Talking to singer-songwriter Julien Baker about art, pain, and Dashboard Confessional

'There are people from five different states here, and I know all of them just from being a touring musician.'

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How do you quiet a crowd packing one of the many venues on Austin’s raucous 6th Street? You give Julien Baker a guitar and a loop pedal, and you let her go to work. While I watched Baker’s inspired set last Thursday night in a standing-room-only bar, I found myself picking out all of the sounds I shouldn’t have been able to hear: the ice and liquor the bartenders were shaking a few dozen feet away, the whirr of the building’s ventilation, the odd ping of somebody’s smartphone. The room was otherwise silent, giving up every inch of space to Baker’s clean guitar melodies and her incandescent voice. She’d played at a church the night before, her guests sitting in pews beneath a yawning ceiling. Her Thursday set was proof she can turn any nondescript establishment into a place for reverence, for quiet focus and reflection.

I was even more impressed when she managed to achieve the same quietude under much more challenging conditions at an outdoor show on Saturday afternoon. A metal band roared just up the hill, threatening to drown her out; hornets buzzed around her microphone and hands. Food was being served, drinks were being poured — distractions were everywhere, but people still listened. I watched a husky young man in a beanie ask the three men behind him to be quiet. He did it in a way that suggested a kind of moral obligation, ensuring some unspoken bond remained intact. This is Baker’s power: she makes you want to fight for silence.

She spent her week at SXSW playing songs from Sprained Ankle, the spare, harrowing debut she released late last year. (She also threw out a few new songs, including an as-yet-unnamed plea for divine intervention that was absolutely wrenching.) Baker’s focus is laser-like, and her pen is unflinching. She calls herself "a pile of filthy wreckage" on "Everybody Does," the album’s closest thing to Chris Carrabba’s work as Dashboard Confessional last decade; on the hushed "Brittle Boned," she whispers, "I’m so good at hurting myself." Her body is stained by whiskey, tar, and drugs that go unnamed. She wraps her car around a street light in a violent wreck and sleeps on a park bench on her birthday.

These are piercing, poetic songs, and they shine spotlights on substance abuse, low self-esteem, and crises of faith. In conversation, Baker is gregarious and self-effacing, miles away from the performer so willing to cauterize a half-decade’s worth of wounds in her music. When we talked over coffee last Thursday morning, we moved from the merits of dumbphones to intense, existential topics in short measure. I found myself opening up to her unconsciously, disarmed by her warmth and her candor. It comes through in her music, too, and it’s that organic connection that made her one of Austin’s breakout stars this year.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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(Amelia Krales)

Jamieson Cox: I’m firing this up. This is good: a little low-level truck buzz in the background.

Julien Baker: It’s actually pretty cool — I make voice memos for songs on my phone, and it’s got a noise gate. It won’t record things below a certain volume. My guitar will cut in and out and my vocals will be really loud, but you can hear more guitar when my vocals come in because they’ve opened the noise gate.

That’s surprisingly sophisticated. Shout out to Apple — or to whoever makes your phone, I guess.

Oh no, Apple does not make my phone. We have a beef. Well, I have a beef.

Why do you have a beef?

Oh, we don’t even have enough time. Have you ever read Notes from the Underground?

No.

Damn, okay. I just see iPhone culture — iPhones are catalysts for social media culture, right? The exclusivity and elitism of Apple is the industry standard, and that’s how it’s marketed to everyone, but at the same time it infantilizes the consumer because of the way it’s marketed.

"Give me the simplest phone you have"

Everything’s so easy.

It’s so easy! Just trust us with all of your things, put all of your shit in the cloud, and constantly validate yourself with this weird virtual reality that doesn’t even really exist. But you absolutely need the new update, or else you’re not going to be on the same page as everyone else. Meanwhile there are people throwing themselves over the side of the railing at Foxconn and they’re like, "Oh, it’s cool, people are killing themselves, we’ll just put up nets to catch the jumping suicides." We won’t improve the conditions. I don’t know. Sorry, I just get super —

No, it’s fine! I appreciate your passion, and now I feel bad that I’m using an iPhone.

I also just hate it because I have so many friends that are like, "You just have to get an iPhone, why don’t you have an iPhone?" And I’m like, "Because you don’t, actually." It’s become a weird appendage, a societally dictated appendage, and I don’t believe it should be. I think it should be a nice luxury that’s common, but not so much that we’re dependent.

Do you feel that way about smartphones in general?

In general, yes. I’d limited myself with this crappy phone I had and then it broke, and I was forced to get a new phone. I said, "Give me the simplest phone you have," and ended up having a discussion with the Verizon lady. I was like, "I don’t believe that’s the simplest phone you have." I didn’t believe it, and it’s led to my ire and my frustration.

I heard you saying earlier that this is your first SXSW. What’s surprised you about it, if anything?

The only thing people were telling me was that it’s chaotic, but it’s bearable. It’s chaotic in a good way. There’s a lot of stuff going on, and there’s going to be no parking. Those two things were confirmed. We checked in at the big conference center and I started panicking — there are crowds, everything was just very overwhelming — and then we left that, got everything figured out, and we went to one of the unofficial showcases right outside. I didn’t have any shows to play on the first day I got here, but all my friends were arriving at various times, and we just went and hung out at this house. There were 15 bands playing.

I came at it with this mentality — I saw all the keynote presentations and the presenters that were going to be here, and I was afraid that it would be beyond my skills because I don’t know how to navigate industry stuff. But we ended up just sitting on the front lawn [of the house] and it was like a family reunion: bookers, promoters, people that hooked my band up, or I hooked their band up, or they run a venue, or I know them from somewhere else in the US. It was like a crossword, and all of these bridges became super apparent — this big web of musical relationships. I appreciated just sitting there and thinking, “There are people from five different states here, and I know all of them just from being a touring musician.”

I’ve heard people lament how corporate SXSW has become and say it’s not really an engine for discovery anymore. It sounds like you’ve found your way around that, or like you’ve ended up at the margins.

We played the show at Central Presbyterian last night and I was talking to Wendy, the photographer for Under the Radar — I met her that night. I was telling her about the unofficial showcase and she said, "That’s how it is for me. I work on this publication, I photograph all these bands, and since people flood into SXSW it’s like a family reunion of people I’ve worked with for years and years." It happens at every level.

I’m curious about the show. Hearing your music live makes for a pretty intimate, raw experience, and here at SXSW, it’s like you said: people are going in and out, it’s chaotic, it’s transient. Could you feel a substantial difference between playing here and elsewhere? Did that affect your approach to the show?

I forget who I was talking to, but someone saw an artist who was very authoritative with the mic and they’d said, "Sit down, stop talking." And I don’t think I’d ever do that because I’ve been to festivals as a viewer or a listener, and I know what it’s like. You have to go, and you have to do stuff. And my band Forrister has played house shows — this happened at one of the DIY showcases this week — where people have to move their gear while you’re playing, and it’d loud. It doesn’t necessarily mean people don’t care, and it even takes the pressure off some when people are kind of chatty. It destroys that intense vibe.

And that helps if you’re feeling anxious, right?

Yeah, and I was so, so nervous before the show. Everyone was weirdly quiet, bizarrely quiet. The shows are usually pretty quiet, which is an odd characteristic, but it lends itself to my music because my music is simple. I realize that it’s not boredom, it’s people being attentive and respectful, which I appreciate beyond measure. There are bar shows where people are talking and you know no one’s paying attention, but on some level it’s kind of nice when no one’s paying attention. It gives you liberty to say, "It’s okay if I mess up." When it’s silent, I get a little worried.

I usually confront that by trying to make goofy jabs or jokes at myself, like "Haha, this is sad. You guys are really quiet. This is awkward." But in that setting with everyone sitting down in the pews, it wasn’t — I’ve played in churches before, I used to play metalcore shows in churches that would volunteer their space — this was very weird. It would’ve felt taboo to treat it flippantly and make weird, awkward jokes like I usually do, so I pulled back my banter.

Do people ever sing along?

Seldom. When I play with Forrister, people that know the songs will grab the mic and do gang vocals. And I love that, right? I grew up listening to pop-punk, and so you wait for the gang vocals part and then everybody’s crowd-surfing during the breakdown. But no one really sings along loudly to my songs. Sometimes I’ll hear people in the front row mumbling or singing along very quietly and I get super stoked, because that’s the most beautiful thing to me. I’m like, "Wow, you took the time to learn my lyrics that I wrote because you like them that much," and it’s amazing that anybody would ever [do that].

I go back to this VH1 special of The Killers performing "All These Things That I’ve Done." I was sitting with my friends watching them perform that and I made the comment, "What must it feel like to have someone sing your words back to you?" So whenever that happens, it’s super cool. The only time people have really gotten into it was this show we played in Boston and during "Everybody Does," there was this kid doing the pop-punk angry point in the front and screaming, and that was possibly my favorite thing. I started beaming in the middle of a terribly sad song.

I have to admit I have a fantasy about that song — are you familiar with the Dashboard Confessional MTV Unplugged?

You said the right words.

I imagine people treating that song that way at your shows.

Oh my gosh. And do you know that song, "The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most?" When he’s like, "You can’t fake it hard enough to please," and everyone freaks the hell out? That’d be cool, and it would make me feel like — take [my song] "Good News." That song is three chords because I heard "100 Dollars" by Manchester Orchestra and thought, "Wow, this song is two chords." It’s one instrument and it’s Andy Hull just screaming, and it’s beautiful. How far can I take "less is more?"

I didn’t think about ever having to perform those again and again and again. Now I like that song in theory, it means a lot to me because I wrote it, but I’m always worried to play it because I’m worried I’m going to bore the audience. That’s my number one fear.

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(Amelia Krales)

You said it yourself: these are sad songs, and they tap into this really harrowing time in your life. I don’t want to project on you, but it seems like things are better now — at the very least, they’re different. Do you feel any nervousness or anxiety over the fact that your life has changed so much? Over what you’re going to tap into next?

I had a person ask me a similar question, and I’m not sure if this is what you’re getting at, but this woman asked me, "Are you afraid it’s going to be like when Ben Gibbard got happy? And everyone will say, ‘What are you going to write about now?’"

That’s a more succinct, confident way of putting it.

Yeah, I don’t know. There are so many sides to this. I’m more worried about reception now. I wrote these songs with a lot of artistic license because I thought, "Who’s ever going to hear these?" They’re just for me, and if people hear them it’s going to be my friends in a living room show. My friends know me and they know what the songs are about, and I didn’t really see it beyond that. Even if it was strangers, it was so small that it didn’t influence the writing process a lot. I felt like I had the liberty to say whatever [I wanted]. I still think that your art can be semi-self-indulgent in that it’s centered around personal experienced and it’s highly specific, but there’s relatability in specificity. I still want to be genuine and honest about the things that I’m feeling and that are going on.

Things are better now in the sense that — well, I’ll say it like this. There’s a lot of jargon out there that’s like "It gets better," but I don’t think it does. (That sounds super nihilistic.) It doesn’t get better, you just get better at handling it. There’s danger in the rhetoric of "it gets better" or "all things shall pass" — yeah, all things shall pass and then you’re going to have new problems.

I think what changes is your approach to coping with them. You grow internally, you find better ways to cope with the things that you face. And then next time, whatever manifestation of your anxiety or your fear or your sadness rears its ugly head, you’re better at the whack-a-mole game. But it’s ever-present. I’m not worried that I’ll run out of material. Because in a very existentialist, doomy way, life is being thrust into suffering without being able to argue, but that doesn’t mean you have to view it negatively.

The last six months have been a whirlwind for you, and you have to do a lot of stuff like this — these really intense, reflective conversations. Have you learned anything new about yourself? What specific insight have you gained from doing this and playing these songs over and over again?

It’s been strange having to talk about the songs so much. Prying all of that stuff out again and again is taxing, but every day… I wake up and think, "How upset can I really be? I get to do my passion for a living." And every night at the merch table, if I’m exhausted or I feel like I did a bad job and there’s one kid who comes up and says, "Hey, I really got something out of your set, I love your record," oh my God. That’s the biggest gift in the world. I try to let gratitude be my frame of reference whenever I encounter something that’s a little bit difficult.

Sometimes when you’re writing, the creative process is immediate or organic. You don’t think about what you’re writing because you’re just transcribing feelings. And so having to delve back into [the songs] has made me really look at the person I was when I wrote that record. Why did I have these feelings? How was I dealing with them? Why did I say these things or think these things about myself?

And I had a lot of internal struggles, especially with Forrister. Because as stoked as I was when I got the calls — your song’s going to be on NPR, you’re going to get to do this thing or that thing — I was like, "Why not Forrister?" I put out this side project record and this is happening, and this band that I’ve toured with in bars and basements for years, it’s not happening with them. I had it in my head that I was a fraud. What is my artistic identity? Am I being true to myself? I was honest and transparent about those fears with the guys, and they were just so supportive. They were like "No, you’re the same Julien, just enjoy it, and be grateful."