Julien Baker: The 13th Floor Interview

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Memphis-based singer-songwriter Julien Baker makes her New Zealand performing debut at Auckland’s Tuning Fork this Sunday, July 23rd.

At the rip old age of 21, Baker is wowing audiences with songs from her debut album, Sprained Ankle, released in 2015 when she was still a teen. She comes armed to the Tuning Fork with a clutch of new songs that will appear on her next album, due later this year.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Julien Baker recently. They began their conversation discussing another impressive young artist  who has just released her second album…Lorde.

Click here to listen to the interview with Julien Baker:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: What do you know about the New Zealand music scene; anything?

JB: Only a couple of artists… the number one that sticks out is Kimbra….

MD: I bet you must be familiar with Lorde.

JB: Yeah. See, that’s another one that I always forget, because Lorde and Kimbra have had such mainstream success in the mainland US Scene, that I forget they’re New Zealanders.

MD: This is true. Of course, Lorde’s just had her second album out a couple of days ago; so, it’s all big news. She’s kind of a contemporary of yours: she’s twenty years old, and you’re what, twenty one, are you?

JB: Yeah. I think she’s just a little bit younger than me, which is kind of scary to think about. That must be such a total head spin, to be Lorde; but she was however old – like what, eighteen – and she was performing at the Grammys. What an insane life to be living!

MD: There are similarities between what you do and what she does, and also great differences as well. I was wondering – because of her age and your age, and the fact that you both sing about being teenagers; very personal songs – do you see any relationship between what you do and what she does, at all?

JB: In the sense of…I really admire her music. Pure Heroine – when it came out – I thought was such a masterpiece of pop song writing. I think Lorde has an ability to create commercially successful sounding songs without sacrificing interesting and provocative lyrical content; and I love that! I have listened straight through the new record once, but I really need to dig into it…

MD: That’s alright! You’ve been busy!

JB: Yeah, but I also… don’t like to speak uninformed opinions about art; so, I’m excited to dig into it. My favourite track is Supercut, so far; I love that…! I think it’s so great that her songs… are nebulous as to whom their addressing, and many of them seem to be about friendships, as opposed to straight up songs about romantic, sexual or non-platonic relationships; and I think that’s interesting…. It’s not to say that songs about romantic relationships are, by definition, vapid – I have plenty of songs about romantic relationships – but I think there’s a good balance, on that record, of substantive reflection on those singers’ own identity, their relationship to that person, how it influenced their youth, their childhood, how growing up feels and how those things influence it. It’s not just like, “Oh, I got my heart broken;” very easy, consumable work; so, yeah, I really admire Lorde for that reason.

MD: I would guess that the big point of difference between you and her – other than the content of the music – is she was being groomed by a record label from the time she was twelve or thirteen, until she was ready to record; whereas, I’m assuming that you didn’t go through a similar process. Maybe you can tell folks, here in New Zealand, what your formative time was, working up to making your first record.

JB: That’s so interesting, because… to me, I consider the first LP that I ever was a part of, or released, was a local band in Memphis that I released in high school with all of my friends… called The Star Killers; and we put it out, and it was the proudest thing we had ever done. We just recorded it in our friend’s attic, and we pooled all of our money, and just made this thing, and only pressed like… two hundred copies on CD; and that’s it. Then we just toured every break we had from high school or college. We tried to string together little tours that were in basements in people’s houses, that I would just ask random strangers on the internet that I found on message boards about DIY punk, and I’d just be like, “Can we play your house?” I was in the middle of doing that, and one of my friends from college said, “Hey, look, I intern at this studio, and I’ve got this free time,” and The Star Killers weren’t available to do it; so, I went up there by myself, and put out a solo record and thought, “Oh, you know, Jeremy Enigk was in Sunny Day Real Estate, and then he put out a Jeremy Enigk record just to explore a different, softer, more indie-ish side; and that was fun; and maybe I’ll do that, and I’ll just put out Sprained Ankle by Julien Baker.” Then I just put it up for two or three dollars on Bandcamp… and it did alright. Then I got approached by 6131 Records, and they wanted to re-release the record on a label; and so, that’s how that happened. Then… the first tour I booked, even after I was on a label, was… the Cake Shop in New York, because I must have sent them five ‘gillion’ emails. I was like, “Please let me play at your underground venue in New York,” because I didn’t have a booking agent. I didn’t understand what a press person did. I was like, “Why do I need one of those? No!” It’s been a bizarre mental shift for me, in the last couple of years, trying to get used to the mechanics of, I guess, “music professionalism”.

MD: On top of all that, the difference between being nineteen years old and twenty one years old is a fairly big deal as well: so, you’re going through usual life stuff, and, on top of that, you’re going through all these career things as well.

JB: Oh, yeah! It’s a trip! It literally is a trip – ha, ha! That is a touring pun for you! I love puns. I’m actually the most vanilla person you shall ever meet. Sometimes I tell puns on stage, and they don’t go over well. The first show I played in Australia, I was like, “What an ‘Aussie-spicious’ beginning to the tour!”

MD: Ooooh!

JB: And you could hear the crickets! And I feel like the failure of that joke, was as gratifying – humour-wise – as the joke itself. But, like you were saying, yes… I’m watching all of my friends that I grew up with, grow up and get dogs and mortgages and…responsibilities, and I’m trying to… start paying for my own insurance, and pay for healthcare….all of these things before, I was an eighteen or nineteen year old, living by the seat of my pants in college, and I was just worried about groceries and rent; and now, I’m having to think about things like, “I should go to the dentist!” That seems like it would be easy enough for a functioning human to remember, but then it’s like, “I should go to the dentist when I’m not overseas;” so, it’s kind of tricky.

MD: It’s been a while since Sprained Ankle was released. I know you’ve released a couple of singles this year, my understanding is that those were older songs as well. What is your status, as far as song writing over the past year or so? Have you been doing any…?

JB: Yes! I actually finished a record in January, that will be releasing in October.

MD: Oh, fantastic!

JB: We’re just starting to get to where that’s set in stone. I’m a person who likes certitude – as much as that’s a fallacy in life: never seek in absolutes – but I was gun-shy about saying, “The record will be out,” any specific time, but it’s going to be out in October. I do love writing on the road: at the place where we’re staying, or in the dressing room, or at sound check, is the free time that I have to piece together songs. I’ll just make a voice memo, and then listen to it over and over again in the car or on the plane, and write that way. The songs – piece-meal – come together mentally. Last time, it was just a couple of days in the studio and my guitar and the piano that was at the studio; but this time, it feels a little bit more comfortable to flesh things out, and have all these tools at my disposal; so, I’m really proud of it and nervous.

MD: Where did you record it?

JB: I recorded it at Ardent studios…

MD: Oh, at Ardent! Are they still a going concern? Because I know they’re a legendary studio: The Box Tops recorded there, and all these amazing soul musicians.

JB: Oh yeah! Jody Stevens – who played in Big Star – he runs the studio, and one of my friends, who I grew up with – that does audio engineering, and has played in bands; I’ve known him since I was thirteen – he does work at Ardent; and he was like, “Why don’t you come record with me at Ardent?” They still have their legacy acts – they’re older, historical releases – but they also… a lot Memphis of hip-hop artists, like Yo Gotti, recorded there. I thought that was funny: recording in the same studio as Yo Gotti. The subject matter will be a bit different from Mr. Gotti.

MD: Can you shed any light on what the subject matter will be? Is it much different from what you’ve been writing before?

JB: Not that much different, in that I feel all the songs are, essentially, going to be comprised of the same theme: all of the songs that I write are just a catalogue of me processing emotions in my life. There are interviews where… Ben Gibbard or somebody like that, gets asked, “Now that you feel like you have a better handle on…” whatever it is, “your relationship,” or, “your sobriety. Do you think you’ll run out of stuff to write?” No, because if you fix your tyre, then your bumper falls off. When you fix one thing, then another thing demands your attention, and then, we, as human beings, are constantly processing stuff; and so, I think the only thing that will change, about this record, is – now that I’ve had more time to sit and marinate with being more intentional about it – I try to preserve the elements of the songs that felt like they were just spewed lyrics: that were how I felt exactly at that moment; but in preserving them, not neglect being intentional about providing a hopeful antithesis to that. Hopefully, there’s a little bit of a reprieve and an awareness that it’s an ongoing process….

MD: Looking forward to it. Are you performing any of the new songs before it comes out, or are you holding off until the record is released?

JB: I’ve been performing a couple live, but holding off on most of them. It’s still mostly the old record, but there are some new ones in there, just to satiate my need for new stuff.

Click here for more information and tickets to see Julien Baker at The Tuning Fork. 

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