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God, shame and redemption: how Julien Baker just wrote her best album yet

A portrait of Julien Baker
(Image credit: Alysse Gafkjen)

Julien Baker has been busy with an all-consuming lockdown project: a “pound-skinny” rescue puppy with floppy ears called Beans. When I call her to talk about her new album, Little Oblivions, she’s in a practice space in Nashville, trying to subtly stop Beans from chewing on cables in-between sentences. 

It doesn’t work. When I ask if she’s speaking to a dog, she audibly beams. “As much as she gets on my nerves, I’m just like, man, I have no way to explain why I love this animal so much.” She’s laughing, clearly enamoured. “I thought I was not an animal person. I thought animals were cute, but I was like, ‘my life is just too fucked up. There’s no way I can take care of a living thing, I just don’t have it in me.’ Then I was like, oh no, I can!”

Baker’s transition to animal person is just one of a number of revelations she’s been having about her life in the last couple of years. The 25-year-old rose to prominence in 2015 with critically-acclaimed debut Sprained Ankle before following with 2017’s Turn Out The Lights, all while finding time to form indie-rock trio boygenius with friends Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. 

Recently, she took a break from touring to complete her final college semester and graduate. Taking on a combination degree of audio engineering and secondary education in English and liberal arts, she’s proud of taking that time to focus on herself. “I was so personally stoked about it," she says. "I dropped out and I thought I would just ramble and tour indefinitely, and I didn’t really plan to come back to school.

“It was nice to see myself in another context and think about myself as a student, and devote my mind to things that didn’t have to do with my professional life as a musician."

Baker is immediately generous with her feelings – a quality that is at once a facet of her warm, open personality and a result of years of intentional sobriety and therapy. She’s in touch with herself, with an understanding of who she is – and what her flaws are – that someone twice her age would be jealous of. 

It's a self-awareness that is hard-won. Her music generally speaks about her sobriety and addiction in the past tense, but Little Oblivions closes in on an era of recent personal crisis for Baker. Following a relapse in late 2018 and her consequent recommitment to recovery in 2019, her feelings around her identity, sobriety and faith were thrust into focus. 

“I made Sprained Ankle in my dorm room," she says. "It was very visceral. All of a sudden I had a manager and a booking agent and I was having to make another record. I tried to make this incredibly romantically dark, on purpose meaningful, conceptual message of an album,” she says. 

“With Little Oblivions, it was more like going back to the place where music is the vessel that can contain my scary and uncomfortable and painful thoughts.”

Coming to terms with the fact that she wasn’t technically a sober person anymore was difficult for Baker. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, she said that it all came to a head when she saw herself pictured alongside sober musicians in a piece on creativity and sobriety in GQ. The fingerprints of recent shame and revelation are all over Little Oblivions, in soft, tangible lyrics like, 'I could spend the weekend out on a bender/do I get callous or do I stay tender' and references to day-one AA chips.

 “When those things got brought back into focus, the belief systems that I had built up around my sobriety and being straight-edge just dissolved,” she confesses. “I returned to the fundamental issue of recovery, which is this cycle of teaching yourself that it’s better not to self-medicate yourself into oblivion. That is ongoing. It’s humbling."

Religion, too, is central to Baker’s music, and it’s something else she’s found herself reckoning with: “I’ve radically reevaluated my relationship to my faith,” she says. Her identity as a Christian Socialist is mentioned as frequently as her sobriety in interviews and articles, and so, her reassessment of her faith is also happening in the public eye. Wrestling with her image of herself as a perfect Christian didn’t come easy: “I thought I was going to be an anarcho-punk radical gospel person who was just gonna have one pair of shoes and one shirt and be vegan and change the world by giving everything up,” she laughs. 

Throughout her life, as she tells it, Baker has been compulsively dedicated to God. “I was just such a weird kid," she laughs. "There was a brief period where I thought I was going to try and be a nun. In high school! Like, ‘I could just be a nun.’ I was dead serious. What the hell was that about? No shade to nuns."

While she finds the zealous dedication of that child funny, Baker views her past self with sympathy. “I look back on that kid with genuine mercy. Not pity,” she says. "There’s also something so absolutely pure in how I was like, ‘if God exists, how is that not the most interesting thing in the world?’” She explains it to me, a heathen, like this: “Think about if you thought that by reading books or meditating or praying or doing any kind of religious practice, that you could better know the thing that invented you? Yeah, I would devote my whole life to that.” 

The plan was simply to read and get to know God, but somewhere along the line, she discovered music.

Baker pursued religion with the same clear-headed determination that she pours into her career, desperate to find perfection. “I was so hung up on discovering and refining my own principles to be the best version of what I thought was the Christian ideal," she says. "Then I was like: I have been missing the point of this whole thing so hard."

As an openly queer person, not instilling shame with her religion is of great importance to Baker. "There are also so many negative processes that are installed into specifically American evangelicals – but any denomination, like the belief that you’re fundamentally bad. You’re fundamentally lacking. That’s so destructive and I feel like that is something that drives people into all kinds of anger and shame. I don’t know how much I want to use my songs to espouse a message of brokenness and redemption instead of acceptance.” 

She found, too, that her mental health further complicated her relationship with religion. While she would still call herself a person of faith, she’s more aware now of how her obsessive compulsive anxiety disorder was co-morbid with her Christianity. “I’m finally starting to dismantle my beliefs," she says. "Why I have them, which I should give weight to, and which are just compulsive manifestations of my anxiety."

She confides in me that the form of OCD she suffers with is Scrupulosity. “It’s particularly about moral or religious things. It’s thought-based, like, I used to wake up at 4:30am when I was in college to read the bible for an hour. What is that about? But at the time, it seemed perfectly normal to crave an answer.” 

Through therapy, she says, she's learned that “the performance of the compulsion will never satiate whatever it is that you’re feeling. When the whole reward system falls apart, you’re like, what am I doing this for? Feeling like there’s a single answer is such a driver of anxiety and perfectionism, and obsession is thinking there’s a perfect way."

That drive also extends to her music. “Even something like, ‘I’m going to reach a point as a musician where I can do enough scales fast enough or I feel like I’m the best musician I can be.’ That point doesn’t exist. It’s a disappearing horizon, and so is being a good person.” 

At first, Baker felt devastated by her idea of "good and evil and god” changing. "The bottom fell out of everything – 'I don’t even know why I do any of the things I do anymore, so why continue to?' – it was very nihilistic there for a minute.” 

Now, though, she says the realisation is freeing.

Little Oblivions is a powerful, ambitious exercise in radical honesty. While she wanted to make the record more intimate than Turn Out The Lights, it feels fuller somehow, with Baker playing all of the instruments on every song, bar a couple of exceptions. Ever humble, it’s the exceptions that she wants to focus on. “I want to be so clear that I’m not just out of here playing these drum tapes straight through," she says. It was deliberate, because I wanted to have percussive elements that sounded undrummerly,” she says, elaborating on just how bad she actually is: “I am super bad at drums. Like, yeah, I played the drums, but it’s more like I imagined the drums. I hit the instruments. I don’t want people out here thinking I’m better than I am.” 

Her performance is unconvincing. The album is a feat of mastery, and a beautiful one at that. 

For Baker, though, it was an act of catharsis; a way to unload her shame, whether around religion or her re-commitment to recovery. “I think it’s a little bit more real to not be like, 'I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things', but to announce to whoever it is that’s listening that I’ve failed in this way and I am different for it. I have different ideas now,” she says. 

“It feels nerve-wracking but also relieving to just dismantle me having thought up all this insane responsibility to be the best person as an artist. It has been pretty therapeutic, and I think it’ll be meaningful to release.” 

Baker’s relinquishment of perfection is ironic at a time when she’s just released a near-flawless album. But I don’t tell her this. I don’t want to embarrass her. 

Julien Baker's new album Little Oblivions will be released via Matador on February 26 and is available to pre-order now