Arts

​Julien Baker builds connections through sharing stages, personal stories

Boygenius — consisting of Dacus, Bridgers and Baker — tell stories of heartbreak and dark personal struggles in their music.

Image By: Photo by Amileah Sutliff

“What are you going to do with that degree?” This question plagues liberal arts majors through college and beyond. Indie-folk singer-songwriter Julien Baker answered this differently while studying literature in school before dropping out and releasing two albums and touring the world in a span of two years.

As an English major myself, my conversation with the artist unsurprisingly spiraled into rants about people’s doubts surrounding what we can do with our degrees. The performer argued that’s not the point.

“We unite the worst of an academic pursuit with its potential to have value in a capitalist market ... in the end what we're saying will be more lucrative. But what is the point if you don't have a well-rounded and philosophically aware society?”

Baker’s original plan, after switching late in college from an audio engineering major to literature, cast her as an English teacher at Smyrna High School outside of Nashville, her hometown. When her debut album Sprained Ankle was picked up by a label after she quietly published it on Bandcamp, she began touring and has traveled to play music ever since.

“Part of college is supposed to be just exposing you [to] a variety of ideas so that you're able to try your hand and see what you're passionate about,” Baker said, explaining why she decided to switch from focusing on a physically and emotionally taxing studio engineering path. “So I was just like, ‘Man, I really love music, that's what I want to do. I'm gonna play music whether it's in stadiums or at a dive bar, so I'll just major in something that I'm passionate about and interested in.’”

Baker formerly toured with her band, Forrister, which has been inactive now since 2016, only when there were spare moments between student teaching gigs. Since the success of her debut record in 2015, the 23-year-old has toured mostly solo, accompanied only by her guitar and piano, as well as violinist Camille Faulkner. Her 2017 release Turn Out The Lights propelled her success, landing her a second stint on NPR’s Tiny Desk (she’s the only artist to perform behind the desk twice) and spots at music festivals in the U.S. and beyond.

On the making of boygenius

At Eaux Claires and Pitchfork music festivals this past summer, fellow indie crooners Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus joined her in the lineups. She played alongside Bridgers in a unique performance called the Eaux Claires Women’s Choir, and on different stages from Dacus at Chicago’s Pitchfork fest. Before the festivals, the trio had booked a joint tour, but that turned into something bigger, giving Baker a chance to perform with other musicians — two of her close friends — for the first time in a while.

“It's really exciting to be sharing the stage with them,” Baker said. “It's been a long time since I've performed live with other people, but I'm really excited because, for one thing, it'll give me a chance to perform in a capacity that I haven't for a while and I get to play lead guitar.”

The performer elaborated, “When I perform solo, the attention of the audience is usually just focused one person, me, and it'll be really nice to share that attention in a collaborative way. There's something I miss about being able to vibe off of other musicians and have something organic develop in the musical exchange that happens on stage between multiple players.”

On Oct. 26, they dropped a dream team collab EP under the group name boygenius, on which Baker rocks lead guitar. The album was completed before Eaux Claires.

“We all had just been trying to figure out how to creatively combine our music on stage for this tour, and I think it sort of snowballed the excitement until we decided to find time when all of our schedules overlapped and write as much music as we could,” Baker said.

The tour launched Sunday night with what Baker called a “high-stakes show,” as they took the Ryman Auditorium stage in Nashville. They’ll stop in Madison on Nov. 16 at The Sylvee, set to perform individually but with high hopes for an encore of boygenius tunes.

On hope shining through personal struggle

Dacus, Bridgers and Baker tell stories of heartbreak and dark personal struggles in their music. For Baker, revisiting these times is not as painful as listeners assume.

“The more times I'm forced to confront those experiences within the narrative of a song, especially in the context of a live set, I'm also aware that there's a whole audience of people who are relating to, or at least getting something out of, these songs that's not rooted in my personal experience, but somehow that experience has allowed me to articulate a feeling that those people have also felt,” Baker said. “The song sort of gets extrapolated into meaning something much more abstract but much less painful and actually more significant to me. Because now it's not about just my limited individual experience — now that song represents to me whatever it needs to represent, or whatever it represents to these other people, and I can take comfort in that.”

Baker’s thoughtfulness about others trickled into our conversation. When asked how she felt about being a role model for young queer people, she relabeled herself as “just a student of the world,” emphasizing she is aware of her responsibility and space she takes up as a musician.

In her popular single “Appointments,” she sings “maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright/ I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.” When asked where this sliver of hope comes from, she said it’s inspired by people’s actions, the tiniest bits of kindness people perform.

“It's the big things that make me feel weak and deterred and fearful, but it's the small actions that give me hope and revitalize my faith that things can still be O.K.,” she said. “When I see people doing thoughtful things or when there's some act of unwarranted grace ... those things are able to give me perspective and sort of remind me that there's hope yet.”

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