Sunday, October 1, 2023

‘Be kind’: Singer-songwriter, former MTSU student Julien Baker shares perspective on changing landscape of music, culture, representation


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Photo by Andrew Wigdor / MTSU Sidelines

For singer-songwriter Julien Baker, representation matters. But, like most subjects she can (and will) intelligently pontificate about, it’s not that simple.

Baker, a former MTSU student who put her college career on hold in 2016 to pursue one in the music industry, recently traveled to the university to participate in a Q&A event, moderated by one of her favorite former professors, Jimmie Cain, who works in the Department of English, as a part of the university’s Women’s History Month celebration. The now internationally-known indie star participated in the event with an uncommon sense of humility, admitting multiple times that she is always nervous when faced with a crowd.

After the room cleared, she sat down with Sidelines to discuss the changing world of music and her perspective on many aspects of society.

Baker’s small frame and slightly nervous demeanor gives away little of the well-weathered thoughtfulness that she brings to topics she holds near and dear to her heart.

“As a queer woman, it’s important when I can see any act of representation that was put on at the academic level,” Baker said, referring to events such as the one she participated in at MTSU. “It sort of legitimized what those artists are doing. Even though it doesn’t need the legitimization of an academic context, it helps when you’re a student and you have maybe never seen … other people doing things you wished to do. That’s the first step in aspiring to do something, knowing it’s even a possibility for you to do it. I wanted to be able to contribute to that in any way that I could.”

During her time at MTSU, between school work and a social life, Baker always made time for her art, no matter what form it took. She began her journey at the university as an English major with a minor in secondary education and Spanish, with her eye on the ultimate goal of teaching.

While Baker continued to foster a passion for songwriting and performing, she was initially discouraged by the idea that she would have to sacrifice her morals to get ahead and be successful in the music industry.

“So I decided to just teach kids and if (my music career) happened it happened, and if it didn’t, it didn’t. And then it ended up happening, which is great, but if it hadn’t, then I would be Ms. Baker at Smyrna High and that would be OK with me.”

Baker began recording demos for her debut record, “Sprained Ankle,” in one of MTSU’s campus studios and worked hard to share her art with the world. Baker didn’t understand at the time the wildly successful outcome of her efforts – widespread critical acclaim, international touring and thousands of worldwide fans. However, Baker still didn’t want that possibility to blind her of the inspiration behind all that raw creativity.

“I felt that I was going to define myself as a musician, whether I played in theaters or whether I was playing open mic night at a bar, because I have a love for creating,” Baker said. “I think this is a very Western thing – that we attach our identity to our career, and we feel that if we aren’t proficient enough to do something, then we can’t be recognized for it.”

Baker likened the concept to the obtuse belief that if a painter doesn’t sell any paintings, then they aren’t a “real” painter. She smiled, stating, “My mom used to make beautiful paintings that she never showed to anyone. She just made them for her.”

While achieving success and fame, Baker learned that morality continues to be a tricky line to walk. In recent months, the advent of the #MeToo movement rocked the world of movies and music, ousting many prominent faces and, in many cases, putting female voices at the forefront of the entertainment industry. Baker said that this cultural milestone changed things for better and for worse.

“It’s like a Hydra,” Baker said. “You cut off one head of representative patriarchy, and then you have to deal with more insidious forms of women being silenced in implicit ways. It’s kind of that conundrum when I see an article in Rolling Stone that’s says, ‘10 female artists you have to check out.’ Yea, it’s great that that article is about 10 female artists … but it also still reflects a culture in which it’s remarkable to be a woman and women are othered.”

Baker said that it’s possible and necessary to take pride in the social victories that women have achieved, while still being tuned in to the strides that still have to be made.

After receiving widespread praise for “Sprained Ankle” and finding difficulty in her growing popularity, Baker left MTSU and went on to craft her second studio album, “Turn Out The Lights.” Much of songwriting on the record focuses on depression that Baker has experienced. In the titular song, “Turn Out The Lights,” Baker ruminates on a metaphorical hole in drywall that she’s slowly growing numb to. The song goes on to express that others around Baker have difficulty seeing the severity of her obstacles and, in some cases, she only has herself to rely on.

“A lot of that record has to do with questions of how to understand human beings and how to practice empathy and how to practice understanding,” Baker said. “When I was going through the events that are documented in that record, there was a lot of my own disconnect with feeling empowered to talk about mental health issues.”

Also prevalent in much of her music is Baker’s Christian faith, which she approaches with an constantly open mind and a liberal sensibility. During Baker’s conversation with Sidelines, she fervently apologized after referring to God as “he,” acknowledging that she had been socialized in a “Southern context” but doesn’t believe the deity to have a gender.

Growing up in a religious family, Baker has struggled with finding her footing in the spiritual realm. She’s openly gay and has had her share of trials, including substance abuse. However, she has come to find a common ground that she can share the best way she knows how – through her songs.

“I believe that by whatever coalescing events of fate have happened, have put me in a position where I feel responsible for embodying the ideologies that I learned from the gospel – which is not like don’t steal, don’t have sex before you’re married … Care about human beings. That’s the thesis statement to me. Care deeply about human beings. Try to alleviate human suffering, and that’s it.”

Most recently in Baker’s career, she joined up with indie superstars Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus to create “Boygenius,” a collaborative project between the three artists that spawned an album and a tour. Despite working as a successful solo artist, Baker found the formation to be a breath of fresh air, developing a strong bond with Bridgers and Dacus.

“It was amazing,” Baker said. “Lucy says it best when she says it was a third of the responsibility and three times the pride. It was like we had a relationship of trust and respect for each other that I think was very refreshing, and it was also nice to be in an environment where I was challenged by other songwriting processes.”

Through all of the experiences Baker has discovered in her journey – putting her degree, which she still intends to finish, on hold, overcoming addiction, dealing with intense existentialism and depression, finding her voice in music and gaining worldwide prominence – Baker imparts these words of wisdom to student musicians who wish to follow in her footsteps: Write as many songs as you can, play as many songs as you can, don’t be motivated by fear and above all, be kind.

“Be kind to anyone who does you a favor and also people who don’t do you a favor,” she said. “Just be kind.”

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