Photo: Jake Cunningham

Julien Baker’s ‘Real Life’ Music Tugs at the Heartstrings

The singer from Tennessee released one of the exceptional records of 2015 in Sprained Ankle.
Julien Baker
Sprained Ankle
6131 Records

Not many young musicians these days are in the position of simultaneously attending college and having their music mentioned in The New York Times, National Public Radio and Rolling Stone. It is why Julien Baker’s situation so unique. By day she’s a student at Middle State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. But outside of school, Baker released her critically-acclaimed solo album Sprained Anklethrough an indie record label; recently opened for EL VY and Wye Oak’s shows in New York City last November; and will be on tour during January and February. Baker says its been a chaotic couple of months with the record coming out and had no idea of the reception it received.

“When [you] release records, you release them yourself, press a bunch of copies, and hand them to your friends,” she tells PopMatters. “And so when 6131 Records picked it up and did the press behind it, and we started booking these bigger shows, I was amazed. Then I got added to the shows in New York, and it was like a dream come true. So to be able to play a show with [EL VY and Wye Oak] in those beautiful venues–it was an astonishing experience.”

Baker, who is also from the Memphis rock group Forrister, put out the captivating Sprained Ankle this October. Like the music of Sharon Van Etten and Torres, the mostly minimalist-sounding Sprained Ankle is as heartfelt and introspective as it is unsettling and painful, delivered with Baker’s fragile yet compelling voice. Naturally these turbulent songs lean toward the autobiographical, as one song titled “Blacktop” was inspired by a car accident that she survived from, while another track, “Brittle Boned”, evokes the feeling of being inside a hospital (“All the nurses reassure me / This will be quick and easy/I’m not gonna feel a thing.”) Even the title song goes for the jugular with the first line: “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death.”

“It’s vulnerable,” she says. “There are bands who write of emotions that are very heartbreaking, touching, or relatable, but they’ll be like concept records, they’re about fictional characters. Of course, these things are all real events that have happened to me artistically interpreted through lyrics. And so it’s a little vulnerable to perform them and talk about them because it is like, ‘Yup, that’s my real life,’ real things that happened. At the same time, it helps me when I revisit those memories, they’re not just bad memories. Now since they’re attached to art, they have purpose. So that’s a little easier.”

The songs on Sprained Ankle came about last year during a time when Baker felt lonely being away from her family and friends while in college. That feeling of melancholy is captured in such an intimate manner on the record that you feel like you’re physically right there with her. “I think it helped to have written them without thinking that the end goal was going to be ‘I’m gonna go into a studio, and then I’ll have this track and that track and have it all be overdubbed,’” Baker explains. “Since I wrote them all in my living room or my garage, that’s how they came out on tape. And several of the songs are just a single mic in a room because I wanted it to be like a Damien Rice record or a Ben Gibbard solo record, where it’s like you can be sitting next to them in a couch. That’s so cool to me.”

The fact that the songs ended up being recorded and released as an album was a natural process and not necessarily by design. “I was just making art to make art,” Baker says. “And then I had a friend in the program who was like, Hey come in and use my free studio time and we’ll mess around, so we did that. And he presented me with this concept of taking a road trip to Spacebomb [Studios in Richmond, Virginia] where he was interning. I was like, ‘Why not? I’ll go up there for a road trip,’ and I released it on Bandcamp for cheap. I put my heart and soul in the songs, but I didn’t have an ulterior motive and I didn’t shop it around to people. I didn’t expect anything to come of it. So I really wrote it just to write it.”

Her constant gigging with Forrister was beneficial in that it connected her with musician Ryan Azada, who introduced Baker’s music to the folks at 6131 Records. “So all these peripheral connections that had been around for years and years weirdly aligned, and 6131 Records liked my stuff and signed me,” she recalls. “I’ve never done legal stuff, [such as] signing a contract. And when Sean [Patrick Rhorer of 6131] was like, ‘I’ll offer you paperwork,’ I was like, ‘So wait, let’s be clear… you’re asking me to sign to a record a label?’ And he was like, ‘Yes.’ Then I hung up the phone and I cried and called my mom… ‘I made it!’ I had no idea.”

It’s one thing to record these personal songs in the studio; it’s another to perform them in front of an audience, especially in medium-sized venues likes New York City’s Bowery Ballroom where Baker played last November. For her, it’s a departure to go from playing intense music with her bandmates in Forrister to being onstage by herself.

“It’s like standing up there and it’s just me, talking to you about real events that have happened,” she says. “The events that I wrote the record about are now a year or two removed and with some of them, they’re about the past, so they’re four to five years removed. And so it’s getting easier to compartmentalize it.

“I would just sink myself into a hole on stage and feel like crap and have a panic attack,” she continues. “What has helped change that is when I think, ‘Oh, that was bull crap’ or ‘Why am I performing these songs?’ ‘What difference does it make?’–getting to talk to people after shows or getting messages that are like, ‘This song meant a lot to me,’ it inspired me to view the events that are negative as having an ultimately positive outcome.”

Baker, who is from Memphis, knew she wanted to pursue music from an early age and credited her upbringing in the punk scene as helpful. “I adopted this idea whether I was going to end up making music for three people in a bar or Wembley Stadium, I was always going to do music,” she says. “So you always keep that dream alive in the back of your head, and you think, ‘Oh it would be great to do this for my life.’ But as with so many other things in your life, the kind of cultural view of art as a serious career, it’s always secondary to you–‘Oh, we need a marketable skill.’ And that was me for a long time. I knew this is what I was passionate about and I was never going to stop.”

Having had the opportunity to share the same stage with EL VY and Wye Oak, whom she describes as her musical heroes, Baker will be touring the East Coast in January and then the West Coast the following month. Meanwhile she plans to continue her studies by taking online courses during the time she’s out on the road. She’s hoping to possibly perform outside of the U.S. at some point.

“I’ve never been abroad,” she says. “I had all these plans to study abroad, and I was in a car accident. But I’ve always wanted to visit Europe. I’m excited because this will be an avenue to view the world for me. I don’t think I’ll ever get that tour ennui. Just getting to visit New York and all these different places–I’m always so excited to look at the window. I look like a crazy tourist stumbling around…’This is beautiful.’

The attention and acclaim that Sprained Ankle has generated since its release turned out to be something that Baker had not saw coming. Her initial idea was that the music would be circulated among friends within the local scene. “I think that’s kind of something you always get told or weren’t always get told as like a pipe dream,” she says. “I don’t want to look at any of the numbers. I’m afraid of falling into that game of how many Spotify plays does it have. I’m afraid it will poison the experience. Right now, every time something like that happens, I’m just overwhelmed with gratitude because I never thought it would work out. When I was a little kid, I used to imagine doing this stuff. And now I get to, and it’s an incredible blessing. I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I am.”