On the redeeming power of sad songs and how they make us feel better

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Indie folk musician Julien Baker says "sad songs make me feel better." Her latest album "Sprained Ankle" is an account of finding redemption in times of hopelessness. Photo by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In the book “Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos,” the art critic and novelist John Berger asks, “What can grow on this site of loss?” Twenty one-year-old Julien Baker, a Memphis-based musician, seems to answer Berger’s question with her debut album, “Sprained Ankle,” a 33-minute walk across innumerable planes of devastation. Officially released in October last year, the album is a collection of nine songs — written by Baker during her stint at a university away from family, friends, and her main band, Forrister — and is an intimation of loss, self-destruction, and the possibility of redemption.

It’s one thing to listen to a Julien Baker record; it’s quite another thing to see her play live. Baker possesses the rare ability to compel a bar full of people to listen in silence, just armed with a guitar and her voice. Wrapping up her “Sprained Ankle” tour over a year after she set off on it, Baker ends with an Australian leg, doing the festival circuit and playing more small shows, one of which was held in Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria, amid stained glass and David Hockney paintings.

Baker’s small stature is at odds with the quiet power of her performances, which transforms every space she inhabits. Elizabeth Hughes, one of her supporting acts at her Sydney shows, caught her show in London’s St. Pancras Old Church back in May. Hughes found herself sitting on a pew, beside a row of people who all also came by themselves to see Baker play. “Julien’s music,” she says, as she tunes her guitar, "you would go by yourself.”

unnamed.jpg "When people find out you’re a little sad and a little weird, not everybody’s going to go away," says Baker. "That’s just not true.” Photo by CARINA SANTOS  

In between songs, Baker addresses the audience with earnest thanks and an endearing and silly self-deprecation. She makes it a point to introduce or wrap up certain songs with a more direct intention. After “Everybody Does” — a song in which she sings “I’m a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you never touched” — Baker says, “That song’s about thinking that everyone’s going to bounce when they find you a little weird. But you guys are all here! When people find out you’re a little sad and a little weird, not everybody’s going to go away. That’s just not true.” After a few laughs from crowd, she says, “Wow, thanks for laughing,” before sharing a joke she made that bombed at a previous festival she played.

Baker’s positivity is often a surprising encounter for people who have only listened to her songs, but it’s a large part of her person and an immediate introduction to who she is. “Sad songs make me feel better” is a slogan she has adopted from her artist friend, Vanessa Jean Speckman, after Speckman made Baker a shirt that she ended up wearing “every day of the tour.” It’s an assertion that it’s not only bad things that can come out of the bad, that sad songs don't necessarily incubate bad feelings, but can be a source of comfort in trying times.

Having written “Sprained Ankle” in relative obscurity, Baker’s tracks on it have a vulnerability and honesty to them that may be difficult to replicate, now that she has reached some measure of fame. “The awareness of an audience has definitely influenced my work,” she says. “It has only made me more careful in how I phrase things, in being more explicit in how I speak about songs in interviews and stuff. If I’m going to sing songs that are, you know, quite sad and bleak, then it’s that much more necessary and imperative that I couple it with a purposeful idea behind the songs, instead of leaving it to vague interpretation.”

However, she says she tries not to over edit or censor herself. “If I have a thought that’s like, ‘Ugh! That’s gonna freak people out!’ I try to banish it and say, ‘No, that’s how you’re feeling, and that’s honest,’ and that’s the whole problem, like stigmatizing thoughts or real issues … So now, whenever I feel that way, I think, ‘Well, now I definitely need to leave that in.’”

In a way, her shows are self-effacing. As much as you’re held in awe by her presence, the songs, at some point, also turn on themselves and somehow become about you. “Every night, I get the fortune of meeting new people,” Baker says. “There’s a whole audience full of people I’ve not ever interacted with before, and that’s astonishing. When you look out to the crowd, you think, within each person is a wealth of experience. Like, they’re a whole world, and they’ve lived a whole life. And I know nothing about them, not even their name. And then, for like an hour, we’re all on the same mental page, no matter where we are in life. I think that’s what’s always endeared me to music, as an audience member and a performer, and why I love music that kind of allows that barrier to evaporate, a little bit, and so there’s no distance between performer and audience, and you’re just sharing a musical experience. That’s the best part of touring.”

unnamed-2 copy.jpg Baker values her connection with her audience, and considers the shared musical experience as "the best part of touring." Photo by CARINA SANTOS  

Baker’s ethos of hope and inclusivity extends beyond her music. Touring solo has provided her with the ability to play so many shows — “I just have my guitar and a bag full of pedals” — but some of the most valuable things that continue to amaze Baker is getting to interact with “kids who feel emboldened to address issues like their sexuality, or their faith, or both, or who they are as a person, or like, enduring trauma.”

“I got to be a part of this co-op, kind of like an interfaith panel on faith in queer spaces, and elevating people of color and their experiences in faith,” Baker shares. “And being a part of that was amazing because it was like, all these people contributing to the same kind of mission of understanding.” She mentions Mary Lambert, an out, queer artist of faith who was an inspiration to her growing up and has become a friend. “To be able to have that kind of exchange with her is very precious to me,” she says. “And it makes me hope to keep the chain going, you know? That’s probably the most beautiful thing that I get to do.”

For Baker, the point is not to always feel happy, but to recognize that, as Rebecca Solnit writes in the foreword of “Hope in the Dark”: “We don’t know what is going to happen, or how, or when, and that very uncertainty is the space of hope.”

“In the inevitable event that you find yourself in a negative space or at some point of despair, hopelessness does not serve you,” Baker says. “It impedes progress. And so, it is more harmful and life-threatening to remain stagnant, wallowing in that emotion, but I feel there’s this tricky balance of not denying what you feel, saying ‘I feel this feeling, and it’s valid. I’m allowed to feel hurt, and angry, or scared, or upset,’ and then expressing that in a way that publicizes it…. For me, it’s singing songs.”

”When you distance yourself from that [feeling], and turn it into a work, it gives you another perspective,” she continues. “So now, when I sing the songs that are a year and two years old, I have to analyze why I felt that way and why it wasn’t healthy to feel that way, and how I can be better.”

There’s a whole audience full of people I’ve not ever interacted with before, and that’s astonishing. When you look out to the crowd, you think, within each person is a wealth of experience. Like, they’re a whole world, and they’ve lived a whole life. And I know nothing about them, not even their name. And then, for like an hour, we’re all on the same mental page, no matter where we are in life. I think that’s what’s always endeared me to music.

 

That Baker just turned 21 is rather astounding, given the depth and scope of bleakness of “Sprained Ankle.” Despite the losses that Baker has endured in her life — and how sad they must have been for her to create such a heartbreaking record — she tours with a mission, almost, to banish the coldness of the world, one bar room full of people at a time.

“I used to feel weird talking about, you know, past experiences,” she says, “and I think it’s valuable to turn those negative occurrences into something that can make another person feel like their circumstance is temporary, and it can be overcome, you know?”