Julien Baker is always thinking about how to be good. When she was younger, she worried about sinning, lying, eating animals. She refused a rider on tour in case the food went to waste. She would cry buying bottled water in a shop because of the single-use plastic; she’d have panic attacks just turning on the tap.
When she sings, she searches for deliverance, forgiveness, a sign. She used to think writing music was her humanitarian obligation – to repurpose pain for a good reason. She scrutinised the moral implications of every decision, constructed stringent parameters for her life, proclaimed them out loud and in writing, to force herself to stick to them. A lot of the time, she was afraid.
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A few years ago, she started to wonder if the metric she had been using to determine right and wrong didn’t exist. “Imagine playing a game for two decades of ‘get into Heaven or go to Hell’ and then finding out that that game is made up. You just feel like, ‘I just wasted two decades of my life’.”
Baker, now 25, is from Bartlett, Tennessee, a city about 15 miles north-east of Memphis. She sang in church and learned to play her father’s acoustic guitar, and grew up around the city’s punk and straight-edge hardcore music scenes – she had substance abuse problems as a young teenager. When she was outed as gay to her devout Christian parents at 17, they embraced her: her father reached for his Bible and quoted scripture, saying “I’m gonna prove to you that you’re not going to Hell”.
She recorded her first album Sprained Ankle, sparse piano and guitar-driven folk that wrangled with extremes of emotion and existentialism, while a student at Middle Tennessee State University in 2014. The superb Turn Off the Lights followed in 2017, an EP with supergroup boygenius, with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, a year later. Her music is searching, lonely, often devastated, her voice an intimate, throaty call to attention.
She spent her early 20s on tour, and at the end of 2018, after three straight years on the road, and even more of being labelled as the gay, Christian, sober face of indie-folk and bearing under the pressure prove to others in those communities that those identities didn’t need to contradict each other, she stopped. She cancelled her tour dates and in the “slowness and the stillness”, she started to wonder: “why do I adhere to these beliefs?”
“It would be reductive to call it a crisis of faith,” she says, from her home in Nashville, “or re-evaluating my sobriety. Because, man, I just re-evaluated who I was – all of it.”
She paused her career, went back to college, and finished her degree. She tried drinking again, realising that her only interactions with drugs and alcohol were when she was very young, in traumatic circumstances, and that she’d chosen sobriety out of “principle”. Things quickly got out of hand, drinking cost her, and she decided that sobriety was the better choice after all.
As for her faith, she no longer wanted to be a spokesperson on a subgroup. “So many problems that I have in my psyche come from an American evangelical internalised understanding of the world. I now feel a little weird about having so zealously supported [Christianity] – as far as the institution of religion goes. I mean God? Sure,” she pauses. “But, yeah. I was very young and vulnerable and super green.”
Little Oblivions is the result of that year, of “trying to soften the barriers between right and wrong”. Making it was “like having to tear down a house and start all over again”. It is fierce, percussive, exquisite. In Baker’s earlier music – “horribly dark records” – she felt a need to provide some “mitigating factor” for the pain she sang about, proof that everything happened for a reason, tied into some greater plan, a promise of hope and recovery. “I forced it in such a way that didn’t make room for just the experience of pain”.
Don’t believe in Hell. Don’t believe in Hell. I can’t. I don’t think that’s real
On Little Oblivions, she doesn’t soften the blow. It is a yowl of pain, physical – drunk, sick, clenched, scratched, beaten, bloody – in its rendering of an identity changing and lost. You can’t gloss over hurt and sadness with a tidy aphorism, she has learned.
But God is still there, you can hear it in the organ and the tambourine, the polyphonic guitars, the choral harmonies, the “glory”, the cries out to Jesus. Does she still believe?
There’s a long pause. “I think I would define God differently. If I thought it were useful or possible to define God at all.” She chooses her words carefully. She says belief is a slippery notion. “I don’t think of things as so literal anymore. Maybe [I used to] because I felt, ‘I’m a person who believes and is queer so it’s up to me to be super well-versed in the language of scripture and theological argument’. Now it’s like, man… Don’t believe in Hell.”
She repeats. “Don’t believe in Hell. I can’t – I don’t think that’s real. I don’t even know if our understanding of the afterlife is accurate.” She laughs, and then shouts. “I mean, OF COURSE IT’S NOT! That’s freeing to me now, instead of terrifying.”
Baker has a form of obsessive compulsive disorder called scrupulosity – a pathological guilt about moral or religious issues. “If I had been raised in a more secular context, maybe the way that my stress and anxiety would manifest would be that I counted, or I tidied objects on my desk.”
When she was younger, she spent her time praying, thinking about scripture, seeking order and meaning by reading philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard. “Now I just try to practise faith by evaluating my behaviours and trying to see what is the kindest thing to do at any one moment. And then I don’t always do that, even, because I’m a human. I’ve done many, many, many unkind things.”
Baker talks and sings a lot about doing wrong things, hurtful things, as if saying them out loud will bring about some kind of absolution. “I find myself hyper aware of my shortcomings in goodness,” she says. “It’s my attempt to be accountable to my fellow human beings, to my friends, to my parents, to my partner. I’m confessing to things all the time. I see myself doing it and it makes even me cringe. This record makes me cringe”.
Why? Little Oblivions is raw and exposed, but the most assured she has sounded yet. “Some of the lyrics were sensitive and candid, even for me. I’d have a moment of apprehension about sharing that – because it’s embarrassing, because I don’t want to be so forthright that it makes people uncomfortable.”
One of the most mortifying songs was “Crying Wolf”, on which she describes relapsing right after an AA meeting. “That’s pretty gross” she says, not looking at me. She left it on the album to show that “you can find ways to confront all those disgusting things and still survive as a human and not lose your mind.”
She hesitated longest about sharing “Hardline”, the album’s opener – the lyric, “Would you hit me this hard if I were a boy?” It came to her when she found herself in a physical fight with another queer person and began to think about the altered gender dynamics in queer violence.
“I feel like I was socialised around a lot of men, wanting to be performatively strong and tough because I had felt as a small 5ft tall 100lb lesbian that I was vulnerable.” It was about the queer body not feeling safe in a hetero world. “If I had been more physically intimidating, would I have been spared this experience? Would I have not hit this person because they were born a woman?”
I just try to practise faith by evaluating my behaviours and trying to see what is the kindest thing to do at any one moment. And then I don’t always do that, even, because I’m a human
Growing up in the church, Baker says she internalised – and perpetuated – a lot of homophobia, “feeling so much self-punishment and ostracisation and self-loathing”.
I ask how much that homophobia still drives her pursuit to be a good person (and the feeling that she isn’t one). “It’s hard to unlearn those things,” she says. There is a song on Sprained Ankle called “Go Home”, about wanting to leave the Earth.
“Because if I accept that I am queer and that’s an innate part of how I was created, but the church and popular culture and all the people that I see screaming at Planned Parenthood and advocating for the Defense of Marriage Act are giving me the information that something I cannot change is not right, well, why would God do that? It made me feel powerless, like I had no agency to be good. Even if I was f*cking Mother Theresa I would still be gay.”
It wasn’t until she went to college that she stopped thinking about “whether I was going to hell for being gay, or not. Now, more than just saying ‘I can be loved’, and that I’m square with my identity as a queer person, I’m square with my fallibility, and a lot more merciful with myself.”
Is she able to love herself? “It makes me feel insane, but I have to do a thought experiment multiple times a day. ‘If I’m a human being and human beings are deserving of safety and compassion and respect and dignity then I am worthy of all those things’.”
Does she get them? “Oh, of course. More than is comfortable for me to accept sometimes… When you have that deep seated belief in yourself that there’s something fundamentally wrong because you’re imperfect… That what you should receive is disgust and anger… I am trying to get out of the feeling of being a secret agent of a good person and then getting found out and crucified for it.”
On Little Oblivions, it is Baker who does the flagellating. But amid her destruction, longing, and shame, there is something divine, too, and more powerful – the sound of a young woman learning what it means to be free.
‘Little Oblivions’ is released on Friday 26 February