“Sorry, this is all I think about all day long,” she says on a video call. “I wish it weren’t. I wish I thought about other stuff, but I just think about the nature of God and freak out.”
Baker sits on the top floor of her Nashville home on a late January afternoon, just weeks away from releasing her third solo album, “Little Oblivions,” out Friday. The 25-year-old singer-songwriter speaks quickly but deliberately, slowing down when the conversation gets heavy to ensure she speaks truthfully to her own experiences without disregarding anyone else’s. The level of care suggests her growing acceptance of the unknown.
Losing conviction is a central theme of “Little Oblivions,” a dozen tracks that are louder and fuller in sound than her previous work, and that she says reflect her restructured priorities. Over the course of a difficult 2019, she began to let go of the dogmatic beliefs that didn’t serve her well. She had been taught to value her mind over her body, which led her to view her sobriety as a mental power she exerted over herself. But as she struggled to stay sober, what sense did it make to maintain that hierarchy?
The record reflects Baker’s rejection of the dichotomy between body and mind. Her music has always delivered a punch to the gut, but this batch of songs finds new depths to that viscerality. She says didn’t consciously lean into tactile writing, whether singing of the “gore of our hearts” or the “medicine and poison” burning through her stomach. It poured out of her as she emerged from the dissociative space she had fallen into.
“That’s a hard place to be, when you’re dismantling everything you believe about yourself as an artist,” she continues. “I’ll undoubtedly look back at these lyrics and think they’re pretty bleak and negative — even by the metric of my writing, they’re pretty dark. But I think I needed to do that, to really just kick around in the wreck and the gross stuff and really see what was there instead of trying to ignore that it existed.”
Growing up in Memphis, Baker didn't attend fire-and-brimstone services, but the "lovey dovey" sort held in rented strip malls. It was "rock-and-roll church, where they were like, 'Jesus is cool! We've got electric guitar solos and everybody's wearing jeans!' "
The nondenominational churches preached the endless grace of God, but there was cause for his shows of benevolence. In the years leading up to her coming out to her parents at 17, Baker was taught, in her words, that “God is so loving that he forgives you for being fundamentally flawed in a way you can never fix because you’re a dirty, evil sinner.”
“It’s like, ‘Thank you, God,’ you know what I mean?” she says sarcastically.
She turned to music, playing in a post-punk band called Forrister and immersing herself in the “emo revival” (the quotation marks are hers). She only started writing for herself as a student at Middle Tennessee State University, where she recorded demos alone in her dorm room. They soon became the album “Sprained Ankle.”
Success found Baker early. She uploaded the EP to Bandcamp, where it attracted enough attention to reach the indie label 6131 Records, which officially released it in 2015. Her audience grew rapidly; within a year, she was written up in the New York Times and performing an NPR Tiny Desk concert.
Gratitude turned into an obligation to “repay the good that had come to me,” Baker says. Given the narratives of healing and resilience that had emerged from a year of speaking candidly about faith and the substance abuse of her teen years, Baker approached her next album — 2017’s “Turn Out the Lights,” released by indie stalwart Matador Records — with the intention of making a “positive contribution” to society.
“I thought, ‘Well, I suppose I’ve been given a modicum of credibility on this subject, so I need to speak thoughtfully to it. That’s my duty as an artist to the world,’ ” she says. “What ended up happening is that I made a really technically beautiful, well-meaning record that isn’t censored . . . but there is a lot of my own retroactively shaping the narrative I had.”
“Turn Out the Lights” debuted to near-universal acclaim. Whereas the sparse “Sprained Ankle” plays as a diary of raw apologies and laments, Baker’s sophomore outing builds to a reckoning. She doesn’t hesitate to dive into the pain she endured and unwittingly inflicted, whether related to mental illness or substance abuse, but dares herself to challenge the pattern. The single “Appointments” concludes with Baker trying to convince herself that “maybe it’s gonna turn out all right/ Oh, I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.”
The lyrics are specific to Baker’s feelings of isolation on her journey to a healthier way of living, but they speak to a universal desire for reassurance in distressing times. Her mind used to wander while she was onstage, thinking about how everyone in the crowd each led their own life full of baggage and trauma and accomplishments. It can be “overwhelming to just think of the magnitude of experience that you will never understand,” she says.
Baker began to take herself “too seriously,” evaluating her worth by how her music played in a commercial context. After wrapping up a tour with Boygenius, the group she formed in 2018 with singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, Baker relapsed. She took a break from touring; stepping away from her job as a performer forced her to look inward, to piece together a sense of self she hadn’t realized had been falling apart.
Her approach shifted. “Little Oblivions” isn’t about healing, but catharsis.
“I was just living my life as an individual,” Baker says. “That helped me feel like my higher duty was to accurately report what was going on in my own psyche, instead of trying to align with the best version of myself that I was trying to project as an example.”
There isn’t a shred of artifice on “Little Oblivions,” its honesty palpable enough to make listeners flinch. On “Song in E,” she admits that “it’s the mercy I can’t take,” the feelings of indebtedness to loved ones who continue to support her. On “Favor,” she wonders how long she has left “until I’ve spent up everyone’s goodwill.” The track features backing vocals by Bridgers and Dacus, who said Baker has pushed her as a songwriter.
"When I first started writing music, I felt like there had to be something uplifting about the songs in order to feel like I could share them, or some actively good element," Dacus said. "Julien's helped me expand what that means. Sometimes it's good to just dwell in the most difficult stuff you can imagine. I think she's gotten even better at that."
After canceling tour dates in 2019, Baker returned to school and wrote an 8,000-word thesis on synesthesia. She had received little guidance from her adviser other than, "Don't make it too hard on yourself. Sent from my iPhone." So naturally, she went all-in.
"I've always experienced music as color," she says. "I like playing the piano because it feels like watercolors. I don't know how else to explain it. Even wrong notes have a place."
Baker is surrounded by instruments on the video call, including a guitar positioned just slightly out of the frame. Dacus referred to her as a "guitar wizard," noting that Baker schleps around a giant pedalboard and played most of the other instruments on the Boygenius record — keyboard, mandolin, you name it. Bridgers added that her bandmate's musical abilities would make her a "very intimidating collaborator" if not for her kindness. She described Baker as a "crazy guitarist, crazy drummer and a huge gear nerd."
"Little Oblivions" embraces a full rock band sound, calling back to Baker's Forrister days. Again, she played almost all the instruments herself. It wasn't a deliberate decision to fill out the sound, but one that became apparent as she tossed out the arbitrary limits she had placed on her songwriting. "Hardline" opens the record with blaring organ chords that melt into the background as Baker's vocals kick in, narrating her relapse. Drums and the guitar amp up a sense of urgency, quickening the pulse as she wonders, "Would you hit me this hard if I were a boy?" (a brutal lyric that can read literally or otherwise, an instance of how Baker's writing still leaves room for listeners to interpret).
"I pushed myself so hard to try to be competent in all these instruments because I wanted to have the maximum level of control and prove my legitimacy as a musician, but nobody but me is feeling that impostor syndrome," she says. "If I'd had somebody else play the drums, nobody would've been like, 'Fake musician!' Oh, anxiety. It makes you do all kinds of things."
Baker's Forrister bandmate Matthew Gilliam plays the drums in live arrangements of tracks from "Little Oblivions," as showcased in their January performance on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." She loves that there's a clear derivative line between the record and the music they listened to as high-schoolers. (Anyone who listens to "Hardline" should be able to sense her teenaged affinity for Manchester Orchestra, she adds.)
Perhaps more notable is how Baker's music captures her evolution since that time, as a Christian and an artist learning to let go of the rules. She says she no longer thinks of God as a personified being pulling the puppet strings. Maybe she only held onto the notion of a preordained path in life because she was afraid to be wholly responsible for her own.
Baker doesn't know if God meant for her to be a musician, or whether she decided it for herself. What she does know is that music helps keep her head on straight.
"What makes people anxious is the unwillingness to accept uncertainty, but it's just kind of a defense mechanism," she says. "At the end of the day, if I write as truthfully as possible, if I take a fearless moral inventory of myself and put it in a song, then nobody can tell me that I'm being dishonest."