Talented, gay, Southern and Christian – Julien Baker bares all before opening for The Decembrists this weekend
Julien Baker’s a punk kid who’s bad at being a punk kid.
At least, that’s what she’s come to say throughout her years as a musician, starting from DIY hardcore shows and touring at 16, all the way to the present, two years post her debut album release Sprained Ankle through 6131 Records.
The album captivated audiences so tightly that even after two years, we’re still hitting repeat and wanting to know more about Baker and her minimalist, yet extremely thoughtful musical style. Though her roots are in her hometown in Tennessee – she has a lot of hometown love – Baker’s forged special relationships throughout her time on the road, especially here in Richmond. From an intimate alleyway show at local Deep Groove Records to hanging out with Richmond indie darling Lucy Dacus, it’s no surprise Baker returns to open for major musical act the Decemberists, this Sunday for a sold out show at the National.
We often have a tendency to put musicians and their work in a box and assign them an identity: Elliott Smith is Sad, and Julien Baker is Female and Sad. Female musicians tend to be grouped together with other female musicians despite having completely sonically different styles. As it happens, there’s more to Baker than that.
Despite being only 21-years-old, she has a storied past and thoughtful present inside and outside of her music that she’s articulated throughout her career. She also exists at multiple intersections of identity that we often consider contradictory: she’s Southern, gay, a person of faith, and a musician who has stayed true to her values.
She’s all of these things and more, but they inform the way she develops her career and her own personal life. There’s a dominant narrative that says the South is backwards, homophobic, uneducated among other things – it’s something we’ve written about before. Baker’s a testament to the fact that these narratives can’t erase the lives of LGBTQ people who’ve carved out spaces for themselves in places thought to be stuck in the past.
“That’s why I want to invest in talking about Memphis when I can, or Nashville, or Tennessee state. To show people that there is diversity here and I see it daily. There are people working towards that,” said Baker. “I attend a church [there]. I never thought I’d be able to attend a church where two females can have their arms around each other during prayer. And that’s here, in this small college town outside of Nashville. And I love them, and I love my community and I want to invest in it.”
Baker got into music the way many do – DIY punk and hardcore shows, which she frequented at the local skate park. Saying she’s DIY at heart is an understatement; her community-centered ethics come through clearly whenever she speaks of her past gigs.
“I was literally in garage bands doing the Devil Wears Prada covers with kids on my street,” said Baker. “I started going to DIY shows at like 12 or 13. There’s an organization called Smith7 in Memphis and they put on all-ages, substance free shows. And I would go to these house shows and I’d see kids running around in the living room and it totally up-ended my world.”
According to Baker, once she saw her peers playing music, she felt like she could do it too. It was that uniquely inclusive environment that led Baker to say she’s a bad punk – she’s a punk kid who doesn’t support the “you can’t sit with us” lunch room mentality.
It was also a safe-space where everybody could be themselves for a few hours. Sometimes DIY spaces aren’t places 13-year-olds can go, especially if they’re not booze and drug-free. And the way that DIY and punk scenes have interacted with the LGBTQ community, people of color, and others has definitely been less than favorable in the past.
“There’s political straight-edge hardcore and then there’s nazi hardcore. One thing I love is that because of the psychological implications of how DIY is set up to be egalitarian, we’re all kind of on equal footing, it gives members of that community a feeling of entitlement to feel that their voices are valid and should be heard. As much as call out-culture has its downfall of propagating the misuse of information, it also keeps us perpetually accountable to each other,” said Baker. “It feels like we can say this is great, but it could be better.”
Baker said she’s impressed and grateful that the push for inclusive safe spaces in music are seeping into the mainstream. She makes an effort for her current shows to be as inclusive as possible, and what’s she’s learned from the DIY scene in Tennessee, she brings with her every where she goes, which includes Richmond.
Baker and friend Michael Hegner took a road trip here to record Sprained Ankle at local label Spacebomb Record’s studio where Hegner was interning. Through a series of other Richmond connects, she was picked up by major label Matador Records.
Recalling the process, Baker noted that reconciling her DIY spirit with signing onto a major label wasn’t too difficult but resulted in thoughts about what it means to be successful. While at first tentative to sign to a label, Baker realized that she could maintain her musical integrity and use her success to invest in her community and uplift those who aren’t there yet. It’s a conversation she said she’s had with good friend and well-known local Richmond musician Lucy Dacus.
“[Dacus] opened a show in DC and I think she did not even have No Burden released at that point, because I was asking her and she was like ‘I’ll send you the Soundcloud link’,” said Baker. “We instantly hit it off. Lucy and I have totally different musical styles and lyrical styles but she and I share a lot of thought pattern and she’s just maybe like one smartest people I’ve ever met… actually smart’s not the word. Wise.”
It’s these kinds of relationships and and sense of community that Baker says she’s grateful for.
“I get to be in front of a whole bunch of new – some times old- but mostly new faces. We just get to be strangers having a conversation about art,” said Baker. “This last weekend, I got to play at a private Christian college, and I got to do a Q & A, where someone straight up was like ‘how do you make it make sense in your brain that you’re gay and Christian?’ And I was like, well, I hope you’re ready to be here for a minute, because is a really important topic to me. You cannot just compartmentalize each part of yourself. You have to be transparent about that they all comprise one you. I don’t have to diminish my faith to accommodate my sexuality, and I don’t have to diminish my sexuality to accommodate my faith.”
A conscientious speaker, she thought carefully about the words she would share to aspiring queer musicians and artists, especially in the South.
“I wanted to be the most punk girl and I wanted to have a mohawk. I just felt like I had to decide on one. I think I would advise those people not to ever minimize or dampen parts of themselves,” said Baker. “Be radically vulnerable. Be radically transparent, and you’ll find that the people who respond to that are the people worth building relationships and that will construct a community I think that will be more transparent about vulnerability, your sexuality, your multiple seemingly contradictory identities.”
It is easier said than done to be yourself completely, but Baker shows all that comprises her through her unabashed vulnerability and honesty in her music and especially her live performances. Hopefully, you get the chance to see her in action April 9th with the Decemberists at the National because it is now sold out.
But if not, keep an eye for the next time she comes around for a live performance you won’t forget.
Image via NolanKnight
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