We all need something to hold on to during these ‘difficult times’. Thankfully, Julien Baker is back to show us we’re not alone.
By: Neive McCarthy. Photography: Alyssa Gafkjen.
“It’s been an eventful morning!” Julien Baker laughs over Zoom. It’s only 10am, but after an incident involving a hot kettle and some lost hair, eventful certainly seems fitting. Her musical sound has long been characterised by its warmth and intimacy, and that quality seems to translate directly to the artist herself. Diving into the world of her third album, ‘Little Oblivions’, it’s easy to get a glimpse into the songwriter’s enigmatic character. She’s enthused and infectiously passionate, and as her music takes a more experimental turn, those traits encompass her sound. It’s pure magic.
Starting her musical journey in some heavier bands, Julien’s departure to her delicate, acoustic sound seemed worlds apart. ‘Little Oblivions’ is the equilibrium. Opening with the darkly atmospheric ‘Hardline’, it’s clear from the first seconds of the album that this is a new world. “I always try to make things over-intellectualised and have a philosophical meaning, but I think sometimes it’s okay to just say, ‘I think that makes a good opener on the record because it’s jarring’,” Julien muses. “The noise at the beginning is so distorted and unexpected that I kind of liked the idea of spooking people a little bit, if the record was to come on or in a live set. It’s so different from the music I usually made, which is slow and gentle – I thought it was a good introduction to the tonal shift of the record.”
That tonal shift is explosive. Whilst her music never loses the gentility it’s beloved for, there’s an embrace of chaos and the new that is completely transformative. Having headed back to college to finish her degree, this album signifies a new chapter, a fresh start after a much-needed circuit-break. “I had been on tour for so long, so I had spent a very long time trying to be the most excellent performer and be a better songwriter every day, and I hadn’t done a lot of work on the unobserved inner portion of my life,” Julien admits. “It felt good to go back and be engaging in conversations that just pertained to this entirely other facet of my life without having much bearing on my music or career. It was good to see myself in a new context and remember that I can return to music with the wholeness of my experience, and use it again as something to document my life instead of this all-consuming channel where I have to put all of my ideologies and all of my passion into this one thing.”
It manifests in this refreshing take on her sound: tracks like ‘Ringside’ lean into gratifyingly euphoric percussion. Whilst her previous releases have been endowed with a comforting reverence, ‘Little Oblivions’ bids farewell to the comfort zones that might hold you back. Instead, it hurtles full throttle into a world that’s all release. “I think it was a natural progression that I had in the back of my mind that I always wanted to happen, but maybe had unnecessary apprehensions about including percussion, and experimental synths and distortion,” Julien reflects. “I really think playing with Lucy [Dacus] and Phoebe [Bridgers] was a catalyst to shitting those apprehensions – recognising that the limitations of what people will allow and respond positively to in music is wider than I thought it was. And it’s completely inconsequential if I’m not happy with the music I’m making. Genuineness seems to be the ruling quality of the music I like, not stylistic similarity. I had always wanted to move in that direction – there’s a couple of singles and B-sides where there’s percussion, but I had never just gone for it, and it feels good.”
The embrace of ambition and abandonment of doubt is infectious: the album still has its tender moments, but they’re liberating. Her boygenius bandmates lend their vocals to ‘Favor’, and it’s completely enchanting – the driving percussion propels its self-examination to a new level. Julien has a knack for plunging to the root of an experience and dissecting it bit by bit, and the frantic questioning on ‘Favor’ is a perfect example. The honesty and earnestness this brings is precisely where the freeing nature of the album lies. “I try to be as honest as I can because I don’t have a skill for writing in character like many other artists do, so I just try to distil the actuality of whatever it is I am feeling or experiencing down into a song, honestly to help me figure out what I feel about what is happening or what has happened. There are times on the record where I would text my friends who are songwriters and be like ‘this line is kind of cringey, I would cringe if I heard this line I don’t know if I should put that in there’. One of my friends, Nick Carpenter, he’s a songwriter, and he said: ‘the lines you’re afraid to put in there, you should probably leave most of all.’ Maybe those are the times where you’re hitting on something especially vulnerable, or a thought that’s particularly repulsive or disgusting to you – that is the meaty part of human emotion. It really requires the attention and the sifting through.”
The baring of the soul lyrically can, of course, be daunting, but on ‘Little Oblivions’, it offers a source of comfort and reassurance. There’s a relatability stemming from her earnestness, and an encouragement to embrace yourself in the full flux of your flaws. “These are literal things that happened to me, and I don’t know how people are going to feel about them. I had a lot of fear about releasing this record just because some of the things were so painful, and they were admissions about my own self-destructive behaviour, or negative qualities of mine, or painful things that I felt so much shame around. I was conflicted that I was projecting that onto a prospective audience.” Julien considers this. “Maybe now that I have a put a couple of songs out into the world, it seems more like I was trying to make a record that was an advertisement for me being the shittiest person alive, and it was just me admitting a lot of common, normal things. It was encouraging, and also freeing.”
To own who you are, both good and bad is easily shied away from. One listen to ‘Little Oblivions’, however, and you’re ready to walk into the fire. There’s a steady solidarity to the open-armed acceptance of the raw brutality of who we are embedded in the album and it’s mesmerising. Honing in on deeply personal, niche moments in time to craft her vivid stories, its sincerity stirs something in each listen regardless of how close to your own experiences the lyrics are. Every emotion is distilled into her words and soft vocals – even when she writes on her touring life, something which few can relate to, it’s evocative. “I was in Cologne, Germany, playing this show, and thinking: is there a limit to how therapeutic it is to re-tread the same traumatic memories every day if I don’t have control over the emotions that I’m feeling connected to them onstage? On one hand, I want to revisit that place and have a genuine sense of ‘this is important to me, this is what I still feel and this is the music I’m passionate about and the words I’m passionate about still saying.’”
‘Repeat’ details this conflict amidst mystifying rise of distortion. It’s fervently chaotic and enveloping. “That song is about kind of having a self-fulfilling prophecy – if I make a career out of saying all these painful things and digging into hurtful memories day after day in order to try and apply some sort of symbolic meaning to them for myself or for an audience, does that not end up manifesting all my fears. I was like, man, I sing about painful things and end up bringing pain to myself by meditating on it so much.” The track’s slow fade into total distortion leaves you to contemplate that cycle.
“I had a lot of fear about releasing this record, some of the things were so painful”Julien Baker
In the same way that many people turn to music to reflect their own feelings and situations, the making of it for Julien can be as therapeutic. As a songwriter, crafting those narratives contributes to the freedom of it. “At this very tumultuous time in my life, where pretty much every detail about my personal life, my career, my emotional life – everything about it was being uprooted and changed, and these are the songs that I wrote to try and organise my feelings. This is the channel that I processed all those emotions through.” Julien pauses, contemplating the album’s trajectory. “For me, all of the songs are associated with these hyper-specific moments in time – like, that’s when this fucked up thing happened, that’s when this other fucked up thing happened. I don’t want the record to be just a litany of scars and stories and ‘look how crazy my life is!’. It’s more just an admission that alright, these things transpired, and I don’t know what to do with the aftermath of them now.”
Acceptance and admission carry the album throughout. Sometimes, life isn’t great, but that’s okay – each track is a soothing balm to get you through the not-so-great times. From the animated, exalted moments prompting you to let loose to the more stripped-back moments of pensive quiet, it feels like a journey that you’re with Julien on every step of the way. ‘Song in E’ is especially entrancing: with Julien’s vocals at her most rousing, the lowkey piano-led track is easy to wrap yourself up in. “That was the first song that I wrote in a very long time after ‘Turn Out The Lights’ that I was proud, really authentically proud of. it was one of the very first songs I wrote for the record, and that understanding of resenting kindness from a really hurt place kind of is a good jumping off point for understanding the point of view of the speaker in the rest of the songs,” Julien explains.
Shrouded in warmth and affection, it’s an album that assures it will be there for you, through its every high and low. Culminating in the hazily mystical ‘Ziptie’, it’s as though the album breathes one last sigh of relief. There’s a lot to contend with over the course of the album, so by its completion you feel like you’ve been on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. “I hope that people see a hyper-idealistic person who failed a lot and failed themselves a lot – I failed myself so much over the course of making that record that it made me more patient with myself. Also, it made me infinitely more patient with other people. I hope that people see it as a narrative of what it feels like to be truly self-deprecating and how counter-productive it can be when the hurt part of yourself is demanding and begging you to have some kind of mercy, that ultimately you and your psyche are in control of bestowing. I hope people are more patient with themselves, and after they’re more patient with themselves they’re more patient with other people,” Julien ruminates with the same careful thoughtfulness that makes her lyrics so enamouring. “This was written completely separate from the experience of the pandemic – everything was mastered and finished. Now I feel like maybe in a backwards way, it’s falling on a more fertile environment for self-forgiveness and having patience with yourself.” If you’re looking for your musical equivalent of a cosy hug and a gentle nudge towards acceptance, look no further. ‘Little Oblivions’ has got you covered.
Taken from the March 2021 edition of Dork, out now. Julien Baker’s album ‘Little Oblivions’ is out 26th February.
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