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17 February 2021

Julien Baker: “I saw music as religion”

The indie-rock artist on freeing her faith – and her songwriting – from the constraints of ideology.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Julien Baker doesn’t believe in hell any more. She doesn’t believe in original sin either, or in predeterminism. She doesn’t believe that people are born “saved” or “reprobate”. “Those things seem obvious now, and I think they were always obvious to me,” Baker told me in early February, “but there was an ingrained unwillingness to deviate too far from the canon because it would be perceived as doubt. But I don’t doubt God. I am, in fact, certain that there’s something out there, even if it’s just God manifested in the dignity of other human beings.”

Baker wore a bandanna around her neck and a black T-shirt when she spoke to me over Zoom from her apartment in Nashville, Tennessee. The 25-year-old songwriter was raised in a deeply Christian family across the state in Memphis. She writes emotional, guitar-led indie-rock songs with raw, exposing lyrics. Across the course of three solo records – the latest of which, Little Oblivions, is released this month – Baker has become known for the clarity with which she expresses her vulnerabilities and her flaws. “Cause if I didn’t have a mean bone in my body, I’d find some other way to cause you pain/I won’t bother telling you I’m sorry for something that I’m gonna do again,” she sings over broken piano chords on “Relative Fiction”. As part of the supergroup Boygenius, she – alongside her fellow acclaimed US songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus – proved that an instinct for ruthless self-examination can be resolutely cool too.

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Baker has tattoos on both arms, and when we spoke, had Biro scrawls on the back of one hand. Early in her career, interviewers would note how she addressed them as “Sir” or “Ma’am”, a quirk she seems to have moved on from, though when she occasionally paused our conversation to retrieve pieces of “trash” from her dog’s mouth – a minor disturbance – she apologised with a profuse, and typically Southern, politeness.

Her Christian faith is not simply a theme in her music, but a lens through which she views much of her life – from her queer identity (she came out to her devout parents at 17 years old; they embraced her), to her teenage struggles with substance abuse. But that faith has, over the past few years, changed – not because of one “paradigm-shifting event”, she explained, but a gradual loss of any “emotional, mental attachment to liturgy and tradition”. She doesn’t attend church any more, or pray as such. “I think the church is super-flawed.” Organised Christianity in the US, she said, “has extrapolated some really harmful things from a text that’s theoretically about how to treat people, how to live in a loving community with each other”. Worship, for her, has taken on new forms. “I just really think about human beings. I sit around and think about my friends. I think about my behaviours and I try to do better things with my time and with my energy, that will serve a body – not the people in my church, but the people in my city.”

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Baker’s earliest relationships with music were formed at church, where she played in a band every week. Even when she played outside church, her band mates were people she had met there. As an only child, she didn’t have older siblings to pass down “contraband” music to her, she said, and without her own money, she relied on her parents to approve artists before she could listen to them. So she sought out Christian hardcore that she knew they would permit. “Well look,” she would say. “There’s this band that is a metal band or a screamo band, and they’re singing about Jesus! So you should let me listen to this.”

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The access to music that church offered Baker was exciting: it gave her a place, every week, to play with a full band. But discovering new music in such a religious context also complicated the experience. “Instead of seeing church as a group of people using this non-religious tool, music, as part of a collaborative ritual, I saw music as religion,” she said. When she started going to local post-punk house shows as a teenager, she found a different sort of musical community, but it was still one in which she knew the crowd, and where the crowd always sang along, “super-loud” – just like in church.

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When Baker’s fan base began to expand beyond her local community – an emo-folk record she made as a student was picked up and formally released as her debut, Sprained Ankle, in 2015 – the atmosphere at her live shows shifted. In contrast to her punk days, her new audience would listen quietly while she played: Baker grew concerned with how “one-sided” the dynamic had become. Realising she had a platform, Baker decided her music would be “noble” or “honest”, she said. “Songwriting fell into a moral realm for me. I had always imagined music as conversation; if it couldn’t be that, then it had at least to be a vehicle for ideology.”

But when Baker’s relationship with her faith changed, her songwriting had to change, too. Writing Little Oblivions, she sought to free herself from “the weight of trying to say something true or good, something loving or righteous”. Her new songs are more expansive and complex than ever before: on “Highlight Reel” murky synths undercut Baker’s vocals, leaving her lyrics difficult to make out. “Faith Healer”, a song about how easy it is to relapse into addiction, is driven by a burgeoning rhythm section which, for just moments at a time, she allows to roll over the listener like a wave.

This period of change was significant for Baker. Throughout it, she resisted thinking of herself in binary terms of the devout teenager she once was and the wiser, more sceptical adult she is now. “That’s something that’s taught by church: this prodigal and reconciled nature. But when you stop thinking about that ultimatum, it’s really helpful. I don’t want to think of ‘old’ and ‘new’ me; I’m the same me. I have the same tendencies and personality traits – I just changed the way that I thought about God.

“And even though I have felt a personal resentment towards those institutions, I have no interest in othering or eliminating that part of myself,” she added. “I don’t want to villainise a self that does wrong in order to try to love a self that’s doing better.”

“Little Oblivions” is released on 26 February on Matador Records

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This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth