In a state so famously known for and heavily saturated with blues and country music, it’s refreshing to see some of Tennessee’s brightest stars in music come from outside these norms.
This past Thursday, Julien Baker brought her spare, deeply confessional songs to Marathon Music Works in support of her recent album Turn Out the Lights. Her emotionally potent, cathartic songs detail her experiences with substance abuse, insecurity and mental health issues among other things.
Memphis-born Julien Baker attended Middle Tennessee State University before leaving to pursue music, and since then has only seen success after success. Following a brief stint in an alternative rock band in college, Baker has seen both of her studio LP’s- 2015’s Sprained Ankle and this year’s Turn Out the Lights- receive numerous accolades from the likes of Pitchfork and the New York Times.
Following sets from Fever Blush and David Bazan (formerly of legendary band Pedro the Lion), Baker took the stage. With a backdrop of five bare lightbulbs, Baker took her audience through the emotional wringer for over an hour. As the opening notes of “Appointments” rang out, I witnessed the venue become more solemn than I’ve ever seen it.
Other than percussionist Matthew Gilliam and violinist Camille Faulkner making a few appearances, Baker performed alone, showcasing her versatile voice against a backdrop of scant pianos and reverby guitars. On songs like “Sour Breath” and “Rejoice” her vocals range from a fragile, somber croon- at times bordering on spoken word- to a soaring, powerful, cathartic howl that left goosebumps on my arms for the vast majority of the night.
Song after song the crowd stood in reverence, like churchgoers listening to a preacher, hanging onto every word, as if Baker were reading from some gospel of alcoholism and anxiety. The only sound from the crowd throughout the night came from those singing along- not the kind you hear at some raucous pop concert, but like that of a well-practiced church choir.
To close out her main set, Baker performed “Something”, a song which details her regret of not saying the perfect thing at the perfect time. She followed this with an encore of “Go Home” essentially summing up Sprained Ankle- substance abuse, unrequited love, religion, and the desire for some light at the end of the tunnel. I could tell you how beautiful and painful these performances were; I could talk about how the guitar and violin melodies weaved in and out of each other as Baker’s voice soared above the squalor. But rather, I think the words of an audience member during silence that followed “Claws in your Back” best sum up the night: “Holy shit.”