On Little Oblivions, the Memphis-born singer-songwriter expanded her intimate solo sound, recruited a full band — and made her most vulnerable album yet.

By Hilary Hughes
February 17, 2021 at 09:15 AM EST
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Credit: ALYSSE GAFKJEN

Julien Baker's debut album, 2015's Sprained Ankle, and its follow-up, 2017's Turn Out the Lights, found critical acclaim thanks to their candid ruminations on religion, addiction, love, and despair. Accompanied by a guitar, Baker's voice swelled and receded with hushed confessions and full-throated clarion calls as she peeled back layers of private memories and their emotional aftermath.

"When I write songs, I'm trying to process a big feeling," the 25-year-old songwriter says. "It's usually years after I've written that song that I can have some space and do the inner work to be like, 'I see what the core of this pain was about.' When things are couched in the context of a song, there's less taboo about it, because you're allowed a level of artistic levity that you couldn't just say to someone in a conversation." 

Following the release of Turn Out the Lights, she teamed up with like-minded rockers Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers to form indie supergroup boygenius, which shattered Baker's typical minimalist aesthetic with ample distortion and turned-up-to-11 guitar solos. They recorded an EP and toured behind it, but Baker soon found herself back home in Tennessee, exhausted and depleted. She was wrestling with everything from her sobriety to a self-imposed pressure to be her best possible self — and she "tried to heal all the stuff that was wrong that [she] hadn't been paying attention to."

"I just started writing songs for the same reason that I did when I made Sprained Ankle: I was sitting in my apartment, alone, with really big feelings, and I wanted to say some wack stuff to just get it out of my brain," she says of Little Oblivions, which she made with the louder, brasher possibilities of a full band in mind. Album opener "Hardline" pushes away her loved ones ("When it finally gets to be too much, I always told you, you could leave at any time"), but instead of processing it in near silence, she roars as the chorus sparks a shimmering, arena-ready rock explosion. Many moments follow suit: internal shifts are met with instrumental ones. Baker often finds her epiphanies in this new, deafening din.  

"I change my belief in scary ways — or scary for me," she continues. "In putting that uncertainty into a song, or admitting things — struggling with sobriety and beliefs, and doing objectively bad things that hurt my ego as a good person, and as a person with a public persona that I try to use for something positive — it relieved me of the self-assigned pressure of being something ultimately good. It made space for me to be just a person, and feel like that's enough. That's a really freeing thing to feel, that everybody's not constantly evaluating you the way you might be yourself."

Below, Baker unpacks Little Oblivions and the lessons she learned — from making the album, but mostly from herself during one of the weirdest years of her life.

“Going to therapy in 2019 helped me not have an existential crisis every day of 2020,” says Baker
| Credit: ALYSSE GAFKJEN

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Little Oblivions reminds me of something Phoebe Bridgers once said about you while working in boygenius, your supergroup with her and Lucy Dacus. She called you a "secret shredder." The secret is out, officially.

JULIEN BAKER: That flatters me so much. Being in that band and getting to be a shredder fulfilled a very basic, childish need I had developed. Yeah, I want to write tasteful, beautiful, intelligent, or pretentious music, but I never get to do just a foot-on-the-monitor solo, and I was so happy about it. That's very ego-feeding!

Did working with boygenius leave an imprint on your approach to Little Oblivions beyond obvious shredability?

I've been reflecting on this a ton: I didn't think [boygenius] was a catalyst, because I grew up making "heavy music," and I grew up playing in a full band, and I was like, "This isn't really new for me" — but it was, because I didn't give myself the liberty to widen my musical palette. After Sprained Ankle came out, the rest of the songs that I had been writing in that manner [came] to fruition. The mechanisms of making Turn Out the Lights was different from anything I had ever experienced, and I was like, "Here are the tools that I work with, I'm going to limit myself to those tools; maybe it will challenge me as a songwriter, or maybe there's some level of pure-ism that'll make this continue to be good." Playing with boygenius, it was this new environment where I had less mental blocks on the arrangement of a song and how wildly you can shift it. 

Writing with [Bridgers and Dacus] and having everything unfold so organically was nice, because there was really no idea that wasn't worth trying, but also very little lost in trying an idea that sucked. That's how this record was: the single "Faith Healer" was in a different time signature and had this wild, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin Casio noise in it. We just ditched that version and started over. That's a skill that was developed, or at least honed, by working with them and bouncing ideas off each other. 

There are themes in your work that are constants, but it's not as simple as noting "this is a sobriety song" or "this is a song about faith." Is there a through-line connecting Little Oblivions and your prior records?

I made Sprained Ankle on my buddy's free studio time from his internship, and I thought it was going to do really badly, and was [only] going to be for my 10 friends on Bandcamp. And so I said, "Whatever," because I felt like I was just throwing emotions at a wall in a very small echo chamber. By the time I was making Turn Out the Lights, I had a booking agent and a manager and a label, and I was so — and still am — concerned with stewardship. It's all I thought about. I was like, "Man, I never thought I'd have this… now, I have a platform." I remember having a conversation with Ryan Rado, the artist who made the painting for the Turn Out the Lights LP, and I was like, "I just think I'm used to sharing a microphone… I just wish I could give it away." And he said, "But you can't, so what are you gonna say with it?" I [thought], I'm going to craft these songs to try to make them honest and vulnerable, but also think about how to make them idealistic, encouraging, and super dark.

Nobody wants to admit, as an artist, that they think about what their listeners are going to think, because everybody is in pursuit of this ultimate cure: originality — and that's a little bit unrealistic. I was 21 years old and I wanted to say something good to people about pain and healing. I think that is a super noble pursuit, and I like [Turn Out The Lights]... Little Oblivions sounds, to me, a lot more embodied: it's less the distillation of all my big-brain thoughts on theology. I don't know if honest is the right word, because, yeah, Turn Out the Lights is honest; there's some really uncomfortable stuff that I admit on that record. But I feel like I don't have the urge to put it all together. I don't need to put a bow on it — and I don't know if I can.

Still, you make these deeply personal things universal — whether you're talking about grief, addiction, or a specific relationship, you're able to articulate something relatable that gives the listener the space to think about their own story while hearing aspects of it in yours.

It's just making space for people to analyze their own experiences instead of trying to dispense some knowledge or an answer. Not that I was ever trying to do that anyway. But it's funny: I was sober, six, seven years, and then I was just super distant from it, and way more ideologically engaged with it. I think returning to that struggle and reevaluating my relationship to substance abuse was very humbling, but in a way that gave me a more complex understanding. I feel like, almost all the time, having grace for other people comes from more understanding; it's the moment in the movie where you get to see the mean woman has a horrible, abusive family or something. Everybody becomes way more gracious with themselves and each other. It's a renewal of understanding or making something a whole lot more personal instead of it being theoretical, ideological, or dogmatic.

"Song in E" on Little Oblivions is stripped down to you, the piano, and some of your starkest, darkest thoughts ("I wish I drink because of you, and not only because of me"; "it's the mercy I can't take"). Is it difficult to open yourself up to this degree when more people are listening? Has it had an impact on your willingness to put this all out there?

You know, I've thought a lot about the themes on [Little Oblivions], just being candid about things that I've had tremendous shame around in my personal life. I remember writing a lyric on "Hardline" — "Would you hit me this hard if I was a boy?" — and texting it to one of my friends, Nick Carpenter of Medium Build. I was like, "Is it too cringe-y?" He was like, "No, the line you're afraid to put in there, that's the line you gotta put in there." I was like, "Wow, that's a pretty self-challenging discipline of songwriting." 

I can shred a little, but really I only know one blues scale, and I've been fooling everyone. But when you strip away that and poeticism and intelligence, or accumulated knowledge, the thing that I can be most sure of is that I'm being as honest as I can. Through writing this record, I changed my beliefs, or modified them, allowed them to grow. It's like that Tegan and Sara line: "So what... I lied/I lied to me too." That is one of the most intense lines in the world to me, because I believed whatever it was — whether it had to do with substances, or whether it was just a personal conviction, or some other neuroses I was in denial about. I wasn't intentionally not disclosing things; I was just telling them through an emotional lens at that time. That was the best I could do, and if I continued to just try and do the best I could do to be honest and vulnerable, then maybe I can be more sure of that. 

(From left) Phoebe Bridges, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus of boygenius performing in 2018
| Credit: Lloyd Bishop/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

You finished Little Oblivions in January 2020, which is wild considering how you were basically forced to sit with the project during an extremely surreal year. Has that impacted your thoughts on the album at all?

We were getting all excited to tour, and had all these dates, and then, you know, slowly, everything got pushed back and eventually canceled. But it's so bizarre. I feel like I'm in some sort of dark TV s—t, like, repeating this timelapse cycle, because when I put out Turn Out the Lights, I was writing a bunch of inner turmoil stuff. And then the thing happened that nobody thought was going to happen, which was that Trump got elected. I remember calling my manager and being like, "I have to be on tour! We're gonna make flyers, we have to do something!" I now have to kind of do the same thing again with Little Oblivions in 2019. I was just kind of sifting through my own personal microcosm of wreckage and chaos, and then finally got a handle on that and started being like, "Okay, I'm actually healing!" And then the world collapsed. I'm glad those things happened in that order, because I did a lot of feeling and learning from it. Going to therapy in 2019 helped me not have an existential crisis every day of 2020.

What's eerie to me is that some of the conclusions you come to on Little Oblivions — seeking connection with your fellow man, finding strength in collaboration, taking care of each other without taking someone down with us — echo the lessons of 2020 in a weird way.

It's funny, because I think of the last song on the record, "Ziptie," as being such a bummer. It's about Jesus changing his mind and being like "Y'all don't even deserve this." But when you think about it, it's more like, "So, we really just have each other then?" We really just have to sift through our relationships interpersonally. Instead of assigning a salvific purpose to something exterior and unexplainable, we have to look inside of ourselves, and that's maybe harder and scarier to see the ways you are like the things you think are evil, and also the ways you are like the things you think are divine. There's a lot of responsibility in that, and it's scary and uncomfortable, but I think it's more effective. I could change my mind. I feel so silly now, saying anything for certain, because when I put out Sprained Ankle, I had a whole bunch of views, and now they're different. Now, I'll hopefully change. It would be scary if I didn't.

I keep thinking about how the larger-than-life songs of Little Oblivions would sound right at home in an arena. Which feels like the perfect environment for these tracks: a huge venue, or something more intimate? 

So much has to do with how the audience behaves in those spaces. I played at Summerfest, opening for Death Cab for Cutiel like of course there were a bazillion people there early and they were all just talking and wooing and being silly. I was like, "This is great, this is fun, I'm just doing the best I can, I'm gonna let my ego die, you're waiting to see Death Cab!" But if I were to perform a set at the Ryman and everybody is super quiet, those moments are crushing for me. People always ask, "What is it like to perform really vulnerable songs alone with a guitar?" It's really scary — not only because it's just me and the guitar, and you can hear if I'm a little bit flat really intensely, where you might not in a band setting. I feel it's hard for a person who's already socially anxious. Of course it would be a cosmic joke that I'm a performer, but it makes me feel squirmy sometimes. That's why I love when people sing at shows, and I miss that.

I know you haven't had the chance to perform it in front of a live audience yet, but has working with the band and writing with the band in mind helped address the squirminess?

Oh, completely. It's very liberating. We got together to do these soundstage rehearsals and tape a couple COVID-friendly sessions. It was the most fun that I had had — like legitimate fun — playing music since the boygenius tour. It's not like I never have fun at my own shows, or that I didn't play shows where the crowd was fun and it was a good set. But I think it's a lot easier to feel comfortable with people around me, especially people I care so much for, and whose playing I admire. I think it will help with the squirminess.

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