The afternoon sun is being replaced with a chilly early evening as I meet with Julien Baker at York’s gorgeous Grand Opera House, where she is supporting the folk-rock favourites Belle and Sebastian on their UK tour. Julien is relaxed and in high spirits. Before I hit the record button, she talks about feeling spoiled on this run of shows by not having to set off at stupid hours to make venues on time and being able to get breakfast and “good coffee” in the morning; she also highlights that not headlining makes her less nervous.
Bitter Sweet Symphonies: Tell us about your songwriting process – what do you start with?
Julien Baker: “It’s weird. A lot of writing for the next record [and ‘Turn Out The Lights’] has been materialising on the road because that’s where I spend most of my time. As I get to discuss the process, I’m starting to realise that a lot of the stationary time that is built into the life of high school and college-where you start writing in a band and you have downtime and in you’re in one place-gets eaten up with our daily pursuits as we move forward, and so then we start to piecemeal things together way more in concept than in execution.
“But still, I have the privilege of doing music for my job so when I’m home and off the road, I can just sit around and play at any time. I’ll have either a sonic idea or a poetic idea, and then my process is mining every experience or idea, saving it and then extracting all of the ore from the experience of life, like: ‘This conversation, this emotion, that thing that happened, this musical idea,’ and then later refining it into meaningfulness and deciding what is worth keeping. It sounds self-indulgent but I’ll play the song drafts I’ve recorded into the hundreds of voice memos on my phone and I’ll think: ‘Where does this go? Maybe I should move this bridge?'”
BSS: Sometimes it just comes together quickly as one song!
JB: “That’s the best, and I think those moments have to be your starting point – when you’re just walking around your house and something occurs to you. You can’t force it – I’ll start to feel distressed. I’ve been writing music ever since I’ve had the capacity to write music and I’ll still become distressed when I go a week without writing a song and I’ll think ‘This is it, the well is dry, I’m out of ideas’ and then of course, I’ll have another idea for a song.
“But also for me, songwriting has become a lot more about not getting attached to something. When I used to write academically or when I wrote short stories or even poetry, I’d get so attached to a piece of minutiae – ‘I really like how these words go together, but they don’t serve the song’ or I’ll be like “This song is in 4/4 and this phrasing doesn’t really fit’ and so learning to just say ‘Well, let’s try it in 3/4,’ or ‘Let’s try it if I go to a minor (chord) here instead of a major – that doesn’t work, let’s try something else,’ literally every possibility.
“Once I’ve written a lyric that I like, I have to take a step back and say what is more important – the form or the idea? I feel like I think ‘this is the thesis of this song, I have to make it into a refrain’ or ‘this is what I want to communicate about this song and so I have to scream it at this portion of the song’ or I have to turn it into a bombastic chorus, but that’s not true. Leonard Cohen has these meandering long, songs…”
BSS: Or Joni Mitchell…
JB: “Oh my god, Joni Mitchell is the same. Both of them can just mumble a line in the middle of a verse. I think that you have to believe in the integrity of that verse.”
BSS: You have a pretty stripped back sound. For example, a song like Claws In Your Back is piano and vocals, as well as some strings. Do you take this approach to make it easier to reproduce live, or to get your message across, or both? Or is purely a sonic preference?
JB: “You start off getting your bearings in poetry with a lot of… verbal pyrotechnics. You know the word ‘surreptitious’ so you want to use it, but I think the real power comes in restraint and I had to learn that with music as well. There’s a song on that record that we put out in high school that’s just me doing an obnoxious guitar solo that’s like Slash or Stevie Ray Vaughan and it doesn’t need to be there but I wanted to prove that I was so good at guitar.
“Think about someone like the Mountain Goats or Kathleen Hannah, those people use like, three chords in a song, and they’re great songs. I think poetry is this beautiful exercise in the economy of words, like, how little can you say to just give us an insight into an image.
“It’s interesting that you bring up ‘Claws In Your Back’ because I was very self-conscious about putting that on the record – it’s long, it’s slow. I have a tendency to love the last song on the album, the ‘ballad’, and I think that’s me subconsciously paying homage to bands that I would listen to where the last song on the record is like seven minutes long.
“I remember recording that song and Camille being there and I was like, if I’m going to put a sweeping piano ballad on the record, I might as well just go all the way and hit a ridiculously high note and have it be that powerful, because I can. I wanted to convey to intense dynamic of the feeling in the poem – basically [during] all of the recording and mixing process we tried to mimic what was happening in the narrative of the lyrics, and so that was a really dorky, meticulous desire of mine to make the music score the poetry.
“‘Hurt Less’ is another one I was really nervous about. It’s another slow piano [song], it’s kind of dainty and it’s also almost in ‘pop structure’ world, but Camille’s strings were so beautiful on it and I thought the concept of ‘Hurt Less’ was something I had to communicate too. It sounds like it’s a song about a romantic relationship but it’s not, it’s about my best friend and by extension all of my platonic friendships where maybe you’re going to get your heart broken or you’re going to experience loss but then you have friends that are able to identify with you wordlessly. That one [‘Hurt Less’] and ‘Claws…’ both have a resolution that seems almost like… it almost seems naïve to be like ‘’Claws In Your Back’ is like ‘I was going to shuffle off this mortal coil because I hate my life but I’ve decided to stay!’’ or that ‘Hurt Less’ is like ‘I have decided to value my own life’ and it seems like a cheesy PSA but there are plenty of other times on the record where there is no resolution and it’s just honest misery. There’s something, for me, ungratifying about a song where everything’s okay.”
BSS: Finally, what do you find inspires you to write, and how do you get together the collection of songs for your next album? You must have more songs than you put out!
JB: “Right now we’re in between album cycles, so we’ll still be touring this until the end of the year and then probably I’ll start recording next year. There’s ten to fifteen [new songs] that are done, and there’s maybe twenty to twenty-five that are nascent, developing songs and then by the time we get to the end of this year and I’ll have thirty to forty that I can choose from and then we go and record twenty, or more, and then we chop it down.
“I think a good way to go about it is to just write as life happens instead of sitting down and saying ‘Here’s my theme for the record, I’m going to write inside this set of parameters,’ but let what you’re naturally writing tell you the theme. When I was writing ‘Turn Out The Lights,’ after having written four or five songs I thought ‘I seem to be writing a lot about mental health and the boundaries of sanity and defining health, sanity and recovery and maybe that’s what the record’s about’ – I didn’t sit down and say ‘This is important to me,’ I didn’t even sit down and say ‘I need to be more proactive about my own recovery and mental health,’ that kind of came as a symptom of being analytical with my feelings as they were portrayed in the song(s), and it took just writing about them.”
Julien’s set itself is a wonderful thing to behold. Having seen her play before, I know roughly what to expect; the majority of the people walking into the seated theatre haven’t, and are in for a treat. When speaking in between songs or singing soft verses her voice is barely audible, but when her songs hit their sonic climaxes there isn’t a person in the room who isn’t giving their full attention (the completely exposed vocal at the end of ‘Sour Breath’ makes sure of that). She is accompanied on a couple of songs by Camille Faulkner on violin who adds some beautiful lines to the likes of ‘Hurt Less’ while Julien fills out the chords on a keyboard. Aside from these moments, Julien’s lush, reverberated guitar parts far surpass the need for additional musicians in a live setting.
As a support slot, it’s an intense start to the evening for anyone that isn’t expecting it. However, both Julien’s songs and passion are so powerful that it would be hard not to be completely convinced and drawn into this performance.
Julien Baker’s second studio album ‘Turn Out the Lights’ is out now on Matador Records.
Julien Baker returns to the UK in September for a run of headline shows:
24th September – Gorilla, Manchester
25th September – St Luke’s, Glasgow
27th September – Vicar Street, Dublin
29th September – Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
Get tickets for all dates here: www.julienbaker.com
Photos by Tom Saunders