SXSW is, essentially, a music-themed crucible. Both performers and attendees spend an exhausting week hurtling between venues spread across Austin, on their feet for 20 hours a day and competing with what always seems to be the world’s loudest band playing in the bar next door. By the end of the festival, there’s a camaraderie between everyone in town, wrought by a shared degree of sleeplessness, degenerative food-truck nutrition, and, through it all, a love of music that makes the madness worth it every spring. On the last day of this year’s SXSW, I sat down with 21-year-old singer-songwriter Julien Baker in East Austin. Baker is in the midst of a huge year; her first solo record, Sprained Ankle, came out in October 2015 and seemed to catch everyone’s ear. Bitch reviewed it in November, and I wrote about the title track for NPR Music in July. Our conversation touched on the record, but we also covered representation, philosophy, religion, performance anxiety, and the joy inherent to writing very sad songs.
Talking to an artist in the midst of their breakout year is uniquely revealing. At the end of last year’s festival, I spoke with Austin band Charlie Belle as they were primed to step into the spotlight. For them, getting big-time recognition meant revisiting the band’s roster, and lots of experimenting with new sounds and new ways to write songs. For Baker, a very hectic, very public last few months has precipitated incessant introspection about her role as a musician, a person, and, as she puts it, a steward.
Baker experiences performance anxiety, which she calls “God’s cosmic joke” on someone who performs for a living, but mediates it with guidance from her church. “My vicar uses this word, ‘stewardship,’ and being a steward for your opportunities,” says Baker, who identifies as Christian. “As much as I’m fearful of unwarranted attention, hearing ‘I got something out of your music, it made a difference,’ validates feeling transparent onstage.”
Hearing that Julien Baker is uncomfortable with vulnerability is fairly shocking, given the supermely intimate nature of her debut album, Sprained Ankle, which touches on alienation, substance abuse, and fear of ruining everything she touches. I asked how she reconciled her songs with her desire to obfuscate personal details, and her answer was two-fold. “It’s not quite a callous, but I don’t revisit the subject of each song every time I play it anymore,” she says. “Each song is a vehicle to move past it. Newer songs are more difficult… [but] they expedite the process of self-improvement.” She points to one line from “Good News” as an example. “I write a line like ‘I ruin everything,’ and playing it over and over again, thinking about it, I don’t ruin everything! Now that I can make music full-time, I have more time to sit on things like that. Eventually it’s a stranger reflected in your art.”
The other reason she’s less afraid to be vulnerable is that Baker’s attitude about self-representation has changed since last year—she has been more open both about being gay and about being religious.
“I used to never want to hear that I was a female musician, or a gay musician,” says Baker. “I wanted that to not need mentioning. I used to be afraid to lean into that. Now I’m not. I realized I was supposing an ideal, but you can’t suppose an ideal that isn’t real yet. If you want to live in a world where your that’s implicit, you have to be explicit first. There’s this phrase, you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Baker has also gotten more comfortable talking about her faith. She was raised in the church, separated from it in adolescence, and returned to it as a young adult, seeking a progressive community and what she calls “conduits of abiding love.” So now that she’s at peace with her religion, her sexuality, and her darkest memories being accessible, could there ever be an upbeat Julien Baker record?
“There’s definitely this sense of me as some brooding, tortured artiste manqué, but I’m actually overwhelmed with joy and gratitude, especially this year. I write these effusive diary entries, like 'Can you believe THIS happened?!'” But when it comes time to turn her experiences into songs, says Baker, she balances the joyful moments with more introspective ones. “In order to appropriately frame the positive, you have to be honest about the negative,” she explains. “What’s that passage from Rilke? ‘What if all the terrible things in our lives are just waiting to see us be brave.’” (Very close! The quote is: “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.”)
So there might never be a “happy” Julien Baker record, but there will always be an honest one. “If you’re not acknowledging the present darkness,” she says, “you’re doing a disservice to your listeners.”