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I Will Have Hope: Julien Baker On 'Turn Out The Lights'

Tuesday, 24 October 2017 Written by Huw Baines

It’s not always the case that a cover version tells us something about the artist performing it. Sometimes they barely register as an empty gesture. But Julien Baker’s take on Badlands - recorded live at the Newport Folk Festival last summer - is a perfect exception.

In her hands, Bruce Springsteen’s exultant shout out to minor victories lost all its bombast but none of its power. Baker proved that a worthwhile message, whether screamed from a rooftop or whispered, will always find its mark: it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

Those who caught Baker’s debut LP already knew her capacity to deliver moments like that. A hushed, contemplative record that foregrounded her remarkable voice, ‘Sprained Ankle’ immediately stood out for a couple of reasons: how spare its presentation was and how quickly its words made their way under your skin. It found its writer investigating some of the pillars of her identity - female, queer, Christian - and laying her findings on the line.

“To me writing a good song entails writing something that if you were to strip away all of the excess and reduce it to melody and the poetry of the lyrics, it would stand on its own and still be successful,” Baker says.

After a small run as a self-release, ‘Sprained Ankle’ was picked up by 6131 - a label more generally associated with punk bands and rough-hewn indie-rock. But Baker made it work. The clarity of her lyrical sentiments spoke to the emo crowd just as her stylistic choices landed close to folk-pop and singer-songwriter territory.

Her second album repeats that trick. These days Baker is swimming in one of the biggest indie ponds, having signed to Matador Records, but ‘Turn Out The Lights’ is sure-footed when avoiding the pitfalls of the bigger, louder second record.  

She works from a broader palette as a writer and producer - incorporating strings, keys and loops - but the most striking thing about it is the sense of space she creates. The album isn’t cluttered or strained and there are no extraneous elements. The songs are permitted to work in peace.

“A lot of my consideration around the instrumentation of this record involved trying to find that balance,” Baker says. “I didn’t want to produce another record that was guitar and voice and as sparse as the last one. That would have been recycling.

“But I also didn’t want to depart in such a dramatic way that it was alienating or seemed gimmicky. If I truly felt that what best served the songs was a drum kit and 10 tracks of heavy hitting distorted guitar then I would have done that. But I didn’t feel that it was.”

Something that characterises ‘Turn Out The Lights’ is the way Baker’s voice runs against the grain of songs that otherwise utilise repetition to create a feeling of circularity. Several share what she describes as “sister melodies”, while Appointments, the record’s first track proper, gradually evolves as its motif progresses from a piano to the rich echo of her guitar.

At the end, Baker breaks it open with a soaring, multi-tracked refrain: “Maybe it's all gonna turn out alright. And I know that it's not, but I have to believe that it is.” It suggests that we can, even if it's only for a brief moment, govern our own surroundings.

“As much as there are things that we cannot control, and circumstances are going to be imposed upon us outside of our ability to influence them one way or another, there are times when we can choose how we react, how we approach a situation,” Baker says.

“So much of me learning to cope with or, more appropriately, confront anxiety when my mind is telling me nothing will be OK, [is to] know that there are alternative perspectives that I can take even if I have to force them on myself and they become artificial. I will have hope, not because I believe in this moment there is the possibility for hope, but because I believe improvement, at least change, is an inevitability.”

Sour Breath works in a similar manner to Appointments, ending with perhaps the LP’s starkest line: “The harder I swim the faster I sink.” Baker’s distorted yell is a full stop to another song that’s otherwise held to a rigid structure, reflecting its lyrical focus on recurring thought patterns.

“That tag at the end...that song is one that’s particularly explicit and direct. It’s an examination of what it feels like to be in a relationship and also be dealing with internal issues and grappling with mental health,” Baker says. “It’s trying to find the way to communicate with another person while also taking care of what’s going on with you.

“I don’t want to say it’s cognitive dissonance between what you know you should feel and what you do feel, or what you feel like should be happening and what keeps happening...that last line is, hopefully, repeated just because there are a lot of times when healing involves learning how to break out of things that you have a habit of thinking that are maybe illogical or irrational but that are habitual: nothing that I do is working, I cannot fix myself...the harder I swim the faster I sink.”

Both songs speak of the record’s overall rejection of absolutes. Throughout, Baker acknowledges that our desire to neatly fence off everything in our lives - either good/bad, happy/sad, fixed/broken - is self-defeating. Sometimes we’re busted up inside and able to laugh about it. Equally, even the most genuine smiles aren’t permanent.

The album’s last words belong to an electrifying song called Claws in Your Back, where Baker addresses that idea directly. They are delivered with a telling reminder of the alarming power of Baker’s voice: “I think I can love the sickness you made. I take it all back, I change my mind. I wanted to stay.”

“People are never arriving at the final iteration of themselves,” Baker says. “Until we’re done living we’re eternally becoming. That’s lofty and sounds like I’m a new-agey artist diving into some deep philosophical concept because I’m pretentious, but what I’m getting at is [...] I experience a lot of pain, but that doesn’t mean I can’t feel joy at the same time.  

“I don’t think, as human beings, we get to a point where we say: ‘Alright, I’m stable, I’m fixed, that’s it. Stamp a ‘healthy’ sticker on me.’ That’s not a reality. Maybe it’s better that we come to terms with pain and our brokenness as just another beautiful thing about the human experience.”

‘Turn Out The Lights’ is out on October 27 through Matador.

Julien Baker Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon November 06 2017 - BRISTOL Lantern
Tue November 07 2017 - LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
Wed November 08 2017 - GLASGOW CCA
Thu November 09 2017 - DUBLIN Whelans
Fri November 10 2017 - LONDON Union Chapel

Click here to compare & buy Julien Baker Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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