Music, Personal
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On Julien Baker

I’ve been trying since June of last year to put into words why I love Julien Baker so much. And she has been on here a few times, and I even managed to write a not-so-personal (ha, okay…) version of these feelings for work, but every time there’s an attempt at a dedicated space for her here, I kind of lose my words.

In case you don’t know who she is, Julien Baker is a musician whose debut album, Sprained Ankle, was released in 2015 to much acclaim and adoration. She’s been profiled and interviewed by places like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Observer, The Verge, Pitchfork, Noisey, and Vulture, among others.

Sprained Ankle is a sparse and quiet confessional full of intimations that touch on heartbreak, self-destruction, struggles with and loss of faith, abandonment, and the steady stream of daily anxieties and failures. My favorite way that it has been described can be read on Stereogum’s interview with her: “This is the type of album that opens up like a sinkhole and drags you into an emotional wellspring before you have a second to recognize how bottomless Baker’s heartbreak is.”

I first listened to Sprained Ankle on the first of June 2016, almost a year after its initial release. I got there by way of a Death Cab for Cutie cover she did for The A.V. Club. I got there by way of a tweet. I should probably disclose that the album wrecked me a little—or, almost completely shattered, more like—and I heard it at a time when anxieties and sadness from what I saw as dangerous political outcomes threatened to consume me every day.

I was at a boarding gate, getting ready for a press trip (strangely just overnight!) that I took out of desperation. And I heard Julien Baker sing just before the morning broke open, and I felt coaxed into relief and release that I knew I needed but didn’t know how to get.

To date, I have seen her play four times in two different continents in a span of two months. And I know that seems like overkill, but when something tangible changes your life this much and gives you even one millimeter of a truly life-altering shift in perspective, and the proximity feels within reach, you will find a way. You have to make them happen, especially when you get thrown even the tiniest of bones. At least, that’s what I think.

I also think that part of why I can’t seem to really, truly, completely openly write about her is because I’m always afraid that a) I’m going to forget to mention something that, to me, feels undeniably important, b) I’m going to say too many things that aren’t, or c) everything is going to come out all wrong, and because I’m shamefully proud, I won’t take the wrong words back.

Like, I can’t even think of a title that’s not “On Julien Baker.” It all feels inadequate.

I don’t want to give a blow-by-blow account of her shows, though I do remember precisely during which songs I felt flayed open and exposed—Nov. 21 was “Brittle Boned,” Nov. 24 was “Happy to Be Here,” a new song she played that wasn’t on her set list on the 21st and completely caught me off-guard, Jan. 19 was “Funeral Pyre,” and Jan. 20 was “Rejoice,” if you care about this sort of information.

I remember being happy and excited at the thought that I was around all these people who were about to get to know her. And there’s this Say Anything tagline that goes “To know Lloyd Dobler is to love him. Diane Court is about to know Lloyd Dobler,” and that’s what I feel like every time the entire room is silent before her, and in awe, and are the embodiment of Diane Court in the hour or so that Julien picks up her guitar and sings.

Happy to be here ? — #?carina #sydney #australia #ForAnAlbum Thanks Ta, for this awk photo ?

A photo posted by Carina Santos (@presidents) on

Collectively, I’ve seen her play thirteen and a half songs live: her entire album, “Funeral Pyre” (or what used to be known as “Sad Song No. 11” on her NPR Tiny Desk session), “Happy to Be Here” (previously known as “Red Door”), a cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Photobooth” played with Ben Gibbard!, and a song that currently exists as an unnamed one for me, but I managed to catch in Chicago:


The “half” was an excerpt of The Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” that tapered off into “Brittle Boned,” which I caught on audio the first night I saw her play:


Our interview lasted about twenty-five minutes. It was personally excruciating to have to cut the words down to a manageable length, because she considered my nervous-mangled questions and answered them thoughtfully and without self-consciousness. She sang two lines from a Mountain Goats song and interrupted me one time because she liked the “Frequent Crier Program: Lifetime Member” patch on my denim jacket so much.

You know how when people say you should never meet the people you look up to because they’re never quite as bright and beaming and unblemished as they are in your head? That’s not quite true with Julien Baker. She is the type of person who invites you to dinner because she thought you were alone, and she is the type of person who remembers the small things, which coincidentally, always feels like a big thing.

I think my favorite thing about getting to know her a little bit more, through shows and the numerous conversations and interviews she’s had that I’ve read and heard online, is knowing that she doesn’t wear her sadness like a badge of honor. Yes, her music can be unspeakably sad. Yes, it feels like isolation, and yes, she’s captured that feeling of desolation so perfectly that you have to wonder if she’s been inside your brain. But the fact that she exists, and that she’s able to make jokes onstage, and be openly happy and thankful in her life, and confront the demons of her past but not let them paralyze her; and that she’s almost single-minded in her insistence on spreading hope and strength and love, instead of perpetuating fear and darkness, is something that I feel sort of indebted to continue, in whatever way that might turn out to be.

It’s like extending that chain of people she’s changed by and hopes to continue adding to. What other people did for Julien, she did for me, and I hope to do, in some measure, for someone else.