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Interview: Julien Baker Talks Boygenius, Art and Life In Memphis

Interview: Julien Baker Talks Boygenius, Art and Life In Memphis

Chris Cudby / Thursday 7th February, 2019 2:35PM

Memphis songwriter Julien Baker is returning to Aotearoa this month for a pair of eagerly awaited headline shows in Auckland and Wellington, with our very own BEING. playing support for both events [UPDATE 12/02/19: unfortunately Baker has cancelled her New Zealand shows due to unforeseen personal matters]. The 23 year old US artist's emotionally intense solo work is showcased on her 2017 sophomore album Turn Out The Lights and her 2015 debut record Sprained Ankle, with the latter being praised by the likes of Pitchfork as a fresh rejuvenation of the folk genre. Baker's latest release saw her joining forces with fellow travellers Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus under the creative umbrella of boygenius, whose six track debut collection dropped in late 2018 to instant acclaim. Chris Cudby caught up with Baker as she prepped for her visit to New Zealand, for a frank and freewheeling chat exploring the artist's work with boygenius, her personal approach to song craft and the "cult bizarreness" of her Memphis home town...

You recently released the boygenius collection with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Could you please tell us a little bit about what sparked that collaboration?

I’ve been friends with Lucy and with Phoebe for a very long time and right as I was starting to tour around, I met them both at the same time and we just remained friends and we had this tour booked, all of us together... It was proposed and I had wanted to tour with Phoebe and Lucy again separately, but together would be great, even better. We started talking about something to make the live show special, like we all sing one of each other's songs or we should collaborate or maybe we should write a single or do a cover as a single. As we started talking about it we just got more and more excited about the prospect of working together and we ended up just taking five days and making a record.

Wow, only five days. Congratulations on the new record, it sounds amazing.

Thank you so much.

Do you see boygenius as an ongoing project or as a special occasion?

When we started, I'm sure we were like “oh maybe this is just a special occasion, once off kind of thing.” But after playing together I think we all unanimously agreed it should be an ongoing thing and we’re adamant about writing together more.

How was the labour of writing the songs divvied up between the three of you?

It was pretty evenly divided, we each bought one almost finished song and then another more partial fragment of a song and it felt very comfortable. There was an immediate rapport of trust between all of us which made us all more disposed to share our ideas and take risks. We didn't have the apprehension of being doubted or invalidated in the writing process, so it was very egalitarian and very fulfilling to write with them.

Your second album Turn Out The Lights came out in late 2017 and was really well received. Are you already at work on a new collection of songs?

We started demoing properly at the beginning of this year. Turn Out The Lights was written or compiled mostly on the road, when I would be home I would make a raft of demos and I would listen back to them on the road and then we recorded that record in eight days? Seven? I try and gravitate toward immediacy and the spontaneity of recording everything in a short burst and capturing a highly specific emotion. But this time I think I'm trying to... give myself time to sit on [the songs] before I commit them to a form and experiment with different iterations of what a song can be.

When you’re writing songs on the road, I'm really curious about how touring artists can actually get work done when they’re not playing onstage. Do you test new material out live?

Yeah, absolutely. One of the songs that was a new song the last time I came to New Zealand and Australia ended up becoming a boygenius tune. It was something that was a tune and a melody and an arrangement that I really liked. I couldn't find a home for it on a release and I bought it to our boygenius writing. It was really awesome and I’m glad that ended up being the place for it.

With such emotionally powerful material in your songs, do you feel it's important to always draw inspiration from autobiographical experiences? Is there room for fiction in your songs?

All of my songs are derived from personal experience because I think that’s what I know best and that's what I write best. But I think that I find myself inspired by the stories of others and what I'm reading and what I'm consuming and the types of things that I'm observing. I think that a lot of making art is knowing how to be a conscious observer and how to recognise the value that is occurring in the worst of everyday experiences, like conversations that you have with people, learning experiences, trials, tragedies. This are things that are, if you're paying attention, they’re rife with beauty as well and that's something that can be translated into a poem if you're willing to plum the depths of it. But also, that's making it sound like I'm always just mining experience to make art, but it's more like art is the wind through which I have experience.

I was having a conversation with my partner over the weekend, we were talking about Memphis and we were trying to think of our pop cultural associations with Memphis, we kept coming back to Jim Jarmusch's film Mystery Train (1989). How do you feel growing up in Memphis has impacted on the development of your own music?

It's interesting because like so many of the cultural depictions of Memphis or the folk lore or just regular lore, the lore around Memphis is certainly quite different to how I actually experienced it. But then again, when I now look back on growing up as a kid, it maybe isn't all that different. I think people think of Memphis and they think of the cultural depictions of Memphis and they think of its cultural depiction in movies, maybe that movie Hustle and Flow, thats one that a lot of people bring up to me and they think of BB King and Elvis and Graceland. The Memphis that people imagine and the thing that Memphis really is are sort of the same and sort of not. They’re sort of this quirky caricature of each other.

There used to be this thing called Graceland Too. It was this guy's house and it was full of Elvis memorabilia, it was kind of creepy but it was kind of awesome. It was like a cult legend and if you drove out to his house in the sticks, it was across the bridge, really far away. If you drove out there and you bought him a six pack of Coca Cola, he would show you around his weird house where he lived alone with all this Elvis memorabilia. Once he died, it was in the paper and everyone collectively mourned the owner of Graceland Too, and if you went three times you got this lil card, that said “life time member of Graceland Too”. Little disparities like that between the real and... between the pop culture significance and the cult bizarreness of Memphis.

Have you ever heard of Prince Mongo? Prince Mongo was this guy who would run for Mayor all the time in Memphis and he was an absolutely insane person. They passed an ordinance saying your house couldn't be certain colours and he had a paint party, where he had people throw cans of paint at his house and he would do these press conferences where he said he was from another planet, that he was visiting here, he was an alien. Dude, it was crazy but then people started fake supporting Prince Mongo and making all these posters that said “Prince Mongo, why not?”, because corruption was really awful at that time in Memphis.

I'm telling these stories, but to me Memphians are people who have no illusions about how bleak things can be, but because of that they have this strong, intuitive muscle that they flex of levity and humour. I think also the music scene that I grew up in, since it was small, there's this codependency out of necessity and people cooperate because there's just no other option besides cooperating. It's sort of this beautiful found art piece of a city where resource scarcity calls for innovation and calls for levity, all the weird, bizarre things about Memphis just add to its character. I say that Memphians are not ashamed of the weird things in Memphis, they're more proud. 

I've read stories of people crying in the front row of your show. Do your fans share their own stories with you at shows?

Sometimes they do, yeah. Sometimes people come and they tell me their stories and I'm always receptive to that. I think that's one of the most beautiful things about being able to make the music that I do. It allows me to step outside of the limited scope of life’s given experience and understand that other people are applying their relevance to the songs that they’re hearing, and extrapolating whatever meaning that they need for the song to serve them. I think that's really beautiful.

What can audiences look forward to with your upcoming shows in Auckland and Wellington? It’ll be your first ever show in Wellington?

Yeah, I think so. I think I'm gonna be playing with a violinist but otherwise it’ll just be me and it’ll be songs from Sprained Ankle and Turn Out The Lights, sort of half and half. It's exciting, I'm excited to play them live for the first time in Wellington.

Julien Baker is playing with at Auckland's Tuning Fork on Friday 15th February, and on Saturday 16th February at Wellington's Meow, with BEING. playing support for both shows.


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