Julien Baker: Kind Soul, Dark Words

The Tennessee singer-songwriter on faith and punk-rock rebellion

Julien Baker wanted to lighten the mood. The 20-year-old singer, who writes painfully beautiful songs on self-harm, loneliness, and loss, was about halfway through a sold-out show at New York's Bowery Ballroom last month when she paused for a joke: a quick, wry observation about how strange it felt for someone her age to sing such dour music for a considerably older audience. A few of the 500 fans in attendance laughed, seemingly relieved at this break in the overwhelming vibe of existential gloom. Then Baker returned to tearing out everyone’s hearts.

Baker's debut, Sprained Ankle, came out last year, shortly after she started her sophomore year at Middle Tennessee State University, majoring in literature with minors in Spanish and education. The album quickly won glowing reviews from NPR and the New York Times, and when I met Baker in January before another gig at New York's Mercury Lounge, she was considering leaving school to pursue her suddenly blossoming music career. “When summer is over, I will reassess where I am,” she told me then. By the time we caught up this spring, she had decided on a full-time break from college. “I want to be able to focus on doing music as long as I can,” she says. Her touring schedule now runs through the rest of the year.

Baker was raised in the suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee, where as a preteen she would sneak off to practice Fall Out Boy songs on her father’s guitar. “I remember I wasn’t allowed to listen to American Idiot [because] it said the f-word,” Baker says. “So I went over to my friend’s house down the street, and we would secretly listen.” Soon she was going to a local skate park for shows by the Christian metalcore act Underoath, listening to The Devil Wears Prada, and getting deep into screamo — surprising influences if you think of her as an heir to Elliott Smith, but not if you consider the often harrowing emotional intensity she shares with those bands.

The surface of Baker’s music shows plenty of personal anguish and spiritual doubt, but her Christian faith runs deep beneath it. “I was raised in church, as I feel like anybody from the South is,” she says. "Then, when I was in junior high, I had this period of my life where I stopped going.” That break came around the same time as the teenage substance abuse that she references in her songs (“Lock all the cabinets, send me to bed / ’Cause I know you're still worried I'm gonna get scared," she sings on one Sprained Ankle highlight). Baker eventually returned to church once she found one that offered a more accepting and welcoming community. "I love Jesus,” she tells me. “I go to prayer before sets. But I talk about doubt in my songs because I feel like it’s a lot more useful.”

Baker released Sprained Ankle on Bandcamp in the winter of 2015, advertising it with a simple note on her Facebook page — "It was three bucks," she recalls — before 6131 Records, a small independent label, offered to rerelease it last October. Now this album of songs that she wrote in her first year of college is reaching audiences she never thought would hear them. “I expect kids my age in denim jackets to like it,” she says. “I don’t expect 40-year-old women to like it — but there was a mom with two kids who came up to me and she was like, ‘I love your record.'”

Before her Bowery Ballroom show, Baker mentioned her awe at the way kids in the crowd at her previous stop in Boston had sung along with each self-loathing lyric from Sprained Ankle — a welcome reminder of the kind of musical community she grew up in, full of suburban kids singing along with lyrics that resonated with their own mundane or extravagant pain. “I used to let the parking lot swallow me up / Choking your tires and kicking up dust / Asking aloud, ‘Why are you leaving?' / But the pavement won’t answer me,” she sang toward the end of that Bowery show. Even her words of futility came with a hint of hope.