Julien Baker Turns Pain Into Spiritual Balm on 'Turn Out the Lights'

The on-tour Tennessee singer's new album provides "hope despite despair"

Photo: Nolan Knight

BY Sarah MurphyPublished Nov 7, 2017

"I know I put all of myself into it," Julien Baker says on the phone from her home in Murfreesboro, TN — as if that's not immediately apparent upon first listen of her sophomore album, Turn Out the Lights.
The new songs, like those on her 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle, are entirely autobiographical, piecing together "composite narratives" and "old memories" from throughout her 22 lived years. From within that short amount of time, she's dredged up an awful lot of pain and crafted it into achingly gorgeous folk songs for the fucked-up.
The arresting starkness of Sprained Ankle dissipates slightly on Turn Out the Lights, with Baker implementing swells of strings and echoing vocal layers atop a backbone of piano and guitar.
"The last record was sparse and raw just as a function of necessity," she explains. "This time around I had access to more — and, most of all, time. It gave me a chance to really think about constructing the songs as interactive with each other, as pieces of a single narrative or body of work that all fits together."
It's a narrative that plunges listeners into the depths of Baker's despair; "Appointments" details a relationship caving under the strain of unmet expectations and deteriorating mental health. And yet, she flashes a glimmer of hope when — despite knowing that it's not "gonna turn out all right" — she repeatedly tells herself: "I have to believe that it is."
Elsewhere, hope presents its own internal struggle. "Happy to Be Here" begins with Baker questioning a benevolent creator for fitting her with "faulty circuitry," and ends with the singer shouting directly at God. Midway through, she details a scene from a recovery support group; Baker gasps for breath as she laments, "I know I should be being optimistic, but I'm doubtful I can change." It's hard to tell if the song's title is ironic.
By "Hurt Less," however, Baker gives hope a chance. She moves from neglecting her seatbelt because "I didn't see the point of trying to save myself from an accident" to finding comfort in a friend, who then becomes her reason for self-preservation.
Baker acknowledges that some of her songs "have a built in provision for realistic hope or hope despite despair," but worried about crafting a clichéd happy ending. Ultimately, her dedication to honesty ("If there was, for once, a sort of happy ending or a silver lining that was obvious — why not include it?") and control over self-censorship won out and resulted in one of the album's finest songs.
Baker admits that such a personal record is "a bit of a double-edged sword," but maintains that opening dialogues about delicate topics like faith and mental health in her music is worth the risk.
"It's less about these stories told within a song earning me some sort of credibility or creating a novelty or shock value interest in myself, Julien Baker the artist," she says. "I would hope that it's more about someone hearing an experience and then feeling emboldened by somebody else's vulnerability to be more vulnerable in their life about things that they find difficult or come to terms with about themselves."

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