At the young age of 22, singer/songwriter Julien Baker has been through her own battles with addiction, as well as depression and anxiety. In this exclusive Music Heals interview with KEXP's Morning Show Producer, Owen Murphy, Baker opens up about her experiences growing up and finding the place where she belongs.
Baker is currently on tour in support of her second LP, Turn Out the Lights, out now via Matador Records.
KEXP: What is your experience with addiction?
Ah, a large question. OK. So, when I was a kid growing up, I think I... well, I don't know if this is common, because I was going to say, everybody has a time in their life in which they begin questioning the paradigms that are ingrained in their mind as a child, where you're completely dependent upon authority structures, you're completely dependent upon your parents. Everything that you hear at church is true. Everything you hear at school is true. And then once you understand that you have the power as a free individual to question and reject everything from opinions to laws — like, you're free to reject laws; there just may be consequences — then, you start to explore that capability. But I do know many kids who just never were bad kids. And I will admit right now that I wasn't a bad kid. I was just a problematic kid. I was probably frustrating for my parents to deal with because I took that capability to question and refute pretty far.
The reason why I brought up the whole thing about choice is because, I think that when I was a kid, whatever was going on in my life — besides your average "teen angst whatever" — like traumas or difficulties I was experiencing, the way that I dealt with that — and I think the way that a lot of people do, who fall into the same situation that I was in — is that I tried to communicate my agency or/and assert some power over my situation by deciding that I would make whatever choice I desired, no matter how destructive, because it was diametrically opposed to what was being asked of me or what was being forced upon me. And it's like a subconscious reactionary thing. But also I think my experience... (sigh) I don't want to make it sound like one of those horribly overdramatized 1970s Afterschool Specials where you hang out with kids who "smoke the reefer" and then all of a sudden you do cocaine! (laughs.) I never actually did anything quite that scary. But I think it just developed slowly into... because I did not have a discernment for what I am and am not willing to put into my body. I just was not very concerned with myself at all or my own safety. Had very low expectations of myself. And just gradually started to take the road into things that would numb or turn off my brain. I wanted to suppress my thoughts as much as possible. It's always interesting to me when, at that time that I was using, other friends of mine would say like, "well, do you think you'd ever want to like drop acid?" or like, "I've got some shrooms" and I never really wanted to do things like that. I wanted to do things that would make me feel lights out. I wanted to be down all the time because for me, what was going on in my mind was already so accelerated like my thoughts were racing all of the time. I felt like the world was too big to grasp and thoughts were too bleak they were too much and I was so sensitive -- "was?" I'm still so sensitive! (laughs.) But I wanted that extremity to just be dulled. When you think of the "Dazed and Confused" trope of someone who wants to "expand your mind, dude" — I don't want to expand it any further. That would just hurt. So yeah, that was my experience with drugs.
What was going on in your life that made you want to numb that? Was there an underlying cause?
I don't usually like to assign the genesis of my substance use with a trauma, though there are things that I experienced that were difficult about my childhood. Or, things that maybe my parents modeled that were unhealthy, despite the myriad healthy things that they did try to model for me. I never like to say something happened to me and in response —in overwhelming response —I then chose to cope with it by using drugs. I think that there is another part in there.
And this is something that I think about a lot. While I understand that I probably have an addictive personality, and when I quit using substances then, I was smoking quite a bit — which makes me sound like an AA archetype, just smoking through pack after pack of cigarettes and drinking black coffee. Then I tried to reduce my dependence on nicotine and caffeine, and now I run, like, so much. And get nervous when I'm not able to run. Which makes me sound like a "gym bro" but I really just have to. So, I know that there is something deeper. There's another proclivity of my mind for how I experience trauma, how I process stress, and how I perceive the world around me. And I think that I will always be in the in the midst of mitigating that. For instance, I think that having struggled with mental illness, having struggled with depression and anxiety, and having a history of panic attacks for my whole life — those come a lot from my schema of reality. It sounds like I'm about to go into an ancient aliens riff where I'm like, "It's not real! It's the matrix!" (laughs) and that's not what I mean but I think quite a bit — almost an exhausting amount — about the magnitude of things, the magnitude of our every interaction with other human beings, and the decisions that we make, so much show that it's quite paralyzing. And I thought this was a new thing. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that I've always been that sensitive to my actions and what's going to happen. And these questions that I have about the universe or like morality or ethics or altruistic human behavior.
And I think I felt frustrated because in your adolescence, you're asked to process adult things but you don't have an adult emotional intelligence. It's like being asked to do a complex construction project with plastic tools. You have the developmental brain of a 13-year-old and you are being asked to understand the complexities of heartache, and the addiction of your relatives, or your loved ones being ostracized from a church because of their personal issues, and you don't know how to cope with that. And so you end up doing stupid things and taking stupid shortcuts in order to escape a little bit.
So, what was the force for change for you? Was it music?
It was in a sense, yes, but it was something more than music, which is interesting for me to say. I'm at a point in my life where music is the thing that I think about nonstop constantly every day, day in, day out. And it's not as if this has ever not been true, because ever since I can remember I've been obsessed with music. But now I have the privilege of engaging with it heavily whenever I want to because I'm not preoccupied with school or a desk job and then I have to whittle away the hours until I get the sweet relief of playing guitar at the end of the day. I play guitar all day. That's my job. But that makes me think about the function and position of music in my life.
Two things. I'll try to answer both of the questions. "What was the impetus for my deciding to get sober and also was it music?" The answer to the second thing is sort of, but the first thing, what the impetus was, life forced me an ultimatum. Because I'm a person of faith, I tend to believe that things are divinely ordained, even when that means that they're divinely ordained in a painful or grotesque way. That's hard to believe sometimes, but it is what I believe. And I think when you recognize that you will die if you keep doing a thing... for me, part of struggling with anxiety and depression is having a low regard for your life as a concept and then not caring what happens to it or where it goes. This tool or privilege that I have that is living, that is very beautiful and intense and riddled with gorgeous, painful feeling — I don't care. But then when I was presented with the reality of... understanding that I would lose it very soon, it terrified me into changing. I mean, I think that's very dramatic, and it didn't happen overnight. It's not as if, from then on like I was like Saul on the side of the road and then Angel came and struck me sober. You know it was difficult. And I've faltered a whole bunch of times, but I started to change the way that I thought about the capability I had, instead of thinking that I was nothing. I started to think of the potential that I could have, the things that I could try to change that were within my power. It was the same way when I quit smoking because I smoked for seven years and I smoked for long, long after I quit using other substances. And I quit smoking because I realized I could lose my voice, and it was like an ultimatum was forced to me. Like, what if you could never sing again? What if you woke up one day and you could never do the only thing that makes sense to you? And I didn't want to even play around with that.
When I was still at a period of heavy dependency — it's funny because this friend actually moved from Memphis to Seattle and lives here and I'm visiting her — but I started hanging out with the folks from the Memphis music scene and a lot of folks from Smith Seven [ed note: non-profit record label] and also a lot of folks from a church that doesn't exist anymore, but was this uniquely isolated faith community that was truly unique and something I've not seen — in that I went there and told them straight to their faces that I did not agree with anything that they were saying in their service and did not want to be there. They were like, "OK, well you're our friend and we care about you" and saw that I was struggling immensely and being a little bit angry and prideful about it. Those people that I met loved me through what I was experiencing and loved me because of my belonging to the category of being a human. They loved the humanness in me. They saw that there was something that was beautiful and redeemable because I was a person. I didn't have to get all my stuff together, get my whole life together, fix myself and then maybe I could belong to an elite group of people who would then care about me. Maybe then I could earn friends that would reinforce my pride. They cared about me when I had nothing to offer, and that destroyed the paradigm of what I thought relationships were because I had nothing to offer them. I was actually quite rude and had zero money ever and they picked me up on the side of the road and asks zero questions about why I was there and made sure I was able to be safe and feel safe emotionally, too.
I feel a pride avalanche when I think about the people in my life that have just been hovering in sort-of a peripheral sense, who maybe don't even realize what a great role they played in the razor's edge that a person walks all the time of where their life could go. But yeah, bringing it back to music, those people gave me an opportunity to play and just jam with them in a very low-pressure environment and always invited me and would kind-of spur me on like, "why don't you try playing with us this week at a jam?" or "don't you play mandolin? I bet you can figure it out pretty easily," and reinforced the confidence that I had something that I could offer in the future. And that's exactly what playing music did, too. Like I remember the first time I ever went to a show — a Smith Seven show in Memphis — and I met all the people there and I thought like, "what do you mean nobody's drinking? What do you mean all these teenagers are here and there's no chaperone and they're not getting just buck wild because they can, and no one's watching them?" And the way that they all responded was, "We just don't really need it. We're just having fun without it, and those things are kind of dangerous." Not dangerous for everybody, you know. Obviously, there are adults who function normally but I'm not one of them, obviously. So the first time I ever went to a show, I saw this band just screaming into a microphone and there were about 10 people in the audience just looking totally enraptured. And then during the chorus, they would all mob around the microphone. Of course, everybody that has grown up in the hardcore world, the punk scene or whatever, knows it's the gang vocals part where everybody piles on to the microphone and sings it all together. But to me, that was revolutionary to see someone point the mic away from themselves. And then when the bands would change, the people who were standing in the audience would just have been the other band, and they would just switch places and get up on stage and play. And that made me feel like the mystic detachment around performer and audience was just shattered. Like, I could do that, I could play in a band, I could speak into a microphone and have people think the things I had to say were important. Why wouldn't I give away every negative thing, everything holding me back, in order to be able to utilize this thing? This precious potential of my life?
Is there a song off the last album that is part of this story?
"Happy to Be Here" is about going to group therapy (laughs) and it is about making a conscious decision to be involved in your own healing and not wait. I feel that sometimes the assumption is when we say "time heals everything" is that then time is the one doing the work. Not that healing takes time, but that if we wait long enough, the healing will be done for us. And I don't think that's true. I think if we don't address it, it will just get worse, and there's something actually quite empowering about when we make a decision to be active in our own healing that gives us that thing that we want.
And so the song "Happy to Be Here" is about me going to therapy and when you have to introduce yourself and say "Hi, I'm Julien." "Hi, Julien," echoes the unenthusiastic chorus of people in weird plastic chairs. But underneath all the ceremony of it, there's something quite beautiful in being able to bury yourself and feel understood by others. And what I learned was recognizing that maybe instead of us thinking you know, "I'm broken and I need to be fixed." It's more of a task of, "I need to find where I fit." I am a thing that has a very specific shape and a very specific purpose and function, and I just need to figure out how to make my function work in the larger mechanism of the world. It's not that I am faulty or that I'm just so flawed that I have to make myself quote-unquote "normal" because I think normal is a sliding scale. It's a subjective definition. And so you have to find people that understand you and can give you the tools to make you feel like you can fit inside of the world without compromising yourself to be this other being.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate help, call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), Crisis Clinic (1-866-789-1511), or the Washington Recovery Helpline (a program of the Crisis Clinic). You can find additional resources here. You are not alone.
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