21 min read

Getting It Together with Julien Baker

What happens when the goal posts and your identity are moving at the same time

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This week I have another long-read interview for you because I am a petulant child who doesn’t want to inadvertently start another podcast. I particularly regret not making this an audio piece because the way that Julien’s tone switches seamlessly between perfectly eloquent sentences and someone who casually says dude a lot is really an art form all its own. We toured Europe together in 2017 and I was treated to her beautifully cathartic music every night, bookended by a mix of kind, heartfelt conversations and true goofball hangs. I knew I wanted this conversation to show all of that, and I think we achieved it.

These interviews are supposed to address creative practice and process, so who better to talk to than someone who was thrust into indie notoriety at 19, and who continues to craft records that are poignant and beautiful, dredging through the difficulties of self-discovery as a Southern queer person brought up in a “religious milieu”, among other things. If you haven’t listened to her new record, Little Oblivions, I suggest you do that immediately, even while reading this interview. It’s a billion words but it’s worth it!

I heard that you were working on learning a lot of new music and recording-related stuff during quarantine. I already think of you as such a competent musician, especially in terms of finding sounds, so I’m just curious what you’re focused on learning and playing around with?

So many things. Just because it’s sitting here, this fuckin’ thing. [holds up an Empress ZOIA pedal] I saw a demo of it, it’s called a ZOIA. They pitched it like it’s a pedalboard in a box and that’s not entirely true because it’s more like a digital eurorack in a box. Or a patch bay, maybe. But I didn’t know that when I got it and then it’s like ok well I’ve made this investment in this thing. It’s probably the first whack piece of gear that I got. It’s quarantine, sure, I’ll teach myself a crazy hard pedal. The more I started experimenting with the ZOIA - and out of necessity having a more concrete understanding of signal flow and modular synthesis - I had to learn what attack, decay, sustain, release *actually* means and not just pretend that I knew what those words meant. Like, ah, yes, I see how it matters! Because when I got that I was also thinking quarantine will be over by the fall and I was largely accumulating gear that was intended for live performance.

So I was learning how to work that, working with the first multi-effects unit I’ve ever allowed myself to work with which is the HFX Effects, and then as it became more apparent that quarantine was going to be indefinite, I was like wow, I’ve been making amateur demos in Logic for years and I still only have stock EQ, stock reverb, stock VSTs so I’m gonna spend the time. I also think it’s something that was maybe planted in my mind by making this record because this record entailed a lot more studio experimentation and production. I think working so closely with Calvin [Lauber] and having a more expansive music palette, I feel like my music before this has been pretty minimal, so it’s been about maximizing the space it can take up, and I did that mostly by thinking about the arrangement. But once I passed thinking about simply arrangement and we had these nuggets of ear candy and production nuances, the production itself and the editing within Pro Tools, putting filter sweeps and mods on stuff, became its own art form that I hadn’t really given enough attention to. I just make Logic demos all day for nothing. I just come up with a half-written song and put some banjo and synthesizer on it and I just see if I can make it work, you know? So that’s what I’ve been doing.

I’m also big into the “Logic Demos For Nothing” strategy.

Yeah, just making them to have them!

You don’t have to wait to be in the studio to make the thing you’re trying to hear. Especially now.

Also, I was talking to an engineer the other day and she was telling me that it’s useful for artists who, even if I’m not going to build a home studio with all this vintage rack gear if I am fluent enough in the terminology of recording engineering to tell somebody more clearly what I want and what sound I’m going for, and I’m not just make it crunchier! and make it distorted but in this way and in these frequencies and I want it to be this sort of clipping, it’s really helpful. Every time you make a Logic demo, even if that song doesn’t come to fruition on a record or it just lands in the abyss of your hard drive, you’re getting valuable practice and you’re becoming more fluent in hotkeys and so you’re getting to where the less labor it is for you to set up the tracks, the more you can invest in the music. Now that it’s not so hard and I’m not like [feeble voice] how do I switch my inputs. Now I have more time to be like, how do I make this plugin sound good? You know what I mean.

I feel like that’s really valuable information for folks who are trying to do similar things. When I finally was able to sit down with Logic and some decent gear, it’s making it a lot easier for me to write something and figure out all the other layers. So if that’s the starting point for going into the studio, then I’m way ahead of the game.

Right?! That’s what’s been so helpful to me is like now I can think would this song sound good if I put a banjo on it? And I don’t have to spend an hour in a studio that’s beaucoups of money or whatever being like let’s put banjo on this track. It sounds terrible. Nevermind. I can do that work in my house!

Especially knowing that you weren’t making the record during quarantine, has that period of time where you couldn’t go on tour even if you wanted to changed your relationship to music and touring?

Oh yeah. Yes. It’s odd. I removed myself or was removed by circumstances that were semi in my control, from touring in 2019, but that was just a microcosm of my life. That was just because I was really unhealthy and I was not able to tour in a healthy way and everybody around me was like you’re gonna take a break. I took this time off from music, I made this record, I got into a really reflective place where I was going back to school and I was entertaining this idea, probably just because I’m a nihilist, I was like ok well my agent, my manager pulled me off the road and maybe I can’t do music anymore. Maybe my next record I make flops, maybe I’ve missed my shot because I blew up my whole entire life and I’m just gonna go back to school and see what happens after that. And it was really freeing because then the music that I made that I was inevitably compulsively making, wasn’t situated solely in the context of my career and my livelihood and my identity as a performer. Because I wasn’t promoting anything, I wasn’t on tour, I wasn’t on Twitter saying listen to my record, I was just making music with my best friend, Calvin. And then of course, I find because I’m very impatient, I was like ok, this record is finished and Matador actually likes it so they’re gonna put it out so let’s go tour!

Tour is the thing that I’m competent at. It’s the thing that I’ve been doing for years and years. And I felt like a fish out of water. And then the earth shut down. And I had to have even more time to confront what my life looks like when I don’t have the continuous momentum of tour keeping me stable. It’s been actually beautiful to have so much time, even though it is painful and isolating to be away from people and I do miss live shows very much, it’s been nice for me to have the practice of playing piano for a couple of hours and trying to teach myself a new mode that I never learned before because it just makes me happy when I feel my fingers making pleasant chord arrangements. There’s something fundamentally gratifying, that had been not lost, but maybe just convoluted within the experience of having it be my job and having my identity as a creator of music collapsed with my identity as a person. If that makes sense.

Completely. Has there been anything that you have found in that to inform what you make next? Or inspires you to make something different, even if that’s not “the next Julien Baker record”?

I think it was probably good that the reason why I had to stop touring was because of myself and my own unhealthy behaviors because if it had been something external I don’t know if I would’ve been forced to reevaluate myself if that makes sense. Because it wouldn’t have been something *I* did that made me not physically or emotionally able to tour. But I guess what I found from having, tours canceled, there’s no deadline for an album, I don’t even know if I’m gonna make music again and when all of the things that since I was 15 I was begging blogs to write about my high school band and playing shows to literally just the bartender and driving nine hours to play at some dude’s mom’s basement. For all of the time that I had been chasing after a really specific - and this is like the oldest tale in the book - but for all the time I had been chasing this really specific idea of what success or recognition would mean for me musically and for all the things that I had sacrificed, when all of that was there and when theoretically I had been rewarded for all of my hard work just given a stroke of luck or whatever, it wasn’t enough to make me emotionally healthy. And then when it all went away it didn’t kill me. And then I realized that the things that the world, and I’ve always known this but somehow fallen prey to it anyway, the way that the world defines success as clicks and streams and record sales and ticket sales is ultimately just super ephemeral to me.

What makes me happy, and what I wish to prioritize over even what would be advantageous to my career as a musician, is the projects that make me feel fulfilled as a musician. When I was removed for this limited amount of time from art in the consumerist hierarchy of what’s good and what’s not, I don’t think that I need to establish artistic credibility at all in order to do the things that I need to do. Instead of letting my decisions be governed by fear or what would be the best or most strategically smart or fiscally responsible thing for me to do I’m just like dude, I would rather do the things that make me for-real happy.

That’s a really good place to be when you can make those decisions and keep doing what you’re doing, or that it’s sustainable enough that yeah sure, maybe one thing would’ve been more advantageous by certain standards, but you’re able to make the decision to take time off or work on something different or collaborate with a certain person because you want to and not because a streaming service is going to put it on something.

That’s been the catch. I felt like I did a lot of listening to the guidance of others, with this weird overhanging promise of do this, acquiesce to these demands of the music industry to create content or do X amount of interviews and then in exchange you will get power. That did happen. The reason why I am privileged enough to have more agency over what I’m doing and it be sustainable still is I did concede a lot. It seems like I didn’t, but I did concede a lot to the guidance of other people because I didn’t quite trust myself and I just felt like there was a lot at stake for someone who never ever ever could’ve imagined being a musician as their job. I get to speak from a privileged position to say that I can create the music that I want. I’m almost certain that everybody reaches that fork at a certain place. Some people reach it really early, and they’re like fuck you I do what I want. And I just wasn’t a confident or self-assured early 20-year-old. Which isn’t to say that I was jerked around by other people, the music that I made was very much my own, I wrote it, I produced it, but just like business decisions and stuff like that. Now I have done so much of that that I recognize I would rather have less social currency or financial power in order to have more agency over my own life.

That decision to have more agency or that fork that you’re talking about, it seems like you’re saying that it’s a selfish turn to stop caring about everybody else and just think about what you want to do and I think that that’s something I’ve also gone through like everyone in a creative capacity kind of has to come to that point, but it’s just interesting to think that it’s selfish but it’s also not.

That has a whole arm with a whole bunch of really toxic engrained religious ideology but yeah, I think we are taught that it’s selfish, and I’m sure you’ve had these thoughts before too, is that the whole reason I went to an audio engineering program for college is because I was trying to fit my love of music into the box of a marketable skill in the job market. Because I think children are socialized to frame their entire lives around money earning and livelihood as a huge part of their identity. So also, I think there’s this whole psychological conditioning that comes from our parents where - through no fault of their own, they were conditioned in the same way - they want more success, more security, I want to do more. It’s not enough just to be a musician, to make the music that you make. Once it is tied up in the idea of being your career then it becomes something you have to be constantly excelling at or you’re failing. I think that’s a really toxic way to look at any work, but especially creative work. It’s just fucked. If you try to do some other thing and it doesn’t do well it’s the opposite of a promotion. That’s the carrot on a string thing.

I realized a while ago is that the goalpost is always going to move. No matter how many opportunities you have no matter how “successful” you are as a musician or as an artist, that goalpost always moves. So you have to find a way to be doing it for yourself or to be happy in that. I could talk about this all day. It’s always nice to hear other people talking about when you build your own relationship to what success looks like in your career, rather than what someone told you it should look like.

Sure. I think about that constantly in the context of availability. It doesn’t just have to be in music, I see so many people that will excel in their jobs because they’re willing to forfeit nearly all of their time for recognition or promotions or to make it to the next level of whatever they want to be. I feel like we typically call that ambition but then there is this part of grind culture that becomes this almost psychopathic obsession with quantifying our worth through the things that we produce and again, not to say everything is about capitalism, but when our worth is in what we produce, we’re now externalizing our worth from just being a human being. It’s like man, even if you’re a stock investor, an insurance salesperson, and you never make the decision to turn off your phone and not answer your clients so that you can have dinner with your family, it’s the same thing. Yeah, maybe you’ll be super rich and have a million clients and have a big house but you’ll have no idea who your family is. It happens to everybody and it’s super scary. I felt like maybe because I was so emotionally invested in the work I was doing, I was immune to that kind of giving away of the self. When you realize you’re not, it’s like oh no, it’s the same shit!

I think the pandemic halting everything at a really random point, it’s like when the record skips. I had to think about what all this looks like now and figure out if I’ve been spending too much time touring because I felt like I had to.

Now that you are more aware of your audience and have a bigger platform, and you know that talking about yourself or revealing certain things can help the people you’re talking to - has that made it easier to be vulnerable in your music or does it just make it more intimidating?

It’s hard. It’s especially hard because who doesn’t have a massive existential identity crisis in their 20s? But it happened to me, just like it happens to everybody, and you know, damn, you know I wrote Sprained Ankle when I was 19. And it’s like, I was straightedge and very devout and claimed to be an anti-fascist and I don’t know, I still participate in a capitalist system so I don’t know how well I’m adhering to those things. What I’m trying to say is I was very principled. I was very stringent with my beliefs. And then I found myself in a level of visibility that was amplified a million times beyond what I ever thought it would be, and I didn’t know any better than to just paint myself as the person who I was when I was 20 years old.

I think this record has been intimidating but it was also, you know when Ai Wei Wei did that performance art series where he just broke all those priceless vases? And it was like well, they’re broken now so I guess that their value was immaterial anyway, and all that had to happen for us to realize that was for them to break. I don’t know, I felt like that with this record because I said a whole bunch of stuff that I needed to say when I was writing the. I mean honestly, I think every record I put out is gonna tank, and that’s an insulation mechanism for myself so that I can’t ever be surprised by failure. But also, it’s like man, I’ve talked about not being straightedge anymore and maybe having some spirituality but not being a fucking Christian anymore and just changing a lot of things about my life and I was terrified because for so long I felt like being vulnerable about my past experiences had always been easier for me because I was able to frame them in the narrative of this is old, bad Julien and this is new, good Julien. I felt like I had some sort of redemptive immunity to talking about my past failures and separating myself from them because now I had the chance to be somebody who’s like an advocate for queer people who had religious trauma, on whatever small platform I’m afforded in the scheme of things. An advocate for the people who experience mental health issues or addiction issues and then it’s like damn, I put this imaginary responsibility on myself to represent all these ideologies that have changed for me and what happens when I strip away all of those pieces of my identity, especially when my identity is getting distilled into a pull-quote for an article on a blog? You’re like: Sober. Christian. Queer. Like ok, what if I change most of those things? And I’ll be honest, it did disrupt my understanding of myself and it was really painful. I think it was also really freeing for me to admit those things to the people that listen to my music with the awareness that I don’t have to shoulder that responsibility. It’s actually probably more helpful if I am forthright about continuous failure and continuous struggles instead of trying to paint this picture of myself as yeah I used to have addiction problems but now I’m all good! It felt so much grosser and unbearable to me to withhold that information. I talked for years about getting sober and I got asked in every interview I did about being sober and then I spent a year deeply entrenched in alcoholism. This impostor syndrome of projecting on the outside a good person and knowing on the inside you’re still deeply flawed. So I dunno! It was relieving, it was thrilling for me I guess, in a sense, being vulnerable is hard but it’s easier than deception.

Or trying to construct something else.

Sure, yeah, it’s far less emotional labor.

In terms of distilling things about yourself down into a pull-quote, I think anyone who has certain identity points knows that if someone is writing about your work they might do that.

I’m sure you’ve experienced that as well.

Yes! For me, I didn’t choose to be “the queer person in a punk band”. I’ve never, or at least when Worriers started, I wasn’t trying to broadcast that. I’m always curious how other people navigate that when you’re not trying to wave a flag about your identity. You’re just writing about your own experiences and not trying to be the model of any of those things.

It’s crazy because, and I hear this talked about a lot, when you belong to a marginalized demographic, your life and your body in the world become inherently political. There is something inherently political about how I feel myself, a queer body, moving through the world. Or a cis-female body moving through the world. So of course, my art is only going to reflect my circumstances and the culture I was raised within. On the last record, what I was dealing with so much was that all of a sudden I was being categorized because of my sobriety, because of my queerness, because of my faith, and I had never had that before. No one was constantly reflecting back their perception of my personality to me. And then I started to feel this, and I wonder if you feel this too, this is something that I’m constantly negotiating because I grew up in Tennessee in a very religious milieu, I did a lot of assimilating. I didn’t interact until I was a sophomore in college with my identity as a queer person. I was just gay, I was attracted to women, and that was the limit of my understanding of myself as a queer person. Nobody had ever suggested that I read any queer literature, so all of the things that I knew about queer culture were filtered through a heteronormative gaze. When I started to recognize that I was being categorized as a queer person in the music scene and that whether I wanted it or not, people were allowing me to represent something else, I felt a responsibility to the queer community to do the work, to understand myself better, to be an advocate and try to conduct myself in a way where if I am part of the queer community and I have an elevated level of visibility, I will use it in a positive way for people who are like myself. And then, I was volunteering the narrative about myself as a queer musician because I felt like for me to under-represent it would have been a continued betrayal or denial of my queerness. But just like with everything, there is a limit to how much you can give of yourself to a politicized identity before it starts to feel sterile because you’re not interacting with your personal identity.

And when you volunteer that about yourself, you’re also opening yourself up to the people who want to tell you that you’re doing it wrong.

Oh my god, yeah.

I have no room for that. And that’s partially why I get self-conscious about representing something to somebody because you’re going to let *somebody* down.

Straight up. Especially when I started to talk to older queer people, especially older queer people from the South, there was this whole tension between how flippantly I was talking about religion and glossing over the massive trauma that organized religion has inflicted on queer people. I was like damn, I want to represent this thing but I’m doing it in a way that inevitably is gonna be hurtful to someone. It’s a lot of weight and it’s a lot to expect from yourself and it’s a lot to expect from somebody else, you know?

Knowing that, does that inform how you think about other artists or other people that you look up to from an identity standpoint?

For sure. I feel like every interview I do, when they ask who’s an artist you really like, and I’ll be like I like the song of – this person, or if it’s somebody I know personally I’ll be like Lucy Dacus, incredible person. Incredible musician. I know her. Or I’m just like wow, I love The Japanese House’s music. And that’s the limit of what I know about that person. I don’t want to take ownership of somebody’s narrative in that way, but it has helped me sit with rejection better, or with criticism. To understand that it is an unrealistic expectation for somebody to represent a community they belong to fully has helped me not feel devastated when I get it wrong. This is a teachable moment, I’m not standing on a pedestal making a declaration about what I think is morally right, I am entering a discourse. And it’s hard when you’re entering a discourse and you have a megaphone and everybody else is talking at what seems like inside voice. You’re like, I DON’T KNOW HOW TO TURN THIS THING OFF! BUT THIS IS HOW I PARTICIPATE IN DISCOURSE! PLEASE HELP ME!

You’re always speaking with a megaphone and you can’t turn it off.

I remember having a conversation with one of my friends, Ryan Rado who did the artwork for the last record, and I was like man, I grew up going to house shows, I grew up going to punk shows, and now that I have a microphone the thing that makes the most sense for me to do is to do what everybody did at all those punk shows and put it in the middle, give it away. And I don’t know how to deal with the fact that people are looking at me as a performer, or that this has become less participatory and more of an observation. I recognize that it is an expression of privilege to say No, I choose not to say anything with my microphone because then you have resources that are idling that could potentially be used to create social change for the better. He was just like dude, you can’t give your microphone away. You literally can’t, so you have to figure out what you’re gonna say with it. I think that that in my mind was like alright, well then you’d better figure out how to say the right thing and know the right thing. But that’s not the only way to solve that problem. If you’re the only person in a room with a microphone and everybody else is speaking in their inside voice, just fuckin’ ask questions and be silent and just use your microphone to ask another question every once in a while. Essentially whatever has been made of my performing identity I’m just a human being, just like everybody else, with limited control over how people interpret the things I say and how they perceive me. I have to say that to myself 800 times a day.

Is there anything else that you think would be helpful for other creative folks to hear about your process in making this record?

I’ve had this thing that I try to not give people stupid little aphorism nuggets of advice or tell people what to think, but I’ve been recognizing, we were just talking about criticism and rejection, and I think all of a sudden when I was very young I had way more resources than I imagined I would ever have and I felt like I needed to make something worthy of the resources. I needed to make something that was a fuckin’ masterpiece so that I could earn my spot, this spot that fate or luck or something had given me in music. And I’m really working hard on understanding that formal talent, notoriety, the recognition by whatever tastemaker or gatekeeper for your work, is not what lends it worth. I think I had this feeling - and how can we not in a world that’s like ok, I got X likes I got X listens - I can really quantify how much people fuck with this music, and kind of translate that into how important it is, how well I did writing a song that reaches people. I’m trying to just sit with or really focus on the parts of creating that I think are valuable.

People create music to seek understanding. I truly believe that. We create songs because music allows us a means by which we can communicate in a little bit more mutable context than regular conversation. Or they create art, they create something to express themselves but also to be understood. And insofar as that art fulfills you and makes you feel like you’ve communicated what you need to the outside world, it’s your message in a bottle. It’s your thing that you throw out there. I don’t know! I spent so much time thinking what does pitchfork think of my record? You know what I mean? It’s so easy because I’ve only had a micro amount of this but I was like damn, I see why fuckin’ Justin Bieber had a mental breakdown and Neil Young made an album about plants, because they’re 1000x times more commercially successful than I am, and I can barely mentally wrap my mind around what it means to be “doing ok.” Literally, incrementally more than this might soup brain me, so I get why people make weird shit. As pretentious as that stuff can seem to an outsider, it’s like, I think the people who are making music for their own gratification understand what is valuable about music and I want to emulate and practice that more.

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My favorite photo I took on tour in 2017. A fan made a mug of Julien playing a carp. I don’t know why. Still funny.