Julien Baker is having, as she calls it, “one of those dorky existential moments.”
Over the phone recently, the indie-rock artist is musing at length on the profound vastness of the universe. It’s something she confronts in her new song, “Distant Solar Systems,” a dreamy, lullaby-like meditation on Earth and outer space — and the impossible smallness of mankind.
“As microscopic as the human life is — in comparison to the Milky Way and the myriad galaxies beyond that — within a person is this collection of joy and suffering that is just overwhelmingly large. You can’t even wrap your mind around it,” she says. “Every time I talk to a person, I am talking to, as Walt Whitman would put it, ‘the cosmos within a person.’”
After this last bit, she pauses, and then laughs.
“I know,” she says. “I sound like I’m sitting cross-legged at a festival, after I’ve just done mushrooms. But I swear to you, I’m stone-cold sober, and these are the thoughts I have all the time!”
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in early April, and Baker, whose critically-hailed debut record “Sprained Ankle” was recently re-released by Matador Records, is driving around Nashville, Tenn., with perhaps a bit too much caffeine in her.
“I’m kind of shy, which of course you wouldn’t know because I run my mouth all the time,” she says. “I overcome social anxiety by being overly talkative, in an effort to eschew awkward moments, by filling them up with words.”
We’ve been on the phone for about 20 minutes, and the conversation so far has been surprisingly cheerful, which is only surprising if you consider that Baker has a reputation for writing heartrendingly raw and emotional music.
“Sprained Ankle,” which she recorded in just two days toward the end of 2014, comprises songs about substance abuse, self-destruction and heartbreak; they’re ruminations on pain both physical and emotional. If it weren’t for their elegance, and their ethereal dreaminess, the songs might be too sorrowful to even listen to.
In “Sprained Ankle’s” title track, Baker sings, “I wish I could write songs about anything other than death,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to her own fascination with the macabre. Listening to Baker, one gets the sense that she, at only 22 years old, has already lived a lifetime.
Keeping that in mind, Baker says one of the challenges inherent to her brand of confessional songwriting is finding a way to employ sadness and trauma without coming off as maudlin.
“There’s a difference between honoring your feelings — and recognizing that they’re valid — and wallowing,” she says. “I’m always afraid that a song will come off as self-involved, with no hope. And the way I abate that anxiety about people thinking I’m just this wallowing sad-sack, is by saying little things at shows.
“I’m just like, ‘Look, this song is about finding a reason to be glad about some of the worst things that ever happened to me, because I get to stand in front of you guys, the audience, and share something with you. If these awful things hadn’t happened to me, I wouldn’t be here and finding solace.’”
Since recording her debut, and laying bare many of her darkest thoughts, Baker has found an ever-growing, and perhaps even unlikely, groundswell of admirers. What’s interesting is, during this two-year blast with success — and maybe because of it — the artist has stopped identifying with many of the lyrics on “Sprained Ankle.”
Of the song “Good News,” for example, Baker says, “I didn’t like how I found myself (at concerts) every night screaming about how I ‘ruin everything.’ Because I no longer believe that that’s true. Unfortunately, everyone will feel at some point that they ruined something, and they’ll feel self-deprecating. But I don’t want people to relate to that. I want them to find solace in it, but then understand it’s a fallacy. You don’t ruin everything.”
Baker’s also found value and healing in simply talking about the subject matter she confronts in her music — subject matter like recovering from drug abuse, or rediscovering her faith, or growing up queer in the American South.
“If I say things like, ‘I want to destigmatize conversations about faith, about queerness, about recovery from drug abuse, then I have to be the one who is OK with talking about those things,” she says.
Even interviews like the one we’re doing right now hold value for Baker, beyond the obvious concert publicity.
“I don’t think I realized how I felt subconsciously about the subject matter on the record until I had to talk about it (in interviews) and decide how I was going to go about that narrative,” she says. “It’s like a forced reflection that has honestly been as therapeutic as (songwriting).”
But, in truth, all this serious conversation — about sad songs, trauma, and recovery — amounts to mere moments in our interview. Soon enough, we’re back to off-the-wall chats about distant solar systems, and Marvel’s “Daredevil,” and how Baker sometimes wishes she had the personality of a Vulcan from “Star Trek.”
We’re joking and swapping stories. We’re nerding out. The major take away here is: Julien Baker’s music might make you want to cry, but if you ever get the chance to talk to her, she’s probably going to make you laugh. A lot.