Julien Baker has a nickname for the tight-knit group of friends she regularly attends church with: "the Island of Misfit Queers."
Like most descriptors that intersect faith and sexuality, when she uses the moniker, it’s natural to assume the five-foot, 95-pound singer of the world’s saddest songs is belying undercurrents of hurt and melancholy. But that’s just the type of stigmatic thinking Baker says she’s trying to break.
On a recent chilly evening in Toronto, the Memphis-born singer-songwriter sat outside her sold-out show and pondered her role in spreading a kinder, gentler Christianity.
“There are people who are explicit and people who are implicit, right?” she said in a voice too adenoidal for the soul-searching agony that’s ever present in her music. “Like I say, 'I think there is a God,' but I've seen Christian metalcore bands do altar calls at their shows and be like, 'Come get saved right now.' I think there's a subtler way, which is to say I'm being honest with my beliefs.
“I'm not going to force your participation in a conversation, I'm going to say I can be an example that these things can exist and don't have to be mutually exclusive. Like being a queer artist and being a Christian. Those things don't have to be mutually exclusive and I'm just going to be honest about them so that you know.”
Baker’s music, often performed with only voice and guitar, brings to mind the sonic solipsism of early Jeff Buckley recordings and the self-lacerating lyricism of Elliott Smith (it’s no coincidence she’ll appear later this year on a Smith tribute album).
Despite being only 20, Baker’s debut album, Sprained Ankle, describes a youth spent indulging in opiates and soul-searching. Shining light into caverns of a life spent questioning everything and often wondering aloud why God isn’t personally responding to her. The answer, she discovers by the album’s closing number, is that he’s been listening the whole time.
Below, Baker expands on that theory, placing breathing room between her faith and her music, recalling struggling with her own fear of God and why, despite its anti-LGBT law, she will still play North Carolina.
Your album is full of songs that are so personal as to feel intrusive. You originally self-released it before getting wide distribution, do you regret being so honest?
Maybe I would have catered the things I was saying to be softer or less revealing. With a song like "Good News," where I say I ruin everything I do, I wrote that song because I was legitimately sitting in my room thinking, "Julien, you're an idiot, you ruin everything." And now I've seen my friends go through seasons of mental health and I self-analyze those things in me and I realized that's not healthy self-talk, to use some jargon-y pop-psychology phrase. So I don't know if I would have put that in a song because I would have thought, "Do I want to be screaming that at kids every night?" But I also get to scream, "There is a God!" so it worked out.
But I don’t regret it. I've seen that vulnerability was a good thing, even though I didn't know it was going to be. I want to preserve that authenticity with whatever I do because I feel that I could make objectively great, aesthetic-pleasing art or I could make honest art, and I'd rather make honest art.
Do you see that as a duality? Your song "Everybody Does" has been streamed three million times on Spotify.
I don't care [about sales figures]. I know everybody says that but I know myself well enough to know that if I knew I would care, so I tell my manager and tour manager, "If it's possible, don't tell me quantitative data." I prefer qualitative data.
It's super cool to me when my manager screencapped Sharon Van Etten saying my album is great on Twitter and I about cried 'cause she's a hero. And that led to ... I got to have lunch with her! I got to meet a hero! Things like that. Or getting to play with the National. I don't say those things to be name-droppy but they seem more wholesome accomplishments than looking at numbers and graphs and saying, "Oh, I sold X amount of records" or "I have X amount of plays" because I'm worried that would poison it for me. I would think, "Well, why not this many more plays?!" I feel like it might get shallow with me. I'm a human. We all are.
Before we started recording, you told me you were reading Andy Greenwald’s Nothing Feels Good. Would you categorize your music as emo?
Well, Underoath was the first show I saw at the all-ages skate park [Laughs]. I think what kids who like heavy music are really looking for is the honesty and candour of it. Some kids just want to hear a heavy breakdown — sometimes I just want to hear a heavy breakdown — but I think they're looking for the vulnerability and willingness to open an honest conversation that I think is likely to happen at D.I.Y. scenes and scenes where you're playing floor shows and you're literally on the same level as the audience.
So you see yourself closer to the tradition of Christian folk?
I idolize Pedro the Lion and Noah Gundersen. I cried listening to “Jesus Jesus.” Maybe it's more prevalent in the south. Where I grew up, religion is an inherent thing. But I think a lot of people deal with spiritual issues and the scene is really quick to reject it like, "Oh, you believe in that stuff?" But I think we all have spiritual issues. But I don't want to get up on a platform.
It might be a bit too late for that.
If someone engages me at the merch table, I love talking about it. God is my favourite topic. But I'm never at the merch table like, "Have you heard the good news of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ?" I would never hit someone with that. I feel that is way too heavy-handed and does a bit more harm than good.
I don't consider myself a Christian artist. And there is a really good interview with Jon Foreman of Switchfoot in which he says I don't make Christian music because music can't be saved. I'm a Christian and, to employ a C.S. Lewis quote, gospel is the lens you view the world by so when I think about my behaviour, when I think about how I want to practise my music business behaviours and when I think about how I want to perform — the things I want to say and do — it's informed by the gospel and the image of love that I think Christ should represent.
Ultimately the most meaningful conversations I have [on the topic] are with atheists. Or my friends who are Muslims or my friends that are Hindu. And I'll say like, Saint Barnabas acknowledges Muhammad in his apocryphal gospel. Jesus is acknowledged in the Qur'an. I'm not going to pick this fight with you. God is God is God. And then once you've established a trust and respect it's like, "Cool, we can talk about it." I'm not going to change my mind but I'm not going to bludgeon you to death with an ideology that will alienate you.
Live and let live, fair enough. Where does that leave you on an issue like boycotting North Carolina over their anti-LGBT laws?
All you can do is be honest. Something like that [law] that is objectively wrong.
So how do you feel that Christianity is being used as the basis for that?
I believe that's an incorrect interpretation of the gospel. I believe that is something that doesn't display love. What it displays is a human failure to wrap our brains around the incomprehensible love and grace that Christ is supposed to represent. It's giving a soapbox to these people's hatred, cultural prejudices and giving Christianity a bad name.
I'm not standing up there every night saying "I am a gay Christian," but when I go into interviews and I say I am Christian and I am gay. When people ask me about God, especially when it relates to my sexuality, I want to be explicit because then a beautiful thing happens to me — it's happened three or four times, I'm not showered in f'n fan mail — but there's a girl that came up to me and was like, "I am gay and I didn't want to abandon my faith." She said, "Thank you for being who you are 'cause now I can be who I am."
That’s obviously a stigma you’ve faced your whole life.
Everyone knows about the Westboro Baptist Church and that's an extreme example but when you go to the south everyone's like, "Those gay-hating Christians, am I right?!" and I'm like, when I came out to my church in Memphis I remember I had this super emotional meeting with the worship pastor and I was like, "I've got something to tell you and I'm freaking out about it" and she was like, "What's wrong with you? Just tell me." And I was like, "I'm gay!" and she goes, "So?" And it just felt like it had to be a dream.
Same with my dad. I was terrified I'd be kicked out of the house and it'd be that guy from the Real World all over again. So he found out about me and my girlfriend and I went downstairs to talk to him and my girlfriend's there.
You didn't have the chance to tell him?
He found out. So I started crying and my dad hugs me and he brings my girlfriend into the hug and I say, "Dad I think I'm going to hell." And he's like, "Go get that Bible off the shelf." And I'm thinking I'm going to get holy watered and beat with the bible and he spent an hour like, this is what the bible really says. You're not going to hell. And walked me through that.
I'm spoiled because I've heard story after story of people getting kicked out of their church, of people being sent away to pray away the gay foundations. And I know that that exists but it's never been my experience. I've seen the other side of the coin. And I know that that exists, too.
So, with that being said, will you play North Carolina?
I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan and I thought, "Cool, he said he wasn't going to play it? That's awesome!" and then I saw that Against Me! and there was another trans hardcore band that were joining the conversation but going to play it anyway. And that's how it should be: straight artists that have their right to say we're going to withdraw our support and then LGBT artists being like we're going to play it anyway. You can't stop us from expressing ourselves. You cannot ignore us. We will come here anyway. I would play. I would definitely play. I'm here. You can't make me leave.