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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Julien Baker, a poet of pain and self-discovery

    Sachyn (CC BY-SA 3.0)
    Julien Baker performing at Rough Trade NYC on January 25, 2016

    It’s one of life’s cruel ironies: we all experience similar struggles, but feel alone by suffering in silence. Our greatest pains in life rarely find a voice—self-loathing, breakups and an existential ache that never escapes the internal monologue of the mind. Julien Baker took a risk putting her voice behind these struggles with her debut album Sprained Ankle and found an audience with whom her candid vulnerability struck a chord.

    Sprained Ankle’s sparse, raw confessional tunes quickly made fans of critics and music lovers alike since it’s release by 6131 Records last October. It has since made many best tracks and albums of the year lists including NPRAV Club and others.

    Later this month the singer-songwriter will bring her talents to 191 Toole on Aug. 19, offering a perfect way to end the summer with some high quality live music. Baker spoke to the Daily Wildcat about touring for Sprained Ankle, the difficulty and reward of vulnerable honesty, and even what’s been on the cultural consumption menu of late (she caught the bug for Netflix’s “Stranger Things” just like the rest of us).

    Not many people project a palpable exuberance for life, but even over the phone Baker’s smile feels audible. This is the first thing that stands out about Baker; she is a delight. Due to the somber nature of Sprained Ankle, Baker joins the ranks of melancholic singer-songwriters like Elliot Smith and Sufjan Stevens that many would sooner describe as “brooding” rather than “sunny.” This just isn’t the case with Baker.

    “I make sad songs so that when I meet people I can be chipper, goofball Julien that I want to be,” Baker said. “Because if I didn’t have a way to externalize those feelings with music, it would go to perhaps a more self-destructive outlet or I wouldn’t let it out at all and it would make me a bitter person.”

    While many would turn bitter from the difficulties of life that fueled Sprained Ankle, including a car crash, substance abuse, a breakup and the isolation of leaving home for college, Baker instead channeled them into growth.

    “In writing these songs there’s the underlying theme that they’re only a stepping stone to propel the engine of self improvement by recognizing sadness and getting over it,” she said.

    Baker has a knack for articulation in a manner befitting of a singer-songwriter. After all, she once described her favorite Dunkin’ Donuts coffee as the proletariat coffee of the morning beverage world — if that isn’t poetry I don’t know what is. The former English major’s love of reading no doubt plays a role in her ability to express the ineffable. Currently on her summer reading list: graphic novel series “Punk Rock Jesus” by Sean Murphy after reading “Slaughterhouse V” by Kurt Vonnegut and revisiting the contemporary classic “The Kite Runner.”

    RELATED: “The Kite Runner” deserves to join hallowed hall of literary classics 

    Baker recently played Newport Folk Festival with percussion support from Forrister bandmate Matthew Gilliam before heading back home to Tennessee for some much deserved R&R before another leg of her fall tour. Time spent with loved ones proves to be a balm for weary travelers, and Baker has done her fair share of time on the road after touring heavily for the last year in support of Sprained Ankle.

    “Right after I got home I took a road trip and got to visit with some family and friends in Nashville,” Baker said. “I had a Nerf gun war with an 8-year old. I love things like that. Having a lifestyle that’s intrinsically chaotic because you’re always traveling, you crave normalcy and wholesomeness. It felt really good just to hang out with an 8-year old and talk about starting third grade and how that feels.”

    For a 20-year old fresh off a critically acclaimed debut album, regular anecdotes such as this ground Baker. While introspection and an intensely personal album like Sprained Ankle require Baker to focus on personal experience and shine the spotlight on herself, she is careful to steer clear of any self-aggrandizing that would be a natural byproduct of critical and consumer success.

    A recent stint on a European tour brought amazement that she had fans in a tiny German town and firsthand experience that music can transcend the language barriers, like when Parisian fans sang along in thick French accents. To Baker, each new day on tour overseas day felt like the highlight of her European trip.

    RELATED: Q&A with Mariah McCammond, a true Tucsonian rebel

    “It was really humbling,” Baker said. “So many breathtaking moments I just couldn’t convey accurately with words. It kind of taught me how little I had to say, and things like that are good for perspective and understanding.”

    Perspective and understanding separate Sprained Ankle from the crowd as a grade “A” debut album. Perspective in its articulation of relatable suffering that connects with listeners; a perspective that throws listeners a life preserver of companionship. Understanding with the hope that pain and sadness can feel overwhelming, but they are transitory as building blocks to becoming a better person. Of course this comes predicated on Baker’s candid honesty and vulnerability throughout the album.

    “[Sprained Ankle] convicts me to be more honest when I realize that this is what happens when you give a little bit of yourself that you might have kept secret if you had known,” Baker said. “When you extend and are the first person to share it’s like building the first half of the bridge between performer and listener that levels the playing field all around.”

    One surefire way to experience this level playing field: make the trip to see Baker in concert. Each show promises to be unique, as Baker’s concert routine includes jotting the setlist down on a napkin 10 minutes before each show. Yet another way Baker adds a personal touch to her music. Be sure to catch Julien Baker at 191 Toole on Aug. 19, because it’s not everyday you can hear a hopeful voice put to those silent struggles we all have.

    Julien Baker will play Friday, Aug. 19 at 9 p.m. General admission tickets are $12 and are available via the Rialto Theatre box office or online at rialtotheatre.comJustin Peter Kinkel Schuster will open the act, with his debut solo album Constant Stranger out Sept. 30. Dates for Julien Baker’s fall tour can be found on her Facebook page.

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