Album of the Week: Julien Baker, 'Little Oblivions'

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Julian Baker, 'Little Oblivions'
Julian Baker, 'Little Oblivions' (Matador)

Self-produced during a turning point in Julien Baker's personal life, the new album Little Oblivions builds off the Nashville songwriter's experiences writing and touring on her own work, and the collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus.

With each new release, Julien Baker gets closer to perfecting the art of making an album as the songs stand apart but fit into the album like a setlist from one of her live shows. Listening to Little Oblivions is like reading a great novel - the songs develop from simple concepts to deep complex narratives that will leave you sensing the emotional labor that Baker puts into each note and lyric.

Julien Baker recently connected with The Current's Jill Riley in a virtual session to play a few tracks from Little Oblivions. In addition to the new record, Julien talked about the sense of communal creation that was instilled in her while growing up in Memphis, the tediousness of waiting to release a record, and the challenges of articulating highly personal work.



Interview Transcription

Edited for clarity and lenghth.
JILL RILEY: Hey, I'm Jill Riley and I'm very excited to be joined by our guest today. Julien Baker is here, we're having a face to face via Zoom. This is exciting because we've been talking about new music for the year 2021 and these kind of highly anticipated records, and Julien Baker--new record coming out Friday, February 26. Third studio album called Little Oblivions, and we're looking forward to hearing the whole thing, Julien, how are you?

JULIEN: I'm doing well. How are you?

Not bad. Great to be talking to you. Yeah, always nice when I can--you know? Just to stay connected with musicians. We can't do traditional in-studios. Well know that because you can't go on tour right now. So this is kind of a nice way to to get the info on what to expect from you. So Little Oblivions, just to jump in, when did you start working on the record?

I started working on the record, I guess I had collected songs and been writing songs. But I made the first round of demos in January 2019. And then I worked, like, I would go down to Memphis or go to a studio here to tinker with the songs over the course of that entire year. And then, in the beginning of 2020 made all the final re-recordings and did all the--I believe the term is "sweetening".

I haven't heard that term before!

Yeah, I don't know, that's what I got taught. When I was briefly an audio major, that was one of my vocabulary words, and then I was just like, what am I doing here? But no shade. No shade. Yeah.

So you said "going to Memphis" and then you said "here"--are you in Nashville?

Yeah. I'm sorry, I didn't give you any context for that. Yes.

No, that's okay.

Yes I am here in Asheville. Yeah, I've been here. I was up here for school. I mean, I was living up here and then I stayed up here to go to school at Middle Tennessee and then shortly after I graduated, quarantine began. So I just chose to shelter in place here rather than try to move during the craziness.

So you grew up in Tennessee, right? But you didn't grow up in--not Nashville proper. Where did you grew up in Tennessee?

I grew up in Memphis. Yeah.

Oh! You grew up in Memphis, okay.

Yeah, that's where I spent my entire childhood basically.

I've never been to Memphis. What is it like there? What's it like to grow up there?

Wow. I love Memphis. I think people from Memphis have an exaggerated loyalty to the city because at least during the time I was there, and when I was getting into music, and going to local shows, and playing in bands it always felt like there was a semi-hostile, semi-funny, sibling rivalry between Nashville and Memphis. Just because Memphis--while it has a super rich cultural--music history about it, I think that for some reason, it was a city that often got skipped, you know? I remember we used to have to drive to St. Louis, or Nashville or Atlanta, to see big tours, because we were like a B or C city. But I think that that really engendered in me a sense of making music cooperatively, just out of a sense of necessity. When resources aren't being funneled to you because your town is a particularly lucrative place to play or particularly like, significant music business hub, then you end up having to make do with the resources that are available just in your local community. I think that bred a real reliance on other people and a conceptualization of music that is more communal than individual.

I think people listening in Minnesota right now can relate to that, especially any musician because Minneapolis/St. Paul is just considered this flyover country, right? And while big artists tour through Minneapolis, we can get skipped in the same way that Memphis could get skipped over. I really get what you're talking about with that kind of communal, kind of supportive, like we're kind of--it's almost like--

It's insular. It's insular in a way. And I mean--it's crazy because we've played there several times and I always have such a great time in Minneapolis. And of course, I've been to your radio station before. There's a lot of lore around Minneapolis with Prince and all these various musicians. I feel like cities like that--Detroit is another one that I feel a cultural kinship to because they are cities that exist right outside of the categorization of a Chicago or New York or something like that. It's a place that, in being looked over has carved out a very special identity for itself. So yeah, I get that.

I'm talking with Julian Baker here on The Current. The new record, Little Oblivions is on the way. Is this the kind of record where you wrote it, you recorded it, ya sweetened it--and then did you have to just kind of sit on it for a while because of the pandemic?

Yeah, it's always a difficult thing to create a record and have it done, and then turn it into the label and wait while the whole rollout process is happening. But it seemed especially tedious this time, because I wasn't touring, I wasn't playing new songs at shows. But maybe it's been good to have time just to focus on the content of the record and sort of mine through the details of it so that I can have a more cohesive idea of how to talk about it. I feel like there's so many--this press cycle is interesting, because usually, this would be overlapping with tour and travel, and the sort of grind of doing my job as a performer, while promoting my music as a musician I've been fortunate enough to have time at home, where I can soak into the music and the process of creation. And to think about it, hopefully, and be a little bit more articulate about it.

I'm glad you brought that up, because--I won't say who it was, but I had a musician in the studio once and we were talking specifically about the songs on the record. And she was having a really hard time articulating what the music was about because it was so personal. She was kind of tiptoeing around what the song was actually about. When we finished, she pulled me aside and said, "I don't know why I couldn't talk about my own music, I have to really think about that."" I just think that's interesting that you get so caught up in the, "Okay, we're done with the record. Now we have to tour. Now I have to run around to various places to promote this thing," that even though you've been able to process your life experiences that have gone into the song, but then to process how to talk about them. I love that you brought that up right there.

Yeah, it's very interesting. I think so much about this because I want to be able to speak about my music in an articulate way. But it is very challenging when you create something that has this level of emotional immediacy when you create it. It's an outpouring of your thoughts or a medium that helps you process events in your own life. Then it is turned so quickly into it's like, very quickly commodified in the public sphere, and then you have to figure out how to negotiate the boundaries between what you're comfortable talking about, because as you say, like if this artist wrote extremely personal things, I'm sure that she and I feel the same way that is--sometimes I find myself tiptoeing around things, or doing a whole bunch of verbal acrobatics to avoid saying something that I'm sensitive about, because it is a lot to disclose with full honesty. Your feelings about songs, that sort of--it's already difficult enough to write the songs themselves and it's hard. Talking about my songs is always as much of a learning process as writing them, I feel like in the discourse that ends up evolving around them and interviews and stuff--I learn, or am revealed more things about my motivation or my mentality around a song than I even was aware of when I wrote it, you know?

Yeah it's almost like reading a book for the third or fourth time or watching a movie for the third or fourth time, and then you realize that there was something about it that you maybe you missed the first time around. That's really interesting to hear how that can be revealed. There are certain artists that will release a song and say that now it's up to you to interpret it, "There it is, it's out there." But I often find myself wanting to know more, or, people that are super fans of any songwriter or you in particular, maybe they relate to it so much that they want to know--they want to know the meaning because they want to feel like, "Am I relating to this? Is this person going through the same thing as me?"

It's interesting, because that's also a balance that's difficult to strike as a musician, talking about her own work. Me. I don't know why just speaking in the third person. There is a level of disclosing so much in the interest of endearing people to your music with this idea of like emotional capital, like giving away this thing that makes your music more readily understood by people who listen to it. But I think that there has to be at least a little bit of mutability around songs. That way people can interpret them in the ways that they need. I don't want to be so literal, and explicit about the way I talk about my songs that they stop pertaining to anybody else's story.

Like you can't relate to this song unless X, Y or Z has happened to you.

Yeah, like now, I've been so explicit about whatever event precipitated this song that people imagine it as a like a vignette in the story of my life as a performer. I think the whole point of making music and leaving things unsaid or saying things in a metaphorical or representative sense is to allow them to be grafted on to another person's lived experience. Or at least that's just how I feel. That's how I make myself comfortable with being seen like that.

Sure. I'm talking with Julien Baker, a virtual session here on The Current. With all of that said, I would like to talk about the song "Faith Healer" a little bit here, because this is the one that we've been playing here on The Current. And I think just to start on a very basic level, when did you get into the studio? What studio did you go to to record this?

Oh, man. So I originally recorded it at the home of my friend Collin Pastore here in Nashville. We recorded it in a much much different arrangement and worked with that demo version at a studio here called Trace Horse, run by a couple of my friends. Then when I rewrote the song in Memphis that's what ended up becoming the version that was on the record. I'm glad I did because there was something--I was super attached to the lyrics, but I just felt like the arrangement was not good. So much of the job of a musician is just tinkering patiently, you know.

When you talk about rewriting, I mean, you're talking about the arrangement not specifically about the lyrics, because you wanted to keep the lyrics?

Yes, I feel like most of the changes that I will want to make with songs are arrangement based. Every once in a while, I'll find like two half songs that have a similar theme that I'll try to cobble together. But almost inevitably, those sound--you can hear the disjuncture, so I don't like to do that if I can avoid it. But who knows, songwriting is a evolving practice.

I think it's really interesting when artists will, you know, just kind of for their own sake, they'll take a slow song and kind of flip it into a fast song or take a fast song and just try it out as a slow song. That's something that we, just as the people who listen to the end product, I don't think at times we realize just how much goes into it that we don't know about.

I think a lot of that is because we either think of music in the in the pop realm or in the massive--artists that are massive, like Adele or something, we think that there is a whole lot of intricate song building that goes in from like Talking Heads that craft a song, and then use a persona or a voice to bring that into the world, or we think that on the other hand, songs are just written with this sort of genius, revelation to just know what to write. That's not necessarily true. It's just like everything else, where it just takes daily practice. Sitting down daily with your instrument and reworking the same ideas. Sometimes it's a little bit tedious, but ultimately, you know, helpful.

Well, the song "Faith Healer"--since you have had some time to sit down and think about how you want to talk about this one--did you have some kind of revelation about the lyrics or where were you at in your life at the time? What was the motivation for it? Inspiration. I like the word inspiration a little bit better.

Yeah, I see how those are different. I started writing this song, specifically pertaining to substances, just kind of like, a requiem for the availability of immediate relief through drugs and alcohol, and a song about how sobriety and recovery is an ongoing process. It's not something that's achieved once and for all. But then I started looking at the other things in my life. Over the course of the last couple years, I've been dismantling a lot of ways that I thought about the world and seeing that it's not only the very literal context of drugs and alcohol that we can become unhealthily entrenched in. There's all sorts of things, religious ideologies, political ideologies, obsessive behaviors. Doing anything compulsively, like all of those behaviors are just trying to assuage anxiety. People will go to great lengths and even believe things contrary to the rational in order to find relief from suffering. Life is painful. People need those things. It's just interesting, how many different manifestations that can have. It can be somebody selling you anointed oil, it can be a politician telling you, if you just vote for me, then I'll fix all your problems. Any kind of figurehead. We worship so many different things in an obsessive way. It was painful for me to realize that all of those things are the same level of incapacitating, even though it's really easy to condemn drugs and edify religion. They're serving the same purpose and they have to be evaluated in the same way. Yeah, sorry, that's a really dark thought but true, and necessary for people to reflect on, maybe.

You know, I like dark thoughts. Welcome to my head. I tend to filter too many of them out before I speak. But thank you for that insight and kind of getting behind the story of "Faith Healer". I'm talking with Julien Baker, new record Little Oblivions is on the way Friday, February 26. We've been playing "Faith Healer" and I know that you shared another song called "Favor", which reunited you with some of your collaborators from boygenius Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. You want talk about that song a little bit about "Favor" and and recording with them?

We all happened to be in Nashville. In 2019, middle of 2019 Lucy was down here making some recordings and Phoebe was here and we all took the opportunities since we had missed playing and singing with each other to guest in, sit in on each other songs and it was really nice. But yeah, this one. This one is like very explicitly dark even for me, but I like it. I also thought I was not sold on this one at first because I thought the drum riff in the beginning sounded like a Linkin Park song. The shuffle is like the high processed, shuffle snare pattern.

Oh my god, I can hear it.

Yeah you can hear it now, this is like a break beat from a nu metal song. That's all I can think of.

For anyone who maybe just knows as your music or has heard a boygenius song. Just a little background--how did that collaboration originally come about?

Between me, Phoebe, and Lucy? We were all booked on a tour together like we had met, and interacted all in our disparate ways throughout all the tour bidding that we did. But we got booked on this tour together, a three band bill, and had the idea to make I believe at first we just thought we were going to make maybe like a little 45 little seven inch with an A and a B-side just something fun, collaboration for the tour. Then when we all met up to write, we ended up just making far, much more material than that.

That's usually how it goes, I guess.

Yeah. Which was, you know, it's a welcome surprise to find that you have undiscovered musical chemistry with these people that I had respected and admired and cherished as friends already before. So yeah, it was born in a very natural way.

I'm talking with Julien Baker. Little Oblivions due out Friday, February 26. I'm sure you're really happy to just get this record out and have it see the light of day already.

It also feels like, once the record is out as a collection of work, then I can sort of relinquish my need or like, the expectation to do all the sense making of the record, via interviews. It's always so interesting to see which songs people like as singles. To me, I don't think it makes much of a difference. But I wonder what the conceptualization of the record will be because of the chosen songs and what people will think of it. I think it'll just feel fulfilling for me to put out this record, it's very different. It's empowering for me to make such a change. It seems drastic to me, but other people, it's like, no, this is how Julien sounds. Now there's just drums. But yeah, personally, it feels significant to me to just be able to put something out into the world that I'm really proud of and fulfilled by.

And to be able to release it now as as the whole.

Yeah, totally.

So people can listen to it and it's, I guess, as one piece instead of one single, like a piece of the piece.

Yeah, totally. Yeah.

Julien Baker virtual session here on The Current. Thank you so much for checking in with The Current and say hi to Nashville for me. It's been a long time since I've been there. Every time I go back, it's like a different city. I don't know. And I have Memphis on the list because I have this feeling and you've lived in both, so maybe you can tell me--have things changed less in Memphis?


Okay. 100%.

They're still changing. Well, I don't even want to get into the like gentrification discussion. But there's still some of that happening. But Memphis I think has retained an individual character more than Nashville has been able to, to not no fault of Nashville. I'm personifying a city. Like, I'm going to offend the entity that is Nashville. You should give it a visit. Give it a visit.

I will. I will. And it makes sense. It's almost like you're talking about the spirit of the city.

Yeah, totally.

Yeah, well, congratulations on the record. I can't wait until you can get out and tour again. People are--

Me either.

People are desperate. I think your your fans and audiences are just gonna be eventually wigging out.

Awesome, I hope so.

You know, until we can get together as a group. Well, take care. Thank you, Julian.

Thank you so much!

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