Photo by Jake Cunningham
Julien Baker laughs like she sings: lips wide, exposing two neat rows of teeth, dark eyes searching, a little reserved. Sitting at the bar at Boot and Saddle, the Philadelphia music venue whose stage she will grace a few hours later, Baker, 20, divulges the two times she’s broken her sobriety since overcoming addiction in the past few years.
“I don’t claim straight edge because I don’t want to accidentally align with something that’s militant or elitist, but I am fully sober,” she says. “But there are instances. I had a kidney stone: I was like, ‘No please, give me morphine! It’s not breaking edge!’” That was the first.
The second? “I started attending a new church, and they used real wine [at mass]. They were coming at me, and I was like, ‘It’s ok to break edge at Communion, and it’s ok to break edge when you have a kidney stone.’”
Baker’s debut album, Sprained Ankle, out last October via 6131 Records, is wrought with devastating memories and relations. Baker, a literature major at Middle Tennessee State University, eloquently pieces together lyrical epiphanies about realizing the existence of God or recognizing the feeling of rejection by describing herself as “a pile of filthy wreckage.” Over stark guitar lines, she delivers intense vocals, dynamically alternating between a shivering soprano whisper and a thundering yelp, with unflinching honesty. It’s an album, whose arrangements and lyrics Baker wrote and performed herself, that details the life of a broken young woman.
At the bar, politely addressing the bartender as “ma’am” and exuberantly sharing how Jessica Jones inspired her recent fitness kick, Baker seems anything but broken.
Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Baker began her musical journey at a young age, forming the rock band Forrister with three friends in high school. But as college took her four hours from home, her songwriting shifted away from tunes that would fit the Forrister repertoire into the bare-bones, reflective tone of Sprained Ankle.
Written in practice rooms in the music building at school and recorded at Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, Virginia, Sprained Ankle captures Baker’s internal battles with faith, identity, and mental illness. These inner confrontations forced her to take a step back and re-evaluate the things she didn’t understand about herself.
“Being able to identify [anxiety and depression] and saying, ‘I see these characteristics in my parents. These are the things that make me feel this way. I’m going to take active steps to harness it into positive things.’ It sounds super lame. My entire life sounds like a cheesy self-help blog.”
At times, insecurities bleed into Baker’s optimistic outlook. She’s often plagued by nervousness before shows and engages in ritual pre-performance jumping jacks to relieve anxiety. There are also worries of being misunderstood — or revealing too much — when it comes to the extremely personal nature of her music.
“I don’t want to fetishisize or glamorize the scars and stories aspect of having a past with substance abuse because I don’t want to elevate that as positive or attractive,” Baker says. “So when people ask me what [a song]’s about, I don’t want to go off on, ‘Let me tell you something, son: One time I did hard drugs.’”
A renewed sense of religion led her to come out as gay and gravitate toward healthier habits and more supportive friends. Though she was always faithful — she grew up Christian and remains so today — it was a slow process to come to terms with the idea of an accepting higher power.
“It was tough with the whole coming out thing. For a while, I struggled with that and would think I’m totally going to hell, that God is abandoning me,” she says. “I could never bring myself to deny the existence of a god because for every horrible thing I saw happen, I could also identify five examples of beauty and grace just that day that I’ve seen.”
That journey is encapsulated on Sprained Ankle. From the desperate pleading on “Rejoice” (“I think there’s a god, and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain”) to the desire to not be so artistically influenced by death on the album’s title track, every hardship is laid bare. “’Cause I’m so good at hurting myself,” she bemoans on “Brittle Boned”. With her intonation, you believe her.
“We live in a world fraught with suffering. There will always be ample material to write sad songs,” Baker says. “But there will always be ample material for hope.”
Photo by Karen Gwee
While the act of writing music has eased her anxieties, an audience’s consumption of that music has resulted in even more healing. One of her favorite parts about touring is getting to hear fans’ interpretations of the songs or how Sprained Ankle has helped them get through a tough time. Baker just wants to help people — whether they’re aware of it or not.
“Not everyone gets to do this. It’s a dream come true, and for that reason I don’t want to be like, ‘Popping bottles!’” she says. “I want to be like, ‘How can I steward this to employ it for the best ends?’ If I have a microphone, I want to say positive things.”
That mindset seeps into all aspects of her life, too. As the piercing January wind whips around us, Baker, unaccustomed to Northeastern winters, reaches into her pocket and offers a handful of change to a man on the street en route to the homeless shelter for the night.
“Are you hungry?” she asks. “I just wanted to make sure you were taken care of.”