Julien Baker makes me want to make stuff
NB: This essay is best read after you’ve listened to Baker’s Little Oblivions
Julien Baker’s music makes me want to move. And I don’t mean like dance, though her new album does do that (help, why am I bopping around to the line: “I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck and kick the chair out”?). No, her music makes me want to move in that it makes me want to make stuff.
It always has. Sprained Ankle made me want to draw. Turn Out the Lights made me want to paint. Her brand-new album Little Oblivions makes me want to write (and write and write).
Whether it’s lyrics or instrumentation, there has always been something about listening to Julien Baker lay herself on the table that makes it impossible to pick it up and then not do something with it. You can’t just sit with Julien Baker, or maybe you can, but I can’t. I need to do something.
And I think that’s why, whenever I’ve had a friend who doesn’t connect to her music, I get so confused. For me, listening to Julien’s work is such a specific and visceral experience of inspiration and fullness. It wrings me out completely and leaves me twisted and desperate to rearrange. “It’s such a singular payoff,” my friend Cam said, better than I could.
It’s hard to comprehend how it doesn’t have that same effect on everyone.
And I know that not everyone likes sad music. And I guess on that principle, we have to agree to disagree. But there’s plenty of sad music that I listen to that doesn’t make me need to make something. I love a good bed-based wallow.
I think the thing that makes Julien’s music so special isn’t that it’s sad, but because what she’s doing is honestly terrifying. She flays herself on her records. There’s really no other way to describe it. She criticizes her every move and she does it in public, for everyone to hear. All the times she’s hurt her friends or hurt herself, it’s all there. And if I were her, could I do it? Could I put all of the things about myself that humiliate me out there for everyone to hear?
I don’t know, but she makes me want to try.
I feel a personal kinship with her, also, as a fellow anxious person. She’s very transparent about how anxiety-inducing it is to find the right words to express herself, and she worries deeply about being misconstrued. But she doesn’t let that stop her from speaking. So what’s my excuse? Why can’t I write down the things that scare me?
Before Little Oblivions came out, all I could think about was how I’d spent the last four months explicitly anticipating it. I’ve had February 26 circled on my calendar since it was announced. I couldn’t figure out what was going to happen after I’d listened to it. I couldn’t imagine what I would have to look forward to. I think I thought that finishing listening to the album in full would feel like a book closing.
Instead, it felt like the book that I had open was put under a black light. Everything that I’d hidden in lemon juice between the lines was spelled out and glowing.
And that was partly thanks to Julien, but it was mostly thanks to my friend Auburn who held my anticipation and fear up to the light — with a kindness I honestly don’t know how I managed to warrant — and told me that I was allowed to want things. And that’s another thing that Julien’s music makes me want to do. It makes me want to talk to people about it. And in that shared moment of community, when you’re wrung out of all pretense, you can learn so much about yourself.
And it’s not so much that I don’t think that I deserve to want something, but more because I think I’m scared to find out what I want. Because if I can find out what I want, then I have to try to do it. And how am I supposed to do anything in this world that so often feels just out of my grasp? Like is there a way to make money in this country that doesn’t tear you apart at the seams? Is there a way to fall in love that doesn’t require quivering pain?
So I don’t know. I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what I want to want. But I know that I want to try to find out.
I decided to start small. To ring in Little Oblivions release day, I wanted to do something that scared me, and I wanted to paint. So I threw a drop cloth on the floor, grabbed a bag of old pieces of wood that I’ve been saving for some “perfect moment” that would never happen if I didn’t choose it. And I decided to be impulsive in a way that I never paint. If I was afraid a color wasn’t right, I’d use it. If I was afraid of what the next stroke should look like, I would just go for it.
At one point, I decided that I wanted to hang the painted blocks together with wire and hooks. This required a trip to the hardware store. On the drive I blasted Bloodshot at full volume to the point where it was ringing in my ears and I had to stop myself from crying as I walked into the store.
In a teary haze, while I was moving down the aisles and veering around people, I realized I felt like I had just lived through an explosion that nobody else had noticed. When someone asked me if I needed help finding something, I was so bewildered. I had the screws in my hand, I didn’t need help, I needed to know why he could ask me such a normal question when to me it felt as if everything had shifted.
I’m a bit afraid now about what happens on Monday. I can fake this dreamscape life of living in the aura of Little Oblivions for the weekend. But how do I sit down in front of my computer for a work meeting and pretend like I have half a clue how to live now that this album has changed me?
For now, I guess, I’ll just try to keep moving with the music: forward in space, backward in time, and into the fear. And, if I’m lucky, deeper into the heart of who I want to be.