Wish I could write songs about anything other than death” are the first words most listeners hear when they become familiar with songwriter Julien Baker. The lines are found on the title track of her debut album, “Sprained Ankle.”
It may sound gloomy, but 2017 is starting off great for the singer with the angelic, almost fragile-sounding voice. Recently she was signed to Matador Records, which will see Baker joining Virginia natives Lucy Dacus and Car Seat Headrest as well as critically renowned artists Belle and Sebastian and Yo La Tengo. As with Dacus, the label will be reissuing Baker’s debut that was originally released on 6131 Records.
But most of the media hype around Baker has focused on her struggle as a closeted gay person growing up with the strict foundation of her Christian community in Memphis, Tennessee. She felt even more terror as she witnessed close friends being cast away for seemingly small offenses. Her background comes through in her confessional songwriting, as addressed in her song “Rejoice”:
“But I think there’s a God and he hears either way / And I rejoice and complain / Lift my voice, that I was made / Somebody’s listening at night / The ghost of my prayers when I pray / Asking why did you let them leave and then make me stay / Know my name and all of my hideous mistakes / I rejoice, I rejoice, I rejoice, I rejoice.”
With a surprising radical shift of beliefs from her family, she found an acceptance for who she was and it gave her a better understanding of her religious values. Unabashedly queer, she’s explained in interviews how she discovered that religion could allow for progressive ideas and embracing diversity. During her time spent at Middle Tennessee State University, Baker began to develop the framework of what would become “Sprained Ankle.”
“The songs started to define themselves due to how sparse they were and letting space ring through a little more,” she says.
Through her studies, she met fellow student Michael Hegner, who had a passion for audio engineering and helped Baker record initial demos for the album. Hegner had spent the summer of 2014 in Richmond interning at Spacebomb Studios.
“We set up time for me to come to Richmond and record the album there,” Baker recalls. “Going in, I had no clue as to the enormity of the studio being a home for Natalie Prass.”
Baker is a self-proclaimed student of emo punk from the late ’90s, as evidenced partly by a Death Cab for Cutie cover thrown into her sets. But now she’s the artist being covered. Bands such as Brand New and Dashboard Confessional have incorporated renditions of her song “Sprained Ankle” into live sets and extended player releases.
“It’s a curious inversion to see a song you wrote move someone that inspired a lot of what you did. I think it speaks to the greater power that music has in terms of how it affects all of us,” she says. “A song that can bring people joy and inspiration for years and years to come and you gauge all of that with the immediacy and the satisfaction that you can receive from the music you share with any audience.”
With the increased attention brought to Baker from the recent Matador signing, she’s endlessly traveling and performing around the globe. For her show in Richmond, she’ll be supporting popular Portland indie folk outfit, the Decemberists.
The pairing makes a lot of sense to Baker. “They were a band that I remember listening to in high school and we fall into some similar territories in terms of songwriting,” she says.
For this tour, she’ll find herself playing larger venues, which has become a common thing lately. While she still finds the intimacy of small spots to be endearing, the larger venues also provide cool opportunities.
“Whenever I end up playing larger festivals,” she says, “I like that I’m a part of a bigger picture of a day. Every eye isn’t focused on me and life is kinda just happening all around you.” S
Julien Baker opens for the Decemberists at the National on Sunday, April 9.