Julien Baker reconciles two seemingly paradoxical parts of her life – her church and her queerness – and uses the lessons she's learned in self-love and acceptance in her music.
The twenty-year-old from Memphis was originally a member of the band Forrister, then continued creating music on her own in college while she was away from her bandmates. She a solo album, Sprained Ankle, in October 2015 and has been touring since then.
We caught up with Baker before her upcoming tour stop in Denver to talk more about her upbringing, her creative process and the messages in her emotional music.
Westword: How have your home town and upbringing influenced your work?
Julien Baker: There are multiple levels to that. I grew up in a traditional Christian setting. I eventually stopped going to church and went through a period of rebellion, which I feel every teenager experiences. I probably made some poor choices, but later started going back to church. I started playing in music groups associated with church, which was an easy way to get my foot in the door. Every Sunday I had to learn songs that I had seen an hour beforehand.
I also went to local punk shows. Punk music’s familial aspect and support system pulled me out of a lot of crazy stuff. Being queer and living in the South, I was taught growing up that even if you believe God loves you, God is seen as even more amazing in his ability to save you. But God also made us, is a perfect creator, and calls us beloved. It took a lot of getting over evangelical theology to say, “No, I have worth.” My mistakes can be useful, I don’t have to be penalized for being an imperfect flesh human being. My journey to accepting parts of myself that I thought were ugly influenced my record and writing for the future.
How have your beliefs and faith journey evolved?
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The concept of God posed a huge question to me. For a while I thought there was no God; if there was, how can there be genocide in the Sudan or the Holocaust? On the other hand, I couldn’t concede to purposelessness of existence. I struggled with the question: Do I think that God hates me for who I am? Which is a queer female. Being queer is the engine that drove me into theological thought the way that I did. Does God hate me? I had to find out for certain. I just wanted to know and find the answer to everything! This is something that still crops up when finding out more of who God is.
What do you find are some challenges that come with being so vulnerable and forthright with your faith?
Being open about faith in music interacts on a variety of levels. I never wanted to make K-LOVE type music, but there are some artists that kind of toe the line, like Me Without You and Sufjan Stevens. I never set out to be someone to speak about faith intentionally. I believe you can tell what is important to a person by what they talk about, and all my mental faculties are going to those questions about God. This is my experience, problems, concerns, how I feel – I’m never imposing a belief upon a listener. I acknowledge fear in a mission of doubt. God does not have to be the media image, nor does Christianity. I believe there is a bigger love out there than I am capable of explaining, and I want to be as close to it as possible.
How do you gather inspiration when writing? Any rituals?
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It surprises me sometimes just how much of the creative process is spread out. I simply allow the song to go where it goes. It begins in a raw form, and then I refine it to a finished product by brushing up lyrics and expanding on imagery. I feel the creative process can be an initial crazy information avalanche followed by quiet, focused refinement.
Since your songs come from such a raw and personal place, I imagine you connect with fans.
Connecting with people is precisely what enables me to come from a raw, personal place. I don’t want to be preachy at shows, but I do make a point that you don’t have to be defined by your sadness. I’m able to tell stories about being a queer, Christian teenager. I had ugly parts of my personality that I hadn’t dealt with and regret in a superficial way, but I don’t regret the tools it equipped me with to talk to people. Savages (a post-punk band from London) said, “Once a song is released, it’s not yours anymore.” My songs are the audience’s interpretation of the songs now. I can’t mind-meld an emotion; rather, I’m transmuting it through art. Things are lost in translation in relaying the message to the receiver, but it’s beautiful to see what they get out of it. My music is a vessel of transmission for something bigger and outside of self.
Julien Baker with Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, August 14, 8 p.m., Bluebird Theater, 303-377-1666, $15-$18, 16+.