NGV Friday Nights: Interview with Julien Baker

We interviewed Julien Baker, who will be headlining NGV Friday Nights at NGV International on Friday 25 November 2016.

In an article in the New Yorker in April of this year, writer Rachel Syme said “a kind of digital cottage industry has sprung up around the twenty-year-old singer; it involves putting Baker in a space—any space—alone with her guitar and filming what happens”. How did this concept originate, and do you find that solitude brings a new meaning to your music?

Honestly, I think that the concept developed, or rather, was described in those terms from these performances, I don’t think that the performances of this kind were set up intentionally with this in mind. Shows in makeshift spaces are something common in the kind of musical community I grew up around, out of necessity, and I think there has always been something interesting to me about unlikely locales for musical performances. It’s the same to me as works of art appearing in uncommon or public spaces, it contrasts high/low art or formal/informal by re-purposing those spaces and it reveals the power of art or music and art to turn any environment into a viable performance hall or gallery because of the willingness of people to encounter the work or songs in an unexpected way.

Do you have a favourite artist/artwork?

Right now, one of my favorite artists is Ariel Baldwin, she’s a Chicago resident and friend of mine. Her paintings and collages take unlikely, industrious or common materials and create a beautifully jarring composition; her work (to me) plays a lot on the use and placement of negative space and organization versus disorganization, the sparseness and chaos is evocative in the way that it makes the viewer uncomfortable or even confused, but there is something that I find so absolutely gorgeous about that use of partial materials to make a disjunctive total product, comprising something out of pieces that makes an unconventionally beautiful whole.

What’s your favourite gig you have played to date?

My favorite show I have ever played so far actually happened fairly recently; on the night of the US presidential elections I was on tour with Kevin Devine, Pinegrove, and Petal, and we were playing a show in Houston, Texas. Everyone was equally as apprehensive about the show as they were about the election itself, wondering how people would respond to the music which was obviously socially and politically engaged, the atmosphere of the show was as emotionally charged as it was everywhere. But the crowd was incredibly engaged and participatory the entire time in a way that felt like it was out of necessity for hope or comfort; it was something that, despite the unfavorable circumstances, made me optimistic and proud of the power of music to give people encouragement and reprieve from the unfortunately ugly and fearful parts of the world.

What inspires/influences your music the most?

I think the thing that inspires my music the most is my daily life– that sounds broad, I just mean that as opposed to trying to emulate a formal poetic form or write music that tries to adopt a certain stylistic quality, I find that the things I write that are most meaningful and gratifying to me are the things I write which are transcribed from conversations from my friends, or observations about simple things, kind of allowed to say what they say without my getting in the way by burying it in metaphor or imagery. I find myself most inspired when I am able to do less imagining and more identifying of things occurring every day that are already beautiful or meaningful enough to be poetry or song without my complicating them.

What song do you wish you wrote?

I wish that I wrote Options by Pedro the Lion, I think I will be forever astonished at the brutal honesty of that song communicated in such an artfully tactful way.

What part of making music excites you the most?

The part of making music that excites me the most is the feeling when I begin to share songs in progress with my friends that I’ve been able, in some small way to capture something relatable within the lyrics; I spend a lot of time wondering if the experiences I describe are specific and make the songs impenetrable to a listener, and I think there’s some encouragement for me when a friend or someone tells me they connected to a lyric. Most of them are drawn directly from personal experience and to know someone else is living a similar reality I think makes me feel connected to others in a comforting way.

Viktor&Rolf once said “At the start of our career, the art world showed a lot more interest in our work than the fashion world did…. in museums we were simply making what we imagined in our minds and the response came from the art world”. What is the most surprising response you’ve had to your work?

The most surprising response I have had to my work has come from people who are able to use it as a tool for healing. I am aware that these songs can serve many purposes in my life, not the least of all a coping method, but its because I wrote them, I lived the subject matter. Often one of the things I fear is that the songs are brooding or bleak without explicitly providing for renewal or redemption, and when someone tells me that the songs were able to serve a positive purpose in their lives, no matter how incremental (something besides being bummer jams to sulk to, ha), that is equally surprising and motivating to me.