Searching for answers
“Good God, when're you gonna call it off, climb down off the cross / And change your mind?,” Julien Baker sings on “Ziptie”. It’s this uncertainty, and at times existentialism, that the Tennessee-born 25-year-old navigates throughout her new album, Little Oblivions. The record's closing lyrics encapsulate the record's journey: one propelled by self-evaluation, a reassessment of faith, and coming to terms with letting go.
Maintaining the conversational vocal delivery that made Sprained Ankle and Turn Out The Lights so intimate, Little Oblivions finds Baker taking on a more kaleidoscopic sound. Self-produced and unyielding, an assortment of instruments - drums, synthesizers, banjo, and mandolin - produce a backdrop for Baker to meditate on personal experiences. It’s less structured than her previous records: not defined by narrative, but the transient nature of thoughts and feelings. “I’m trying to get away from deciding my identity and who I want to be, or trying to reconstruct a whole narrative that shows you who I am or what I believe,” she tells me. “This one is a little bit more disjointed in thought process and I don’t mind that, I think that’s truer to life and truer to who I was when I wrote it.”
Baker sits across from me on our transatlantic call, sipping coffee. As vices go, there are worse, and at this point it’s become almost a mirror, embodying how the singer-songwriter feels in her day-to-day life. Today it’s watery - “mediocre,” she confesses. “I feel like I can measure my mental health by how I’m taking my coffee. Like, when I’m super super manic and stressed out it’s black,” she laughs.
The self-awareness that is intertwined with her writing style is evident throughout our conversation; she apologises a few times, at other moments pausing before articulating her point. There’s a sense of assuredness arising out of this self-consciousness—critical thinking that imbues a sense of calmness when both listening to and being in the presence of Baker.
Julien Baker: I wonder if citizens will continue having this hypervigilance because we went through four years of a President who knew how to manipulate citizens with the media and would do some new fucked-up thing every day. We got so excited when Biden won and then the shit happened with the Capital. I watched the inauguration and I felt good but I don’t know if I’ll be able to unwork this lingering fear and suspicion after seeing everything fail so much and people get so radical.
I don’t know, what I’m hoping is that Trump, like all demigods who fall out of power, only becomes important to a handful of extremists and then fades away.
It’s premature and I think that’s kind of the problem with the way people think about organising and about social change. In America it’s like you just vote and hope that somebody good gets the Presidency and then your work is over—it’s not [laughs]. I barely believe that my vote counted... in fact I know my vote didn’t count because Tennessee is a Republican state. I voted for Biden and then our electoral college votes went to Trump and I know that, but then people are like, ‘Well we did it, we got Trump out, we can just go back to doing whatever’ and those are largely the middle-class white people who won’t have to worry about healthcare and won’t have to worry about childcare…
It seemed that around the election all of a sudden there were a hundred non-profit organisations all doing the same thing, and I found it a little bit suss because essentially what you’re selling on all of these 50 social media 501C-like non-profits is the brand. And there’s T-shirts that are like "Fuck Trump [I’m a progressive liberal…]" and shit like that, and I did livestreams for several of those because I might as well try instead of being a bitch about it, but in the mail yesterday I got a fucking award. It wasn’t even an award for me personally, it was for all the people who participated with this one organisation to help register people to vote.
And I was so pissed! Y’all took all of the money that people donated to you and made literal awards to give to yourself and other privileged people? [It was] the most fucked up object I’ve ever received in the mail, what the fuck [laughs] It was just really out of touch! Anyway, world entropy aside.
Exactly, yeah. Hanif is an incredible writer and an incredible music critic because he is so perceptive. When we got that essay back, I was just like… whew! But that feels like exactly the ethos of the record: to be making work even though your life is a mess—just reporting from the day to day, sifting through the wreckage and trying to rebuild with the leftover scraps.
I do hope so. I’ve been thinking a lot about how this record isn’t as positive, or that I didn’t try so hard to have a thesis statement at the end of it that was about something good and meaningful and redemptive. And I’m afraid that the attitude that’s become more prevalent, especially over 2020, is that people are relating and bonding over cynicism. Like what we just did, I feel like that’s the conversation that makes people immediately accessible to each other.
When I go into a coffee shop and they’re like "how are you?" and I’m like "good, except for…" You know, and that’s how people bond about things being shit. I don’t know if that’s good or bad; I think it’s good, to be honest about it in my own life, but I don’t want to be cynical. I don’t want the record to seem like that, but... what else can you be? Denial doesn’t serve anybody right, so you have to allow yourself to be hurt and be sad in order to find the mitigating factors of hope - wherever they are.
The record was recorded in Memphis but I had been making demos all throughout 2019. I would go to the studio when I’d be in a really bad place, and I would be in the studio recording in the midst of all the outside stuff happening in my life. I never really stopped writing songs in my room. In the beginning of 2019 I busted out like 25 demos and was ready to turn in another record, and then throughout the year everybody - my label, my friends and the people I toured with - were like, "We don’t think you’re ready to put out another record" [laughs] That was kind of helpful, to have a little bit of a forced step back.
But I don’t know, I always write songs. So it’s like they were coming one by one, very slowly, so I guess there wasn’t really a time where I felt like I’ll start writing again. It was just waiting for a time where I’d had enough distance from things to feel okay sharing what I had written.
I find that I’ll understand the emotion that I was really getting at, or I’ll have more perspective on a feeling once a song has already been done for many months, or once it’s already been out in the world on a record. But I wonder if that’s not because of some of those experiences that I’m writing about... I’m not exaggerating when I say that they’re traumatic, for me and for other people. Like I certainly put my friends through some traumatic stuff which I’m not proud of.
I think there’s this level of emotional clipping - where in order to feel the emotions that I’m avoiding feeling about something hard or difficult or painful, I write about it. When I’m having a conversation I can say things like, “Yeah I got into a little bit of trouble last night, I, whatever, I got into a fistfight or I was out too late or something or another” — but it’s my fault and I take accountability for it, it’s fine and I’ll just move on and try to do better.
When I sit down to write a song about it, it’s like I can detach from myself as a person and I can just write about the childlike, weak, tender or embarrassing sides of those experiences without feeling so much guilt about expressing them. Because I’m not really expressing them to anybody; I’m not having coffee with a friend being like this is so fucked up, I’m just trying to trod through it in a song and then maybe that’s safer for me and it helps me to like feel the things I wasn’t letting myself feel.
Yeah, you don’t want to burden the person and then also it’s like with my particular situation, it’s trouble I got myself into, it’s decisions I made that ended up in destruction and pain and hurting myself as well as other people. So it’s almost like I don’t want to talk to the people I hurt about how something hurt me you know—that doesn't feel right. And I talk to my other friends and I went through a great deal of therapy, but yeah. I do it in interviews too, I’m like that was fine, that was whatever, all this horrible stuff happened and I’m fine [laughs] That’s what you do when you’re performing for other people. Because it’s uncomfortable, it’s uncomfortable to be not okay in front of other people, and then I can just do that in a song and really put all of the pieces together alone.
They’re all really personal to me, but that song especially. The lyrics in that part: Do I allow the things that happen to me, or the experiences I have, to make me callous so that I can go through life with the protection of not being so sensitive, or do I stay sensitive because I don’t want to become an emotionally distant person? Is it better to allow myself to keep feeling, or is it better to keep everything at arm's length and be really cynical so that I don’t get hurt?
There’s a lot in there but I guess most of it is about whether I allow myself to feel these feelings or continue to do things to cover up all of my feelings, or do things to quiet or obliterate my feelings with substances or relationships or any number of things. Which is going to be better in the long run?
"There’s a lot of questions on this record—there’s a lot of lyrics that just end in a question mark."
I am a very sensitive person; I don’t know that I could ever be callous, that was maybe wishful thinking. I wish I could just be a person that’s been turned hard by life but I’m just sensitive, I’m a sensitive person, it’s never going to happen [laughs].
Yeah, I don’t think you can change it. And I wonder if the people that I find that are callous become that way because at some point they allow themselves to be sensitive, it doesn’t just happen for no reason. Is that a maladaptation or would that actually help me? I think you’re right, I don’t know if you could just change it that deliberately.
No that’s awesome! I mean it’s good because when I write that shit it’s like: I don’t know either? Maybe earlier in my career I tried to write songs where I was making a point about something or I had a position or opinion on how feelings work, and I don’t think that anymore really. There’s a lot of questions on this record—there’s a lot of lyrics that just end in a question mark. I felt for a long time like I had to answer those because I got a seat at the table of being an artist in the public forum, and I want to have something to say. But maybe it’s more honest to admit that you don’t know.
Yeah totally. I think my friends that are musicians experience people expecting them to know more and have more to say too because there’s this illusion of if you’re an artist, you must have some higher than average artistic sensibility, intelligence, capability or talent. I really honestly think maybe I have a little bit of that but I became an artist as a fluke; I didn’t know this is what I was going to do, it just kind of happened and then I was touring. That’s a big responsibility to put on yourself or somebody else.
Also, I don’t really think anybody was asking me for answers in the first place, I think I just have historically looked at artists for enlightenment and so when I was like now I’m touring and people are listening to my music, I should have something good to say. You know, to balance out the equation of giving. Yeah, it’s just way too much responsibility to expect that from yourself. It’s already hard enough for human beings to figure out what they think in their own lives, just as a person.
When I was 13 or 14 it made sense that I would listen to artists who were 19 or 20 and I'd think, "Wow they really have some interesting thoughts and politics and whatever!" But then your taste changes when you get to be an independent person and you realise how little anybody knows about anything [laughs]. Oh gosh, that sounds cynical but it’s actually really freeing and makes me really happy.
Man, I’m a little bit embarrassed of any articles you might have read. It’s funny because I wrote these articles when I was like 20, they’re a little corny. But I can look at them mercifully now and think like, deeper than the corniness of the articles or deeper than the corniness of the songs, is a person who’s frantically trying to figure out the answer. Like, with a capital ‘A’—The Answer. It seems really facile of me to just say that then I got older and I realised the answer doesn’t exist, because it’s more than that. On this record there’s a lot I think of mourning: not like mourning God or mourning goodness, but I thought those things existed in one really specific way and that if I just did enough thought experiments or sat and used my brain hard enough, I could figure out the puzzle. I would figure out what it means to be a good person, or what God wants, or how to be a good partner.
And there’s an element of when you realise that those things are motivated by naivety or denial or willing self-deception. When you realise that those don’t exist then it’s not just a bummer because you’ll never find what you’re looking for, it’s like you’ve spent all of this time deliberating over something that isn’t possible and how stupid that feel. Yeah, so this record... It gets nihilistic sometimes and it might even be, the more I look back on it, way more negative than I would even consider myself now. But just because I was experiencing this massive loss of everything that I thought my life was about or the answers that I felt like I was so close to finding and the nature of God, the ideal political situation, like those things are imaginary for the large part and I have to make do with the real and ugly uncertainties of life. So it’s liberating to not feel like you’re compulsively searching for an answer but it’s also hurtful, and so there’s a lot of me very reactionarily being dark on the record and like well, what if there’s no good thing to do and it’s all just random things we do. Yeah, sorry, that didn’t make any sense, my bad.
You’re a politics student?
Oh that’s cool, what do you want to do with that?
Dude. Capitalism baby. That’s how I felt like the whole time that I was in college too, I was just like, ‘Oh my God, everything is so royally corrupt none of these systems are going to function well just because of the nature of how people are. And you can’t legislate morality, but you also can’t just have a complete anarcho-state.
Oh gosh, now I’m thinking about being twenty and into politics. I used to crouch in the stairwell of my university and call my senators every other day about whatever proposition or injunction or law they were trying to pass, and I would just be like ‘Don’t do it!’ And of course their intern is like, ‘I’ll tell Mr Lee that you called’. And it’s like no you fucking won’t [laughs]
But yeah, I don’t think it’s bad to hold on to those like Marxist ideologies as a mark, as a map right. For me it’s like I don’t want to let go of the aspiration of having a better economic system, a better political system, even a better infrastructure for musicians where everything isn’t so grotesquely commodified. And man it’s like I think why those things keep happening, people are like wow everything’s corrupt so why try. Have you ever read any Angela Davis?
That’s crazy, yeah, it’s that and there’s a book called Optimism by Rebecca Solnit. And both of those books are like lifelong activists and journalists writing about how to make change and what that really looks like, and those helped me calm my radical frustration down into a concerted effort. Anyway, sorry, this interview isn’t about Marxism, sorry [laughs]!
Mm, I mean that’s really hard, I wonder if people don’t listen to my songs and think sometimes, ‘This idea wasn’t worth pursuing’ [laughs] I tend to write a bunch of songs at a time, like I’ll write several songs a week, and it’s almost like panning for gold. I’ll write a whole bunch of feelings and then look at what I’ve written and think what is the most salient part of this. What are all of these songs trying to say in an oblique way?
And then I try to make that more clear and meditate on what that feeling or what that fear or problem is. Sometimes I don’t know, sometimes I spend months making a song and then I’m like that song isn’t really worth it. Which is sad but it’s the practice of letting go.
I think it is something that’s practised as any kind of artist or any kind of writer. I mean, if you’re a political opinion writer and you write a 5000-word essay, you can probably cut it down to 3000 words and still say what you wanted to say, but you’re going to be attached to certain sentences and points you’ve made. And I think for me it’s this process of trying to see like is this an emotional attachment or does this serve the song. Is this an emotional attachment or is it really important? I remember hearing this quote, it’s writer’s advice that’s like “Kill your darlings”, and I was like ahh, but I read this other book which was like, “Kill your darlings is a lie - kill everything else but your darlings, and then build the song around the part that you feel most for”.
So sometimes that’s the thing I have to negotiate—if I feel such reluctance to getting rid of this song, then why? What do I need to take away from it so that it’s the best it can be. I didn’t want to let go of songs when I was a kid and I was in a band, but I stopped being afraid that every song was the last one that I was going to write at some point, or every song was the best song that I was going to write. I think it’s easy to feel that way, to be like, ‘I’m really proud of this song and I don’t know if I could ever have a moment of pure inspiration or think so hard about another song in my life.’ For most artists that’s an illusion, we end up writing more songs.
It was interesting. We’d played a couple of sessions that were pre-taped where we had a full band, and that was awesome. But in the studio I played everything because I’m a control freak about song-crafting. Now that I look back I’m like I wonder if that was just a vestige of being a solo musician for so long and feeling like I have to do everything myself, like if it was just some element of my pride that I wasn’t ready to let go off yet and have my friend come write drums for a song. I think it’s whatever record I make next I’m going to do that instead. It’s like I made this whole record where I tried to play drums even though I’m not a drummer and I’m bad at drums. Maybe that goes with the thesis of the record, I’m just trying to do all of this stuff myself to prove it to someone and I don’t need to do that. So next record, my friends will play.
I would come up with the drum part that I wanted and then I would play it for two straight minutes and then me and Calvin would sit there and be like, okay this section is on time and this section is on time. I knew what I wanted to happen and I knew the order, but I’m just not coordinated at all. I think it is almost like an interweaving art - electronic drums and real drums - but I couldn’t fucking trade with a drummer and play that stuff [laughs] I want to make that clear to everyone because in the press release it was like “Julian plays all the instruments by herself,” and I was like, well… I mean, sort of. And a computer plays the instruments with me, so... [laughs]
I think I had a lot more anger then. Originally the song was just about my relationship with substances and missing this really easy immediate cure for anxiety and wishing I could just turn stuff off again. As I kept working on the song and returning to it, I started to recognise the parts of my personality that had been seeking that throughout five years of being sober and doing the same behaviours. The parts of my personality which thought that if I just did this one thing or if I just ran compulsively. I would do prayer, anything, and I began to look at myself with this… ‘pity’s’ the wrong word, but… tenderness. Like, “oh you poor thing, you are just scurrying around your whole life looking for an antidote to pain”. I was like: I’ll believe whoever can convince me that you’ll help me, I’ll throw all of my eggs into that basket because I want so bad this relief. But I also think I was writing with a whole lot of anger towards the church because I had for so long been a person who was vocal about having faith.
Now maybe I would talk about that differently. I was very devout and I don’t know, I was angry. I felt just like the drug dealer who sells you drugs that work for a little and don’t work in the long run. All of the ideologies I had been sold were a lie. And it’s like now I went through a whole year of being bitter and resentful that I was lied to and got to a more merciful place. People are often lying to themselves when they are lying to you. It’s maybe not their fault so much, it’s not like I was intentionally deceived, there’s still things that I value about the idea of God even if I don’t think, whatever, a big dude in the sky is going to magically kill me.
Yeah, I don’t know, there’s a lot of anger when I look back on that song. It’s sort of a farce or there’s a little bit of sarcasm in it, like yeah I’ll believe whatever you say if you can make anything besides pain. Whether it’s true or not, I will willfully believe a lie, and I felt like I had been wilfully believing… Not lies, misrepresentations maybe, after a long time. And I was disillusioned but yeah, I don’t know, that one’s loaded.
I don’t know, it’s a big question and I find oftentimes like it’s something I’ll think so much about because my whole cultural, personal, familial life is wrapped up in my understanding of God. I used to think of God as a much more literal thing—I don’t think of God so literally anymore. I don’t even really think of God as controlling or deciding anything. I think I had this idea of God as ‘other’ because world religions make God this thing that’s separate from human beings, separate from the Earth, it’s this mystery we’re never going to figure out and we have our ways of metaphorically understanding God through religious texts. And I don’t know, the true divine thing that I feel like I have an obligation to serve is human beings. That’s already what I thought when I vehemently identified as a Christain because I thought you know, Jesus wants you to be kind to others, but now I don’t really think of it in rules.
The Bible is a useful tool to me for finding out how other people and how civilisations have imagined God; I don’t think that it’s the last word on how people should behave, and I don’t think that God even really has a consciousness that speaks to people. But I don’t know, there’s something about being rooted in it culturally where I’ll probably still never be able to get out of that mindset. It’s done a lot of harm: the institution of religion. That's the thing I wanted to stop defending, and for the longest time it was like I talked in interviews about being a Christian and being a queer person. I don’t think loving God and loving people means you have to be a Christian, and I think that religious institutions have probably done more harm than good to our understanding of God, or our understanding of justice — especially in America. And I just didn’t want to defend that anymore.
I think I was trying to be like no look, The Bible is radical because they all share their possessions and no one goes without. It’s like Biblical Marxism. But I was forcing it. And you don’t have to force it, you can just allow stuff to be flawed. We do the same fucking thing with the Constitution though in the United States, we’re just like well the constitution is old and it’s always been this way so we can’t change it and every word of it is true [laughs] And it’s just like what other civilisation in history has benefited from not changing things just because that’s the way it is you idiot!
Yeah, it’s not a monolith. And it also started to become like I was having these conversations, I would read… oh God it’s like I’ve read so much about the historical context of The Bible and all the different readings of Aramaic and Greek and it’s like, why do I feel like I need to justify things in this way. I know in my heart that it’s not right to hate gay people. I don’t need to be a Biblical scholar [laughs] to prove it/ II was just like why am I doing this. I feel like there are more useful ways to spend my time and energy to make the world a better place.
I learned to be a little bit more merciful with myself and to be realistic about not just my shortcomings, but just my capabilities as a human being. We were talking earlier about how when you grow up looking to artists for inspiration and guidance maybe that makes you as an artist think that you’re supposed to give that to people, and I think it was healthy for me to let go of that imagined responsibility. All my records are sad, all my records are about bummer stuff, and the whole idea I guess is that it’s okay to talk about your imperfections.
But I was doing that in a way where I was trying to craft a narrative, I was trying to be like, ‘I used to have all of these imperfections and now I use them as motivation to get better.’ And then when you find the same old imperfections coming back in new and more difficult ways, you just have to learn how to not always expect yourself to be proving something. Just how to have worth just because you exist.