Julien Baker on Turn Out the Lights
Two years after a searing self-examination on her debut album, we speak to Julien Baker about the follow-up record, Turn Out the Lights
“I think I wanted this record to not be so self-contained.”
Anybody who heard Sprained Ankle, Julien Baker’s intense debut album, will know that the above allusion is a decidedly mild one. It wasn’t just self-contained; it was incredibly introspective, sometimes to the point of self-excoriation. The sparseness of its instrumentation and production left the listener with little room to hide from its often devastating lyrics – the title track opens with the line 'Wish I could write songs about anything other than death.' At points, it felt almost invasive – as Baker ran the gamut from depression and anxiety to drug use and religion, you could have been forgiven for being discomfited, for wondering whether you should be listening in on her darkest ruminations.
The thing is, it was difficult not to want to. Baker’s honeyed vocals made for a thoroughly lovely combination when paired with her harmonic approach to the guitar, and crucially, she pulled off the deeply impressive feat of managing to write in a way that sometimes bordered on self-flagellation without ever coming across as properly melodramatic. There was a wry streak of humour running through Sprained Ankle, and that meant Baker wasn't just relatable, not just empathetic, but genuinely likable, even as she was spilling her guts out for all to hear.
Not that she ever thought it would reach a wide audience. After all, Baker was a student at Middle Tennessee State University when she put the record out in 2015, and working thirty to forty hours a week in the institution’s AV department at the same time; it’s incredible that she ever made room in her schedule for music at all, and when she did, she was writing and recording more for herself than anybody else.
On the success of Sprained Ankle
She certainly didn’t foresee Sprained Ankle finding a fanbase that stretches right around the world. She didn’t think that this many strangers would not only hear her songs, but also form a deep and unyielding connection with them. Most of all, she’d have laughed you out of the room if you’d have told her that, by the time she came to make a follow-up, she’d have signed to legendary indie imprint Matador and be focusing on music full-time.
But here she is. Turn Out the Lights suggests that Baker has a keen idea of what it was about Sprained Ankle that reverberated so profoundly. Accordingly, she’s stuck pretty closely to its minimalist aesthetic, even though she realised a childhood dream by recording it at Ardent Studios in her hometown, an iconic Memphis outpost. There are flourishes of indulgence, but no more than that; tasteful interpolation of the studio’s grand piano, and subtle string flutters. For the most part, she is placing her words front and centre once again.
It’s there that her development is much more striking. It’s easy to forget, given her world-weary thematic approach, that she is really, really young – she won’t have long since turned 22 when Turn Out the Lights is released. If Sprained Ankle represented a focused beam of inwards reflection, its successor begins to gently roll its gaze outwards, tackling emotional turmoil with friends, family and fans all kept firmly in mind.
“When people began picking up on Sprained Ankle,” says Baker over the phone from her home in Memphis, “I was talking more and more about it in interviews, and that meant I was talking about music, and art, and its purpose. I really deconstructed and analysed what it meant to me, and I think I realised that over the last couple of years on the road, I saw myself shrink.
"When I was playing shows with my old bands Starkillers, or Forrister, we’d drive twelve hours to a gig in Pittsburgh, and people there would know all the words, and you’d feel the world getting that little bit smaller. When you have that happen again and again and again, for months on end, and the songs are really personal, you begin to realise that you’re not the most important part of the story. Every time some kid in Minnesota, or Billings, Montana, or Los Angeles told me how much they related to Sprained Ankle, I realised that it stopped being about me about a month after it came out.”
'Why do we feel the way we feel?' – Baker on her new album
It’d be easy to describe Baker as self-effacing, if it weren’t for the fact that she specifically shoots down that particular tag of her own accord when she’s searching for the right description of the more world-facing approach she took to the writing of Turn Out the Lights. Instead, she settles on it being “as concerned with others as it is with myself,” which is something that cuts across every aspect of the album’s themes, from her faith to her sexuality to her mental health.
“The intricacies of human beings have always been fascinating to me, and they’re kind of the core of the record,” she explains. “What are people’s motivations? Why do they do the things they do? Why do we feel the way we feel? I used that to help me learn about myself by observing the dynamics between myself and those closest to me, and I realised that maybe not everything’s a cause and effect contained within myself. Maybe it’s not all my fault. Maybe I’m not the only person affected by certain events. I feel like my job now is just to be a conduit and observe and report on what’s going on as best I can, because thinking that the world revolves around you is a pretty boring way to live.”
Even though her move to Matador opened up new avenues for Baker when it came to the recording of Turn Out the Lights, she kept her inner circle a tight one. That said, she was never going to turn down the opportunity to cut the album at Memphis’ most famous studio (which, in a happy twist, is just around the corner from her house). “Making the record at Ardent was such a bizarre collision of familiarity and comfort; the engineer, Calvin Lauber, is one of my best friends, and we’ve played in bands together since we were thirteen. It felt like we were two kids in school after hours, having free run of that place; 'Oh, check out this grand piano! Look at that B3 organ!'
"That place is really indicative of what I love so much about Memphis – there isn’t a lot within the city that’s inaccessible because of its status. It really embodies the collaborative spirit of the town. At one point, we were sharing the studio with Young Dolph, a local rapper, and it was like, 'OK, cool, everybody’s on the same level, and in the same world.'"
She'll soon return to the road in support of Turn Out the Lights with another mammoth tour, with very few days off from October to December as she plays across North America and Europe. This time, she's broadened her live horizons slightly, bringing a keyboard with her as well as her guitar. Her friend Camille Faulkner, who masterminded the album’s strings, will also be in tow, on violin. She’s in a reflective mood as she talks about how seeing as much of the world as she has these past couple of years has helped to redefine not only herself, but her relationships – the same ones at the heart of the new album.
“A lot of the rapid change in my life has been down to how often I was home, or where I lived – which for a while was nowhere,” she says. “I’ve seen more of the globe than I ever thought I would have the money or means to get to, and that’s been a mixed blessing, because as beautiful as it is to experience a different microculture every day, it does demand quite a bit of distance from family and friends. I knew I needed to think about how I could tell them that I love them, that I value them, that they’re the greatest single resource I have. I think this record is a good start.”
Turn Out the Lights is released via Matador on 27 Oct
Julien Baker plays CCA, Glasgow, 8 Nov