she told me she loved me’, which could be a 50s’ Doo-wop song, but this is “And I mostly believed her and she mostly believed me.” That’s the stuff of real life, the imperceptible realness we don’t want to admit to.
“Everybody says ‘I’ll love you forever’ not ‘I could never divorce you without a good reason, but something might happen.’ I heard this when I was thirteen or fourteen and my thirteen, fourteen-year-old brain couldn’t process that level of realness, it changed how I thought about love songs.
“When I heard ‘Options’ I thought ‘Oh my God, that is the most visceral thing to say to a person', but the chorus is ‘but for now, I need you’ and I felt if I were the recipient of that love song I’d think ‘what strength does it take for a person to be that honest?’ To be ‘we can’t foresee the future, but for now I absolutely need you and I can’t tell you anything else.’
“That’s a more realistic appraisal of love than any of the cheesy, sappy love songs I’d heard before that moment and I’ve always wanted to write with that level of ultimate honesty. This is the third time during this conversation my hair has stood up, I’m so deeply attached to these lyrics.”
“I got into Torres when I was a junior in High School. It was her first album, I remember looking it up on Grooveshark, the now defunct streaming service, and I loved it. The song was ‘Honey’, it was just her and that beautiful fuzzed-out guitar, she had this big sultry voice that was so unique.
“The reason I like ‘New Skin’, which is off the album Sprinter that came out a couple of years ago, is because there’s a lot of negotiation of her relationship with faith. She explores internalised views about faith and God in the context of trauma and maybe not agreeing with everything she’s been indoctrinated with.
“There’s a line, ‘The darkness fears what darkness knows, but if you’ve never known the darkness, you’re the one who fears the most.’ It’s delivered amidst these triumphant, huge drums and it’s so anthemic, but that line is about looking the scariest possibilities in your life in the face, all of the ugly and dark things about yourself and confronting them, because that diminishes your fear of them. If you come to terms with them and accept them then what’s to fear?
“I thought that was such an incredible and powerful line. I revisit it a lot when I think about the scary or ugly parts of myself that I have to look at and explore, because after unpacking them all there’s nothing left to fear.
“She’s one of my favourite lyricists. She has this incredible ability, it’s diaristic, cataloguing experience, it can be really straightforward but then she slips in these words. One of the first lines is ‘Pray for me would ya?’ which is something you’d say to a friend, like ‘Pray for me would ya? I’m going through some stuff.’ It’s very conversational and casual, but at the end there’s this thing that seems like it’s from an 1800s’ romantic poetry verse and she’s able to meld all of those things together.
“As a person and as a stage presence she’s so evocative, everything about her is a mark of real and true artistry.”
“I used to cry to this song, it’s kind of a dark, singer/songwriter record. I love ‘Elastic Heart’ and all of Sia’s later stuff, but I think the experience of getting to know this song is what makes it so important to me.
“We made a video for the song ‘Appointments’ with one of my friends Christina McKinney, she’s a contemporary dancer and I’ve known her since I was thirteen. When I befriended Christina and my friends in dance I thought ‘Ballerinas? Whatever, it’s like opera, it’s impenetrable and inaccessible to most people.’
“Then when I was fourteen I saw Christina and another dancer, who’s also in the video, perform this heart-breaking, interpretive routine to ‘Breathe Me.’ I remember I was full of angsty emotions, I was sitting in the front row at this dance competition in a hotel conference room in Arkansas. I saw them do this beautiful dance and I started bawling, I thought ‘that’s the first time I’ve been moved to tears by movement and dance’. It sparked a love of the artform in me, like painting or music, dance can be really evocative and moving.
“I’d always tease them and say ‘You guys have got to work with me, we’ll do a video or something’ and years later we finally got to do it. Christina choreographed the dance and there’s dancers following me around as manifestations of thought, that only I can see.
“’Breathe Me’ is so delicate. The piano intro and all of the little pieces about it seem to really reflect where Sia goes dynamically. It’s a song about being small and needing to be wrapped up and protected. It feels so vulnerable and the way that the music mimics the lyrics is where I want to get to in my song writing - where you can take the listener on a journey.
“That’s something I’ve always admired about Sia, being able to create such sonic dynamics to reflect the lyrical content.”
“Talk about sonic dynamics, oh my God. If I were on an island and I could only listen to one song for the rest of my life it would be ‘Jungleland.’ It’s got everything you need, a fast part, a slow part, a piano solo in a different key with a Clarence Clemons sax solo over it and it’s eight minutes long.
“But I think the thing people maybe miss about Bruce Springsteen is his poetry. People I talk to about him say ‘Yeah, Bruce, Rock and Roll!’ and I’m ‘yeah, it’s Rock and Roll, he plays four-hour concerts, he’s an impeccable musician, he absolutely shreds on that Telecaster and he’s a gritty, true rock star, but his poetry is wild.’
“The first time I heard ‘Jungleland’ wasn’t even hearing it as a song. One of my teachers at school asked if we thought lyrics could be poetry and somebody said ‘No.’ The teacher said ‘Really? You don’t think that lyrics and poetry are the same thing?’ She launched into a poem and we were all ‘what is this?’ When she finished she said ‘that was the song ‘Jungleland’ by Bruce Springsteen.’
“I went home and listened to Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town straight through and read the lyrics along to them. I thought ‘this guy is setting up concept records that pierce the heart of the everyman, working class, proletariat experience, giving them glory and conveying the beauty of the everyday.’
“I’d never heard someone speak that poetically. The lyric that makes me die is ‘they try to make an honest stand, but they wind up wounded, not even dead.’ The little positives in there, ‘wounded, not even dead’, just ‘wounded’, are beautiful. There’s ‘the poets down here don't write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be’, it’s like he’s critiquing all of the poets. You know all the characters and scenes that he paints.
“Then there’s “They'll meet beneath that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light.’ Me and my friends used to hang out at corner stores and you’re imagining the glow of this neon, brilliant light, bathed in blue and red, its juxtaposed with the sad, white-trashiness of it being an Exxon gas station but he’s made a white trash hangout poetic.
“It’s like when he sings about going down to the reservoir, everybody knows their reservoir, their lookout point or the corner store they hang out at. He legitimises the mundane and says ‘I’m going to assign beauty and literary description to this truck stop and to this scene’ and it’s riveting.
“I love Bruce Springsteen so much, but I love ‘Jungleland’ more than any of his other songs, it’s so epic in its nature.”
“I think I really attach to songs that discuss negotiating faith and faith tradition, but this song is about becoming disillusioned with faith institutions and the church in general.
“Musically it’s incredible and it’s got one of the best vocal performances of their entire catalogue, I really look up to Hayley Williams as a vocalist. I started listening to them when I was sixteen, I’d sit in my room and sing along to their songs and try to get my voice to do what her voice could.
“It’s got such interesting lyrics. She’s from Nashville, so she grew up in the same Southern Christian circle. ‘I can see behind the curtain, the wheels are cranking, turning, but it’s all wrong the way we’re working, towards a goal that’s non-existent’ and ‘I want to know what it would be like to find perfection in my pride, to see nothing in the light, to turn it off.’
“The way I interpret the song is about understanding that this perfection, this unified rightness we try achieve, is by adhering to standards that are set forth, not even by God, but by representatives of a human institution that decide what is ‘moral’, quote, unquote. We’re trying to reach something that’s not possible and it’s actually detrimental to see ourselves in such a punitive light, because we’ll never achieve it. So what if we could start finding value in our imperfection? And flip around the impossible standard by understanding we’ll never reach a standard that we shouldn’t have anyway?
“They’ve been really open, especially Hayley, about their relationship with faith and their journey of belief and it’s been really great to see people openly questioning ‘Are these things right if we don’t know?’ and be really candid about questions they have.
“As a teenager, singing these songs made me not feel so bad about doubt or uncertainty in a culture where that can feel very dangerous.”
“I first I heard Tegan and Sara’s music when I was in 8th Grade. Elton John is an openly queer artist but hearing Tegan and Sara was the first time I’d heard music from openly queer artists that were very contemporary.
“Tegan and Sara had love songs about women and it helped me start to accept the fact that it was an OK emotion to be public about, that love for a person of the same sex could be sung about in the same way as a heterosexual relationship could be, because you only hear songs that are girls singing about their boyfriends, or boys singing about chasing girls on pop radio and you never hear women singing to women.
“To see myself reflected and represented as a possibility in pop culture was so empowering, because I felt like I could write a song about a girl and not have to change the pronouns. What a thought!
“I was twelve years old so of course I didn’t think those things at the time, but with ‘I Know I Know I Know’ I remember thinking it was my favourite song from So Jealous, it seemed so piercing. Tegan and Sara’s lyrics remain relevant now and I go through phases of connecting to different lines. This song has this lyric “House after house, just like car after car, you see club after club and it all seems so far’ and it reminds me that as a touring musician, I see club after club, I see bar after bar. It’s about this feeling of disconnection and knowing that it kind of sucks to be in this relationship.
The chorus is “I know I know I know” and whenever I hear it I’m “I do know Tegan and Sara, I know exactly how it feels to be far away and wish you were there.’ It’s a super-emotionally loaded song for me and it always has been, they’re incredible musicians.”