"When I am alone, the only place to look is the crowd. I know I am up there alone."
Julien Baker, a 20 year old singer songwriter from Tennessee, has temporarily traded fronting the 4 piece post-punk band Forrister for an acoustic guitar guided by the sound of her voice. Now, with no bandmates around her on stage, Julien has had to adjust to this new chapter in her music career.
"Playing alone is very different. It's much more intimate, which I like, but it's also more vulnerable. And especially given the content of the songs, sometimes that is scary. When I perform with Forrister if I start to panic or something on-stage, I can look over at them and know at least I am up there with my three best friends."
This switch from being on stage surrounded by friends to being the sole person in front of the crowd has led to Baker adopting a more extroverted presence on stage. "It's gotten easier, the more I perform by myself, to relax and interact with the audience to assuage some of the fear. Now, sometimes I get really chatty on-stage to diffuse the tension, if only for my personal comfort."
Since the age of 15, Baker has been active in her local music scene, playing lead guitar and vocals for the then-named The Star Killers. It was by happenstance that she went down the solo route. Attending college hours away from her hometown, where her bandmates were, meant that Baker began writing and forming the basis of her songs by herself.
When focusing on her solo work, Baker's guitar playing became more acoustic but she has not entirely left behind the post-punk shredding that she did in her work with Forrister.
"Playing my solo stuff, I do gravitate towards a more subdued guitar style, but it's not necessarily that I left off playing or liking heavy music all together to pursue this project. The heavier sound is still what I grew up playing and ultimately what was the most formative to my style, it just might manifest in a more veiled way in the solo stuff."
"For instance, all of the noodling I do is just something I picked up from learning a whole bunch of crazy Fall of Troy songs as a kid, the ambient, reverb-y sound is a dialed back emulation of old Circa Survive tone. Of course, that's being very transparent with my influences. It's not that I am purposely ripping off these bands," she laughs. "But they are just examples of heavier sounds that influence not-so-heavy things in an abstract way I suppose. "
These collections of songs, written in the dorm rooms and recording studios in Middle Tennessee State University, went on to form Baker's debut album Sprained Ankle. She uploaded the unmastered album to Bandcamp, and didn't really think much more about it after that until 6131 Records got in touch.
"6131 contacted me after hearing the record through a close friend of mine, Ryan Azada, who toured with the band Dads, a band also on 6131. Ryan is from Memphis and had helped my band Forrister set up shows there for years. When I put out a solo record, we did a DIY tour through the Midwest together and he shared it around.
"When I signed with 6131, I was ecstatic. I always knew I would play and perform music forever, but it seemed unlikely that it could ever happen on a large scale--pursuing music is often regarded as an unrealistic plan. So it was overwhelming to have someone say that they actually wanted to sign me. After I hung up on the call confirming the deal, I freaked out and called my parents," she laughs.
"The fear is still there that my musicianship or merit will be questioned because of the fact that I am a girl or it will be written off as shallow "sad-girl" music"
More recently, Baker has supported The National and EL VY so perhaps pursuing a music career on a larger scale is no longer such a distant dream. Baker describes this experience as "some of the most humbling and incredible moments in my life. I've been listening to The National since I was in high school, so to share a stage with them was a total head trip. And all of them are so kind and disarming. I just can't describe how grateful I am that I got to have those experiences."
Baker balances her burgeoning music career alongside studying to be a high school English teacher at Middle Tennessee State University, describing it as being "pretty taxing sometimes, but definitely doable. Last semester I was writing papers on red-eye flights back from this or that city for shows so that I could make it to class Monday morning. I would work about 2 weeks ahead in coursework just to keep up, so that when I needed to take time off to travel I could."
Teaching English, however, doesn't seem as unusual a choice for a musician as you'd think. When talking about the parallels between the two jobs, Baker says that "both are linked for me in that they are both, in essence, an art and a performance that achieve the same thing; If I am not going to perform songs on a stage with a microphone, then I will be performing a lesson that has to hold the attention of my students. If I am not trying to reach out to an audience with a positive message and opening up a dialogue there, I will be reaching out to kids about the importance of reading and writing, encouraging discussion and thought in that arena. Both are didactic channels for the promotion of art and community, just in different ways."
When performing on stage, alongside an acute awareness of being entirely self-dependent and delivering the emotive performances she is known for, Julien also sometimes feels that as a female musician she has a bit more to prove than her male counterparts.
"It's a more complex, internalized issue to feel like you always have to prove your own competence or legitimacy. I remember when I was fourteen and fifteen playing in bands, I always wanted at least one song with a big solo, just to prove I was actually good at guitar, whether it was tasteful or served the song or not. That's a humorous example, but still. It's the same now, even though I have been fortunate enough to receive so much support and respect from my fellow musicians, the fear is still there that my musicianship or merit will be questioned because of the fact that I am a girl or it will be written off as shallow "sad-girl" music."
Perhaps now this should be less of concern. Sprained Ankle has made it on to numerous best-of 2015 lists and is a tour de force in chronicling heartbreak and dented faith. However, Julien seems less concerned with how her album charts and more focused on how people engage with her music.
"Every once in awhile I will get a message or talk to someone at a show who related to a particular song, or who has shared an experience with addiction or religion, and I think those are the most precious interactions. There is nothing more valuable to me than knowing the negative things or past struggles in my personal life can be turned into art that resonates with another human and makes them feel better or less alone. That's what makes music worth it to me."