Julien Baker Takes Over the Berklee Red Room

“There are like 6 billion people on earth and you gave me a microphone,” Julien Baker said matter-of-factly midway through her set. “You could be anywhere right now.”

With winter storm Jonas raging outside last Saturday night, there probably wasn’t anywhere in Boston worth being besides Berklee College’s Cafe 939. I’d been looking forward to seeing Julien Baker after listening to her beautifully fragile debut Sprained Ankle almost exclusively for the past 3 weeks (s/o Chris Bubernak for sending it). Nonetheless, I had second thoughts about venturing out as I battled my way down Boylston St. against snow and swirling wind in a jacket whose zipper had broken just minutes earlier.

All doubts disappeared as I was welcomed inside by the sounds of opener Gracie & Rachel’s orchestral indie rock. Although I didn’t catch their entire set, what I did hear was more than enough to have me on their Soundcloud page this morning — swelling dynamics and jagged melodies in the form of a violin and piano duo (with some accompanying percussion). If that’s not enough endorsement, a jovial and flushed gentleman entering the bathroom as I was leaving between acts hollered “what a set!” in my face, so it’s a sure bet.

I’m hesitant to even mention Julien Baker’s pedigree, since the 20-year-old Memphis native is so arresting as a solo artist. Nonetheless her band Forrister (née The Star Killers) play charismatic indie punk that hints at Baker’s songwriting and vocal prowess. Although you’d never guess that she’s still getting acquainted with the idea of being onstage alone, she voiced appreciation for the people moving and singing along, saying that she’s used to playing in a punk band. And yet, she seemed entirely comfortable taking the lead on her own. Perhaps its because she’s spent the past few months performing and touring solo, but the entire set seemed very natural for her.

Sprained Ankle is 10 songs of entirely stripped down songwriting with Baker’s vocals and guitar playing on display. Lyrically it flitters between extremely direct and lightly metaphor-ed, usually within the same song. It’s hard to mention the album without acknowledging its overwhelming, pervasive sense of sadness. Imagining the experiences that inspired songs like “Go Home” and “Good News” is at first painful, but the humanity in her writing renders the album’s tracks much more therapeutic. For the harrowed and anxious (and the rest of y’all too, I suppose), sharing in her sorrow is a form of comfort. Baker herself referenced the tone of her writing often from the stage, and admitted that channeling so much raw introspection onto tape allows her to be a “total goober” in person. Goober is as good a word as any to describe her, given that she constantly had the crowd laughing when she wasn’t singing lines like “Give me everything good, and I’ll throw it away” and “I know I’m a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you’d never touched.” Any tension produced by the soul-baring songs was broken by Baker saying that she has to have fun with her banter or else people would just stand in the audience and sob.

As a performer, Julien Baker and her minimalist setup are every bit as powerful as on record. Standing center stage alone with her guitar she recounted the soft whispers of the songs just as chillingly as the carefully placed crescendos. More than once, the crowd exploded in cheers as she held a seemingly impossible note well beyond a reasonable length of time. Over the course of her hour-ish set she covered all of the highlights from Sprained Ankle, starting with the title track and moving on to “Something,” “Everyone Does” and a rendition of “Brittle Boned” that began semi-ironically with a verse of “Keep on the Sunny Side.” She broke out one of the most cathartic tracks on Sprained Ankle, “Rejoice” in honor of someone who posted on Instagram requesting the song, and even mentioned that she tried to bring the person a cup of coffee before the show but couldn’t find them. It was almost surreal to listen to Baker goofily share an anecdote from the small community she helps create, and then launch into the nuanced, soaring vocal performance of “Rejoice” showcasing talent that would be at home on stages ten times the size.

Maybe that’s what’s so immediately awe-inspiring about Julien Baker: By measure of personality and skill, she should be famous, and might be soon. But she’s clearly more than comfortable standing at crowd level, chatting between songs, and truly singing to her fans. When she finished her set and then returned for an encore of the chilling and aptly-named album closer “Go Home,” she led by saying “the idea of leaving and then coming right back feels strange to me, but do you all want to hear one more?” I get the impression that as long as she’s willing to play, crowds will be answering yes.