Julien Baker on going back to school, her collab with Turnstile, and more Boygenius
The Tennessee singer-songwriter will be returning to Lawrence, Kansas this coming Monday.
Julien Baker is a singer-songwriter from the suburbs of Memphis with a true gift for penning and performing some of the most cathartic indie rock of the last decade. After receiving critical acclaim for her debut LP Sprained Ankle in 2015, she was quickly signed to iconic indie mainstay Matador.
Baker also formed the supergroup Boygenius in 2018 alongside fellow music media darlings Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus.
Her latest solo album, Little Oblivions, was released this past February and Baker has finally been able to hit the road in support of it. She’ll be playing one of her final 2021 dates in Lawrence, Kansas this coming Monday, Nov. 15.
Here’s our conversation with her ahead of that LFK show.
The Pitch: I remember seeing you play a free afternoon show at Vinyl Renaissance in Overland Park before a Granada show a few years back. I’m guessing you have fewer obligations like that post-COVID.
Yes. I guess I wouldn’t call it an obligation. But yeah, there’s a lot fewer in-person promotional [events]. And then there’s also a lot of, unfortunately, trying to stay away from people after shows.
To some extent, do you appreciate having more privacy on tour now or any other introvert-type perks, or do you miss being able to tour just like you used to?
In general, I think I appreciate it. I think that over COVID I came to really understand how important solitude is to my personality. I always have tried to make time to go on a run or go on a walk and be alone on tour, but that’s a lot easier to facilitate when there’s less things that you gotta go do. It seems counterintuitive for a performer to say this, but I find that I’m really shy sometimes. But that’s just me.
Between Turn Out The Lights and Little Oblivions, I read that you went back to school for a bit and your focus was on literature. Do you think that impacted the songwriting on the new record?
I think so. But maybe less in being directly referential of the work that I was studying, like the books that I was reading and writing about, and more because that time in my life and the radical shift of priorities. Really, I don’t know. It gave me a lot to examine about myself and I feel like, for better or worse, or however ugly that gets, and painful, that was most of what I was writing about on the record. I think if I had just stayed within the cycle of touring and not had the time to change my life, I wouldn’t have been able to learn those things about myself.
You feel like you gained the tools of being able to critically analyze your own writing through analyzing the writing of others?
What era or style or part of literature were you studying for the most part?
I was completing a lot of required courses [laughs]. So I had to take British Literature 1 and 2 at the same time, which was kind of tedious because I was reading Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales at the same time I was reading Charles Dickens. And there’s a whole spiel about what deserves to be canon and what doesn’t and how questionable it is that I had to take those courses to be awarded a degree, but yeah.
Like I said, I feel like I was interacting with other teachers like and other people in a different way, like in a less performative way, and that alone put me in a different environment socially, and I was taking up a different kind of space and it just allowed me to self-criticize.
You’ve been involved in or adjacent to punk and hardcore and metalcore for a long time and you recently did some vocals on the new Turnstile album.
Yeah, I did.
What was the process of working with them on that?
It was remote, but I FaceTimed with [singer] Brendan [Yates] and talked through the song … But also during COVID, I was like, okay, if I’m going to start shifting gears trying to self-sustain, I’m going to need to buy some nicer gear. So I just had microphones set up in my room and I recorded the vocals and I sent them over. So unfortunately we’ve never recorded together, but I have met them at shows and stuff. And they’re friends with the boys in Touché [Amoré]. Me and those guys go way back, which is how the connection happened.
Yeah, I think I may have actually first found your music (and/or Phoebe’s) through Jeremy Bolm from Touché posting it.
And he has been [supportive of me] for so long. It’s really sweet and crazy. So sweet. But yeah, I cried when [he first posted my music]. I pulled over in a Walmart parking lot and cried, because I was like, Jeremy Bolm from Touché Amoré said some nice things about my record! Anyway, I was fangirling really hard and now we’re friends. So weird.
Did Brendan or the Turnstile guys talk to you specifically about why they wanted you on that song?
Yeah, Brendan and I had FaceTime, and he kind of explained the premise of the song. One thing I’ve always admired about Turnstile is that they can say a lot in a really plain way that doesn’t sound vague. It just sounds concise. But yeah, I don’t know. It seemed like he was going through a period of learning and self-discovery and like self-seeing and I think I was also in that place. But this could have been written about something that happened a long time ago. I didn’t really prod him for personal information. I just listened to the poetic premise of the song as he described it.
I would say that Little Oblivions is pretty ambitious in its style of production compared to some of your previous work due to the inclusion of all the layers and drum machines and electronic instrumentation. Would you say that was due to having a bigger budget this time around or you just naturally wanting to experiment or a mix of the two?
Actually, I think I had the same budget for Turn Out The Lights and Little Oblivions. But with Turn Out The Lights, I was the person who would put out a really short record and was very scared that that record could have been more ambitious. But it was the first time I’d ever had a bunch of money from a label and I wanted to make something that sounded classically beautiful and really gorgeous and pristine, and I think that’s what I made. But I think I wasn’t allowing myself to get as weird as I wanted to, because I had never been perceived on a small level. It was just a big ratio of being perceived and evaluated for my music.
But then when I took time off and went back to school and we weren’t touring and I wasn’t promoting anything, it was easier to just make songs with [engineer] Calvin [Lauber], who worked with me on both records. It was easier to just make sounds that I found interesting, and it’s kind of easier to separate myself from the fear of people evaluating it as bad, because it’s different. I made a record that I’m proud of and I think is really fun to play live. I made songs that made me happy. Or not happy, because they’re all bummers, but you know what I mean—fulfilled.
You did also just recently release an EP of remixes of some of those songs. I was curious if those were all artists that you had already met or had working relationships with or if any of them were people you were contacting the first time and maybe surprised to hear back from.
Yeah, I was kind of surprised about Jesu. That was awesome. But I had known Nandi, who performs under the moniker Half Waif, and Sophie, she performs as Gordi, and Thao. Thao and I had emailed back and forth, and obviously, we’re preparing for this tour together. And then I had toured with both Sophie and Nandi. So I had a pre-existing relationship with both and I really think that they are just talented producers and just admire them and they’re all people who kind of nudged me to get a recording software, and then get a better recording software, and think that I could become independently competent in those things.
But then Keith, who performs as a lot of stuff, Mint Julep, and Helios. I had just been a huge Helios fan since I was in the seventh grade. I weirdly just found their music on a blog and loved it and I’ve followed them for a long time. So that was uniquely special for me to hear Keith remix something. And then Jesu I’ve been a fan of for many years, but [he and Keith were] people I had never met before.
I would have guessed that a Jesu remix is kind of sought after, so I’m glad you got to do that. And I really enjoyed hearing your voice over such a dark, droning, low-pitched track like that.
Oh my gosh, it’s so hard. Yeah, I love it.
Have you ever had the urge to make something more like metal adjacent or kind of industrial like that?
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that. I think maybe I’ll try that. Maybe it won’t sound good and then I’ll try something else. But I definitely think I want to bridge into that world and find a synthesis with what I do, or maybe just change what I do, because nothing is forever, and people can make the music that they want to make. Well, that’s a lot. Every time I talk about feeling free with the art that I make, it comes with a level of self-awareness, because I’m afforded the ability to feel free with my art because I am made wealthy by it, you know?
Lawrence is the second to last solo show you have scheduled this year and then you’re doing Europe in the spring. I just read this past week that you have a one-off Boygenius benefit show you’re doing in Los Angeles. So one, what are your plans between the end of this tour and the Europe tour? And two, I’m obligated to ask but I do not expect you to disclose this to a magazine in Kansas City, should we expect more Boygenius in the near future?
[Laughs] So respectful. We’re all pretty eager to work with each other, so it seems inevitable for there to be more Boygenius releases. It’ll happen. I don’t know when, because we all have schedules and stuff going on. So TBD on when that will materialize and be released, but then hopefully soon.
And winter through up until the spring tour, is that kind of downtime? Is that writing time for you?
Yeah, I’m probably just going to be trying to spend time with my family because, you know, it was COVID and then I went back on tour and I miss them. And I’m working on producing a record for the first time ever, which is really exciting. It’s from the Cincinnati band The Ophelias. I just saw them at a random DIY spot in Nashville like three years ago and loved it. And they reached out. So yeah, I’m going to be just deep diving in Pro Tools, trying to figure out what being a producer means.
I wish you luck with that. I hope that it’s a fun experience.
I really enjoy their music, which makes me confident because I feel like being passionate about the music you’re working on is integral. Step one. But anyway, yeah, I’m excited. I can’t wait for the world to hear their beautiful record. I’m not pitching them to everyone I know, but I really love this band and they have a great record out called Crocus.
I’m sure coming at producing an album for another band as a musician who’s kind of just getting into production is an exciting thing rather than someone where that’s their main craft and they’re like, Oh, just another gig.
Yeah, it does make me feel a little bit like if I was a player and then I retired and became a sports physical therapist, and there are doctors all around me like, This idiot just thinks they can walk in here? Do you know what I mean?
Like anticipating the scorn or critique of dedicated producers.
Yeah! We’ll just try to expect graciousness instead of hostility.
Sometimes that’s all you can do I think.
Little Oblivions and its remix EP are out now. Julien Baker plays The Granada (1020 Massachusetts St., Lawrence, Kansas) on Monday, November 15 with Dehd. Tickets are still available.