5 Questions with Julien Baker | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

5 Questions with Julien Baker

click to enlarge Julien Baker - PHOTO BY ALYSSE GAFKJEN
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
Julien Baker

Julien Baker is on tour for her album, Little Oblivions, and she's stopping in Pittsburgh on Wed., Sept. 29 for a sold-out show at Mr. Smalls Theatre.

The new record delivers what people have loved about Baker's music, with deeply emotionally resonant and vulnerable lyrics accompanied by her powerful voice. But, this new record also sees Baker addressing her life in a different way, sharing experiences with listeners that hit very close for her. Baker, usually only traveling with her voice and a guitar, also has recruited a full band for this album.

Baker took a little time to do a 5 Questions with Pittsburgh City Paper ahead of the show.

1. I saw you in Pittsburgh opening up for Daughter back in 2016, and I think you’ve been back a number of times since then. Did you ever get a chance to explore the city a little or was it all business?

Interestingly enough, I feel like Pittsburgh has been on my radar for a long time, which is unusual, not because of anything about city, but just because I grew up in Memphis. It's like a 14-hour drive away from Memphis or something. I may be exaggerating. But there were a couple of punk bands from the scene up there that used to come tour down through Memphis and they started booking the shows out there. So I would go out there when I was in like late high school, early college and play. So it reminds me of Memphis and a couple of other cities, like Detroit or Columbus where the scene is smaller than it would be in like New York or Los Angeles, but it's very familial and sweet. But yeah, I liked it back then and I guess all I was trying to do was get a good cup of coffee and go to Spak brothers, the vegan spot.

2. Do you find yourself creating new work on tour? What’s your relationship to yourself and your work like when you’re on the move in that way?

Well, I do write on tour. This tour has been a little bit different because I'm readjusting to not having toured in almost three years. Prior to the pandemic, I had to take off a year of touring and had to reschedule a bunch of dates for my own personal health and then I was ready to tour again, and then COVID happened. So it's been a while since I've been back on the road and it feels a little bit different because I'm having to readjust, things are different. Like, we're playing with this full band and I’m spending a lot of time on this first run, just like trying to be present and notice that when I'm grateful for being able to play music with my friends. You know what I mean? I think sometimes I have to be mindful of myself that I’m not turning a creative practice into this like obligation to be productive, you know. Here I go again, talking about capitalism, but it's the way that the society we live in quantifies your worth with how much you're able to produce and how productive and optimized you are.

I try to keep drawing, kind of like a sacred thing that I do because I want, to not because I have to. Music. It's hard not to write on tour because so much is happening. There's so many emotions to process. So it's hard. It's been weird experiencing myself for the first time again as a performer because I've just been writing and creating alone and I forgot how crazy it is to be observed and perceived.

3. What kind of media do you consume when you aren’t creating, when you want to be inspired or relax?

It depends. I feel like, at the end of a long day when we've just loaded all the gear in and everybody's tired, I just want to sit down and watch Bob's Burgers. So we have a lot of time where we’ll all sit down and watch something that's, like, mindless comedic cartoons. I do that occasionally when I'm absolutely exhausted, but after every show on this tour I've been trying to make a practice of going on a walk by myself. I have these little headphones that I love. They're like computer lab headphones. And I just keep them on my head all the time. I'll take little walks and listen to records that I’m digging at the time. I try to decompress and save all of my thinking and processing for then so that I can be present when I'm performing at the show. And then I can have time to just be off the map. And I feel like that's some only-child shit though. Like I know for a fact it is, like, I cherish my solitude so much. It's definitely, like, only-child shit.

4. Your music can be described as emotional and vulnerable. How do you protect yourself when creating work that is so deeply personal?

I've never heard it phrased that way. That's actually like a really insightful way to talk about holding onto the pieces of yourself that are private and that you don't necessarily want to disclose. But I find that these songs are uniquely painful because I'm much closer in my life to the experiences that I'm singing about on this record than I am on any other record, which is like ruminations on heartbreak and disappointment and addiction that I had experienced like five years prior. ... This entire record is written like in the thick of my life in the last two years. And so it's really difficult. But sometimes on stage, or even just talking to folks outside shows, and they’re talking to me about their sobriety or like their suicidal ideation, like, it's a lot.

When I revisit the painful moments from the songs, I've been trying to think about it lately as, discomfort isn’t bad. Shame that makes you spiral and isolate yourself and self-destruct, that's bad. That's something that you need to work on. And I feel like shame is something that pushes a person to think they're not worthy, or they're not capable of recovery, or being a responsible adult. So they just implode, and by they, I mean me. Discomfort doesn't go away. And I think that guilt and accountability are good, to be reminded of the ways that you hurt other people. That's the teachable moment, you know? If I want to be a person who keeps exercising community, that's the cost of it for me, is that I have to open myself up to the pain of knowing I hurt other people and sit with it, and that's okay with me because life isn't always about being happy. You know, life can be a lot of suffering, too. I just try to open myself up to it and then also allow myself moments of joy when they come my way.

5. What are you most proud of with this new record?

I’m most proud of, well, a couple of things. I’m most proud of making a record that sounds how I want it to sound and not feeling beholden to perform consistently what people think that my music should sound like. I think I have done that in the past. I think I did that with a separate record that I made. I don't dislike that record, but I do think that I had some self-imposed limitations on what I could do production-wise. I mean, instrumentation and arrangement wise, because I felt for the first time like I was being scrutinized and observed by a larger group of people than the 10 kids at the house show. So I was scared and I was young and a massive label signed me and I wanted to make something good. And I did, I made something very beautiful and very honest. But I think that I didn't allow myself to go the 25% further with the weirdness of it. And I feel proud of myself for making these songs in the first place, because when I started working on this record, I was like, maybe I won't make music. Maybe I'll just get my undergrad, get a master's. Maybe I'm not cut out for this. I just kept making songs with my friend, Calvin, because we've known each other for a long time. The process of making this record really helped me to reconnect with why I make music in the first place, just outside of it being observed and being my livelihood, as a really human practice of storytelling and reframing my experience for my benefit.

So I'm proud of the dedication to music that revealed itself and for the lessons that I learned from making the record, and now I'm proud as fuck of getting to bring all of my friends along. Calvin is playing bass with me. The man playing drums is Matthew Gilliam. We've known each other for like over a decade. We were in a high school and then a college band together, desperately trying to shuck our wares at random bars and stuff. And I'm so proud of the players on the stage. It just brings me so much joy. I like to not be alone, not being alone on stage is awesome. And I find myself getting nervous when there's a section of the show where the band leaves and I do some songs by myself. I find when they leave, I'm like, why did I ever do this for four years? Standing up there all alone. It's so scary and I can’t wait for them to come back. Those were the two things I'm most proud of.

Julien Baker at Mr. Smalls Theatre. 8 p.m. Wed., Sept. 29. 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. Tickets are currently sold out. mrsmalls.com

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