A few days before the October 27 release of her highly anticipated sophomore album, Turn Out the Lights, Tennessee songwriter Julien Baker treated Toronto fans to a preview of some of her new material as well as songs from her striking, potent 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle. Baker's rare talent for writing songs that are vulnerable yet grand and sophisticated, the 22-year-old's popularity has surged lately, as the healing nature of her music continues to catch on. Tuesday night's (October 24) show proved to be an event of openhearted sentiment about the fragility of mental health, controlling addictive behaviour and finding solace in religion.
Beginning the night was Montreal-based Brigitte Naggar, who performs under the moniker Common Holly. The up-and-coming indie-folk musician played heartbroken songs from her just-released debut album, Playing House. The tender warmth and straightforwardness of Naggar's songwriting appropriately set up the rest of the show for even more viscerally expressive music to come.
Next, Nandi Rose Plunkett's three-piece electronic pop band Half Waif took to the stage, juxtaposing Plunkett's riveting and luminous voice alongside silvery synths and fluctuating rhythms. As a member of Pinegrove, Plunkett's radiant vocals and keyboards gel nicely with the emo-country outfit's approach, but amidst Half Waif's wistful, disorienting songs, she really flexes her musical versatility. "Frost Burn," from this year's form/a, started out icy and gradually escalated to balmy, multi-coloured introspection. The shapeshifting "Tactilian," from 2016's Probable Depths, showcased Plunkett's knack for oblique melodies using her wide vocal range.
Then, dressed in all black, the lone Baker graced the stage, opening with the title track from Turn Out the Lights, which started with a slow, reverb-soaked guitar riff and quickly rose into a soaring climax centered on Baker's voice, as she belted out: "When I turn out the lights, there's no one left between myself and me." The song, which recognizes the importance of ownership and belief in oneself, was stirring; from this point on, the audience was dead silent and glued to Baker's every word.
The theme of acknowledging our shortcomings and combating them with self-care is woven throughout her new album, and was again revisited by Baker with Turn Out the Lights' lead single "Appointments," in which she tries to convince herself, "Maybe it's all gonna turn out alright / I know that it's not but I have to believe that it is," during the song's redeeming finale.
Many of Baker's songs start with her singing quietly but finish big, with a repeated mantra that Baker resolutely cries out alongside gritty guitar strums. These moments sounded even more towering and purifying in a live setting than on the recordings. Baker explored her complex relationship with faith on Sprained Ankle favourite "Rejoice" ("I think there's a God and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain") and lamented a post-breakup regret on "Something" ("But I just said nothing, sat and watched you drive away"). Baker's expressive and dynamic vocal performance dominated the show; it was gentle and conversational at times, but she wailed gorgeously into her higher octaves when she wanted to forcefully drive her message home.
Baker was joined by violinist Camille Faulkner for some of the slower songs, giving older cuts like "Vessels" and "Go Home" some added texture without taking away from the cores of the songs. Along with the string arrangements, much of Baker's new material was piano-based, allowing her set to become more diverse as she switched between guitar and keyboard. Turn Out the Lights' "Hurt Less" and "Claws in Your Back" were particularly devastating, with Baker's sharp piano chords allowing plenty of space for her vocal harmonies to breathe and fully expand into the corners of the room.
Contrasting her intense lyrical subject matter, Baker was humble and congenial during the show, even cracking a few jokes in between songs. After thanking the crowd several times for being quiet, she promptly clarified she didn't mean it as a bad thing: "I just don't want to disturb you."
The rest of Baker's set was filled with moments of wounded confessions and unrestrained anguish that seemed to provoke awe from the crowd. The sparse, tenuous guitar harmonics of "Sprained Ankle" generated a hushed energy from the audience, and the crowd gave in to an intimate sing-along for the acoustic "Everybody Does." The brief second of silence after Baker claimed, "You're everything I want and I'm all you dread," on "Sour Breath" weighed heavy, and in moments like those, Baker's words seeped into your bones.
Seeing Julien Baker play these songs that chronicle her deeply personal experiences felt like an act of solidarity and support, particularly for anyone who has dealt with depression or any kind of substance abuse. The emotional cleansing and therapeutic communion formed at Baker's concert was mentally strengthening, and profoundly memorable.