At this point, you’d be hard pressed to have not heard of Julien Baker in some capacity.
If not for her 2017 album Turn Out the Lights, a powerful record anchored by her heart-wrenching lyrics and a voice that barely fits within her 5-foot frame, then certainly for her 2018 collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, boygenius.
Even if you’ve somehow missed these monumental projects, you’ve seen her somewhere. She’s donning her custom boygenius coat live at Brooklyn Steel and in the KEXP studio; screaming her lungs out with the rest of the ensemble for the closer to Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher; hauntingly harmonizing in the background of Hayley Williams’ Petals For Armor.
There she is at NPR’s Tiny Desk, and there she is again, and again and again—two solo spots, a group appearance with her boygenius bandmates and on guitar for Williams’ stint at the desk last year.
But if you’re still in the dark, look no further than Baker’s most recent project, Little Oblivions, for a proper introduction to the Tennessee powerhouse. Released via Matador Records Feb. 26, the album is an exploration in self-examination, with Baker employing the same microscopic lens of doubt and self-deprecation that’s characterized her career thus far.
Instrumentally, it’s a grander soundscape than her previous works, but the lyrical intimacy for which Baker has become known is well intact. Substance abuse, mental health issues, her complicated relationship with faith—no stone is left unturned, no detail is spared. Little Oblivions adds another statement piece to Baker’s already-impressive catalog.
COLLiDE sat down with her to discuss the record further, as well as her future collaboration plans and her thoughts on that pesky “sad girl indie” trope Twitter can’t seem to get enough of.
Baker’s writing has always carried a sense of crushing honesty, but accomplishing this on Little Oblivions required a change in perspective. Baker, a working musician for the better part of six years, has seen her art become a commodity, but achieving authenticity meant stripping the layers of her relationship with music down to its origins.
“I’ve tried to interact with music the way I did when I was a kid, and when I had not yet experienced music being my profession, when I had not yet experienced the responsibility and the fear that comes with being recognized for the art you make,” Baker said.
The breakthrough is evident in her lyricism this time around. A great example of this breakthrough is Little Oblivions’ third track, “Faith Healer.”
The song is metaphorical, tackling the feeling behind resisting a vice, though leaving said vice up to the listener. It’s poetic, raw—perfectly capturing the tug between indulging in something addictive and working to be fully clean of it.
“I mean, honestly, ‘Faith Healer’ was very difficult to write just from a structural standpoint, because I had all these lyrics but I tried it out in like three different meters, because I couldn’t find a field that was comfortable, that felt like it suited the song well,” Baker said. “I really did not like that song until it was, like, done.”
Ironically, Baker’s persistence in finishing the song reflects the persistence in getting, and staying, sober. Knowing of her action in completing the song strengthens “Faith Healer”’s lyrical content.
“I don’t know why I kept at it so much. I guess I just like I don’t like to give up on songs, you know, I try to just repurpose them,” Baker said.
Part of Baker’s musical recognition is within the “sad girl indie” trope that has marked the late-2010 and early-2020 alternative scenes. After a review of Little Oblivions designated it as such, many took to Twitter to share their thoughts—most being less than thrilled—on the classification of her music. One notable comment came from Baker’s label-mate and friend, Lucy Dacus.
In a tweet, Dacus wrote “sadness can be meaningful but I have a bone to pick with the ‘sad girl indie’ genre, not the music that gets labeled as that, but the classification and commodification and perpetual expectation of women’s pain.”
When asked about this response, Baker explained that the commodification of women’s pain is an interesting conversation due to the past history of women, as well as queer and non-cis people, being discouraged from taking up space.
But by sharing her pain in her music, Baker reclaims that space and remains vulnerable with her audience.
“In a sense, it is vulnerable to talk about your pain,” Baker said. “But in another sense, it is less vulnerable to take up space with pain than to take up space with joy because we are a society that has a very critical tendency to discourage joy in favor of, like, grind culture and in favor of like, assigning value to suffering.”
Baker’s vulnerability deepens as she shares her joys alongside her pain. She proves that a song that sounds sad isn’t inherently so—and to limit a woman’s release to that box, around the time of Women’s History Month, no less—perpetuates the very commodification Dacus and Baker address and work to break away from.
“I, like all people, wanted my pain to be seen and understood. That became my classification in the world of music. And I don’t know, though, it’s like, how many songs do you hear that aren’t sad? I don’t listen to a ton of music that isn’t sad on some level, you know what I mean? It’s really reductive to do that to women to like, reduce them to being people who make sad music because they are sad, and like, mopey and sensitive,” Baker said. “You know what I mean? Like that feels like it almost cheapens the very real emotions that you’re talking about.”
In speaking of Dacus and other indie contemporaries, boygenius, naturally, became part of the conversation. Little Oblivions’ eighth track features vocals from both Dacus and Bridgers, surprising and delighting boygenius fans when the track was dropped ahead of the full album release.
Baker hinted that the boygenius crew were eager to create together again, though logistics have made it difficult to get together and record anything.
“It feels so much easier to be purely happy about it and purely proud of it, like I can just say that I love all the songs on the boygenius EP because it’s something that we made. It’s not something that I made. And so I don’t have this weird, constant, ego guilt around—it’s just a piece of music that brings me real joy,” Baker said.
This feeling of liberation, letting go of stress and ego in order to create something, is what Baker likes most about collaborations. Whether the group setting is boygenius or another, the pressure to commodify evaporates, being replaced with the freedom to simply create alongside other contemporaries.
“I am recognizing that as I let go of the idea of the musician—as an individual, as a person that is, you know, commodified like, even in the interviews I do and the promo that I do—it’s like, on some level, it’s not just my music that is being commodified, the art that I create, it is my very personhood. And what I like about collaborating, is that the more you collaborate, the more you can let go of the ego,” Baker said.
The conversation led to Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker, who Baker called one of her “immediate thoughts” when asked about dream collaborators.
“They almost seem too magical for me. I feel like I’m too basic, I’m not on that level,” Baker said. “I’m just essentially a glorified bro, making music, and I feel like if I was in a room with Adrianne Lenker, I would just not be on the same intellectual or emotional or cosmic plane.”
But if Little Oblivions is anything to go by, Baker is on that level. She navigates the spaces of self-deprecation and the flaws of the human spirit with such poise that it’s impossible not to put her on the plane of her talented contemporaries. Baker has created an earth-shattering record with nuance and emotion in abundance for the listener to soak up as the album plays. When the dust settles and the steady metronome of “Ziptie” fades out, we’re left with yet another display of unmatched vulnerability from one of this generation’s most influential and intuitive songwriters.
Listen to Little Oblivions on Spotify: