Julien Baker talks therapy, God and her long time away from the road

Before her show at Newport Music Hall, Baker describes the unmagical work of therapy as she processed a 2018 faith crisis that led to album 'Little Oblivions'

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Julien Baker

When the pandemic brought life as we knew it to a screeching halt in March of 2020, Julien Baker happened to be mentally and emotionally equipped to handle the jarring new reality. But only because she had just gone through hell. 

“I had this lucky thing happen to me where, right before the most challenging, life-altering global crisis, I got a crash course of intensive therapy,” Baker said by phone last month. “There was so much change in my life right before COVID, so then when the world on a macro scale was uncertain and treacherous, I felt like I had gone through a lot of heartache and disappointment and painful growth the year prior. ... I don't know if I would have been able to articulate my emotions or recognize unhealthy coping mechanisms if I hadn't, by some miraculous universal luck, had that experience.” 

After returning from a 2018 tour with boygenius, a superbly talented band Baker formed with fellow singers and songwriters Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, she had a breakdown. Baker has been open about her struggles with substance use disorder, and in 2018 she relapsed, then canceled a planned 2019 tour, opting instead to concentrate on finishing her degree. At the same time, Baker was “going to school for my emotions,” she said.

“I went to a bunch of therapy, dude. It's not like I magically took time off the road and went for walks in the woods. I mean, I did lots of that, and I love hiking, but I didn't have a Thoreau enlightenment thing. I went to a lot of therapy for hours and hours every day,” she said. “I've spent a lot of my life as a musician in interviews idealizing suffering for a purpose, and I don't think I want to do that anymore. I coped, yeah, but it's not magical.” 

In February of this year, Baker released Little Oblivions, her third record and first real rock album. While 2017’s Turn Out the Lights saw Baker experimenting with more layered arrangements compared with her spare breakthrough debut, 2015’s Sprained Ankle, Little Oblivions has a full-band sound. Recorded in late 2019 and early 2020 in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, the excellent album features Baker playing nearly every instrument, supplementing piano and guitar with synthesizer, bass, drums and more.

While Baker’s sound is more textured now, her raw, confessional songwriting remains intact. Baker’s songs often culminate with cathartic wails, and Little Oblivions is no different; in fact, the album might be her most vulnerable yet. The opening lines of first track “Hardline” set the tone for the rest of the record: “Blacked out on a weekday; is there something that I'm trying to avoid?/Start asking for forgiveness in advance for all the future things I will destroy/That way I can ruin everything, and when I do, you don't get to act surprised.”

After Little Oblivions’ release, Baker was gearing up to reenter the world of touring just as the country went into lockdown mode. “I took it hard, because I was like, ‘Oh, my God. What do I do now?’ But I don't know if I actually was ready to go back on tour. I think I just didn't know what else to do when I wasn't touring,” she said. “I wanted to go back to touring because that was the thing I felt competent doing. That's my job, and when I couldn't do it, I had to find other hustles and also other ways to be accountable to myself with my time and with my behavior.” 

She spent much of the pandemic cooking, playing guitar and recording demos — "practicing skills that make me a better musician and songwriter and make it easier for me to understand how records are made and how sound is recorded,” said Baker, who’s now back on the road, including a stop at Newport Music Hall tonight (Tuesday, Sept. 28) with Thao.

While therapy helped Baker get to a healthier place, the deconstruction that began in 2018 hasn’t stopped. She’s still processing the most significant change: her belief in God.  

Baker was raised in the world of Christian evangelicalism, and even after coming out as gay at 17, she held on to her faith. But at the end of 2018, that belief began to shift. “It's why all my shit started to fall apart,” she said.  

“Oh, good God/When you gonna call it off?/Climb down off of the cross and change your mind?” Baker sings on “Ziptie,” the Little Oblivions closing track that finds the singer crying out to a God she describes as good, though she sounds only half-convinced by the claim.

For Baker, changing her mind about God didn't involve a mere philosophical or intellectual shift; it touched every corner of her life. “I don't even know how to explain what it feels like to change how you feel about God. It seems so dramatic to people who didn't grow up with a religious background,” she said. “My partner grew up in Europe with no mention of God. Never went to church. And it is wild trying to explain to someone, ‘You don't understand. The fabric of my universe unraveled. Every single thing I believe about why trees grow and why I fall in love and why I'm nice to other people and why the sun shines is wrong.’ How do you deal with that?! It's crazy.

"It's not just like, ‘Oh, I don't believe in a Christian God anymore.’ The entire way I live my life, all of my behaviors and habits and thoughts, are predicated on believing in a Christian God.” 

That one change destabilized Baker’s world, but as harrowing as that has been, the alternative is scarier to her. “It brings to mind politicians who are like, ‘I'm the same as I've always been for 50 years.’ That's horrible! If you haven't learned anything new or changed your mind in 50 years, that's bad,” she said. “I get new information, and I assimilate it into how I deal with problems, and then I deal with them differently. You’re trying to learn.”  

These days, Baker has been thinking through issues of faith again as she listens to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” a podcast about former megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll. “It makes me cry,” she said. “I love and hate it because it's so heartbreaking hearing people talk about how their faith has changed. … But listening to people go on this podcast and say, ‘I was misguided’ or ‘I don't interact with my faith in the same way’ or ‘I had to change how I practice my faith,’ that's been really cool.” 

"It feels so scary. It feels like a loss,” Baker said of her own faith crisis. “And then... I don't know, you learn. You restructure, hopefully. And painfully. But it's OK.”