Julien Baker dreaded telling her parents she’s not going back to school this semester.
The singer-songwriter, who released her debut album, Sprained Ankle, last year to great acclaim, encountered the same reaction from her parents as she has throughout her 20 years of life: unconditional support.
Baker says, “I think I’ve always been blessed in that way.”
That statement says a lot about who Baker is. She gushes when she talks about going to metalcore and emo shows with her dad nearly every weekend as a 12-year-old in Memphis, Tennessee. She says he would sit on the top of a skate ramp for hours while she watched bands she discovered on MySpace. When she was 13, they went to Bonnaroo. She remembers hearing him explain why he chaperoned his young daughter to these concerts.
“He said, ‘If that was where she was going to be, that’s where I am going to be, too, because I want to be part of my child’s life,’” she recalls with a twinge of emotion. “My dad took off work and came on one of the first tours I did with my band because my guitarist and I were so young we had to have a guardian. My dad was standing in these house and bar shows with his daughter’s punk band because he wanted me to be able to pursue my passion.”
Baker and her friends formed the DIY band Forrister in 2013. When she left Memphis to attend college four hours away in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, she found herself writing the fragile folk songs that make up Sprained Ankle. It is as confessional and expressive as an emo album but sung in a quiet, reverent style.
“I think writing [Sprained Ankle] was cathartic and helped me release the immediate pressure of what I was feeling, but performing the songs over and over again made me start to think, ‘Why did I feel this way in the first place?’” she describes. “It’s therapeutic, not only for me but hopefully for other folks. It’s confessional by saying I’ve made these mistakes, but they don’t have to define me. I wind up freaking people out when they find out I’m a hyper individual.”
At times, the record dramatizes a tension between a higher power and Baker. This feeling stems from what many might consider a dichotomy: Baker’s Christian beliefs and knowing she is gay. Before she came out, she carried around the presupposition that she would be met with hatred from church leaders and friends. In reality, she found that the more people she came out to, the more acceptance she found.
Baker planned to come out to her parents when she felt safe from whatever retribution she thought she would endure, but she was forced to tell her father when he saw her kissing her then-girlfriend.
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“There was no denying it,” she remembers, “I just started to cry. [The three of us] are just standing there. He starts hugging us both. He says, ‘There’s nothing you could ever do to make you not my daughter.’ After my girlfriend left, I’m crying on the couch. I say to my dad, ‘I think I’m going to hell.’ He grabs the Bible off the shelf and spends the next hour reading verse after verse saying that I am God’s beloved child. ‘I’m going to prove to you God loves you.’”
Her family’s wholehearted love has helped define who Baker is, making the story behind her moving music all the more touching.
Julien Baker is scheduled to perform Saturday, August 20, at Valley Bar.
Update: This article's headline originally read "Julien Baker Reconciles Being Christian and Gay in Her Music."