Interview: Singer/Songwriter Julien Baker at Outside Lands

We discuss touring and guitar geekery with the 20-year-old Memphis powerhouse

Julien Baker took the stage on a chilly August day in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. She walked out on the huge stage alone with her hollow-body Telecaster and played her first notes. The usually rowdy Outside Lands festival crowd stood quietly to let Baker play what she refers to as “bummer tunes” from her debut album, Sprained Ankle.

Baker grew up in Memphis, her childhood is full of stories about spending time in church, skateparks and punk shows. She describes moments of feeling profoundly unmoored and lost. She filled much of her time at Middle Tennessee State University hiding out in the music rehearsal rooms until late at night with her guitar. She wrote the songs for what became Sprained Ankle there. Baker never intended to become a solo act. When a friend offered some studio time at Spacebomb Studio in Richmond, Virginia, Baker recorded the album and released it independently before being approached by 6131 Records.

The album has been lauded for its songwriting and Baker’s haunting vocal performance alone on guitar. At Outside Lands she held the audience in rapt attention. Later that chilly San Francisco day we meet up with Baker to talk about the album, touring, and one of her favorite topics: guitars. As we sit down, she immediately notices the VU meter on the iPad app that CH was recording the interview on. “That is a dated voltage level meter instead of an RTA real-time analyzer. That’s real audio nerd stuff,” she says.

Onstage you perform alone with your guitar. Is the one you played today the same one you recorded Sprained Ankle on?

I recorded with a Telecaster and an Ibanez hardcore. The blue Telecaster that I play a lot, that’s Lucy. She was my one guitar for the longest time. With this Fender, it feels like I am cheating on Lucy, but I love the new guitar! It’s semi-hollow and it’s got these noise-canceling single coil pick-ups, so it still has the Tele sound, but without all of the crazy buzz. I like Telecasters because they are so versatile. And I feel like that is really emphasized with the hollow body because you can put on a neck pick-up and it is really dark and full on the bottom end. Then you put it on the grid and that slappy kind of airy twang that you want out of a real Telecaster, but with a little bit of acoustic boldness to it. It is a Thinline Telecaster. I named it Virginia. Like Virginia Woolf. It is dark, but dynamic and responsive. It has a lot of emotional arcs.

You come from skateboard culture and playing punk and alternative rock music. Do you feel a connection from all of that to the music you are playing now?

I do. When I was at Newport Folk Festival, we were talking about what is folk. It is the same thing as what is punk. It’s an ethos about subject matter. There is something familial about punk. There is something positive. Even though some punk is destructive, nihilistic, explosive. I came out of a DIY mostly sober all ages punk scene. It was about experiencing something together. When I was in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade, Green Day was my formative entry to punk. I wish I could say I was listening to Minor Threat and Black Flag, but I wasn’t. Bay Area punk bands were doing it right. My parents wouldn’t let me listen to American Idiot. So it felt very rebellious to go over to my friend’s house after school and listen to it in secrecy.

As your music began to transform from punk and alternative rock with your band Forrister, where did you find inspiration for the music you are playing now?

Anthony Green from Circa Survive, Aaron Weiss from mewithoutYou, David Bazan from Pedro The Lion, Andy Hull from Manchester Orchestra, those people influenced how I write songs. I am revisiting a lot of older music. I just listened to three Paul Simon records on the plane. When I was growing up my mom would listen to James Taylor and Simon and Garfunkel. That’s the kind of stuff that’s shaped my songwriting sensibilities. The way I learned guitar solos was teaching myself Circa Survive and My Chemical Romance songs in my room.

Does it take you time to decompress after a performance?

Yes, but not because I am thinking about the content of the songs. When I get offstage the only thing flooding my brain is “This note was wrong” and three songs in I should have gone to this note instead of that one. Cycling through how to make the set better and why the set wasn’t as great as it should have been. I never want to have a day where I am phoning it in or punching a time card. It is my dream job and I want to give it the very best I can every single time.

When fans talk to you after shows about what the songs mean to them, do you feel any responsibility to be a role model?

I think you are obligated as a person with a microphone. You have a platform that not everybody gets. You should be aware of how to steward that with positivity and not just be flippant about your privilege as an artist. I don’t want to adopt an attitude that I am more important than I am, or that my story is more valid or holds more weight than anyone else’s. It’s less about me speaking for LGBT youth and more being honest about the person that I am and saying I will validate our existence by not compromising my own.

Things are going so well for you now, is it hard to get back to the emotional place you were in when you wrote these songs?

People ask me if it is painful to dig them up or if it is difficult to imbue the songs with the same emotion, now that I have moved on, but it’s not. There is something that will be continually relevant about those songs. You continue to discover new parts of yourself and analyzing yourself through your words. What makes be able to bear singing them over and over again is knowing that this would not be happening if those things, that felt so painful at the time, had not happened.

Next Baker tours the West Coast a makes an appearance at the FYF Festival in Los Angeles before and continues to play shows throughout the US through the fall.

Fourth and fifth image by Sofia Wolfson, all other images by Julie Wolfson