In Conversation: Julien Baker

Discussing creativity and quoting Walt Whitman with the Memphis songwriter...

A few days ago Clash were given time to chat with Julien Baker.

We weren't really sure what to expect; the music has been a near daily part of office routine for 12 months now, firstly with debut 'Sprained Ankle' and latterly with superb follow-on 'Turn Out The Lights'.

A songwriting of real gravitas, her work cuts a little deeper than most, with Julien's auteur instincts driving each project forward with unrelenting momentum.

The Memphis native picks up the phone and our conversation begins, and she's confident from the off. For one, her rise has been propelled by off-the-cuff meetings, radio performances, and live chats; equally, though, she comes across as a remarkably sharp, astonishing considered artist, someone who places enormous depth with each answer.

Starting with her solo debut, we delve a little further into Julien Baker's artistry, and wonder what lies ahead for this hugely talented 22 year old songwriter.

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Your debut album ‘Sprained Ankle' enjoyed this tremendous sleeper success. What was it like to watch that material take a life of its own?

It was really interesting. I didn’t expect any of it to happen. It was just recorded as a project with a friend from the music programme I was going to. When it got re-released I think it’s hard to believe people’s continued investment and care for the record. Both the last one and this upcoming one. It’s just been an incredible journey.

Where I grew up I was always working under the assumption music, or doing music professionally or at the scale where you’re successful, is a one in a million thing. I always read it as a labour of love, a passion that I would have to work for. A gratifying thing that I would do and I’d have a job to make it sustainable. I never imagined it would be my primary mode of employment and that I would get to pursue my passion full-time so that’s been pretty amazing.

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I always read it as a labour of love, a passion that I would have to work for…

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Is this material written around your debut or is there a definitive gap between the two?

I don’t know if it was a break… It was more a seamless continuation of writing around the time ‘Sprained Ankle’ was re-released on the label 6131 before Matador in the States. And around that time, even through the press cycle of ‘Sprained Ankle’ I was just writing and accruing these songs and continued to build up this catalogue of voice memos on my phone as we were touring the US over the last couple of years.

So I would just listen to those and write, and make drafts and first cuts of the songs on my phone and refine them. In my head I kept this spiral notebook of where I wanted the songs to go. So, they were done conceptually before we entered the studio this January and we knocked it all out in six days. We just stayed for 12 hours a day and got it done in under a week.

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I wanted to have the best, most positive space in which to record….

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Memphis is obviously a city close to your heart. Is that why you recorded there, because you just feel comfortable?

Yes. There’s so many other things about this record, like both the videos are shot in Memphis. The video crew were largely Memphians, the dancers in the appointments were Memphians. The engineer who worked on the record, was actually just a friend of mine that I have played shows with. Our bands have played shows together since I was 13/14. And he ended up a successful engineer.

So I thought that would make for a record that I wanted to be meticulous about because I felt that was my first time working with expectations coming from a listenership and I wanted to have the best, most positive space in which to record. I wanted to do it the place that I was most comfortable with, which is my hometown of Memphis, a place that I love and you know Ardent Studios has a reputation but is also not inaccessible to the average person.

It felt like a good mix of professional and casual enough that I could just go in there having all these people around me, that I’ve known a long time and feel comfortable with, and could be in a good headspace to make the record.

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You produced the record as well. Are you someone that needs to be involved in every aspect of the record? Or could you have envisaged giving up a bit of control?

I think that this record was a great stepping stone to maybe get to that point. Because on the last record I’m used to either working in a band – where all the members of the band are equal contributors but we write it in a self-contained space – and then on 'Sprained Ankle’ where the songs were exact reproductions of the songs as I had written them.

But with this there was a lot more of me inviting other people into the creative process. Like saying to Calvin, “oh what do you think? Do you think the strings should be higher, do you think organs should come in here?” And taking things with a grain of salt and ultimately taking those calls.

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I think that this record was a great stepping stone…

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Most of the songs I had a pretty detailed idea of what I wanted them to sound like, but I had Cam Boucher from the band Sorority Noise, whose one of my dear, dear friends and a violinist that I went to college with, Emile Faulkner, both come and play on the record, and I didn’t really tell them “these are the notes I want you to play…” I just let them take it as they would.

I think other things like the album art, allowing other people to have their space within the creative sphere and hand on the reins a little bit ended up being so rewarding that maybe in the future I might work with a producer. I had such a conceptual attachment with this record that I think I didn’t want to, but I’m getting there… perhaps!

When did you have time to bring those early sketches together?

I think it was a gradual process, maybe what gave the songs on ‘Sprained Ankle’ a rawness is that they were professional yet remained largely unedited from their initial versions. So having a year, or over a year, of compiling those songs I had time to make a voice memo archive. Expel all the raw material that would comprise a song and listen to it, shelve it and come back to it in a month.

I’d walk around in between soundcheck and doors and listen to a draft of the song and say “I think this would be better as a bridge” or “maybe I should change the time signature”. And so I would make like ten different drafts of a song and end up choosing from those options, which was the one that I felt served the piece the best.

I had time to reflect and be a bit more meticulous on it which I think is just indicative of the way I took this record very seriously and wanted to do the best I could with it.

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All of the lyrics on this record are pulled directly from my experiences.

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Songwriting feels like a very personal process for you.

I think so. I think a lot of the collaborative moments of this have been visually collaborating or collaborating on the songs instrumentation. I think I might be, reasonably, so more guarded with the lyrics because all of the lyrics on this record are pulled directly from my experiences. They’re pretty directly autobiographical.

Even though I may have been more meticulously specific on how I wanted to craft the poetry of the songs it still for me was a very personal process. The songs involve others and tell the stories of my friends and family but are still things I wanted to have a final say in crafting the narrative voice around the songs.

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How do you manage to open up in songwriting yet still protect yourself?

I think it’s interesting that you said ‘protect yourself’ because there are times that I feel the impulse to protect myself as in to omit information or to edit a part out that I made in the original version but start to feel nervous about sharing.

One of the most difficult parts about writing this record is having this time to reflect and think about the lyrics and I think the more time you have it you start to get this anticipatorily anxiety. And think “ohh maybe I should take that bit out” and letting the conviction be the parts of the songs that exhibit the difficult, ugly or painful elements of my life. Or precisely the ones that maybe need to stay in there most and are at the heart of what I use music for.

That’s the whole premise of what a record is. Finding ways to mitigate the suffering, the pain, and the potentially ugly parts of our lives and reassign them positive values.

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Finding ways to mitigate the suffering, the pain, and the potentially ugly parts of our lives…

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That’s definitely something that comes across in the record.

The actual capturing of the tracks took six days, all tracked at Ardent. Twelve hours just knocking everything out, but it didn’t feel very strenuous because it was just such a joyful process to be collaborating and working with other great people. Then we had a second mix done by Craig Shelby, which took maybe another week or so. But that was just sending tracks back and forth. That was not really as demanding as the tracking process.

Do you go into the studio with a very concise idea of what the end product is going to be? Or is there a certain amount of fuzziness or elasticity?

So, sort of both. For this record, I had sort of a spiral and I had charted out songs in order of priority level and how demanding or how much time I thought they were going to take and then what instruments I thought we need for what parts. I had it all charted out.

Then once we got in there, being that organise and approaching it with a plan and a concrete vision, that scaffolding allowed for us to improve upon and add or subtract or move things around where we deemed necessary. When you start building something, whether it’s a coffee table or a song it’s never going to turn out exactly how you perceive or imagine it. I think having a great plan in place worked well and gave us the room to experiment.

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To me, they’re highly reflective of the time that I wrote them all…

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When you listen back to the record, are you almost surprised by the results in some places?

I think I didn’t imagine it to feel so lush and full. I think that serves the record well. I don’t know what I imagined, frankly. It came out in a way that the songs were allowed to morph a little bit, and that’s OK. To me, they’re highly reflective of the time that I wrote them all and where my head was. Especially lyrically.

Sonically, I think they were executed more or less in a way I expected, but it sounded nicer and clearer than I’m used to as it’s my first time with all these schools at my disposal. Lyrically yeah I think it’s something very specific to life events in the time in which I wrote them.

You seem to be an artist that’s constantly working, are you already focusing on what your next project is going to be?

I have a little spiral that says 'LP3'. Every time I have an idea for a song I’ll scribble it down just because it’s always better to try and remember it and save the material. I can’t necessarily turn it off. There’s no part of my day where I think like “now I will sit down and write a song”. I can no more force it from myself at a time when it’s not there than restrict it when I have an idea.

This is something I’ve been talking about with other people as I discus my lyrical heroes that I look up to, but all the people who I find their songs so moving are those who can identify meaning and relevance in daily activities or the most mundane and simple of events. Listening to artists and poets like that gave me the lyrical sensibility to view the world in poetic terms. To encounter every experience as the stuff of art. The raw material that will later comprise our memories and our thoughts that will produce art.

Like Whitman said: “The artist’s task is to identify what’s already beautiful in the existing universe…”

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'Turn Out The Lights' is out on October 27th.

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