Julien Baker speaks with poise beyond her 25 years. The Nashville singer/songwriter displays the profound self-awareness of someone who is conscious about the impact of her words. The honesty she exhibits on her new album, “Little Oblivions,” translates seamlessly in the real world.
This is perhaps most apparent in her deep social conscience. Baker takes the time to acknowledge the suffering of those who have lost friends, family, jobs or homes during the pandemic before explaining that it has been admittedly healthy for her.
“I’m not rocketing through life in a tour van,” she says. “I’m sitting at home with my instruments, and I’m taking in everything and giving myself time to process it. So, it’s been healthy for the most part, to be honest.”
In the months before the pandemic, Baker took a break from touring and releasing music to return to school at Middle Tennessee University and earn her degree. This was a cathartic step for the young singer. School was a stable environment for Baker — one that took her away from the public eye.
“I was taking these courses that had almost nothing to do with music,” Baker says. “I wasn’t playing shows. Pretty much nobody on campus knew who I was. I was just a student drinking really bad coffee and sitting through lectures all day.”
Baker found that her time in school was fulfilling in unexpected ways.
“My life actually had way more possibilities than I had allowed myself to think about,” Baker says.
“I had much more autonomy over what was happening in my life. It was so fulfilling to me because I had radically shifted gears from what my life had consisted of and still found myself able to be a whole person when I was removed from a profession in which I am constantly being observed and seen.”
Baker is frequently referred to as a role model for many. Having been open about her mental health, sexuality and sobriety for many years, the break from the spotlight was refreshing. Baker says it was not always easy to be as candid as she is now.
“I don’t think I ever understood how difficult it could be to open myself up like that,” Baker says. “I just continued trying to be as honest as possible even when it was painful, but what I realized I had done was build up this impossible, unsustainable standard for myself. Being in school, I didn’t feel like I was representing something all the time. I only had to represent and be accountable for myself.”
Baker quickly adds she is proud of the positive impact her music has had on fans.
“I saw that my music was making some sort of positive impact on the world, at least I hope, and I can continue to use the power that I know I have through the recognition of my art to make positive impacts in a greater way,” she says.
In February 2020, Baker’s newest record had been completed. Just a few weeks later, the pandemic stopped any plans of taking the album on the road. Baker admits it may have helped her in the long run, giving her time to process the emotional and forthright album she had written.
“I did not realize just how much time I needed to process this record, because it is actually quite emotionally salient for me,” she says. “I was writing about things that are much closer experiences in my life chronologically than I had been on the first two records.”
Baker reflects on the writing process for her third record. Though she had been candid on her first two albums, Baker says this record felt more personal in some ways.
“I shifted the goal of my songwriting from making something that I thought was beautiful but had a clear specific message about the ideologies I wanted to promote in the world. I stopped trying to capture everything in an ideology as much,” Baker says. “I just wrote songs about my feelings.”
The result is a record that is beautiful but poignant. The darkness of the material is balanced by the sense of hope that shines through her music.
Baker hopes that audiences will engage in her discussion of life, mental health, faith and growth in a way that is meaningful to them. She plays The Van Buren on November 1.
“I hope my music continues to be a conversation with the listener and ultimately a piece of data in the giant discourse of all music,” she says.
Baker also hopes that her music encourages listeners to be open about their own expression as well, in spite of any criticism they may receive.
“I think a lot of people get discouraged from expressing themselves because they are afraid of doing it wrong. I think that if we reframe conflict and opposition as an opportunity for discourse, especially in music, but also in other things, then people would express themselves more freely without fear of being penalized for it.”
What it ultimately comes down to for Baker is the concept of worthiness and validity of expression. She says that she has grown a greater appreciation for sharing her music regardless of how it is perceived by critics and audiences.
“I’ve gradually gotten to a place where I don’t think my music has to be the best music ever for my experiences and my right to express them to be valid,” Baker says.
“I am proud of my music because it is the art that I made. It is meaningful to me because I was able to take things that happened in my life and turn them into something creative, where I could analyze and understand them better. I think that’s the purpose that music serves.”