Julien Baker on ‘Little Oblivions:’ ‘I just wanted to tell people how wretched I thought I was’

A lot of musicians establish narrow but firm boundaries between their lives and their listeners; not Julien Baker, a singer-songwriter who’s spent her career trying with every song to get to the blinding edge of honesty and immediacy about her choices. On “Little Oblivions,” her latest, Baker offers an uncommonly candid assessment of herself, her life, and her likelihood to improve or change for the partner and other people in her life to whom she holds herself accountable. 

It’s a record where you’re quickly and repeatedly disabused of the traditional musical notions of romantic thrall and loss — or perhaps a better way to describe it is to say she leaves the good and bad intact, pleasure with pain, kindness with cruelty. She achieves a rare kind of intimacy with her songs, steeped in a legacy that began before the likes of Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon, and carried through alt-rock iconoclasts like Alanis Morrissette to contemporaries such as Phoebe Bridgers, whom Baker considers both a friend and an influence. The beauty of the melodies stands in stark contrast with unflattering characterizations of herself in the lyrics, or at least the “her” who transcribed her shortcomings and set them to music, in order to help listeners find grace where she grants herself none. 

Baker recently spoke to Entertainment Voice about “Little Oblivions” and the inspirations that drove her to reveal herself so openly, and painfully. In addition to talking about some of the influences who help keep her honest as a singer and songwriter, she reflected on the unpleasant experiences, and unhealthy perspectives, that make her such a mesmerizing and unique artist, and finally what kind of growth, closure, or catharsis she achieves — and for whom — after laying herself so bare, over and over again, in her music. 

Maybe just to sort of get started, confession is such an important cornerstone of your songwriting. I’m curious where you experience a sense of relief — is it in putting these words down on paper? Is it singing? Is it having a listener hear them and sharing a sentiment? Where does that expression receive some kind of catharsis for you?

It’s actually interesting that you use the term confession. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about what that means, because there is a tendency I feel to call music confessional, particularly music made by non-male artists. It kind of indicates this disclosure of a wrong. And I’ve had a couple of conversations with my friends about does the adjective ‘confessional’ when applied to music, communicate that the person is at fault? [Because] I guess that would be antithetical to, I don’t know, a woman who is trying to make space to have rage and pain and not have it be negative. But in my music specifically, I feel like confessional is a lot of the time a very apt word to use because many of the songs on this record, the first person who I am confessing to is myself. Music has been a tool for me since I started playing it when I was a kid, for self-analysis, for better understanding myself and my own thoughts and for having this little bit of a private space to interrogate my real feelings and not feeling like I’m going to be punished for saying them out loud in a song, the way that people might react negatively to me saying something like that out loud in a conversation. But also it’s like, what is the purpose? So for me, I got really disillusioned with a lot of the ways that faith traditions carry out community in the past couple of years. And I was just thinking about like, well, what is the purpose of confession? What do we actually want from it? Do you confess because you think you’re going to be stoned to death in a circle for the things that you have done? Hopefully no, hopefully the point of confessing is to make your mistakes known to a community because the only way for you to seek help about what’s actually going wrong or to get other people’s input on how to change your behavior, how to live a healthier life is to disclose the reality that you’re facing instead of hide it, right? So I almost feel more comforted disclosing all the worst parts of myself to the listener because, A, then I don’t have this looming imposter syndrome over me making me think that I am intentionally hiding things about myself and, B because the more that I acknowledge the wrongs that I have done publicly, I hope that sets an example for people being able to extend themselves mercy and compassion for their mistakes, but also voluntarily holding themselves accountable in the public for their mistakes in a way that is less punitive and judgmental and more constructive.

Well, do you extend that mercy then to yourself through the act of songwriting and performance?

I think as I’ve been talking about this record in interviews, I’m recognizing that when I think about the mindset of the person who was writing and producing these songs, I would say no. I had a lot more, not sinister, but a lot more fatalistic ideas about why I felt compelled to be so candid about the things happening in my life. And I think it came from a place of disappointment in myself that was wrapped up too in shame. And so I think what I was initially trying to do with these lyrics — for myself, to serve my own emotional purposes, it felt like a lot of these songs were very reactionary. They were me sort of being a masochist and focusing in on all the ways in which I had failed myself and my loved ones and my family and creating a document of them to, I don’t know, to dismantle any good idea that anybody could have had of me because with positive regard comes responsibility, right? With friendships, with forgiveness, with people liking the person that you are comes — and this is a really cynical way to look at it — the fear of disrupting it, right? Joy, love, those things are vulnerable because they require maintenance and work. So, I don’t know. I just wanted to tell people how wretched I thought I was. And then I spent a lot of time talking about and listening to these songs and rehearsing them with a band. And I think now I’m much more in a position where I have enough distance from those songs to have compassion towards the person that wrote them.

So do you look at the person who wrote those songs as yourself, or is the act of putting all them together and completing them a way of perhaps giving yourself a sense of forgiveness? Or how important then is it to find a way to forgive yourself either literally or artistically?

Well, there is an amount of externalizing that goes on when I write songs and then I look at them with new information, multiple years down the line. But what’s been helpful to do is to stop thinking that there’s this duality of the self — and again, that’s something that seems innocuous, but that is actually pretty an emotionally unhealthy idea to instill in people that I think comes from the church’s misunderstanding of faith, but the idea that you are constantly trying to overpower your negative human nature and that you are supposed to do that by sheer force of will, and that you are supposed to create this dichotomy — the bad self, whatever the flesh or the human flawed part of you, and then the good part. But I don’t think that it is actually possible to cleave the elements of the personality so neatly like that. And especially now, it’s helpful for me to understand that there is not such a binary way of looking at righteousness or goodness or healthiness. It’s helpful for me to understand that as much as I can try to change my behavior moving forward, I have made mistakes in the past which I can’t blame on some Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde second self. The mistakes and the hurtful things that I’ve done are very much a part of me, and I’m capable of doing those things as much as I’m capable of being a kind person or being a loving person, and making space for those things to be okay — instead of demonizing the parts of yourself that you don’t like, learning to forgive them and be patient with them — is a little bit more helpful for me reconciling.

Your music comes from a proud and well-established tradition of people who turn their lives into this wonderful evocative, relatable music. Are there artists who you look up to or reference frequently to keep your sense of honesty attuned to sort of the right frequency to share in a way that seems authentic or specific enough?

I mean, honestly, I look at Phoebe [Bridgers] and Lucy [Dacus]. They’re my friends and I have a chance to have formed a relationship with both of them many years ago. And I’ve had the chance to watch them and talk with them through the records that they’re releasing, through the songs that they’re singing, and the experiences that they are having in the public. I respect and admire them as musicians beyond my ability to articulate it, but they’re my very good friends. And I talk to them about those things regularly, particularly because we’re all kind of the same age, we’re queer women, we are experiencing the same kinds of things. And so they have been incredibly meaningful to me as friends, just watching them navigate ‘what should I disclose and what should I keep for myself,’ and learning how to speak. But that said, thinking about people that when I was younger, the people that I was watching and listening to, I’m always thinking about David Bazan. Like I was just a huge Pedro the Lion fan. And man, I remember there’s this one song; it’s like a fairly popular song of theirs, but it’s called “Options,” and there’s this lyric, “so I told her I loved her and she told me she loved me / and I mostly believed her and she mostly believed me.” And it’s like, man, that was the first time that I had heard a song about love that wasn’t either pining dramatically over a breakup, or soaring with starry-eyed infatuation. It was this song that is a story about the ways in which people actually love each other, and the ways we actually treat the people that we claim to love. And that whole record is, and I mean, David Bazan one of the most self-aware songwriters that I know. And I remember that song making such an impression on me because finally someone had the guts to say what was really going on instead of being like, “Oh, I love you so much.” Or “we were supposed to be together forever and now you’re gone.” It felt so heavy to me in a good way.

You have this extremely empathetic embrace of the sort of totality of people, the good and the bad, in a really interesting and a very compassionate way. I’m curious what’s next for you, but more so in the sense of what insights do you take away from making a record like this?

I honestly think that the process of making and releasing this record has allowed me to dismantle a lot of the illusions that I had about music or about myself as a musician in the public sphere. And given me a lot of humility, A, which I think is essential, but B it’s helped me prioritize the things about my music that are actually important to me, the things that are actually fulfilling to me and to feel maybe more empowered to follow those things instead of, I don’t know, trying to be this perfect ideological example or this spokesperson about queerness, about faith, about being a woman in the music industry. Those are all important pursuits to me. However, I used to feel that the only way to make my music valuable was to make it have some perceivable effect on the public, in that very specific politicized way. And I think now making music for me, it’s always been completely autobiographical, but now it’s like I have been empowered in the understanding that the music that I make is worthy. Not because it is a tour de force or it’s the greatest musical arrangement that anyone’s ever heard, or if it’s going to change somebody’s life. But it’s important because my releasing music into this world sets an example before all of the things that can be inferred about my queerness, my face, my sobriety, and all of those things about my identity. Merely the act of releasing art into the world, I hope is an example that will empower people to believe that their creative pursuits have value and that their experiences matter and the attention deserves to be given to their art or to their craft. And that’s all that I can hope for in a real sense. I think, instead of saying that I’m disillusioned or jaded, I think I just have a much more grounded idea of what I’m doing with music and what I want from it and what I can achieve realistically.

Little Oblivions” released Feb. 26 on Apple Music.