Following on from the sparse, percussion-less beauty of 2017’s Turn Out The Lights comes Julien Baker’s third album of moving alt-folk, Little Oblivions – a luciously-arranged tangle of intimate observations, which seem to collapse dualities all over the shop.
In single Hardline you sing about “split[ting] the difference between medicine and poison”. It reminds me of the Latin phrase “that which nourishes me, destroys me” (and yes, I learned this from Angelina Jolie’s tattoo), meaning that the thing which motivates you can consume you. Do you think the equilibrium between medicine and poison can ever maintain itself, or does it require constant monitoring?
Haha, have no shame about how you came by that knowledge! Sometimes when things get extracted from their context and inserted into pop culture in that way, people think that the ideas themselves automatically become cliche, but I like that expression. I think it hits on the relativity of what makes a remedy, which to me is less about that same old repackaging of stoicism that cautions people vaguely to take both joy and sadness, excitement and disappointment, etc., and more about understanding the duality of things and have a more fluid relationship to them. As in, I think that instead of trying to deliberate whether something is medicine vs poison, good vs. bad, it’s healthier to accept that most things in our lives could occupy either space — either beneficial or detrimental depending on how we use them, in a healthy or unhealthy way.
There’s a related sentiment at the core of Crying Wolf, where you describe seeking out the wolves. You even do something of a wolf-howl during the song. We don’t have them in Australia (the dingo is a distant relative I think); are they an animal you feel an affinity with or did these lyrics evolve solely from the idiom?
The lyrical premise of the song is based on the idiom, yes… except for that I guess in this version its less of me ‘crying wolf’ about an imaginary danger, and more me deliberately seeking out things I know are negative/ dangerous for me, even after my friends have come to bail me out time and time again from those exact things or situations. To me that’s really consistent to the cyclical pattern of substance abuse.
To that point specifically, the title of the track is also kind of a tongue-in-cheek reference to a bar here in Nashville – it’s a local place I frequented in my most implosive seasons where I would go to lurk and brood and self-medicate – whatever people on benders do, I guess. It just seemed darkly meta that that was the name of the establishment I kept returning to. I don’t think that place is a wolf den, or that the employees or the patrons are bad. I just think it had a particularly sinister meaning for me personally
You told us of your last album that you’d have used percussion if you thought it would serve any of the songs. Your new material is lush with rhythms and many other instruments – did you want to deliberately move away from sparseness or did it happen in the same way as previously, and these songs were simply served well by accompaniment?
I think that it was a little of both; I deliberately wanted to expand the palette of sounds that I used in songwriting and production, in order to see how the songs I was writing could be reimagined in a maximalist sense instead of a minimalist sense, I guess. I just wanted to be willing to experiment with sounds beyond the limitations of what I had done before, and see if I could hone the skill of arranging with a more varied and challenging collection of instruments.
You’ve mentioned hanging out in the library a lot at Middle Tennessee State Uni, when you went back to finish your studies in 2019. I am a dork and I love libraries. What was your favourite spot in the library?
I feel like a masochist because my favorite place in the library (Walker Library specifically) is the back corner where the cubicle desks are. I tend to work and write very slowly, and being back there helps me focus – it’s usually pretty unpopulated and even though it’s a cordoned-off little desk, there’s a wall of windows, and the light tends to fall nice over there in the afternoon and make it seem less oppressively fluorescent.
Did that time at Uni affect your subsequent songwriting most via the actual content of the texts you read, the methods of study you used, or the simple fact your brain was committing to and considering disciplines other than music?
I think its more the latter – I think once I was immersed in a new discipline that wasn’t tour, wasn’t a daily engagement with the performance of music, it made me able to detach from the feeling of being seen all the time. I think it gave me perspective, helped with the apprehension of disclosing too much or being negatively judged for the art you create and share publicly.
Little Oblivions by Julien Baker is out now via Matador/Remote Control.Buy now at JB Hi-Fi
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