Photo: Alysse Gafkjen
Big Questions And 'Little Oblivions': Julien Baker On How Her Latest Album Navigates Healing & Forgiveness
There’s a fluidity to the way Julien Baker hops between discussing the "hopeless zones" of life that influenced her new record and the joy she gets out of making dinner for her roommates. This rapid shifting between the ecstatic and the somber should be familiar to many of us. In a year with too many calamities and surrealities to detail, the experience of swiftly bouncing between cherishing small joys and dissecting previously unknown darkness has become commonplace.
On her latest album, Little Oblivions—due February 26th via Matador—Baker explores her list of pains, staring down her tornado of experiences with stunning, present clarity.
The 25-year-old Tennessean’s catalog packs an immense emotional weight, her lithe vocals and vivid songwriting ensuring the songs bore ever deeper into the listener’s heart. A voracious reader of theology, philosophy and sociology, Baker’s lyrics find acute precision even in the uncertain examination of existence’s biggest questions.
"Like so many people raised in the Western world, specifically evangelical Americans, I have such an issue with guilt and shame," she tells GRAMMY.com. "But you can't go back and excuse or undo the hurt that has happened."
Little Oblivions captures the potency and immediacy of Baker’s debut, Sprained Ankle, combined with the widened scope of Boygenius, her collaborative project with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. It’s telling, too, that the record is inspired more by gray areas than revelations—including her ongoing journey with sobriety and addiction, dealing with her religious upbringing and current spiritual questing, and developing a relationship with the concepts of forgiveness and healing.
Little Oblivions doesn’t offer grand answers yet retains a certain strength of statement, both in Baker’s poetics and the increasingly welcoming structures. As evidenced by the steamy "Heatwave," she weaves a striking and painful image of Orion’s Belt as a noose. On "Bloodshot," her lyrics dig deeper into the vein than ever before: "Oh, there is no glory in love/ Only the gore of our hearts/ Oh, let it come for my throat/ Take me and tear me apart."
Baker spoke with GRAMMY.com about taking time away from music to go back to college, the value of setting boundaries, the danger of conflating identity and career, and how Little Oblivions grows from its predecessor, Turn Out the Lights.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Having a new album and not being able to tour must be so unbelievably strange. Have you been able to use this time to rest a little? How do you navigate your free time?
I haven’t thought of that before. I took some time off in 2019 because I had just been touring since 2015. I went back to school, and then I got the band back together to rehearse. We were all stoked for this summer tour we were going to do, and then an even longer hold was placed on my life.
At first, it was kind of maddening. It's always different when you make the decision, but it’s very different when your ability to work is no longer possible. My micro life has been pretty stable. I just got done working on a score. I work from home. I have a little studio up in the attic.
But as a function of everything that happened this year, I’ve learned how to better articulate and respect boundaries.
That’s been a difficult lesson for so many of us. How does that lesson function alongside looking toward the future?
Before I went back to school, I was originally supposed to go to South America to tour and make a record in London and then go to Australia. I was saying yes to all these things because the last time I took a significant amount of time off, I didn't know what to do with it! When you take a person who is used to being stable at a certain momentum and then slow them down, everything gets off balance.
But in conversations with my friends and people that I tour with, it was clear it wasn’t going to work out anymore. I was super burnt out and not being healthy. So I took some time off and went back to school. At that time, I realized that I have a deep love for the artistic ideal of music, but if music isn't the thing that I do to make money, it's going to be fine, and it's not going to mean that my life is less important or less fulfilling. I just dialed back the arbitrary anxieties that I had constructed and put on myself, like who I needed to be and what service I needed to provide in my job.
It's been freeing. It's been challenging but ultimately super healthy for me—which is a privileged thing to say because it's been an economic disaster for some people. It's been fatal for people.
But it's good to acknowledge the little things that you've overcome as well. There's a sense of chaos when you're constantly moving around. You don't have time for the little moments, like waiting for a kettle to boil and seeing some crumbs on your counter. When you stop moving suddenly, you're like, "Okay, I notice this, but then what am I without it?"
Yes! One thing that I've talked to with a couple of my friends is how our relationship to constant productivity has been reexamined. For a while, it had swung the opposite way for me where I kept thinking, "I have no excuse not to be doing something productive all the time because I work from home now." But people remembered that we still have an emotional bandwidth of how much we can engage with.
All the information that we can absorb in one day is overwhelming, and it comes at us from 500 channels. My expectation for myself, the negative self-talk that I would have about not being productive, has helped me set more realistic expectations for everyone else and to realize the anxiety that I take out on others.
There is a lot of joy in figuring those things out and knowing that tomorrow it can be completely different. It isn't about lessening expectations for oneself. It's about shifting your goalposts, knowing that you will achieve something at some point if you put your mind to it and not putting that pressure on yourself.
Oh gosh, exactly. Not even expectations, but... Okay, yeah, I'm going to talk about it. I was just thinking, "Do I talk about capitalism?" It's only been like 10 minutes!
How can we not?
How can we not? We live in this consumer-product relationship-based society, and even though I know this is BS, it's hard enough for me to feel like this is my job because there are people digging ditches.
But it has also shifted how I quantify what my job and my life are worth. As you said, it's shifting goalposts. What metrics do I want to use on whether I'm doing the right thing? It's incredibly meaningful for me to be able to be like, "You know what? I'm so tired of looking at these emails about magazine articles and stuff that may or may not happen.
They're a mechanism of me being in the consumerist music industry," and just shut my laptop and go make my roommates a big yummy dinner. I've been cooking so much in quarantine. The other day I made curry from leaves. My ass was up there at the international market, like, "Let's see how this goes. I'm going to try."
You're giving yourself time to enjoy those things. And it's very problematic when those things don't bleed into the things you do for a living. When you get caught up in this concept of, "I play this music with this guitar, this is me," all the other things don't matter.
I fixated so much on my identity. I tried to make my identity and my career the same. Sometimes, taking every opportunity comes at the cost of not understanding when things are special or doing things performatively.
And it was all predicated in the back of my mind on this weird looming feeling, like, "Or what? If you don't play the show, then people aren't going to care about your music. If you don't do this, then you're not going to make money." And then still it comes back around to this weird thing where I'm fixated on my career security, when I should know better than anyone how imaginary career security is.
It's been a trip, but there can be time just to sit and look at your dog and be like, "You're a doofus. You're not worried."
There's that duality between concern and freedom on songs like "Hardline," this thin line between poison and medicine where the same thing can be redemptive and also destroy you. That concept seems to be so important to this moment in time.
For all of my understanding of the need for balance, it's something that you can regurgitate as a theory but not understand for so long. I could be like, "Sexuality is on a spectrum, everything's on a spectrum, but the thing that isn't on a spectrum is good and bad or right and wrong."
I'm not saying, "Do whatever! There's no right and wrong," but it ends up that when you reevaluate the things that you felt so strongly about, and they end up not being the most important thing, it's this wild loss. It's a very heavy loss to think, "Oh, the parameters that governed my life before are gone, and I don't know what to do without them. I don't even know if I was happy or if I was just doing what I was doing."
For that reason, the idea of hope and redemption amid darkness is complex on the album. How do you feel sharing that honest yet complicated relationship to hope?
Yeah, which is wild since the events on the record take place in some pretty hopeless zones of my life. On Turn Out the Lights, I was looking back on tragic or traumatic events but that were four and five years away from me, where I had distance and had processed.
I had this binary attitude about that bad person I was versus the better me I've become. And when I circled back around to see that I still had unhealthy coping mechanisms and they were just manifesting in new ways that were equally as bad, it shocked me. I had no idea what forgiveness or healing was about because receiving forgiveness involves a lot of pain.
It's a very humbling experience that gave me a very different idea about what love entails and what healing feels like. It's not always the alleviation of negative feelings. Sometimes there's a whole bunch of appropriate guilt. It's a new mental territory for me to be in that is better, hopefully.
I expected my first record, Sprained Ankle, to flop. In the deal that we signed with the smaller label that put it out before Matador, I was like, "I'm not gonna sign this deal unless my band is also signed," because I thought it would be seen as a solo album from the girl that was in this band. But it did well, and I wasn't prepared for it. And then I had this crisis four years ago when Trump got elected, and I was supposed to be taking time off to write a record.
I had this call with my manager and my booking agent, like, "I gotta be out on the road interacting with people. I've got to do something about this with the power of my art!" [Laughs] I wanted to craft this record where I was feeling a whole bunch of super dark things but had begun to feel like healing is possible, and I could get to a better place.
I felt this need to represent and reiterate that to listeners. But at the same time, it does feel good sometimes not to have to put a happy or hopeful caveat on the end of a song.
From a writing perspective, that must be freeing—which is itself a sense of forgiveness.
Yeah, exactly. I'm an anxious person. I've always struggled with anxiety. I have so many thoughts all day long where I'm like, "Did that person take this this way?" It got to the point where I was like, "I can't think about this this much anymore because it's a problem, and it's giving me a week-long panic attack." So I just do a mental exercise where I follow whatever new thing I'm catastrophizing in my head out to its most logical end. Like, "Do I think they're going to hate me forever, or do I think they're going to think something was a little rude."
Before, I just couldn't handle other people's emotions. But, weirdly, that's not giving them space to feel angry or annoyed or stressed. And so accepting how another person is feeling and then being like, "Can I live with this? Can I make a mental note not to do this again? Or can I make a mental note to do something more considerate and learn from this? Because obsessing over it right now is only going to lead me to panic and over-apologize and infuriate the person even more."
I want to preface this by saying that I'm not necessarily asking about specific experiences of addiction and sobriety but rather about the process of sharing. I've been sober for eight years, and discussing my experience has become second nature to the point that doing so almost steps me out of it. It almost takes on its own life and then depends on the listener to respond to it. How does that relate to how you share this experience via songwriting?
When I was writing Turn Out the Lights, it was having been multiple years sober and not having recent experience with those things. And it's super humbling to return to a place… it almost feels like some of this record is made up of songs that were cringing not out of spite towards who's listening to them or who they're about, but more just at myself. Like, "Can I get down to the ugliest thing that I can admit about myself? And then can I have that be the starting place?"
It's this weird masochistic thing. I want to be a good person really bad, but I've got so much anxiety about if I'm doing it right. And then I was like, "Well, what if I just admit that I'm not doing it right?" And it's just the adrenaline rush of when you cancel plans. Like, "I've just confirmed to my friends yet again that I'm a flake. I can have them not expect anything from me."
That’s what happened here. I was like, "Well, what if I'm still struggling with substance abuse? Or what if I radically change what I believe about God?" I thought I was doing so much to sculpt my personality and my identity. When I was the worst me possible, it was super freeing because all of my friends were still there being annoyed.
But the reason they were friends with me in the first place was never the things I cultivated about myself or that I tried to live up to crazy expectations. That made me feel like I could trust my friends to be my friends. I can trust people not to hold my mistakes over my head. I had had very specific and stringent ideals about politics, and about being straight-edge, and about how I would let my faith out in the world and what that meant.
And really, what I needed was problem-solving skills, patience and communication. It wasn't like, "I need just to read all of these anarchist zines, and then I'll know the right ideology to have." I just need to be a kinder, more stable person instead of fixating on some random thing.