Julien Baker: ‘My songs are really sad but, as a person, I’m really happy’

INTERVIEW – Julien Baker is what we like to call a musical ovni. An angel would actually be  more suitable. I discovered her on the internet, thanks to the Tiny Desk Concert. I fell in love with that gorgeous round sound of her guitars, that straight and lyrical voice of her, powerful and fragile at the same time.

I fell in love with her debut album, Sprained Ankle, an amazingly melancholic record full of doubts, personal questioning, faith and sorrow. I also fell in love with this extraordinary little woman who I got to meet and interview one afternoon in a Parisian bar, close to the venue she performed at that night. I wanted to know more about her, and I’m happy to say that we shared the same unconditional love for Legolas. On top of that, Julien Baker is a funny, sweet and generous human being. What more can I say?

Julien Baker in Paris (c) Emma Shindo

First musical memory?
I’m sitting in the back of my Mum’s car, in a child seat, and she has on the Beatles Greatest Hits. That’s like the first music I remember listening to, and engaging with.

First CD that you’ve bought?
(thinking)… Maybe Switchfoot? I know, I know (smiles). Ok I’m trying to think of another one, maybe not the first one that I bought, but very soon after that I had My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy, I got From Under The Cork Tree and Welcome To The Black Parade. Going down memory lane…

I love the crazy video of Welcome To The Black Parade!
I love it too! People make fun of it now, and I’m like: no it’s still cool!

First poster you put on your wall?
Oh… this is lame… it was a big poster of Legolas, the archer from The Lord of the Rings. I’m a big Tolkien fan. When I was a kid those movies were a big deal to me, and I loved Legolas.

First guitar?
I would take my Dad’s guitar. And the first one I’ve ever bought was the Stratocaster [Fender] but it had… – have you ever heard of that company Obey Propaganda? – it had all these crazy snakes, swords, painted on it, but it was just that and through this terrible line six amp, and I was playing heavy, screaming metal.

First festival that you’ve been to?
Beale Street Music Festival, it’s in Memphis in Beale Street, it’s our big thoroughfare and interstingly, this year I played it, and it was a big deal to me because it’s my hometown… I think the first act I ever saw there was Taking Back Sunday… Red Jumpsuit Apparatus… they’re like old emo bands. That my thing 100%! I was into very heavy emo music, I still am. That’s what I’m listening to predominantly and this is why it’s so weird that singer-songwriter thing is what I’m touring on now.

First time you understood you wanted to have a musical career on your own?
See that’s a thing, I never made a decision to have a solo career, I was playing with my band Forrister and I put up this record for fun. And that’s maddening! People are like: you didn’t intend anything, because I put it up on Bandcamp for 2 dollars. Then Sean [Patrick Rhorer] contacted me and said: we wanna put your record out, we wanna do it right, and I was like: no one’s gonna care, no one will care. And he was like: ok! Well, let me try! Then… this happens… So I’m just thankful and amazed, but I still don’t know how I fell into it in a way… but I had been touring consistently with Forrister and I guess that work payed off in a different way than I expected.

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First job?
I worked at a restaurant, I sat people and washed dishes. I don’t know if you guys have that here, but it was like a steak house with Texas style, they have all these animals on the wall, hunting theme… not my deal! But hey, it was a paying job! Actually we got booked with Joyce Manor, a punk band, one of my favourite, and I asked for the show one month in advance – which is more than enough – and my boss said no. I said I quit. I quit for this punk show! I had a mohawk at that point (smiles). It was crazy, it was hard pink… I can show you pictures but my phone is not working…

First song that you wrote?
Ouh…I don’t know if this joke will come across as funny, it’s like a pun. There’s days like jour and daze like a fog, confusion and boredom… So I wrote a song called “School Daze”, like how I did not like school, and it was a joke on the two words sounding similar. It was really bad, I was like 13, like I don’t like school! very punk of me! Thankfully no recording! Because it would have been pretty bad…

First time in the studio?
It was six years ago. I didn’t know how it worked, like headphones they confused me so much and the songs are all like one measure off. I still have those demos and they’re pretty embarrassing. Everything I have done, pretty much until I got to college was in someone’s bedroom with a little microphone and a laptop. Six years ago I wanted to play, record and release music but you’re always told that it’s not realistic, so you might have music as a hobby, but you have to get a real job. So recently I was like waoh I can do this for my real job, that’s a reality now, I was amazed! I’ve never thought this would happen to me, I was having back-up plans in case music didn’t work out, I was going to be a teacher or something like that. I knew that no matter what happened… if I had to be this guy (pointing the garbage man in the street) and play music in my free time, I would still do it, because I just love music you know.

Personally I know I wouldn’t be able to do what he’s doing, because it’s actually very physical…
Oh yeah? See the job I was doing while I was in college, I was a full-time student all day, and then I worked in the music industry but on the other side. We built giant stages so I had to wear these big work boots, and carry around a toolbox. We would put together lighting, like big machines and sound. I did that all through the night, twelve hour shifts: lifting heavy stuff, a lot of manual labor, and I worked these crazy hours in order to make money to pay my rent. It was pretty insane! It payed the bills and I was good at it: I know how to work a soundboard, I know the equipment because I’m in the music world and if this is, this close I can get to music, I’ll settle for that, and I’ll still play as a hobby. But I don’t have to do that anymore, I don’t have to lift heavy trusses… if you go to a big big festival they’re like this big (showing me) and 200 feet in the air. They would call me Tarzan because I’m little so I would run up there, plug everything in, scurry back down the ladder.

The one thing I don’t like about interviews is that they feel self-indulgent, it feels like I’m just talking about myself all day long. I’m no more important than anyone else.

First interview?
I had an interview with a college newspaper and we just met at a coffee shop on campus. It wasn’t really so scary because I knew her from classes, so it was just us talking, chating and being friends. That’s how I try to approach all interviews because I don’t wanna ever take myself to seriously and being like: I’m an important artist! You know I’ve got 3 interviews today, and Sean says it’s hard to believe that you’re shy. Because I am. When I was a teenager, the thought of talking to strangers would make me like I would freak out and be so quiet. When I started performing with Forrister, we would go on tour, every night in a different city: you meet strangers, you sleep at a stranger’s house, you talk with strangers at the venue, you talk with strangers in interviews… so I decided to change the way I deal with my anxiety, to instead of being reserved, I’m gonna be overly friendly, and so happy all the time so people can’t tell the inside of my freaking out. But the one thing I don’t like about interviews is that they feel self-indulgent, it feels like I’m just talking about myself all day long… I was supposed to do one with the New York Times and I kept being like: where did you go to school? I want to know about you! So it’s hard for me, I feel like I’m not that interesting or I’m no more important than anyone else. Everybody is the same level of importance, like that guy, or that guy…

First stage, first gig?
It was at a coffee shop in Memphis, they’d just set up a mic and I played a couple songs. That was my first stage just me. My first show with my friend Matt, that became Forrister my band, was in the basement of my church, a pretty cool place. They let kids have rock shows. It was really crazy, we played there every other week-end, we ended up playing there for 3 more years.

I don’t wanna say prayers because I’ve heard that it kind of freaks people out.

First thing you think about when you jump on stage?
When I play I try to… some people will call it meditate, but like prayer, to focus so I don’t get nervous because again, when I would perform with Forrister I would have panic attacks, hyper-ventilating on stage… So now I close my eyes a lot, I just pretend that it’s just me singing about that thing and I’m alone. I don’t wanna say prayers because I’ve heard that it kind of freaks people out. Prayers like meditation and calming.

First thing you do when you get off stage?
I typically want some water, sit down, be by myself, and then I go out to merch and talk to people. But I want a little bit of time just to think about it and breathe. Usually I’m thinking about all the things I did wrong, I’m thinking Oh I missed that note or I didn’t sing that right or I made a weird face… I will always be finding the worst so I take a minute and I think I made those mistakes, it’s ok, here’s the good things, move on, take a deep breath and go out. Which takes a lot of work to not spiral into I did so poorly, but it’s something I have to do to keep even.

First time you realised you had the power to make people cry and reach them just by singing?
It was before any of this happened with the solo stuff. Forrister was playing a show in a living room, at someone’s house. It was packed with kids, like 50 kids. After the show one of my friends, that I’ve known for a very long time hugged me, was really quiet, didn’t say anything and I was like this is a really long hug! Then she said: I really needed that, thank you for singing what you sing. And I thought: I’m not important, no one that is not my friend in this living room cares about my music.. then I was: it is important because even if 3 people come to the show, if one of them cries and gets something out of it, I’ve done my job. If you, the previous interviewer, and the sound guy were the only people at the show I would still wanna do the best performance because that’s what music is about. It’s not about how many people come, how many interviews you do, cool photos, it’s just about being able to give somebody this much of a good thing. Does that make sense? (I confirm)

Even if 3 people come to the show, if one of them cries and gets something out of it, I’ve done my job.

After thanking her for her time, and preparing my camera to take a picture rapidly, we keep talking. Of course I make English mistakes, and she says that she does more mistakes than I, especially in Spanish that she studied in college. She’s quite worried of speaking Spanish in Barcelona next week: “We’re going to London, the UK, and then we’re going to Primavera Sound, in a week. I’m playing a small early show. There’s gonna be nobody there and that’s ok with me! Then I’m gonna go see all the cool people. I’m just playing and I’m gonna enjoy everyone else: obviously Radiohead, LCD Sound System…” (I’m telling her they’re in Paris that night). “WHAT? You know we have an expression in the USA when you swear, you say Pardon my French, but I realise I can’t say pardon my French in France… (laughs) Then I’m gonna see Sigur Ros on a beach, I’m excited! It’s gonna be beautiful, I’m probably gonna cry…

We’re probably gonna cry tonight…
Oh no, people say that to me all the time! And I’m like: I’m sorry?! I don’t mean to make you cry… I try to be a really happy, goofball person to balance it out. My songs are really sad but I, as a person, am really happy.

Julien Baker’s first album Sprained Ankle is out (6131 Records).

Interview by Emma Shindo (Paris, 24th May 2016)

Thanks to Sean (Brixton Agency) and Cécilia (Supersonic).