Last year was good to Julien Baker. She released a (very good) solo debut, Sprained Ankle
, recorded while attending Middle Tennessee State University, away from the band she fronts, Forrister. 6131 Records snatched up the nine-song debut, re-releasing it a few months later and putting some press muscle behind a record that soon topped many 2015 best-of lists. Stellar South By Southwest reviews and massive amounts of tour dates followed. Baker, now a bonafide indie darling, wrote an at-times uncomfortably intimate record, little more than her voice and a guitar, with swirling themes of faith, despair, solitude, redemption.
When I called Baker, she was putting boxes of books and records in her car, moving back to use Memphis as a home base for her boatloads of tour dates on the books this year. She said Memphis provides the church, musical and friendship community she needs right now. Key in on the church
part of that sentence and note that the record that Baker wrote and released is 100 percent a product of her Christian faith. We spent the majority of our conversation talking about how that faith informs her songwriting (plus a good portion talking about her extreme passion for Dunkin Donuts cold brew. Dunkin, if you’re looking for a rising star to sponsor, Baker’s your woman
) and I’ve collected her thoughts on “Christian music” as a genre versus Christian music in practice below.
Baker plays at LUNA Music and The Hi-Fi on Wednesday. Promoters note the Hi-Fi show is close to selling out, so snatch those tickets up.
“When I lived in Memphis, I played in several worship bands. Because, you know, you have these gifts and you feel like you need to turn them around and use them to serve. You’re blessed so you can bless others, blah, blah, blah. So I’m like, sure, I’ll serve, I’ll play lead guitar. You think that the churches that are going to be more progressive in theology are going to be the kind of Passion Conference [churches]. My friends and I that play in worship bands – we love it, but there’s a world of it. It’s CCM, Contemporary Christian Music. It’s Kristian Stanfill, who is awesome. I have the Passion Conference CD in my car, I’m not hating on it. But it’s definitely a style. You have that reverb-y guitar, that arena snare. It sounds like worship music.
“Interestingly enough, I started going to a traditional Episcopal church where you stand and read from hymns, and kneel to receive communion. I was super thrown off that it was more progressive and affirming – that’s one of my big things – LGBT-affirming, very progressive and socially engaged in theology, more so than the quote-unquote rock and roll churches. It was very cool. We have a female vicar! Our priest is a female, and she’s in the ‘pope’ garb. It turned everything on its head theologically for me.
"“It made me think, so, if I can't serve formerly on a worship team, then I really do have to examine [what I do]. ...And I always thought, well, I sing about God, not because I think I am somehow more qualified as an artist and I have something more important to say, like ‘Julien, Julien, Julien, listen to what Julien has to say.’ But I think when you write from life, and spirituality and faith is such an integral part of your faith, it comes out because the Gospel is an act of living. You try to strive to be more loving every day, and then that comes out.
"Switchfoot, love to jam to that band. 'Meant to Live?” The first time I ever heard distortion on a guitar. So awesome. So, Jon Foreman had this quote, 'Switchfoot isn't a Christian band. We're just a band full of Christians.' And it's true. They put out songs that are about relationships. Or they put out songs that are about politics, on Nothing Is Sound. . It’s like C.S. Lewis. He talks about Christianity being the lens you see everything [through], which informs your songwriting.
“I had long conversations with my manager Sean, because I would feel weirdly convicted or guilty…if I didn’t bill myself as a Christian artist, I felt like I was denying it. He was like, ‘No one is going to doubt you are Christian. Have you listened to your record?’ He was like, ‘I think that’s important, to not say, “I am only a Christian artist.” Because you can reach more people in a secular music setting. To me, it’s arbitrary to distinguish between the two. I wish there wasn’t ‘Christian music’ and ‘secular music.’ I wish it was just [music]. But unfortunately it’s just a reality that exists. I don’t want to limit myself to songs that might seem artificial. I would rather be an Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra, and say, ‘I’ll entertain themes of doubt.’ Because that does more to open a conversation, then we can move on from there, than coming to a song with a pre-supposed postulate of ‘This is what I’m going to say.’
"“One of my favorite lyricists, David Bazan, has this song called 'Diamond Ring.'
It blew my mind the first time I heard it, because the entire time he sets it up to be from the perspective of the musician speaking to a lover who has rejected his proposal. Then, the last verse, you find out it's the perspective of God to man, in the metaphor of the church as the bride of Christ. … Then there's artists like Shelter
who will unify Eastern philosophy with Western theology. That makes people uncomfortable, these intersections of human relationships with godly relationships, different approaches to spirituality. It makes people uncomfortable, but I wish it didn't.”
If you go:
Julien Baker with Phoebe Bridgers
Wednesday, April 13, 8 p.m.
The Hi-Fi, 1043 Virginia Ave. Ste. 4
$10 in advance, $12 at door, 21+
Julien Baker with Daniel Martin In-Store
Wednesday, April 13, 3 p.m.
LUNA Music, 5202 N. College Ave.