For every young artist who produces work streaked with intense human emotion, there's an older person standing by ready to dismiss that artist's feelings and experiences. "What does this teenage pop singer know about love?" they might ask. "How could a handsome and successful prodigy have the blues? Why are these suburban metal kids so angry?"
It's an easy position to take, one padded by primacy and the passage of time. It's also a lousy position in that it devalues the art, the artist and the very real roots that run between the two. Young people feel things too, see? The question is whether they can express those feelings in a way that makes sense to those outside their world.
Enter Julien Baker, a 20-year-old singer-songwriter from Memphis whose debut solo album Sprained Ankle, released last year by 6131 Records, is as deeply engaging as it is devastatingly sad. With nine sparsely arranged songs that center on heartbreak, insecurity, loneliness, addiction and faith, it's a harrowing work that belies Baker's mere two decades on Earth but rewards repeated listens, no matter how painful they may be.
"Do you think that there's a way I could ever get too far," Baker sings on "Blacktop," Sprained Ankle's opening song, "that you'd ask me where I'd been like I ask you where you are?" Her accompaniment is a simple, almost sheepishly plucked acoustic guitar, and her voice seems to echo for days. The rest of the song is profoundly sad, a slow motion montage of church pews and bar stools, love letters and cars wrapped around streetlamps. "The devil in my arms says feed me to the wolves tonight," Baker sings. "Come visit me in the back of an ambulance."
She doesn't talk much about her past issues with substance abuse, but otherwise, Julien Baker is a wonderful conversationalist, bright and forthcoming about Sprained Ankle despite her misgivings about the attention it has brought her.
"I feel really strange talking about myself so much. I don't want to just be singing my own praises into this weird echo chamber," she says in a telephone interview. "So I'm bad at going off on tangents about this record or that record, or about gear. Because it's a lot more disarming to talk about that than to drone on about my personal experiences. There's six billion damn people on this earth, and I feel bad because, like, why is my opinion more important than others?"
That egalitarian attitude is reflective of Baker's background in the Memphis DIY community. In high school, she fronted Forrister, a rock band that played more than its share of house shows, which helped shape Baker's formative songwriting efforts. (She still plays and writes with Forrister as often as she can, she says.)
"I knew the setting we were going to perform in would be a house show packed with kids, so I wanted to write, like, cool gang vocal parts that everyone could sing along with," Baker says. "(And) since it's a collaborative process, it's a lot more conceptual. Lyrically, I end up being a little bit more flowery and less direct, less confessional. I'll write about the concept of God or the concept of morality and not, say, an experience."
Sprained Ankle, on the other hand, is Baker unfiltered. After high school, she went to Middle Tennessee State University, snagged some time in a recording studio at the college's school of music, and cut some demos with an engineer named Michael Hegner. Hegner had a connection to Richmond, Virginia's Spacebomb Studios (the site of recordings by Matthew E. White and Natalie Prass), and the two found an open time in the schedule to make a "really rough recording in a really nice studio," Baker says.
"When it was just me with total control, there was nothing else to do except just write in a very documentary-style way," she says. "That's how I felt and there's no trappings around it. It was just whatever came out at the time."
Julien Baker plays February 27 at The Irenic
Thematically and sonically, Sprained Ankle never strays far from its opener. The title track finds Baker wishing she "could write songs about anything other than death" and employing a chorus of soft "oooh" sounds. "Brittle Boned" is a slow-burning hospital-room lament that crescendos with a cymbal crash, one of the album's few percussive moments. And "Rejoice" stands out for two reasons: Baker finally raises her voice above a whisper, and she speaks plainly about her faith. "I think there's a God and He hears either way when I rejoice and complain," she sings, her voice quivering. "I never know what to say."
The album spills over with the kind of raw, confessional songwriting that's difficult to do well, but when it works, it's an irresistible magnet for folks who recognize themselves in the songs. Which suits Baker well; she loves touring, traveling to new places, hanging out at the merch table and meeting people.
"My job is to relate to others through art and then through literal conversation. I just get to learn about people. It's fascinating," she says. "My aspirations were so small, it afforded me a lot more license and freedom with these songs, and there's merit in being honest about the way you feel. I have a positive outlook on life but sometimes I do feel like, 'Oh fuck, I ruin everything.' And that's a relatable feeling."