Julien Baker still believes in Nashville

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Julien Baker still believes in Nashville

Dallas Shatel, Deputy Editor in Chief

A lot has changed in the past year for Julien Baker. Last November saw her performing solo at Marathon Music Works, delivering a heart-wrenching and awe-inspiring display of deeply personal balladry. Since then, she and fellow indie artists Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus formed the supergroup boygenius, released a self-titled mini album/EP and booked a tour which starts this Sunday at the Ryman Auditorium, one of the most storied venues in America. Layer on the challenges of being a queer, Christian Southern woman in 2018 America, and you can see there’s a lot going on for Julien Baker.

And yet, during these dark times, boygenius offers some hope. Fed up with the labels of “women in indie rock” and the tropes of fragile women writing vulnerable songs, Baker, Bridgers and Dacus formed the group as a way of creating music on their own terms, shunning the controlling male presences that permeate the music industry for a writing process that offered mutual respect and understanding. The result: six gorgeous songs that feel wholly collaborative yet uncompromising, comprising the quintessential aspects of each artist’s distinct styles and personalities. The upcoming tour will include performances by the group, as well as individual sets from each member. Baker will headline the tour, performing tracks from her two outstanding albums Sprained Ankle and Turn Out the Lights. Both releases are full of hauntingly spare instrumentation and chilling accounts of substance abuse, mental health issues and strained interpersonal relationships. Her albums provide catharsis and the reassurance that we, too, can push through the rough times in our lives.

In a time where women’s experiences are shouted down and the rights of the LGBTQIA community are constantly threatened, Baker and boygenius show that the world is not beyond redemption, and that past experiences of trauma and oppression don’t define what is possible in the present and future.

This week, the Hustler got on the phone with Baker to discuss all of these topics and more.

 

Vanderbilt Hustler: We met at the Touche Amore show last May. Have you been back in Nashville since then?

Julien  Baker: Well I left for tour, shortly after that I think in the United States, interviewed a couple of U.S. runs and then we went over to Europe for about six weeks. And I just got back from that like the first week of October and I leave, well the 4th is the first show of the boygenius tour.

VH: Is there anything you come back to when you first get back to Nashville? Anything you miss when you’re not around here?

JB: I mean I have my spots, you know, there’s like, I mostly just miss the routine of being able to wake up at home, and like make myself a cup of coffee and like I go to Shelby Bottoms pretty much every morning to run, and I miss running in a familiar place and not running in like you know, maybe the strip mall area where our hotel might be. I live in East [Nashville] now, I used to live in Murfreesboro but now I just like, I go to get breakfast with friends, I catch up there, I got to go to Wild Cow and like the commemorative, official region meal, because you know, like where else?

VH: So you went to MTSU before you started doing music full time, right? Do you have anyone there you still keep in contact with?

JB: I do keep in touch with quite a few of my friends who were in the music program, in fact so Camille who plays violin with me, she and I met in the audio program at MTSU. And I used to run sound at a little venue in Murfreesboro and like, her band would come play.

There’s a ton of great professors that I absolutely adore that I still keep in touch with. Like, there’s, I don’t know if he’s still the chair of the English department, but his name is Dr. Cain and he was my English professor and when I was telling him that I (he was also my advisor, so I had to register for classes) and I said, “Dr. Kane, I got this chance to like tour the world and I kind of think I’m not going to come back to school and he was like ‘What the hell are you still doing here?’” You know? He was like, “You can always come back to this.” Like there’s no greater teacher than, you know, being out in the world and experiencing things, and then he showed me this like crazy old seven-inch from like the 70s. It was like him in this old school punk band, and he was like “Don’t tell anybody about this.” It was crazy. It was just like this old English professor that ended up still being so wise and cool.

VH: Sunday is first stop on boygenius tour and you’re starting at the Ryman, which is a very historical venue, not just in Nashville but in America. You guys also just started this group a year ago, you just released your first EP as a group last Friday. Is it kind of like jarring to see all this happen so quickly? Do you feel like with the nature of how this collaboration came about, that you’ve really started to grab people’s attention in a way that like maybe you didn’t expect?

JB: Yeah, I mean I didn’t expect any of this. I still do not. Like when, Sprained Ankle came out, I didn’t expect anyone to care about it, and then when we put out another record, I thought like, “Well maybe it’s just the same people that cared about Sprained Ankle that cared about this.” When we, I think, you know, particularly, with the boygenius stuff, I thought it would be something that would be exciting for fans of me or Phoebe’s or Lucy’s music to engage with and that they would like it and that it would be a new way to engage with our music. But you know, we didn’t really have any expectations for what would come of it. It was just that we were creating purely out of a desire to work with each other and to create something and I think the result ended up being very organic and something very raw but also surprising and really awesome.

VH: Do you have a relationship with the Ryman? Like an aspiration that you’ve looked up to?

JB: Oh, definitely. I think when I got to open for Jason Isbell at the Ryman, that in and of itself, you know, like, I was an opening act, but I was just so happy to be there and it felt overwhelming and surreal that I was getting to play on this stage where I’d seen so many of my favorite bands and like when I was a kid in Memphis, we would wait for tours to come through Memphis, because it’s like, everybody comes to Nashville and not Memphis, and it’s something that we really, really wanted to see, you know, came through. You know I remember coming up to see the National. I like drove up on a school night with a whole bunch of my friends and we saw the National at the Ryman. Or you know, just the indie artists, and I would just be amazed at this huge, like massive venue that felt… you know it’s smaller than like the FedEx floor or somewhere huge huge like in Memphis, but it seemed to have this austerity and taking it beyond the sterility of a stadium or something. So when I finally got to play there the first time, it was amazing and I can’t even imagine what headlining it will be like. I am both excited and terrified.

VH: You’ve talked in the past how it seems like a lot of your friends moved away from the South because they feel like it’s been oppressive to them or it’s a very non-progressive place. And you’ve kind of taken the  stance to stay in South and try to create spaces for people who feel oppressed or marginalized, especially queer people. Do you see that beginning to happen in Nashville or Tennessee as a whole?

JB: I absolutely do. I think not just in Nashville but especially in Memphis, I guess because I’m intrinsically connected with Memphis, and I try to like watch what’s happening there because it’s like my hometown and I’m very attached to it. But I feel that the people who are not able to move because either they’re too young to move or they don’t have the means to move are starting to adhere to each other and sort of create a really tight-knit community where they can rely on each other for a support system, but also where they can create spaces to show other people that like it’s ok to be who you are in this environment and that while there is a pervasive, dominant culture in this town, it doesn’t erase the existence of like marginalized communities and I think those people are… you know, everything I’ve seen in the past year is just like, demonstrations and events and like panels and organizing groups that are just like springing up everywhere and it makes me so happy because people are not only like engaging with politics and their society, they’re engaging with their identity and they’re being like forthright and visible about who they are and the desires that they have for their society and the representation that they want to see and I think that’s really encouraging.

VH: Do you have any advice for a student here at Vanderbilt or someone in Tennessee who are trying to navigate their queerness or some other marginalized identity?

JB: My advice would be, do not feel that you have to compromise one part of your identity to embody another part of your identity more fully. And by that I mean don’t feel that embodying the identity of queerness to like take a certain prescribed form or has to align with the paradigm or the narrative of queerness that we have in culture. It took me a long time to find my place within the queer community but it also took me a long time to find my place in a religious community or a spiritual community or my neighborhood community and I think it’s because I felt that if I had contradictory elements of my history or my personal narrative that I could not accept them as a single person but just embodying yourself in the form you feel is truest and most honest in declaring your identity as a queer person however that manifests and that means it’s like valid to be who you are. I feel that like that statement can get misconstrued as like “Oh if I have deeply ingrained problematic beliefs, then I don’t need to challenge those.” Like no, you need to challenge your ingrained, problematic beliefs. Even I had like internalized beliefs because I was not exposed to certain nuances of queer culture or feminist theory until I was in college. And so I had to do a lot of work reconciling that with my past and my culture as someone who grew up in a town as a white female.

VH: In the past few years, are we closer to that redemption? What can people do to catalyze that?

JB: Well, I mean I definitely think, it’s sounds like to me a lot of these questions are sorted into a political category, sort of, “Oh is there any hope for the South?” And I think, well, first of all yes, and second of all, there’s some awesome local government officials that are like doing really meaningful and important work and being very vocal about legislation and policies that I wouldn’t have thought I would see brought up in the South five years ago. However I think that it is important to recognize that these marginalized communities that are now being catalyzed into action because of our current political moment and that are making themselves more visible and are advocating for themselves and each other. Those communities always existed here, and I think now I see a lot more specifically with the queer community, a lot more people emboldened and a lot more people not willing to suppress themselves or to submit to you know passivity and acceptance of dominant culture. So yeah, I think, we are on our way to redeeming the like, stereotype of being intolerant.

VH: To end on a lighter note, what are some local artists or venues here in Nashville that people should be checking out?

JB: Liza Anne- she’s an incredible artist. Also Drkmttr was an all-ages space and I think they’re moving. I’m so excited for Drkmttr to open their new location and book more shows and I think that Nashville really needs a good all-ages space and like that was what was so integral for me as a child, like, being exposed to different ideologies and developing my own worldview and having a safe space to engage with music and to find other friends who were like supportive and cared about their world. Like I found that in an all-ages venue. And so I think it would be great if Nashville had an all-ages venue. So yeah, I’m excited with what Drkmttr’s doing.

Oh and one more thing I want to say, I just finished touring with an artist named Becca Mancari She’s amazing! She’s a queer woman and her voice is powerful, her songs are powerful, but also she’s like so very intelligent and passionate about what she does and the impact that her songs and her voice have on the world, and I really really love what Becca Mancari is doing.

Julien Baker will perform at the Ryman Auditorium on Sunday, November 4 with the rest of boygenius. Be sure to catch our coverage of the show following the event.

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