Julien Baker is a geek, and she doesn't care what anyone has to say about it. "I'm a big Tolkien nerd," she says with a laugh on the phone with Rolling Stone, a month after her three-week tour of Australia and New Zealand. "We had to go to Hobbiton," she says, "the Lord of the Rings set. Because I'm a giant dork."
Baker compares herself to Frodo Baggins' character in Lord of the Rings, "in a constant state of transit." The 22-year-old Memphis native was studying audio engineering at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro when she released her 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle. The subsequent wave of acclaim led Baker to put her schooling on hold, pack her bags and hit the road in support of major acts such as Paramore, the Decemberists and her Matador labelmates Belle and Sebastian. (On October 10th, she plays a high-profile gig at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, opening for Jason Isbell.)
A close examination of Baker's interior life as a queer Christian woman, Sprained Ankle also took on her personal struggles with faith, anxiety and substance abuse. She expands further outward on her upcoming album, Turn Out the Lights, out October 27th, a series of softly spun meditations on conflicts between her and her loved ones. Strings and organs mingle with her cyclic flutters of guitar, strengthening the impact of Baker's redemption songs.
"The record's less just about a single person's journey through feeling or coping with mental health," she says, "and more about how, [in spite] of those afflictions or challenges that every person encounters ... trying to advertise the capacity for empathy."
The first single, "Appointments," trails a relationship running on the fumes of a healthier time; in the video, Baker tries to go about a regular day in town, while dancers circle around her like specters. "Maybe it's all gonna turn out all right," Baker reflects, "and I know that it's not, but I have to believe that it is."
"Why is mental health stigmatized in our society?" she asks in reference to the song. "How awful and crushing of a thing is it that one of the most destructive issues a person can have is something that's so mysterious and imperceptible. You can't just Vulcan mind-meld yourself to them and feel their feelings. You can only come in as a guest. I could say I'm sorry, or I could say I understand, but I may not, and I may not ever. All I can say is I support them."
The new album was recorded in Ardent Studios in Baker's hometown of Memphis – currently managed by Jody Stephens of Big Star fame. Baker met Stephens while recording Turn Out the Lights: "He popped his head into the studio and was like, 'Can I come in here and listen to a few things?'" They wound up having a lengthy conversation. "He said, 'Everywhere else it seems like people are trying to kick each other off of the ladder, and in Memphis, everyone is just on their own ladder.' And I was like, wow, that's so brilliant, and true!"
Now residing in Nashville, Baker lovingly refers to the relationship between Nashville and Memphis as a friendly sibling rivalry. "I am a die-hard Memphis representative," says Baker. "Grit 'n' grind – I love my city! There's so many rich, cultural, musical aspects of Memphis. We don't get all the commercial A-circuit tours that Nashville gets, but we got the genius of Stax Records, we got Ardent, we got rock & roll. And there's such a vibrant contemporary scene here too. I have a support system in both cities, but in Nashville, it's kind of like a fishing net, and in Memphis, it's like chain mail. I want to be the chain mail."
Many of her collaborators on the album are childhood friends and artists she knew from her old stomping grounds at Memphis' Smith7 Records, an all-ages space where in her younger years she first flaunted a rainbow-colored mohawk and performed in an emo band called Forrister. At the time she spoke to RS, she says the last time she had been back home was to shoot an upcoming music video on a friend's farm. "I'd come back from tour and been in Tennessee for all of one hour," she laughs, "And we'd already managed to hop up on a tractor. Nothing had changed."
She says the album couldn't have come together without her friends' support. "I believe so much in my friends' art, all the time," she says. "So much of the record is collaborative with my friends – instead of consolidating all of the control and creative power in my individual vision, you need to delegate that out." She cites the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer: "All the prayers are written as 'we,' because it's not just about you," she says. "Everybody is seeking some peace. And so, you don't just say, 'Lord help me.' You say, 'us.' And 'we.'"
With a tour schedule like Baker's, prayer is mostly a solitary exercise, although she tries to attend church wherever she can, regardless of denomination – whether it's an LGBTQ-friendly Unitarian Universalist congregation in San Diego, or a French service in Brussels. "People say, 'Church is not a building, church is people,'" she says. "I would never impose my beliefs on someone else, especially an audience. But when I get to perform, and I get to share for a moment, all these strangers together singing the same thing? ... That's like church to me."
Baker sometimes pleases crowds with covers of Jawbreaker, Elliott Smith and Death Cab For Cutie songs; yet she felt the divinity of music most potently on election night 2016, while on tour with Kevin Devine and Petal, when she sang a hymn. "We were in Houston, Texas," she says. "Kiley [Lotz] from Petal is kind of in the same boat as me, negotiating her identity and [being] a person of faith in a non-traditional faith community. We were sitting backstage and watching the election results roll in, and we were just ... really bummed out. So I thought, 'Let's sing a song together, just something to celebrate or comfort each other.' I was like, 'Hey, Kiley, do you know, "It Is Well"?'"
"I [considered whether] some people were coming to escape the ever-present conservative Christian rhetoric that they're surrounded by," she continues. "I have a had a remarkably privileged experience with being queer. I have friends who have been excommunicated from their church, who have been ostracized by their family. ... What if I had ruined the safe space for them by singing a song from church? I was fearful, but I got out there [with Kiley] and said, 'The first line is "When peace like a river attendeth my way."'"
By the time the chorus kicked in, Baker says, "Kiley and I couldn't hear ourselves in the monitor over all the people singing. And to re-contextualize that song, which is about trying to find peace and happiness no matter what your circumstance ... both of us just started bawling. That moment was more worship to me than some sermons I've been to – when human beings just all came together to comfort each other out of love and support, and not knowing what the future holds."