Julien Baker carries clues to her admiration for Woody Guthrie. One’s a tattoo of a resolution, “Wake up and fight,” from the folk icon’s diary. And in a nod to Guthrie’s guitar sticker that read “This machine kills fascists,” Baker topped her heavily adorned acoustic with another bumper statement: “This machine kills sadness.”
Her guitars, piano and voice indeed give Baker weapons to tackle love, loneliness and mental illness in melancholy, unflinching songs of pain and perseverance. “The music that I create is somber in its sonic quality and also deals with pretty heavy topics lyrically,” the 22-year-old Tennessee native says before countering, “We only gain power over the most difficult parts of our lives when we are willing to confront them honestly and directly.”
After facing personal issues from faith to substance abuse on 2015’s stunning Sprained Ankle, Baker turned her self-expression into universal truths on last year’s widely lauded gem Turn Out the Lights, bringing her innermost thoughts to a larger audience. One downside to her expanded lifestyle: To play Boston Calling on May 27, she’s flying cross-country after appearing at a music festival in Washington on May 25 and won’t risk bringing that now-personalized guitar that her father passed along.
On the other hand, despite the intimate nature of her songs and past struggles with stage fright, Baker says she’s not concerned about playing to a huge crowd that may be preoccupied with talking, partying or waiting for another band. “I don’t necessarily feel like I need to demand total attention,” she says. “It also takes the pressure off me in a sense and allows me to be a little more lively.”
Julien Baker plays Boston Calling on May 27 and the Sinclair on May 29
Levity isn’t Baker’s best-known quality, though she’s as amiable and upbeat in conversation as she can be onstage. After Boston Calling, she’ll play a May 29 “Beyond the Band” show at the Sinclair that includes a discussion with her manager, booker and publicist (the behind-the-scenes people who, Baker says, “make my creative life possible”), as well as an audience Q&A and a short performance.
“I don’t want to give off an attitude as if I’m a brooding musician that’s totally self-absorbed within the supposed gravity of all of my poetry,” Baker says. “As a musician, I’m just making art about my life and sharing it. It is very cathartic but it’s OK to imbue that with some humor and joy.”
Even as Baker mulls inadequacy and depression over the celestial chime of her looped electric guitar in Turn Out the Lights’ hymn-like “Appointments,” a glimmer of hope transforms into a mantra. “Maybe it’s all going to turn out all right,” Baker sings. “And I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.”
“You are presented with an ultimatum to concede to despair and say, ‘This is the way I will always feel,’ ” Baker says, “or to believe against your better reason that there is still a chance for things to turn around.” One key, she says, is to embrace small victories: “There’s no completely happy ending, no real perfect world devoid of hurt or pain or loss. We can’t believe that, just like there’s no perfect relationship. But the promise, the unattainable desire for us to say, ‘Let’s give it one more shot because I still want this thing so badly,’ this thing being happiness or this glimpse of joy, that’s the engine of human motivation that keeps us waking up in the morning. If we believed that it was unattainable, we wouldn’t try.”
Growing up, Baker found an overlapping sense of connection in church and the hardcore punk circuit—and played guitar in both. “It was so intense for me as a child to need something, some community to latch onto,” she says, noting that hardcore scene “became just as much of a faith community as the church.”
Baker now finds community on tour, interacting with fans and kindred artists (including book swaps with singer/songwriter Lucy Dacus). Although she performs solo, Baker enlists violinist Camille Faulkner for some songs and says she wants to collaborate more. And she’s taken up running. “I’m in a lot better shape, and I think it impacts your mental health and gives you a chance to relax and have some clarity.”◆
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