“It’s a conundrum, isn’t it?” Julien Baker is reflecting on how she chose to approach the follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2017 album, Turn Out The Lights – a fragile yet unflinching exploration of addiction, faith, sexuality and mental health, accompanied primarily by Julien’s crystalline reverb-drenched Telecaster, with only the occasional piano, violin or organ adding extra depth. It’s a magical, intimate, heartbreaking record, but one that created its own problems down the line.
“I didn’t want to go back over similar ideas – that’s obviously a fear of people who put out small instrumentation records,” Baker tells us from her home in Tennessee, musing on the denser, more layered production on the forthcoming Little Oblivions. “If you’d been doing something for four years, you’d want to do it differently. And I feel like it’s always going to be one way or the other, right? It’s like Springsteen puts out Nebraska or Dylan going electric, and all of a sudden people are like, ‘What’s going on!?’ Well, they’re just musicians doing something different… but I felt tortured about it!
“I really wanted to have percussive elements on the record, because I wanted to broaden my sonic palette and find more ways to serve the song. But at some point I just stepped outside of these crazy fears and was like, ‘But you’re not Bob Dylan, though… it doesn’t matter! Why are you freaking out about this? Just put drums on the record. Calm down, it’s not a huge deal!’”
The expanded options Baker gave herself certainly add a strikingly different dimension to Little Oblivions, but this is still very much an intimate, personal record – aided by trusted engineer and collaborator Calvin Lauber, Baker played all the instruments you hear, even when she was out of her comfort zone.
“I played all of the drums on the record because I wanted them to have an ‘un-drummerly’ sound,” she chuckles. “I think sometimes when you’re less proficient at something your non-technique-grounded ways of achieving things end up being really interesting.”
Even more interesting was how Baker approached her guitar this time around – while there’s still plenty of lush arpeggios crisscrossing the record, songs like, Hard Lines and the title track showcase an rougher, more esoteric side of her guitar experimentation that adds a very different vibe to proceedings.
“I just wanted to make more ugly sounds!” she says. “Because I felt like, Turn Out The Lights I was like, ‘Everything has to be orchestrated and beautiful!’ and I missed making those ugly sounds! There’s a running joke that I have four reverb pedals on my board, and people are always like, ‘Why?! No one can tell!’
“I wanted to be the best soloist, in no small part because I was a girl. I wanted to show up to jam in my buddy’s garage and show them that I could be good and be a girl”
“One of the dudes I used to tour with once came up to me after a soundcheck when I’d playing around with one of my reverb pedals because it wasn’t working, and he said, ‘I see you up there pressing all those buttons and it sounds the same to me…’ And I was like, ‘Why can no-one hear this but me!?’ It’s that classic guitar nerd thing where you’re like, ‘But the tone! The tone has to be perfect!’
“And so this time I thought, ‘Well why not try to make something interesting with much broader strokes?’ So if there’s going to be a tremolo on it, it’s going to be a square wave, and if there’s a distortion it’s going to be a weird squashy fuzz.”
Baker’s precocious talent unsurprisingly led her to find guitar quite early on, though not before a few faltering steps in other musical directions.
My parents had me take piano lessons, in the same way that you take them to soccer practice and all the other stuff to try to find out what they’re good at,” Baker deadpans. “And I was super horrible at piano, because I never practised.”
As it turned out, it was someone else in her family making an abortive attempt at learning an instrument that actually sparked her love of guitar.
“My dad had a guitar in the house, and he was teaching himself how to play, but I would just go and steal it!” she remembers. “It’s the guitar I still play today, because he eventually was like, ‘Here, just take it!’ This guitar was like $100, super cheap, and is now just covered in a whole bunch of skateboard stickers, but I still play it live! And it works, because it’s kinda like that good/bad thing – it’s what I want!”
Her desire to pick up her dad’s cheap acoustic was fuelled by the accessible energy of pop-punk captivated the young Julien, which got its hooks into her early doors, though it certainly led to a few gear-related missteps along the way.
When I got into ‘guitar’ music that wasn’t my parents’ music, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Green Day! That guy’s playing a guitar – I want to play guitar!’” Julien exclaims. “I literally have an SG that I got when I was in the seventh grade because I wanted to have Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy‘s guitar, and I would not shut up about it! I was like, ‘I don’t want anything! I don’t want food, I don’t want you to pay for my college, I just want that guitar!’ And the stupid thing is that, especially for the music I play… I hate SGs! Not that I hate the guitar, but I hate them for what and how I play – the neck is crazy wide, they’re clumsy and dark… I’m like, ‘What was I doing?!’ I just wanted that guitar.”
Pop-punk is not famous for its technically challenging guitar work, but it provided the gateway to Julien developing into the wonderfully fluid and expressive lead player she is today, though the route she took to get there proved a little circuitous.
“I just wanted to play powerchords all day long for years!” she explains. “But then I started listening to music like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, and they all had… solos? And I was like, ‘I don’t want to just play rhythm guitar!’ I wanted to be the best soloist, in no small part because I was a girl. I wanted to show up to jam in my buddy’s garage and show them that I could be good and be a girl – as cheesy as that sounds, it’s the cheesiest thing! I was so intimidated by wanting so badly to play music, and there being so many dudes involved in it, that I was like, ‘Watch this!’
“But that affected my guitar playing in a horrible way! So the first band that I was in, which ended up becoming The Star Killers [Julien’s college-era band who released the well-received American Blues in 2013 before splitting], there had to be a big mixolydian blues solo in every song to let everyone know that I was good, because I was so self-conscious about my guitar playing! I was like, ‘First thing they’re going to know is that I am good at guitar!’ Why did I do that?! It was so tasteless, but we all go through a phase when we want to shred over everything!”
On the slab
Her days of SGs are long behind her now, and while she’s certainly not a guitar collector, it’s rare to see her playing an electric guitar that isn’t one of a small but beloved stable of Telecaster-stye instruments. Julien came to the Tele relatively late, but there’s no doubt that she’s found her guitar for life now, albeit with a few adjustments.
“I don’t know why I never liked a Strat but I never did,” she explains when talking about the protracted road from that wide-necked SG to her current squeeze. I used to say that a Strat was a one-trick pony, and I think that’s a really unfortunate way to look at Stratocasters – they’re really cool for a lot of different sounds. But Telecaster was the most comfortable thing for me, and I like the particular foibles of it.
“It’s funny because I’m looking at the first guitar that I ever saved up for working a part-time job, which is this Ibanez Artcore that – and this is no shade on Ibanez – was the affordable version of the $5,000 Gretsch or 335 that I wanted. And I was like, ‘Well, I can afford this, and it’s semi-hollow, and it’s got humbuckers…’
“I started playing with the Empress Zoia. It is math, dude. I thought it was just an effects pedal! But then I was all offended at myself, like, ‘I can’t believe I don’t understand this thing!’”
And the craziest thing is that it’s double-wide, and it fed back infinitely, and it was horrible, and I was like, ‘I guess this is just my tone now!’ So many things I just took for granted, like, ‘This is how my guitar’s gonna sound, I can’t do anything about it.’ I also strung that guitar with nines… who sets a guitar up with nines?! I have tiny hands, but they’re not that tiny!
“Then I played a Telecaster for the first time, and it was the intersection of delicate and beautiful with a little bit of crunch – which is exactly what I want. The reason I’ve stuck with playing Telecasters is that it’s what I’m comfortable with, and I also have this specific mod in it where you can run the pickups in both series and parallel, which sounds so great with the big soapbar Lollar that’s in the neck of the guitar I play most of the time. I wanted something that was a little hotter and a little easier to get to break up than a regular Tele neck pickup… I could go on and on about Tele pickup mods!”
Last year was, of course, a year like no other, and one that created huge challenges and obstacles for musicians who would normally be spending their time on the road. For Baker, who was already off the road making Little Oblivions, it’s been well over a year since she was on the road, but she’s coped with the enforced time in isolation in a similar way that many of us likely have: by getting extremely nerdy about effects pedals.
“There has been so much change in just my life, but then also global situations imposing this huge change in my lifestyle,” she agrees. “But since we finished the record, I’ve been working on a score, and that’s been really interesting to me. I was super into looping and trying to construct all the layers myself, but I feel like I didn’t utilise looping and sampling in the way that I perhaps could. So I got myself a [Chase Bliss] Blooper… oh my gosh, that thing? Blows my mind!
“Another thing that sent me on a complete spiral was that I started playing with the Empress Zoia. It is math dude. I thought it was an effects pedal! It was humbling! Because I saw the demo, and I think what I imagined was like you could build your guitar sound, almost like a sequencer unit but where you have infinite stackable parameters. And you can use it like that, but that’s like, one-tenth of what you can use it for, and so I got into this shit where it’s like… you have to create the ins and the outs of the signal flow, and if you want it to be a sequencer you have to like, pick a wave and then put an oscillator in there! People who do Eurorack stuff would hear me talking about this stuff and be like, ‘You’re a simpleton!’ But I’m out here with this guitar pedal and I had no clue how to do stuff!
“But then I was all offended at myself – like, ‘I can’t believe I don’t understand this thing!’ So I sat there, and I watched this three-hour-long Zoia tutorial on YouTube and I figured out how to make crazy noises, while also having a basic understanding of modular synthesis. It’s not a lot, but even that was a crazy learning experience for me, because now I’m not pretending to know what attack, decay, release and sustain are – I actually know what those mean!
“And it’s such a minimal return! Because I’ll spend two hours with this thing and all I’ve done is create this most basic Eurorack sequence that’s like, ‘boop, boop, boop-boop’. I show it to my girlfriend and she’s like, ‘Wow… that was two hours?’”
Two hours spent messing around with a cool new pedal seems like a fun way to spend a day in our book, and the freedom to immerse herself in her craft has been an unexpected upside of a year spent away from others, and one Julien certainly doesn’t take for granted.
“It’s something that I’ve become so immensely grateful for in all this,” she affirms. “It’s a tradeoff maybe, but I woke up at 8am this morning and just practised for two hours, and now I’m going to do interviews for a few hours and then I’m going to practise until 5pm, and try to sculpt the right tones for a live session.
“There was a time when I was in college and had a job, And then maybe in the evening I would get some time to hone my craft. So it’s a huge privilege that music is my job”
“It’s a privilege that I get to do that – because there was a time when I was in college and trying to get good grades, and I had to get a job because I was broke, and then maybe in the evening, I would get some time to hone my craft. So it’s a huge privilege that music is my job, and I feel like if it’s going to be my job then it is actually a worthy way to spend my time – I’m going to sit down and change my understanding of how to make sounds by building it out of a controlled voltage signal.
“And it’s been helpful in that it distracts me from the fact that quarantine is happening, and there are at-risk people in my life, so I’m stuck in my house watching while the world is freaking out, and I’m like, ‘Well I have this one meaningful activity that I can do!’ It’s almost like this whole quarantine has been me being obsessed with sound.”
The world-altering effects of the pandemic have altered the way many of us relate to the world of work and the obligations therein, and as music is her job, COVID-19 has helped Julien to reevaluate how she relates to the art that she makes.
“I have been interacting with music in so much less of an obligatory way,” she explains. “Not to say that it ever feels obligatory. But it feels like there was this whole sense of always having to be going, going, going… and then when your life halts and everyone around you’s life halts, you realise, ‘Oh I actually do have two hours to spend geeking out about modular synthesis, because that makes me feel good – not because it’s productive, or because I feel like I have to be writing a song, or I have to be creating music because music is my job. I’m like, ‘I’m just going to sit here and learn this Rufus Wainwright song because the chords are pretty!’ and that’s such a more genuine way to interact with music.”
When it comes to interacting with other musicians, there’s no doubt that there’s something special about the bond between Julien and fellow indie-rock leading lights Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Since they released their critically acclaimed EP as Boygenius back in 2018 the otherworldly chemistry between the three young guitarists has been rekindled on releases from both Bridgers and Dacus, as well as the trio lending their vocals to Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams’ debut solo album, Petals For Armor. It’s no surprise then, that Bridgers and Dacus turn up on Favor – one of the album’s more experimental and ambitious moments.
“It was weird because they both happened to be down here in Nashville – I think Lucy was using the studio to finish up maybe her new record or one of the singles,” Baker recalls. “And she asked, ‘Would you guys sing on my song?’ And I was like, ‘If you guys sing on my song…’ and then I think it was Phoebe who said, ‘Can we all sing on each others’ songs?!’ It was a fun couple of days to come back together after doing that tour together and playing those songs.”
Boygenius and its following tour was clearly a moment in time that cemented a special bond between these three young and extraordinarily talented musicians, and one that has clearly had a lasting impact on the way all three make music.
“If I’m going to be lame about it, they both have small egos and they’re good communicators, and they’re kind friends,” Julien explains of what makes the bond between them so special. “Because I did all the songwriting on my records and played all the instruments, I didn’t have somebody who could use to gauge how the songs were going, and I hadn’t had that since I was in The Star Killers when I was in college and high school. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! Making music just because it’s fun, and being able to bounce ideas off other people, yeah man… it’s been pretty lonely just writing songs on my own!’
“Now we’ll still send each other back and forth for hours, and be like, ‘What do you think of this?’ It’s actually made me less precious and with my music and my parts. If someone doesn’t like my idea, it’s not like my world is devastated, it’s like, ‘Okay I’ve got a thousand more ideas, let’s try as many of them as we can before we fall asleep!’
“I hate to use this word because it’s kinda cheesy, but it was a very pure experience of music. I get so in my head when I write because it’s just me in my bedroom trying to be poetic! It’s so nice to have that extra bit of levity in the whole experience and ending up sharing that with people.”
Little Oblivions by Julien Baker is out 26 February on Matador.