Q-and-A: Julien Baker on ‘Sprained Ankle,’ performing with the National and MTSU

Julien Baker (MTSU Sidelines/Matt Masters)

Photo by Matt Masters // Sidelines Archive

Julien Baker, an English major at MTSU, has been on the rise in the music world over the past year. Since the release of her album Sprained Ankle, the young singer-songwriter has embarked on two tours across America and amassed tons of recognition for her work. She’s made a music video for the title track of the album, opened for The National, released three videos through an OurVinyl session and signed with 6131 Records (just to name a few of her accomplishments).

In addition to this, you still may see her walking around campus on MTSU; her ability to balance getting a degree with a blooming music career is incredible.

The 20-year-old’s much buzzed-about album even landed at No. 49 on Paste Magazine’s 50 Best Albums of 2015 list, in addition to reviews from Pitchfork and The New York Times and a write-up in Rolling Stone. The Memphis native has gone from playing local shows with her former band, Forrister, to selling out venues states away in just a matter of months.

Sprained Ankle itself is deeply personal; with it, Baker created a unique brand of hauntingly sad rock and roll. With lyrics such as “come visit me in the back of an ambulance; a saline communion that I held like a séance on the blacktop, the devil in my arms says feed me to the wolves tonight,” “make my insides clean with kitchen bleach, I’ve kissed enough bathroom sinks to make up for the lovers that never loved me” and “you’re gonna run when you find out who I am, I know I’m a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you’d never touch,” her personal narrative comes to life. It centers on rehabilitation from destructiveness — something deeper than heartbreak, hospital visits and the existential ponderings of a young life.

We interviewed Baker about a year ago before her big break, and now we’ve followed up with her fresh off a recent tour to get a better perspective on her experiences:

What is the coolest experience you’ve had in the past year?

This is a difficult one … I think one of the coolest memories I have made was playing at Rough Trade in Brooklyn on this last tour. Not only was it at a venue that is particularly meaningful to me because of its historical significance in the scene, but the show was with Eskimeaux, a group of musicians I look up to a lot, and it was sold out. The crowd was so receptive, I got to talk to so many people afterwards. I was overwhelmed by how lucky I am to perform these songs and get to interact with people who are strangers but who somehow share a very intimate connection with the songs — and, by extension, with me. Quite the humbling experience, but very precious (Also, after the show, me and all my buddies went and got midnight vegan pizza at this awesome place called Vinnie’s Pizzaria — needless to say it was a good day).

How have the experiences of your first tour with Ryan Azada and your recent tours differed?

This is the first tour that has been handled by a booking agent, and so things were a lot more organized and formal — for instance, Emma, my long-time friend and tour manager who has been out on the road with me and/or Forrister for years actually had to advance with venues and schedule things; it wasn’t as lax and casual as the DIY spaces I am used to playing. The shows were at higher capacity venues, which was cool, to get to play to more people. But at the same time, it is an adjustment to playing for a bigger audience. We still were just crashing with our friends on couches or whatever, and there were still some venues that were floor set-sups, so even if it were a bigger turnout it could still feel a bit more like just hanging and having a conversation with the audience, which is what I like. Shows like the one at Lincoln Hall in Chicago freak me out because you are on a raised stage with lights and it feels like a lot of pressure! Fortunately I think it was still a mostly casual performance dynamic…at least I hope.

How was opening for The National?

It was mind-blowing. I have listened to them since I was in junior high and they are huge influences, so when I heard we got the show offer I was floored. They are all so kind and personable, too, it was awesome meeting them. I also got to bring my friend Brian, who got me free tickets to see The National back when I couldn’t afford it, and it was a cool full-circle kind of thing. I was happy I got to have that opportunity to share it with the people who had been sharing music and opportunities with me since I was younger.

What was making the music video for “Sprained Ankle” like?

It was fun!  Sabyn Mayfield reached out to me with this incredible offer to do a video, and I liked his work, so I took him up on it on good faith and had no idea what to expect. It was the first time I had ever been to Los Angeles, and I stayed only a day and a half. We drove all the way out to this abandoned ghost-town area in the desert around 2-3 hours outside the city really early in the morning and shot all day. It was a great set up, but we went for very basic and simple … I remember I did my bruise make-up with oil pastels and kept re-applying in the car because it would melt and rub off in the heat. But it turned out great, I think Sabyn really understood how to toe the line of quirky and serious and had a good vision for executing the video well. I owe him so much for spending his free time doing a video for me.

Has anything at MTSU been different since “Sprained Ankle” has received so much national attention over the past year?

Not really. That is, not in any dramatic sense that affects my daily life. My friends from ODP and the RIM program sometimes message me or see me around and will tell me that they are proud of me, and that’s what I cherish and what means the most. Though, the chair of the English department did ask to speak with me, and that was very flattering, though I think that’s just because my advisor, Jimmie Cain, a.k.a. the coolest English professor in the program, mentioned the Nashville Scene article to her.

Have the classes you’ve taken and/or organizations you’ve been involved with at MTSU helped you develop as an artist?

Oh, absolutely. I have been an audio engineering major and an English major, and both have been very useful to me as an artist.

Obviously, the RIM program helped me so much in a practical way; knowing audio engineering stuff makes it easier to troubleshoot on the road and makes sound-check go a lot smoother because I can help set up or know what needs to be done. And the classes on industry stuff were also incredibly beneficial once I started to encounter those things in real-life situations (I mean, I talked to my Survery of RIM teacher, Stacy Merida, about contracts when I was thinking about what to do signing to 6131).

The liberal arts department also helped in a more abstract way, I think it forced me to develop analytical skills and think critically about art in a way that has shaped my songwriting indirectly. It’s definitely informed my lyrical content. Even with the decision to do online courses while I tour full-time, the philosophical questions we were mulling over in my lit. classes helped me when I applied them to the questions I was facing.

I still tell people the story of when I was talking to my professor about maybe going on tour but being worried for my studies. He referenced Goethe’s Faust, he used it to make the point that the information we learn shouldn’t be what validates us, it should be how we use the thought we develop. He encouraged me to go out and gather experiences and pursue my passions. I realized because of that that learning is about more than the traditional idea of academia, as valuable and necessary as that is.  You need classrooms and you need to go adventure. You have to balance knowledge and experience to be truly educated.

This story appeared in our February print edition. Julien Baker will perform at Exit/In in Nashville on March 9. Tickets are available here.

For more stories and updates, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter/Instagram at @Sidelines_Life.

To contact Lifestyles editor Tanner Dedmon email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

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