With only a single record under her belt, and at just 21 years old, Julien Baker is already well on her way to becoming a driving force within the music universe. After releasing her debut album, Sprained Ankle, late in 2015, 2016 was the year that saw that record break out and reach new highs. Spending much of the year heavily touring and garnering even heavier acclaim—she was featured in prestigious outlets such as The New Yorker and The New York Times—Baker’s star continued upon its massive upward trajectory.
Baker’s music is intensely personal, cut from the same cloth as performers such as Elliott Smith—whom she covered last year—and Bon Iver, often sounding like she was simply strumming along to the guitar in the privacy of her own home, raw vocals included. With the beginning of a new year, Baker is moving to a new label: indie powerhouse Matador Records, which currently houses fellow fast rising up-and-comers Car Seat Headrest, genre mainstays like Kurt Vile, and established acts like Queens of the Stone Age and newly-returning Spoon. With the move also comes the release of a new single, “Funeral Pyre,” which continues with the direct, emotional crescendos of her earlier work.
With her tour and the holiday season only barely in the rearview mirror, Baker was relaxing in a surprisingly brisk-weathered Tennessee (“It’s cold in Memphis, I can only imagine what it’s like up there,” she told me). We caught up about some of her favorite music of the last year, the move to Matador, and eventually releasing some more new music.
Brooklyn Magazine: I saw your list of favorite albums of 2016 recently—which, if any, of those impacted you the most?
Julien Baker: Man, it was so interesting, because I was thinking about my favorite records that came out this year, and one of them was Keaton Henson’s Kindly Now. The top two are that one and Low Teeth by Every Time I Die. Because they’re both so… OK, they’re diametrically opposed in genre, and sonically, vastly different. But I think in both of them, the composition is really interesting in that they are about really personal things in the artists’ lives, but they’re discussed in such an intelligent and insightful way. I think there’s a lot of poetry of the lyrics. The sweeping opus of the Keaton Henson work, with the string arrangements, and beautiful piano tunes, and then a more visceral, unorthodox kind of poetry in the Every Time I Die stuff. And then also, this record from Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster was one of my favorites from this year, because I loved Water Liars’ stuff, and I think his record that came out, Constant Stranger, it just really achieved a lot of dynamic with such little instrumentation, and that’s something I always respect, doing the most with the fewest tools. It can be an indicator of artistic aptitude, if you will.
I always find it so interesting to hear how artists perceive other artists’ work. A home for so many of those great artists through the years has been your new label. Can you tell me a little about what went into the decision to sign with Matador?
A lot of things. When you’re thinking about who you’re going to partner with in any sort of partnership, there’s an element of space involved, because you have to trust that the other party’s interests are going align with your own, and I think that’s even more difficult when context of your work together is, for me, as an artist, it’s my work. Basically, my whole life.
So, it was a really a difficult decision, but it was one that I felt like… Matador, in all of our conversations, it was the kind of approach that kept coming up from the people that work there is that they are interested in something beyond the superficial attractive qualities of music. If it’s a catchy song, or whatever. Obviously, all of the artists are people who produce quality music, but there’s something more meaningful there, that I think is what people at that label identify and connect with. So, you have, like a Savages, a Perfume Genius, a Cat Power—all of those are vastly different genres, but like in the sense that they are producing honest art that I think each of the artists that I just listed are very brave, and they’re into pioneering new sounds.
They sound unlike anything else, and I think that is a principal quality of the label, that they want to support each artist being the best version of themselves that they can be, not the platonic ideal of an artist. They’re not there to shepherd an artist into a fox, or into compliance with what makes a musician successful, but just to foment the ideas that that artist has, and I think that adoration for music, and genuine love for creating, and desire to help artists further their career in whatever sense that may be, is something that seems really honest and attractive to me, as someone who wants that freedom to pursue art in whatever capacity.
Totally, totally. I think that sounds like such a good match, especially for your style of music and instrumentation. I’m excited to hear what comes out of it.
Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
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Your new single, ”Funeral Pyre,” is out now as well—it originally debuted in your NPR Tiny Desk Concert last year—has that track evolved at all in the time since?
I mean, the recording is virtually a more polished version of the live performance, because in my writing I write just with the tools at my disposal, so the live performance ended up being pretty similar to the recorded version. You know, because it doesn’t have much embellishment. I think it has evolved, just like all live songs evolve or change throughout performances, but I mean, it’s virtually the same song that I played there. We played a lot of dates this year, and I always get antsy to perform these songs, so we did that one new one, and it’s been nice to be able to perform it and have it semi-released, but i’m happy that it’ll be in a tangible format now.
What else can we expect from you in 2017?
It was a long touring year last year, so this year I think taking some time off of the road, and with all of the material that I’ve been working on, I can try to get into the studio and start recording, to release another record—hopefully soon. I don’t know exactly when that will be, but I’m excited for recording soon.
Would you say the aim would be to get that out this year, or is it still up in the air?
Yeah, I’m hoping to have it out this year. But again, I’m so reluctant to say timeframes, because especially in this weird world of creating and releasing art, things have shifting deadlines. Ideally it would be out at the end of the year, but I’m, of course, the most non-committal human being. I always want to make a disclaimer to cover my bases. I don’t know. I hope that it will be, though. I’m excited! I’m antsy to release new stuff.
Featured photo credit: Nolan Knight
Julien Baker’s new 7” for “Funeral Pyre” will be released on March 17, and is available now digitally. She will also continue with a short run of tour dates, listed below:
01/18 Milwaukee, WI @ Pabst Theater w/ Ben Gibbard
01/19 Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall w/ Ben Gibbard
01/20 Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall w/ Ben Gibbard
02/17 Davenport, IA @ GAS Feed & Seed Fest
02/18 Champaign, IL @ The Accord w/ Thunder Dreamer
04/22-04/23 N. Charleston, SC @ High Water Festival w/ Avett Brothers, The Shins, Shovels & Rope, Dawes, Lucius, Charles Bradley
05/24 Jena, DE @ Trafo
05/25 Berlin, DE @ Kantine am Berghain
05/28 Hamburg, DE @ Aalhaus
05/29 Munster, DE @ Pension Schmidt
05/30 Heidelberg, DE @ Karlstorbahnhof
05/31 Munich, DE @ Milla
06/05 London, UK @ Bush Hall
06/06 Manchester, UK @ Deaf Institute
06/09 Porto, PT @ Primavera Sound
06/10 Amsterdam, NL @ Paradiso