Julien Baker Gets Real About Mental Health on 'Turn Out the Lights'

Julien Baker Gets Real About Mental Health on 'Turn Out the Lights'
Photo: Nolan Knight
Tennessee singer-songwriter Julien Baker has never shied away from exposing raw emotion in her music, offering listeners a glimpse into her often dark, despairing thoughts — and her sophomore record, Turn Out the Lights, remains artfully honest about pain.
Baker has addressed her struggles with mental illness and substance abuse in past songs and interviews, and as work on the new album progressed, she realized that those topics continued to resurface.
"That was something I was thinking a lot about and so it comes across in all of the songs on the record," she tells Exclaim!, adding that all of them are autobiographical. "I was learning how to deal with and talk about mental health, form a more useful vocabulary around these things and learn how to live a healthier life."
While the songs all chronicle her own experiences, Baker acknowledges that she's not alone, revealing that mental health is something she finds herself frequently discussing with her friends and peers — even though "it's not something we're totally comfortable with in mainstream culture."
Despite the stigma, Baker forged ahead with the record she wanted to make. "There was no option," she says. "These are not only just straightforward words in a song, but they're also real things that happen and they're part of our daily lives. It's a little intimidating, but nonetheless worth it."
The themes of mental health and recovery are never really absent on Turn Out the Lights, though they are addressed most vividly on tracks like "Appointments," "Happy to Be Here" and "Claws in Your Back."
Yet "Hurt Less" is the most striking, and most subtle, example. It follows an uncharacteristically optimistic narrative arc, opening with Baker admitting she never used to wear a seatbelt because she didn't believe her life was worth saving — but eventually ends with companionship and a buckled belt.
"I was buckling my seatbelt and thought, 'What a small but significant and almost trivial iteration of self-care,'" she says. "But it has larger implications — that you recognize consideration for your own safety and make this small effort to protect yourself from a potential danger."
Despite feeling nervous about expressing a positive upswing, she ultimately reasoned that truthfulness should remain paramount. "If there was, for once, a sort of happy ending or a silver lining that was obvious, that I can point to and say 'Despite all the complications and grey areas of getting better, here's one thing that is true that makes an interesting dichotomy of before and after' — why not include it?"
Baker knows that this record has already attracted a much larger audience than her 2015 debut Sprained Ankle did, but Turn Out the Lights remains as darkly confessional as its predecessor. This time, though, it's getting a little bit easier to talk about it.
Turn Out the Lights is out October 27 on Matador. Check out the video for "Appointments" below.