Julien Baker is more visible than ever. After her low-budget debut, Sprained Ankle, made nearly every best-of 2015 list, the 21-year-old Baker signed with Matador Records and went home to Memphis to record her next record at the legendary Ardent Studios [Tape Op #58]. Turn Out the Lightswas released in October of 2017 to massive acclaim from critics, and was met with extreme devotion from audiences. It is the rare record that one can wholeheartedly describe as both monastically spare and cinematically epic, putting her in the heady company of Tori Amos, Nina Simone, and Jeff Buckley. We caught up with Julien shortly after her return to Tennessee from a quick tour of Japan to talk about guitars, Ardent, Craig Silvey, reverb, and doing more with less.
Turn Out the Lights is really beautiful.
Oh, thank you!
I find it difficult to disconnect from it emotionally for a while after I've turned it off, which is the sign of a quality record.
That means a lot to hear. Thank you.
You made it at Ardent in Memphis, but you did your previous album, Sprained Ankle, at a studio in Virginia, right?
Yeah. Spacebomb Studios. Most of the songs on Sprained Ankle were recorded at Spacebomb, but there are two on there (two with percussion, "Vessels" and "Brittle Boned") that were recorded at Cody Landers' house. He's an incredible engineer.
Were you recording yourself before that?
When I was in high school, the band I was in [The Star Killers, later known as Forrister] put out a full-length [American Blues] album that we recorded entirely in Cody Landers' attic. We were all kids, and he took on this project because we were his friends. It was a labor of love, as well as a learning experience. We had no idea what to ask for and what sounded good. It's funny, looking back now on what we were trying to emulate.
What were you trying to emulate?
Well, Matthew [Gilliam] – the drummer and one of my closest friends – our biggest influences are probably Manchester Orchestra and Circa Survive. We wanted to sound big, bombastic, and theatrical, but with sinewy, reverb-y guitars. The other guitarist listened to Wilco, Guster, and folk-adult-rock. It ended up sounding half like Whiskeytown and half like Sunny Day Real Estate. Those are mixed very, very differently. Also, and this is true with youth, is that everything is more exaggerated. You want things as more drastic, colorful caricatures of themselves. I always wanted a 30-second reverb tail on my vocals. The guitars had to be super loud. Matthew had the biggest snare that was sold at the local music store, because everything had to be so powerful. A better way to put it is that it lacks taste or restraint. I learned so much every day, after school sitting in front of Cubase and crafting a record. Before I ever went to MTSU [Middle Tennessee State University], that's how I learned how automation works, why you track drums first, or why you don't want to put a whole bunch of reverb on the drum kit, even though it sounds cool as an idea.
You went to MTSU to study recording?
I did. I went to MTSU because they had a really notable and reputable recording industry program, but my thing was always live sound. There's an audio engineering major, and within that you can specialize in recording arts or live sound. I don't have the meticulous drive to pick apart a waveform in a DAW. I make my own demos, but they're simply for mapping out songs. I can't sit there and master forever. When I was a kid I learned how to use a PA, and then they would let me run the console at shows. I thought, "Well, I could do that. I know how to do simple circuits, so maybe I could work at a repair shop repairing guitars." I went to school to learn that, systems optimization, and building stages at festivals. But because we were all in the same program – all of my friends who were wearing their headphones around their neck and mixing at the campus Starbucks – those were the people who would say, "Hey, I have some extra studio time. Do you want to come in and record?" I think that it is important to keep yourself open to opportunities to gain experience.
You've got to get in there.
Hands-on experience taught me so much. I took so many classes on systems optimization, signal flow, and live sound mixing. But what taught me how to find my way in a live sound setting was doing sound for bands at venues. What taught me how to act, how to vocalize what I wanted, or the protocol inside a recording studio, was being able to spend that time. I think that's a good thing that MTSU gives you. There are resources on hand to take the theoretical knowledge from the classroom and apply it in a real setting. Otherwise, I couldn't have gotten to meet [engineer Michael] Hegner and do the first demos of what would eventually become Sprained Ankle. He was sitting in the library and asked, "Does anybody have a song they want to do? I've got a session in 30 minutes and no one to fill it." I was like, "Yeah."
Of course, you had to put the time into having a song.
I didn't think about that. Writing is always a compulsory thing, so I always have literally hundreds of voice memos.
Is that how you make your demos, just voice memos on the phone?
That's how I make the very first part; the writing process. If there's an idea while I'm playing guitar that I think is worthy of being explored, then I'll make a short little 1-minute voice demo and save it as "cool riff 85," or whatever. Then later it will be fleshed out as a song with placeholder lyrics. I finally took the plunge and got a real DAW. I use Logic now and I do those little MIDI things for keyboards. I can plug straight into a little one-input interface and have my actual guitar sounds from my pedalboard. Before that, I was using a straight-up 2005 Audacity program that I found. It was free. It looked awful. No hate on Audacity. But my version was so old.
It's a great program for cutting up samples.
Yeah. It's really limited. I guess that's how you learn. I was also using a Toshiba computer from 2006, because I held off for so long, saying, "I'm not going to buy a computer. This one works fine." It's so hard for me to give in and upgrade my gear, because I get used to working within the parameters I've become familiar with.
From that perspective, let's talk about going to Ardent Studios. Listening to the record for the first time, I kept waiting for the gigantic production to kick in. Almost all the songs have a moment where I thought, "Here it comes." But it never does.
It's really interesting to me that you say that. I felt self-conscious in the opposite way. I thought, "There're eight vocal tracks and strings, and my buddy's playing clarinet. This is so much." By comparison, it's much more expansive than Sprained Ankle. I was worried. I had this oxymoronic fear that it would be too similar to my past material and also too different, but not in the right ways. I wanted to have it be very dramatic – and have the parts that seem like soaring ballad climaxes – because I'm a sucker for that kind of dynamic. I think it's very emotive. But I also wanted to be careful that I didn't take so much of a maximalist approach that I weighed the song down, or it got to this critical mass where there's too much going on.
That's an incredibly mature perspective. I don't mean this because you're a younger person, but just in general. There are people who never get there.
Thank you. I'm going to acknowledge your compliment; I didn't take it as a thing about my age. But I agree. I think that restraint is such an important skill in music. For a long time when I was playing guitar in a band – and I think this had a lot to do with my insecurities about being a female in a male-dominated scene – but every time we played a show, I had to rip a crazy solo so that everybody knew I was "good." Still, one of my primary lurking fears about performing the material that I have today is that if I have a song that's three chords of quarter notes, everybody's going to be bored and put to sleep. But that's the challenge. Restraint is such an important thing. Just because you have every single color in your palette doesn't mean that every single color serves the painting. I think there are artists where the maximalist approach serves them well. When you think about a Bruce Springsteen record, like Born to Run. Or have you listened to Kimbra?
Yeah. A lot going on there.
Or St. Vincent. There are so many sounds; it's insane. But I think the challenge with my music is figuring out how to make it interesting while still leaving it pretty sparse. It's an interesting interplay. How many points of dynamic can you introduce into the song, as subtly as possible?
Do you go into recording feeling like you're going to do what you do live, but with a little extra?
There was this reciprocal relationship between the live and the recorded for this record. Another thing I wanted was not to say, "I don't know how I'm going to pull this off live, so I'm not going to explore this possibility." Now I do the weird play-guitar-and-piano-at-the-same-time. I decided if I wanted to have clarinet in there, then it'd be worth it to add clarinet. I think I was a lot more particular about the instrumentation on this record because I knew that it would be received in a different way. With Sprained Ankle, I was recording the songs as they had formed in my free time, using my looping pedal or whatever. With these songs, I sat down with a spiral [notebook] and mapped them out. I thought, "This song is tedious. What small embellishment can I add that will change the song enough to re-focus the listener's interest, without detracting or obscuring the totality of the song?" One of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten was from Josh Scogin [of bands The Chariot and '68]. We were at a show, and we were talking about how The Chariot's records are so interesting. They'll have this incredibly heavy breakdown, but it'll be free with no time signature at all. Or the song will completely stop and then something from Atlanta AM radio will play, and then the song will pick back up. "How do you know to do that? Is it just a novelty, or what?" Josh said, "I think you have to think of what will make people back up the track because they missed a thing." You don't want to make a song that goes on in a predictable fashion without introducing new elements.
You got an incredible guitar sound on the record. You tour with a [Fender] Twin and Deluxe, right?
Yes. We recorded a lot of Turn Out the Lights on my little 1x12 Deluxe, but I also have a 2x12 Blues Deluxe that I took the speakers out of and replaced with Warehouse guitar speakers called Veteran 30s. I got the higher-wattage option because there's way more gain room before it breaks up. My one gripe about Fender amps is that they break up too soon.
By design. A lot of people want blues.
Exactly. I get it. With the Twin, it's fine. It's a really sparkly break up. The Deluxe amps, I like the warmness of them. But when you start to break up
such a warm, midrange-y amp, it gets fuzzy really quickly. I really like those speakers in that amp. I use so many of my instruments partly because they sound the way I want them to, but also partly because it took so much work for me to get them to sound the way they do that maybe my goal and my ability met in the middle. Especially with the wiring. I have a [Fender] Telecaster that I modded, and it took so long for me to figure that out when I was 18, trying to read a circuit diagram on how to get your pickups to go in series or parallel, and add that little option with the 4-switcher. Once I finally did it, I was like, "This is what I want, for sure." Whether or not it was what I was going for, I was so committed to doing it.
Do you go back and forth between series and parallel?
No. I have the blue guitar, it's a Mexican-made Tele, and then I have an American Tele, which is the butterscotch one. I leave it on series all the time. You have to put aftermarket pickups in Fender guitars. The Telecaster has the plucky clarity that I like; but I think everybody plays them so hot and bright, because that's the Nashville sound. I thought of Telecasters as country music guitars until I saw Now, Now and Circa Survive on tour. Both the guitarists were playing Telecasters. I was like, "What is happening? How are you guys getting this sound out of a Telecaster?" Then I used my next paycheck to buy a Mexican Tele. I love it.
Were you using Fender amps already?
Yeah. The first amp that I used was this Vox digital combo that was bad news. Well, it wasn't bad news, because I think those amps that have the effects built-in are good for learning. I wasn't playing big shows, so why would I need a $700 amp? The first real amp I bought was the Fender I replaced the speakers in. I had it for a really long time. Then I bought the 1x12 on tour when the tubes of my other amp broke, and now I play through stereo amps. It's interesting that the idea to do that never occurred to me, even though I had two amps on hand. Even on Sprained Ankle, I played through one amp.
You use so much reverb and delay, it's perfect for what you're doing.
Sometimes we'll be at a festival and I'll play through one amp. The way that my looping system is totally jury-rigged, I can use it into the first and second channels on a Fender amp.
It's a wonderful, underused feature, having the two channels on those amps.
It is. So much of my musical knowledge is very de facto and functional, and it doesn't result in a logical understanding of the mechanisms I'm using. On my Deluxe, there're two input jacks. I'd say, "Oh, I always plug into input 2 because it sounds different, and I like that sound." I didn't know until October of 2017 that one of them is high gain and one of them is lower gain. I had no idea. It sounded different. Now I have two A-B-C-Y splitters on my board; I send out from those two channels a dry channel and a reverb channel on one amp, and then yet a third reverb channel into a different amp.
Is the reverb channel 100 percent saturated?
It's all the way on, all the time. The dry channel is there in case the two stereo outs of my looper go off, because I'm paranoid about my loop breaking and there being no safety net for me to play through. I was not always that wise. I have been brought low by humiliation, the great teacher. Now I have one fail-safe channel. The rest of my loops come out on different outputs.
Do you use the amp reverb?
I used to have it pulled up to quarter to two almost all the time, but now I like the flat character of the amp enough, and I have three or four different reverbs. The Strymon blueSky is always on. I forget that I have it on my board, because it stays on. It's the staple of my tone.
I read that you used a [Neumann] U 67 for recording your voice. Is that right?
Did you do a shootout, or did you know going in you wanted a 67?
We tried out that mic because Calvin Lauber, engineer for Turn Out the Lights] suggested it. On Sprained Ankle, I recorded part of it on a [Shure] SM7B. We used a couple of different microphones on that one. I don't remember what the other one was. With the Neumann, I'm very reluctant to use mics with so much crispness, because I think my voice has a tendency to get really nitty and bland.
I respectfully disagree, but go on.
Well, okay. Maybe I'm hyper-critical of my voice. But that vocal mic sounded really nice, especially in the room. Once we started tracking with that, I was like, "Yeah, I'm really, really happy with this vocal sound." It's an incredible microphone. It sounds like it's capturing what's happening to your ears with intense clarity. Whenever I make my little Logic demos, I go in there and notch out 2.5 to 3 kHz, because it sounds really annoying. When I started singing in a band, I wanted the vocals to be pushed all the way to the back and ‘verbed out. I was self-conscious about my voice. I never really wanted to be a singer. I wanted to play guitar. Then our first show came up, and we didn't have a lead singer, so I said, "I'll sing until we find a singer." Then I became the singer. Every single time we performed live, someone would say, "That was really good. You should sing louder!"
Did you try to change the way you sing?
By the time The Star Killers had been a band for a while, I would do the shouty scream thing. But then that became a gimmick of my voice. It was atonal. It was less about the pitch and more about the intensity and having the gang vocals part where everybody sings along. It took touring for a while as a solo musician for me to become completely comfortable with my voice as an instrument. That was also
probably because I still smoked at the time we recorded Sprained Ankle. Singing was really taxing on my voice. When I had not smoked for a little over a week, the way that my vocal control and the timbre of my voice changed was amazing. I thought, "This cannot be real." That made me much more confident, and it made me take singing seriously. My voice was no longer just a vehicle for poetry that I was using to "Leonard Cohen" out my lyrics. I think that's also what made recording this record a lot different. I was more ambitious with what I could do.
How long did you have at Ardent Studios?
I booked out six days, intentionally. We ended up staying there 12 hours a day. Time flies when you're in the studio, because it's fun, and exciting, and interesting. I think I limited it that way because of that fear of overproducing the record. If I gave myself too much time, I would fall into a paralysis of option anxiety. In hindsight it might have been good to have a deadline, but also take a rest. Record for a week, take a month off, let the tracks sit, and then come back with fresh ears. Maybe I was over-restrained, like I was overcompensating for my fear of overproducing.
It sounds like discipline is a huge part of your whole process.
Oh, definitely. I talk about this with so many of my friends in music. This land of words like discipline, motivation, and obsession are all fluidly bound. For any of the players on the record, like Cam [Boucher] from Sorority Noise, or Camille [Faulkner], who tours with me, the way that those people interact with music is almost obsessive, but in a way that drives them to be the most optimal players they can be. Not in a competitive way. I really don't think that trying to be the best you can be means that you have to be obsessed with being the best musician out there, or being superior.
It's its own reward.
Exactly. I think the fact you say that discipline is a huge part of the record is because maybe it wasn't that I had to apply an effort to sit down and map out the songs in a spiral notebook, or think about them and listen to them over, and over again. It's what preoccupies my mind all the time, so the only way to abate the anxiety of creating is to be engaged with it. But, at the same time, that's why I only wanted to book out six days. It's really important to get a great raw sound. We did a lot of setting levels for what would basically be how the record sounded.
It's a huge advantage not to "fix it in post."
Exactly! Get it right the first time. This thing that Calvin and I would say to each other all the time is, "It's worth it." When I would record a vocal track and it was almost what I wanted, and I felt I could live with it, we could nudge a note, or we could comp it. But I had the time. I'm not flying out to L.A. to do a two-hour recording session and we have to comp it. We had the time to get it right, and it's worth it. We ended up tracking a whole bunch of weird piano, guitar, and keyboard tracks that didn't make it on the record. But what if it had been awesome? It's worth it. When you start with good ingredients and you do less work on the back-end to try to wrangle it into sounding good, it's so much easier. And it sounds very pure and more organic, because I think you can tell when a song has had to be manipulated.
You can. It's almost never going to be as good as it would have been.
Exactly. There are so many great records that are tracked live. That's how recording used to be. Now I'm going to sound like one of those people who thinks that antiquated methods of recording are the only way and swears by tape only. No, there are amazing things we can use Pro Tools for. But I think the ethos of old-school recording is getting a great live sound. I watched a documentary about Tom Dowd [Tom Dowd & The Language of Music]. He plays the faders like a keyboard. It's so cool. Whenever I watch those documentaries, I'm amazed at that process, because it's happening to those people in real time; it's just their job. They have this very colloquial relationship with the music. Chilling out with Aretha Franklin and not knowing that it would change history. What I think you glean from those is not that it was better in the past, and we should only record to tape, and only use old vintage equipment. I think the process is that you should be able to accomplish the most with the least. You should know how to utilize a room, or you should know when it's enough. I think sometimes the necessity of having only four tracks, or having only eight channels, or what have you, makes you be more discerning. The options aren't endless. The time is not endless. You make a leaner, refined version.
Craig Silvey mixed Turn Out the Lights?
Yeah. We had a mixing day with Calvin; then he and I shot some mixes back and forth. I had very specific things I wanted out of the mix. It was really observable what Craig changed, but he didn't necessarily remove or add anything. I was amazed at how much he was able to add to the tracks. I think the people we involved on the record were all ones we wanted to use, either because of their prior work, or our prior history with them, indicated that they know how to be tasteful. Especially with Craig Silvey. I knew a few of the notable records that he had done, like Arcade Fire, but when I started to look at the breadth of the work he had been a part of, it was amazing.
Did you choose Craig, or did Matador say they wanted him?
Matador brought the idea. I was reluctant because I wanted the least tampering. They said, "We have this guy we think you'd really like. Give it a chance." I'll give anything a chance; but if I didn't like it, I was ready to say, "No." We sent a test mix, and when I got it back, I was like, "We should have the record mixed by this guy." It was ultimately a collaborative effort between Calvin being so personal and central to my life as a person and a friend, and knowing what I wanted, as well as Craig's expertise and impeccable ear. It made for a really special thing.