Julien Baker on ‘Little Oblivions’: “I had to unlearn the idea of recovery being linear”

The Nashville-based singer-songwriter's third album recounts the ups and downs of getting back on track. In exploring a new, fuller sound, she leaned into uncertainty, she tells Will Richards

Before all of us spent 2020 indoors, Julien Baker had gone through own period of solitude and self-reckoning. Cutting short a mentally battering two-year tour on the back of her second album ‘Turn Out The Lights’ at the end of 2018, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter retreated home, and within herself.

Over the next 12 months, Baker went back to school, finishing her degree at Middle Tennessee State University, a qualification she had put on hold in 2016 to tour her debut album, the critically adored ‘Sprained Ankle’. In the evenings and on weekends, she slowly, deliberately worked on songs that dissected the transitional period she was going through in real time – songs that would make up her upcoming third album, ‘Little Oblivions’.

“I had the chance to see myself as someone other than my musical persona,” Baker reflects on Zoom from her Nashville home, a little over a year after ‘Little Oblivions’ was completed. She wrapped up the album in January 2020, and it was released in all its glory last week (February 26). “It was just useful to separate my identity from being a performer, and to return to music as something that I did just because I am a musician and because I like to play instruments, instead of something that was [associated] with my whole being and my outlook on the world.”

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‘Little Oblivions’ is the singer’s best album yet, a testament to carving a messy path forwards, learning from mistakes and giving yourself the time and space in which to change. Though Baker’s first two records were defined by their stark, shocking emotional openness, ‘Little Oblivions’ somehow sees her even more exposed, processing her pain but resisting the temptation to craft an album with a traditional arc of redemption and a closing resolution.

It’s also a huge step forwards musically. While her first two albums used sparse, minimalist sounds to maximise the impact of her piercing voice, this new chapter sees her perform with a full band for the first time – though almost all the instruments are played by Baker herself. Reverb-heavy guitars and pianos swirl around each other, backed by pummelling percussion and glacial synths.

The record hinges on the fact that Baker, like all of us, is still learning, still making mistakes, and still trying to be better. Across the album, she confronts her complicated relationship with her Christian faith, guilt, addiction and beyond. At the end of 2018, the singer took part in a GQ round table of sober musicians also including DIIV frontman Zachary Cole Smith and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who all spoke about the process of overcoming their addictions and creating art while clean. By the time it was published in January 2019, Baker had relapsed.

“In the year over which I made this record,” she says, “I had to unlearn the idea of recovery being linear, or quantifiable, or something that you did out of principle, that was just a moral achievement.

“With my previous two records, the idea I had was a little bit more idealistic. And for my own sanity, I chose to apply this narrative to all the obstacles and struggles and pain in my life, to help me assign meaning to pain… you know, what human beings have been trying to do since the dawn of time!”

In talking about ‘Little Oblivions’, she says she feels an obligation to be more deliberate about the way she discusses these things. Her earlier work dealt with ideas of redemption, though she’s come to look at those notions in a different light. “I think it was not useful and maybe even harmful to [present] that idea to someone,” she says. “I guess I just don’t want to sell anybody any ideology. Maybe that’s the paradox.”

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This paradox sits at the core of album highlight ‘Ringside’. “Beat myself until I’m bloody, and I’ll give you a ringside seat,” the track’s opening lyrics go, confronting the double-edged sword of giving strangers a voyeuristic window into her pain while simultaneously trying to put forward the most honest version of herself. Elsewhere, opener ‘Hardline’ finds Baker predicting future disaster: Start asking for forgiveness in advance for all the future things I will destroy / That way I can ruin everything, and when I do, you don’t get to act surprised”. And ‘Faith Healer’ details the complex path away from addiction: “I miss the high, how it dulled the terror and the beauty / Now I see everything in startling intensity”.

Julien Baker

“Be warned we’re a post-rock band now,” Baker half-joked on Twitter of the newly beefed-up, full band sound when announcing a forthcoming virtual live performance. The descriptor isn’t far off, though. Opener ‘Hardline’ folds out into an avalanche of screeching guitars worthy of the genre’s forefathers Explosions In The Sky, and the extra instrumentation splashed across ‘Little Oblivions’ allows Baker to travel to more different places than she managed on past records.

The likes of the punchy, guitar-led ‘Ringside’ and glistening first single ‘Faith Healer’ provide musical catharsis to match her lyrical breakthroughs, while this up-and-down gives room for the album’s tender, solo moments (‘Song In E’, ‘Repeat’) to stand out, where they might have blended in with the pack in the past.

“I’ve missed it so much,” Baker, who played in punk bands in Tennessee in her teens, says of existing in a band dynamic. She remembers countless moments across her ‘Turn Out The Lights’ tour where she wished to not be alone on stage night after night. Though joined by friend and violinist Camille Faulkner for a few tracks at a number of shows, Baker largely commanded bigger and bigger rooms on her own across the tour, but now relishes the chance to play within a larger group.

“It’s scary to perform with a band because I’m a control freak”

The musician, who is also one-third of the boygenius supergroup with fellow singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, adds: “I have very much missed getting to step away from the microphone and not just being a single, self-contained organism of music,” though admitting “it’s scary because I’m a control freak.”

To mark the release of ‘Little Oblivions’, Baker is set to share a livestream show from Nashville, her first full-length performance with her new band. “There are several things in there that are gonna bug me forever,” she reflects on the pre-recorded performance, which was taped a week before we chat. “But I left the mistakes in there.”

Julien Baker performing at Dorset’s End of the Road festival in 2018. Credit: Getty

‘Leaving the mistakes in there’ also happens to be a concise summation of what makes ‘Little Oblivions’ so powerful and special. In admitting that no hardship comes with a simple, gift-wrapped escape route, and that recovery will always be a bumpy, non-linear ride, Julien Baker presents an album anchored by honesty and refusing to paint an easy but false picture.

She says of the forthcoming gig, “In this weird, surreal time we’re living in, I don’t want to remove what makes live shows special, which is that they’re not perfect,” and could be talking about the album. “I also don’t want to make it perfect, because I don’t think that that contributes something real to how people think of themselves, if they watch a set and they think that’s how I am all the time – that I’m a perfect musician. That’s bad messaging.

“I’m not gonna mess up on purpose,” she concludes. “But it’s OK to be bad. It’s OK to make mistakes.”

– Julien Baker’s ‘Little Oblivions’ is out now via Matador

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