Debut album ‘Sprained Ankle' saw Julien Baker become an emo icon overnight. Returning with her superb second effort, ‘Turn Out The Lights', she's looked to friends, family and the past to provide the emotional inspiration for one of 2017's stand out records…
"I promise I won't take us down a contrived ‘What does emo really mean?' tangent, but it's interesting how that term has reinvented itself," muses Julien Baker when asked how she feels about the following she's garnered in the worlds of emo and punk, and the question seems to have ignited something inside the Tennessee native.
"It's no surprise to me," she says of the support she receives from the emo crowd. "That's the world I came out of, and it informed how I write lyrics. There's something outside of sonic and stylistic choices that is consistent with that scene. It's interesting how the term ‘emo' has changed its meaning, and how what it's getting at is peoples' need to emote; people looking for something that is… I don't want to say more honest, but it's something like that. There's so much music out there that I would consider emo that sounds nothing like traditional ‘emo', but to me is. Leonard Cohen is pretty emo to me. If you were looking at the criteria – cataloguing events in a very hyper-specific, personal experience, looking at an intense personal emotion and exploring it – then Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel are super emo. I like having a following in that world."
Julien pauses, almost aghast at what she has just said.
"Wow, that's so weird of me even to say, because I never think of myself in terms of a person who would have a following! But people who listen to me also like emo music, and maybe that's because emo is the style of music I most connect with."
It's a fascinating discussion and one that bands and music fans alike have grappled with for decades now. For some, the word ‘emo' instantly brings to mind bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy – the flagbearers for the mid-noughties post-pop-punk emo revival. For others, it means the emotional hardcore of Rites Of Spring, or the indie-leaning music of 90s emo pioneers Sunny Day Real Estate. Jimmy Eat World, Modern Baseball, The Hotelier, Manchester Orchestra and Death Cab For Cutie are other names that may spring to mind.
Despite this, one constant throughout the genre's transformations is that it has always been associated with bands. That is, until now.
With her 2015 debut album, ‘Sprained Ankle', Julien Baker tore-up the emo rulebook. This was one woman and a guitar; no frills, no bros and no bullshit. But at its core, it was very much an emo record. Jam-packed with emotion, this was a sorrowful, cathartic musical experience. Like Death Cab, MCR and Leonard Cohen before her, Julien Baker was looking into her soul and laying herself bare. She was, however, doing so with a tenderness we've never seen before.
Almost out of nowhere, she became one of the most talked-about names in alternative music. A sizeable fan-base and countless five-star reviews followed, including a perfect rating from Dork penned by this writer. We hadn't heard anything quite like the introspectiveness of ‘Sprained Ankle'.
Julien Baker had looked inside herself to find inspiration for her debut album, but fast-forward two years, and on the eve of releasing sophomore effort ‘Turn Out The Lights', she reveals how for this new album, she sought to explore the emotions of not just herself, but of those around her, too.
"As the process of making this record progressed, I had several different roommates and had interactions with my family members about their struggles," Julien recalls. "I was recognising that other people have this trauma they are sifting through, and that gave me some context as to how I understood them and how I understood myself. A song on the album called ‘Hurt Less' is about one of my best friends that I play music with, and how practising empathy with another person can be a means of teaching it to yourself. So the songs on ‘Turn Out The Lights' are still told from my perspective – I just wanted to try and not just focus solely on myself this time."
As well as looking to document the struggles of friends and family on her new album, Julien also used the writing to process for ‘Turn Out The Lights' as a means to reflect on ‘Sprained Ankle'. Her debut album might have been a critical and commercial success, but she wasn't content to write the record off as flawless and move on.
"Compared to ‘Sprained Ankle', I tried to be more conscientious as to what I'm saying and what the songs are really getting at this time," she explains. "I was going back and playing the ‘Sprained Ankle' songs over and over again and asking myself, ‘What motivated me to say these things? What beliefs are those songs telling me I have about myself?' Consequently, this record is a lot about exploring the treacherous and scary realm of mental health."
Again, there's a contemplative pause.
"Gosh, it sounds really pretentious to say this, but I talk about the psyche on the new album too. And I don't mean the psyche in terms of the conceptual or philosophical; ‘Appointments' and ‘Happy To Be Here' were some of the first songs I wrote for this record, and they were me trying to take a look at my mind and how to get better while being realistic. I was trying to figure out how to process sadness, instead of wallow in it or become enslaved to and defined by it."
It's apt that ‘Turn Out The Lights' contains a song titled ‘Happy To Be Here', as ‘happiness' is a concept that Julien grapples with the on the album. Happiness, she argues, is somewhat of a fallacy; a concept always on the horizon but forever out of reach.
"In recent years I've been making records and touring, and I've been in some painful relationships and seen new ones begin. With all of this change and transition happening, I've become of the opinion that happiness and joy are very different things," she says. "And that seems like I'm very particular and semantic, but happiness seems to be this idea that no-one can quite define – they feel it for a moment and reflect on a time when they were truly happy – and it seems to be very circumstantial, fleeting and a precarious thing to seek."
"I don't think I'm a naturally happy person, but I think I have a lot of joy; I guess I'm pretty goofy, but I experience a lot of anxiety, and most of my thoughts are a little heavy. But the way I go about dealing with that is choosing to approach things with an attitude of joy, and when I have the option between a positive and negative assessment of a situation, I try to be positive. No matter how much my immediate inclination or the genesis of my mental health issues motivates me to be negative, I try to combat that with joy. Happiness is something where I imagine if I'm this successful, make this amount of money, drive this car, if I had a partner that loved me in this way, if I felt more physically attractive, then I'd be happy. But if those things were to be achieved, there'd be new deficits we'd continue to discover, until we realise that we are eternally chasing something that's beyond us.
"Achievement or possessions may never make us happy, whereas I think joy is something that you can apply to your present circumstance. I try not to think, ‘If only I could stop having panic attacks I could be happy,' because I might never – that's a real possibility. But maybe if I could control them or learn to not hate myself for being who I am, then it wouldn't be such a consuming issue. So now, I still have panic attacks and anxiety, but I'm able to cope with them and be joyful about the person that I am."
She pauses before deciding to poke fun at herself.
"Did that all sound super self-help book?" she laughs. "Like me giving you the thumbs-up on the cover of the sleeve?"
Maybe a bit, but more than anything, Julien's words are sincere. ‘Turn Out The Lights' is not just an album for her, it's a gift to her fans; the lyrics an arm around the shoulder, a hand to hold and a reminder that – imperfections and all – you are perfect the way you are. It's telling you that no matter how bad things might feel, your life is precious, and it will get better.
"I hope this record provides some solace or encouragement to people," she says as our conversation draws to a close. "The way I was able to reassign meaning to the bleakness of ‘Sprained Ankle' was that it was made up of emotion, and emoting helps a person heal, and thus the bleakness can be repurposed as a positive thing. I want to be more intentional about this album being specifically for that purpose – to help a person really be okay with the things they find when they're introspecting, and not let sadness be a stagnant, final destination. I hope this record is a step along the way for people to get to a better place."
Taken from the November issue of Dork, out now. Julien Baker's album 'Turn Out The Lights' is out 27th October.