The first thing that becomes apparent when listening to Julien Baker’s debut album, “Sprained Ankle,” is the unadulterated emotion and honesty that Baker pours into her songs.
Baker is open about struggles with love, death, alcohol and her own mistakes as a lone guitar softly plays off the rise and fall of her voice for much of the album. It’s certainly not an easy thing to do, being so honest and revealing, but Baker sees the importance of being so open with her audience.
“I think it does absolutely serve, like, a therapeutic purpose, being able to write songs about that,” Baker said. “I think that’s why anybody writes songs, right? To work out an emotion by turning it into art. But then sometimes it’s difficult to put that art on display, and it feels really vulnerable, but I think it’s rewarding in that, when I get to talk to people that connect with it, or they have shared experiences, it reminds me why it’s important to be that transparent.”
Baker, at just 20 years old, has already had an eventful career, despite only just releasing her album in October 2015. One of her songs, “Everybody Does,” has topped over two-and-a-half million listens on Spotify, her album made various best-of-2015 lists on publications such as Stereogum and Paste magazine, she’s played sessions for NPR and Audiotree and is currently headlining her own tour and booked for several music festivals. Baker said it was still hard for her to believe the success of the album.
“It was strange, and there was a period of acclimation, because I didn’t think it would catch on that much,” Baker said. “It still is pretty surreal; I don’t even believe a lot of the stuff that has happened, so I try to keep it in perspective, prioritize the right things and stay thankful.”
Baker played with the band Forrister (formerly Starkillers) while growing up in Memphis, but began writing “Sprained Ankle” after leaving home to attend Middle Tennessee State University.
“I moved away from home in Memphis and moved to Murfreesboro to go to school, and I was just writing stuff that didn’t necessarily feel like it fit with Forrister or Starkillers,” Baker said. “(I would) just hang out in the practice spaces on the college campus, these little closet rooms with pianos, and just write alone, and I think it kind of lended itself to quieter, more inverse songs.”
Baker eventually recorded these songs after her friend, Michael Henger, arranged free recording time for Baker at Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, Virginia.
“We used the free time to record kind of, like, with what we had available, and just did as many songs as we could, and then I released it on Bandcamp for three bucks until 6131 [Records] approached me about it, and was like, ‘We want to do a formal release of this,’ and then we re-released it at the end of last year.”
Baker has been touring around the U.S. for several months, and in May will embark on her first overseas tour, playing shows in Paris, the United Kingdom and Germany.
“I could never really afford to study abroad as a student, and so now I’m finally going to get to go explore and experience other parts of the world, and with the added pleasure of it being while I am performing music in those new places,” Baker said. “So I’m just overjoyed and really excited.”
Baker said touring is important because it allows her to connect with people who share a love of music.
“Touring is potentially the most precious aspect of being a musician to me, because you get to interact with so many people, strangers, and you all hang out, and the only reason you’re all together in that room sharing that experience is because you all care about music that much,” Baker said. “So I knew I would always do that, because I love that environment, but I had written it off as it will have to be something I do and have a day job and have to work around and have to carve out time. So now that I’m able to kind of pull back a little bit and use it to support myself and I can do it full time and have it be my passion and my employment, it’s nice. It makes me motivated to do the best I can and make it the best experience for everyone involved.”
Tonight will be Baker’s first time playing a solo show in Oxford, but Baker has played at an Ole Miss party before with Forrister and Oxford artists Holy Ghost Electric Show and Ben Ricketts.
“It was awesome,” Baker said. “It was like a mixed group of people, because we played a college house show, and it was like out on this porch, and there were several hundred people there. I had no idea it was like a big party, and I was like ‘What if they don’t like us what if we’re not their kind of music?’ And we finish our first song and they just start flipping out.”
“People [in Oxford] just love music, period, and they’re not going to judge you if it’s not the particular type of music they want or anticipate, they’re just fans of all music, so I like it, it’s a really cool town,” Baker said.
Julien Baker plays at 8 p.m. tonight at Proud Larry’s, with Oxford band Bonus billed as the opener.