It's not often people thank you for making them cry.

For Julien Baker, it's a frequent occurrence. Her sparsely layered folk songs pull no punches when wading into darker emotional territory, often evoking visceral reactions from the audience - and Baker's not quite sure how to feel about it.

"Honestly, it's just me up there, with a guitar, making some loops, singing some songs, and sometimes people cry. I think it was the Sydney show - there was a person that was audibly crying in the front row, and I just wanted to be like, 'Are you okay?'

"This exchange happens so much, where people say, 'You made me cry', and I'll say, 'I'm sorry', and they'll say, 'no, it was a good cry'. And that's great. I love to hear that, but I think I'll always feel a little bit weird about seeing people cry and not being able to do anything about it, or worse, knowing that I'm the direct impetus for the cry. But hopefully, it's a cathartic cry."

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Julien Baker's sparse folk songs traverse themes such as pain, hope and heartbreak. Photo / Jake Cunningham.
Julien Baker's sparse folk songs traverse themes such as pain, hope and heartbreak. Photo / Jake Cunningham.

Baker made waves in 2015 with her debut album, Sprained Ankle; a startlingly raw journey negotiating themes such as pain, hope and heartbreak. The album was a success, and the Memphis-based 21-year-old subsequently signed with legendary indie label Matador and put her university studies on hold to tour the world.

Baker's new-found recognition came with a humbling sense of responsibility. In June, when she arrived in Porto, Portugal to play NOS Primavera Sound festival, she was asked if she had any specifications for her stage projections. She did not, but swiftly came up with a simple idea: A pride flag, with an anti-fascist symbol stamped on top - "because who isn't all for radical equality, right?"

She laughs the moment off, but there was power in her last-minute decision. Baker, who identifies as queer, says being open about her identity is "very important" to her.

"Sometimes it's difficult coming to terms with the fact that I even get to play festivals like Primavera Porto, and I'm very cognisant of the responsibility there. There's a lot of gravity to the influence you have with just a microphone, and that's not something I ever want to seem flippant about," she says.

"The whole point of playing music, to me, is not just to accrue achievements and accolades and recognition for Julien Baker. If it's not influencing anybody to provide them with some sliver of hope, then I feel like it's lost or vapid work."

Baker's music is neither. Her lyrics are able to capture the most profound and quietly devastating moments from everyday life, managing to be both direct and ambiguous. With the belief that people can often speak more profoundly than they realise, Baker forages her lyrics from everyday conversations and uses these snippets to construct her songs.

Julien Baker is focused on providing people with slivers of hope. Photo / Jake Cunningham
Julien Baker is focused on providing people with slivers of hope. Photo / Jake Cunningham

Using music as a tool to "reflect and process" upon her life, Baker says as an artist, she's trained herself to find poetry in the commonplace.

"All of my favourite lyricists that I really look up to have an ability to hone in on the significance of the ordinary. I think that especially for a person that's enamoured with and tries to be constantly engaged with art, a lot of that comes with identifying art in everything," she says.

"[It's about] seeing the significance of the interactions we have; our conversations with people in waiting rooms, or while we're getting our oil changed, that end up betraying more significant things."

Julien Baker's second album is due in October. Full details of her Auckland concert can be found here.

LOWDOWN:
Who: Julien Baker
Where: The Tuning Fork
When: Sunday, July 23, 7pm