Rain swirled in from every direction as Julien Baker stepped on stage at the Forbidden Fruit festival in Dublin in June 2019. Smiling shyly at the loyal knot of fans braving the elements, the Memphis singer-songwriter played through a downpour that kept building and building. Yet the storm that buffeted Baker and her audience was as nothing compared to the turmoil rocking her personal life at that moment. Touring Europe that spring and summer, addiction issues she had believed she had conquered were coming back to haunt her.
“That festival was crazy,” says Baker (25), speaking over Zoom from her home in Tennessee’s capital. “It was raining on my instruments. That tour, it wasn’t a complete horrible mental breakdown like you see in a movie. But it was difficult, to say the least. It was wild.”
Along with peers including her friend Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison and Snail Mail’s Lindsey Erin Jordan, Baker brings a long overdue female perspective to the traditionally male world of confessional rock. Homespun and achingly earnest, these artists have beaten Taylor Swift’s Folklore to the punch by a good several years. And none is more unflinching than Baker, whose third album, Little Oblivions, is a visceral tour de force that chronicles her struggles with substance dependency.
But with the LP almost here, she worries if it might not be too visceral, and that she may have gone overboard in sharing her deepest traumas. “I wonder if I might have disclosed too much,” she says. “I feel this need to be transparent about what the lyrics are about. If I’m making art that is being commodified, then I am also willingly commodifying my experiences. So it shouldn’t be off limits for people to ask about what I have alluded to in the very public realm of my art. But now, I’m wondering.”
The long and the short of it is Baker used to have a drinking problem, which she put behind her in her late teens. And then, suddenly one day, there it was in front of her again. The penny dropped with a deafening clink when she agreed to participate in a 2019 GQ magazine feature about “sober musicians” who had learned to “thrive without drugs or booze”. The problem was that she wasn’t “thriving”. And she wasn’t going without booze either.
She doesn’t tiptoe around the truth on Little Oblivions. The album is as raw as a smashed glass or a bloodied nose. “Blacked out on a weekday/Still, something that I’m trying to avoid,” she sings on opening track, Hardline, against a backdrop of growling riffs. Later, on Song in E, she croons. “I wish that I drank because of you/ And not only because of me.”
One of the ways Baker originally got sober was by adopting a monastic lifestyle known as “straight edge”. This is a hardcore punk subculture that involves abstaining from alcohol, drugs and tobacco – and in some instances promiscuous sex and meat and dairy products. To be massively simplistic, it’s a sort of performative monasticism that seeks purity in denial.
“I took sobriety and straight edge to be the same thing,” says Baker. “And really, they are not. I don’t want to knock straight edge. It’s useful for many people as a lifestyle and belief system. Hell, it’s better than an entire culture based around alcohol. It’s awesome you’re making music about being sober, wearing T-shirts about it and whatever.”
The crux of the matter is she wanted to quit alcohol for the straightforward reason that alcohol was bad for her
But for Baker, shaping her entire idea of self around abstention ultimately didn’t work. “This didn’t even click in my brain until I was fully off the wagon for a while. But it was like, ‘wow . . . it’s not useful to think of sobriety as superiority’. It’s pretty universally known drugs are bad. Almost all drugs are bad. Alcohol is not good. Some people can handle it in moderation. And maybe I’m not one of those people.”
The crux of the matter is she wanted to quit alcohol for the straightforward reason that alcohol was bad for her. It had nothing to do with being part of an ethical hierarchy – of being better than those who did drink. “There’s this purity culture,” she says. “A moral hierarchy of who is doing better. There’s always going to be someone more intense than you."
She was “vegan straight edge” for years but “found out there are people who don’t drink coffee because coffee is technically a drug. So I tried not drinking coffee. I was f**king miserable. And it was like, ‘what am I doing this for – what am I trying to prove?’ So I went back to drinking an unhealthy amount of coffee.”
All of these thoughts tumble out of Baker in concentrated bursts. Her voice, hushed and earnest, carries the lilt of the American South. This is a product of her upbringing in Tennessee, where she has lived all her life.
Being Southern can be complicated, she intimates. Baker grew up suffused in religion and has in the past described herself as Christian, something she has had to reconcile with her queerness. But though faith is still important, now she
feels her perspective has shifted.
“There was a time I would have comfortably called myself Christian,” she says. “Now, I value the teachings of Jesus. I don’t take the Bible as literally as I used to. And I’m also very sceptical about aligning myself whole-heartedly to the institution of religion. Liturgy can be beautiful – worship and songs and stuff. But I don’t think of them ritualistically any more. Like, going to church isn’t a ‘good deed’. It is something you go to build community or get reminded of something.”
Born in Germantown, Tennessee – also the birthplace of Big Star’s Chris Bell and action hero Steven Seagal – Baker learned to play and write songs on her father’s guitar. Later, she studied audio engineering at college before leaving to pursue music full time (taking time off from touring in late 2019 Baker went back and completed her degree).
She was 19 when she recorded her 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle. The New Yorker heralded it as “humble and forthright, just guitar and vocals with close, sweet, overdubbed harmonies”. If that record was masterfully fragile, 2017’s Turn Out The Lights dialled up the diaristic angst in what Rolling Stone praised as “a series of softly spun meditations on conflicts between her and her loved ones”. That November she sold out Whelan’s in Dublin: anyone lucky enough to have squeezed into the venue will have had little doubt but that they were witnessing the arrival of a major new talent.
As we speak, the music industry is still reckoning with the fall-out from Evan Rachel Woods’ allegations of psychological abuse by Marilyn Manson. There are obvious parallels with the negative experiences of Phoebe Bridgers, Baker’s pal and bandmate in side project boygenius. In 2019 Bridgers, spoke about how she was mistreated by Ryan Adams (Adams has since apologised). I ask Baker if she is heartened to see the tide finally turn on manipulative and abusive male behaviour in the industry?
“I think it’s important,” she nods. “I have thoughts. It’s good for people to talk about it now. I’m just leery, as a queer woman, of the use and manipulation of a person’s story. It’s undoubtedly beneficial for these things to come to the surface. I’m worried it becomes a cultural moment associated with a hashtag and will be forgotten as an absolute pursuit.’
Over her shoulder, hanging from the wall, is a framed image of Scott Hutchison, singer with Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, who passed away in 2018. We both become a little emotional as we share recollections of Hutchinson and his music. But otherwise Baker is upbeat and reports she has been having a productive lockdown – or at least as productive as possible given how much of a “dumpster fire” the world is right now.
'I thought there was going to be a full-on coup because they have guns'
She was shocked but not surprised when Trump supporters invaded the Capitol building in Washington DC in January. To the rest of us, the QAnon loonies who stormed the ramparts of American democracy were weirdos from another planet. To Baker, growing up in Tennessee, they are her family and neighbours. She knows these people, sees them driving around everyday in their pick-ups, with their MAGA bumper-stickers and rifle-racks.
“I thought there was going to be a full-on coup because they have guns,” she says. “They’re my literal family. People in my family are like that. Not my immediate relations. But in my extended family people just own multiple guns for no reason. And have open-carry licenses. It’s pretty intense.”
Still, she dares to be hopeful. Baker was heartened to see Joe Biden win the White House. “Everyone was super-happy about the election. Or at least for one or two days,” she says. “And then the cynicism crept in and everybody was like, ‘don’t forget, Joe Biden sucks’.” She shakes her head. “Like, just let us have this one moment of relief.”
With so much chaos in the world, she is embracing lockdown as an opportunity to step back and find some peace. Away from the road, with its stresses and temptations, Baker has embraced the stillness. She smiles down the camera and comes across as genuinely at peace.
“In quarantine I’ve had to figure out what to do with myself when I’m not touring,” she says. “That’s been healthy.”
Little Oblivions is released February 26th