Since she first released her debut album ‘Sprained Ankle’ back in 2015, Julien Baker’s been putting her best foot (presumably the not-sprained one) forward, re-releasing her understated, brilliant first full-length earlier this year, along with goosebumpy single ‘Funeral Pyre’.
Today, the fast-rising musician pops over to the UK for a couple of dates, starting things off tonight at London’s Bush Hall, before whizzing off for Manchester. Julien Baker is also set to return for another one-off show at the city’s Union Chapel in November, too.
With this in mind, we grilled the Memphis talent on her earliest musical obsessions; from Green Day to Paramore.
What was the first gig you ever went to?
The first actual *gig* that I remember going to that wasn’t like a local festival or something I went to with my parents was a metalcore show at the Skatepark of Memphis, Underoath and The Devil Wears Prada.
Were there a good supply of venues in your hometown?
Growing up there were more venues in Memphis; in junior high I was at the skatepark constantly, or going downtown to [local venue] New Daisy, which was cool because those shows were really good about usually having local bands on as openers. Then when I got into high school, I started going to more DIY shows at community centres, people’s living rooms, basements etc. In high school the band I was in (Forrister, then The Star Killers) played either the Abbey, the lower portion of an old church, or a house show nearly every single weekend. That was the only thing any of our friends really wanted to do, go to shows, so there was pretty much always a local band playing, even if it didn’t get promoted and just ended up being a handful of people hanging out.
What was the first song you developed an obsession for?
Maybe ‘Let it Be,’ Or another Beatles song? That seems really obvious and predictable because it’s The Beatles - they’re pretty legendary and musically ubiquitous - but when I was a kid my mom spun The Beatles frequently and I grew up loving all those hits.
What’s the first song you ever bought with your own money?
My first memory of buying my own music in a physical medium is purchasing ‘Take This To Your Grave’ by Fall Out Boy. But since the whole digital thing was already pretty big by the time I was independently consuming music, I bought a lot of songs off iTunes. I think the first thing I remember putting on my iPod was Green Day’s ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’, (after seeing it on the Vh1 weekly top-20 countdown of course).
What’s the story behind your first instrument?
The first instrument I played was actually piano. My parents got me a keyboard, and I started piano lessons when I was in fourth grade. I think that’s when parents put kids in sports and hobbies until they find something they enjoy, and I was always partial to the arts so they encouraged music. I was an awful student, I never practiced and couldn’t read sheet music to save my life. But, I was really good at playing by ear and got through the basics alright, enough to have a piano recital where I played that Five for Fighting song, ‘100 years’.
What’s your worst musical habit?
Live, it’s probably reflexively closing my eyes. I didn’t realize it, but someone actually asked me in an interview: “you always play with your eyes closed, what’s that all about?” I don’t know if it comes across as emotional, but I just do it because I have stage fright. I realize I don’t look at anyone or anything, and then I end up hitting my head on the microphone (literally) or tripping over my pedals.
What inspirations outside of music have an impact on your songwriting?
I draw a lot from literature. Experiences, obviously. Faith. Honestly everything about daily life. Every conversation or encounter with a person is significant because it yields the raw material of art. New information, new perspectives, and new images all have immense poetic value.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a musician?
A Memphis musician, Zohayr Shirazee (Jadewick, formerly GRYSCL, Adaje) came with me and Ryan Azada on my first solo tour, and I remember him telling me that what draws people to art isn’t genre or formal talent, it’s honesty. Because more than a scene, or a style, or a look, people identify with genuineness, so the most important thing any artist has to do is be genuine.
If you could be in a band from the last two decades, which would you pick, and why?
Truthfully, Paramore. They were a crucially important band to me personally growing up, maybe because it was important to me early on to see female representation in a male-dominant pop-punk and emo scene, but beyond that I really think they display impeccable musicianship and dedication to their craft. Every release is consistently better and more ambitious, and they’ve achieved significant success by doing things that are sonically innovative without compromising their musical identity. The result has been making something accessible of lasting influence and relevance. I think that’s a really respectable mark of true artistry.
Julien Baker’s album ‘Sprained Ankle’ is out now. She plays London’s Bush Hall tonight.