December 2015 “Band of the Month” – JULIEN BAKER
Started in January of 2012, the “Band of the Month” feature has allowed The Blue Indian a unique opportunity to share some of our favorite bands with our readers. As we move into our fifth year of the feature, we’re eager to continue showcasing some of the best and brightest artists around. Thanks for the continued support!
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What was growing up in Memphis like and did you find it difficult to establish yourself in a city with such a rich musical history? The blog is based in Macon, a city with a very similar story to that of Memphis, at least in that a ton of emphasis is placed on what has happened there, not necessarily what is happening.. but that’s changing. Or does that not seem to be the case there? I’ve even heard the term “The Three M’s” in reference to Macon, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals…
I definitely understand the distinction between what has versus what is happening in towns like Macon, Memphis, or Muscle Shoals (interestingly I just watched a documentary about Muscle Shoals that covered Wexler’s FAME studios and spent a lot of time talking about the history of Blues/rock/R&B as it developed in those places). I think many people think of Memphis and immediately think Stax and Sun and talk about the musical history there as if it were an artifact almost, if that makes sense. But growing up in Memphis, it injected me straight into a totally different environment– the punk/hardcore/DIY scene, which doesn’t get as much buzz as the soul/r&b/blues/etc. stuff that characterizes Memphis.
However, the two overlap in that all the artists and musicians I met in that sphere have a strong connection to the almost mythical appeal of the town; the history is really cherished. Memphis musicians seem to know all the stories about this record and that band and the spots where this thing happened and such-and-such person used to play. That value of history fuels investment in community. Memphis supports its own; emphasis on local music, art, food, business is huge, and that builds the diversity which makes for such a fertile creative environment.
Additionally, is Memphis’ musical history one that interested or excites you, or that you find your musical stylings influenced by?
I think I may have started answering this question in the last, my bad. I am definitely excited by/invested in Memphis’s musical history, and I would say yes, it has totally influenced my style. Despite growing up listening to heavier alternative music that may not have fallen with in typically “Memphis” music, the time I spent at Otherlands Coffee Bar, in Cooper Young, the older musicians I was watching, the records coming out of Ardent and other places, all had an impact on me when I was learning to play. There are musical decisions about style one makes that are conscious, but there’s something to be said for that sub-conscious influence of a person’s cultural milieu, and in Memphis, it’s inescapable. The long chain of influence carried through the local musicians I modeled and left its imprint, I think it’s still a big part of my music- especially guitar style (I certainly still haven’t met a 12 bar blues jam I didn’t like).
I’ve noticed your age is a factor that appears in the headlines of many of the articles I’ve read about you, and perhaps rightfully so, but is it something that you’re conscious of in relation to your music? Maybe a better way to put that is have you experienced that it’s been a factor that’s used to pigeonhole your talents, similar to an article that might champion talent based on gender?
I understand why people think it is relevant. Ever since I started playing around Memphis, people have emphasized my age in regards to my playing. I used to feel like it was a cheap way to impress people, I didn’t want to be a novelty. I want to be good because I am good, not because I am good for my age. Please don’t mistake me as presumptuous, I know there’s a level of naïveté that comes with youth, and I usually defer to more experienced musicians for that reason. I don’t want to be ONLY “the 20 year old musician” any more than I want to be “the girl guitarist” or “the gay songwriter”, but I cannot deny that those are parts of me, and are important in many ways. So, it doesn’t bother me too much when articles mention it when its alongside other things that focus on the actual content and merit of the songs.
You’re at MTSU, right? What has your experience there been like and what were some of the factors that helped influence your decision to attend?
I am! My experience with the actual college has been great. I love the faculty of professors, they are so knowledgeable and invested in the student body. I originally came for the Recording Industry Program with an Audio Engineering focus, I wanted to get a “marketable degree” in something music related, haha. Even though I transferred to the English department, I still fully recommend the music program–It’s extremely advantageous. When I left Memphis, it meant going somewhere where I was alone and uncomfortable to pursue a new chapter of life, which was hard, but I think it has forced a lot of growth on my part to change scenery so drastically. That need to be independent in a new place also prompted the move initially. It’s been equally hard and beneficial, and even though I may eventually relocate to Memphis, I wouldn’t un-do the decision.
I just relocated to Nashville and while I have a few friends that live in Murfreesboro, I haven’t been able to spend any time there yet. I’ve noticed that sometimes cities in similar proximity to larger metro areas choose to either assimilate into the metro area or make a distinctive effort to have a unique identity. From what I can tell, Murfreesboro has always gone the direction of the latter; acknowledging its relation to Nashville but developing and maintaining a culture that’s very much its own… MTSU has obviously played a big part in this but does this seem to be the case?
I think your inklings are right. Since MTSU has such a big focus on music (and liberal arts for that matter), it draws a lot of musicians and artists, and its so highly concentrated in a relatively small, college-age population that it has created a thriving local DIY scene. There’s an entire sub-culture of Murfreesboro with Boro-Fondo Fest, the local house-show circuit, and the myriad other pockets of creativity that exist which is entirely separate form the larger Nashville scene. The two worlds occasionally overlap, but from my experience there’s a level of elitism that makes the Nashville scene kind of hard to break into. That’s starting to change with the new Nashville house-show venues popping up, but there’s still a dichotomy between the established metro-Nashville scene and the burgeoning DIY scene coming from surrounding areas.
Would you point me (and our readers) in the right direction for a few places that you feel like really encapsulate the spirit of Murfreesboro? Or the places that you really connect with or enjoy?
Before this month I would have said the Little Shop of Records, that was one of my favorite spots, a little music spot right on the square. Sadly though, it closed. I don’t frequent bars so I wouldn’t know of those, there’s a new venue called The Block that hosts some great shows, and a church venue called Bonhoeffer’s that does music and free coffee on Thursdays– freshman year I ran sound there and met a lot of my friends in hardcore, alternative, even folk bands putting on shows Murfreesboro. And of course, Donut Country is a wonderful gem–all night place that serves the best baked goods in town, great for late night hangs over coffee and sugar.
Sprained Ankle is phenomenal. I know you’ve heard that countless times since its release and I hope that feeling never sours. I’m interested in how you trace the timeline of the album out; back to the first chord progressions or melodies and onward to laying out the songs and the recording process… Do you think you’ve had an comparable experience to writing, recording, and releasing the album?
First, thank you! I am always ecstatic to hear that someone enjoys it. The “process” started quite a while ago, I was writing these songs when I had just gotten to college, and I never imagined it as being formally released or anything more than art for art’s sake, music for just me and the few people I shared it with immediately. So, when I was working out the songs it was something that happened with me practicing in the music building late at night or my dorm or my garage. I had made a few demos just for kicks with a friend from MTSU’s audio program Michael Hegner, and when he proposed I come up and take advantage of some free studio time, I thought “Why Not?”. To me, that was an amazing opportunity in itself, I hadn’t thought beyond that. It was just fun to create the music. We tracked the songs and I released it independently, just put it up on Bandcamp for a few bucks with this doodle I drew as the cover and thought it would be a side project for my few friends on Facebook to check out. Through a connection of a few friends 6131 heard it, they approached me about re-releasing it, so I pulled it off Bandcamp, and after that it has been the formal project that came out this fall. Quite a shift, but I am overwhelmingly grateful that it’s been well received.
Did you work directly with Matthew E. White when recording at Spacebomb? If so, what sort of role or influence did he play in the construction of the songs or was his time spent primarily behind the console and you went in knowing pretty much what you wanted to do?
I did not work with Matt White directly making the record, though I have briefly met him since. I got to record at Spacebomb because the engineer of Sprained Ankle and my close friend, Michael Hegner, was interning and had access to limited free studio time. So, it was just me and Hegner in the studio. The environment was great, and having access to all the equipment and outboard gear that I wasn’t used to from recording in bedrooms and attics, but even with that, we didn’t over use the gear or add unnecessary bells and whistles. It was recorded really sparsely and efficiently to get the most out of the time there, which contributed to the way the songs come across. Going on a road trip to another city, having that time devoted entirely to recording, and of course Hegner’s talent as an engineer were all big factors in the record, and to me Spacebomb provided the perfect setting where all those could come together for the best finished product.
The complexities of Sprained Ankle are unassuming in ways; there’s a lot of moments in the album where there’s not much happening on the surface but there also doesn’t need to be. You’ve got the ability to explain explain emotion, whether it be love, heartbreak, confusion etc. in a concise way that really evokes elaborate feelings. What’s an instance of a moment when you had that feeling of “woah, this music is really good not only because it’s my own but because I’m saying something that’s helpful in some way, whether to me or a listener”? Maybe that’s too specific of a thought, but an instance where you felt really proud of your work?
Haha, you describe a moment where I have thought “this music is good”…I regret to say that doesn’t really happen. I don’t.
Deservedly, things started happening for you really quickly after the release of the first single. Stereogum, among others, has shown you immense love and then all of the sudden, you’re working with PR, management, and booking? Was it overwhelming to see this project that was, and still is, very personal to you essentially change shape overnight?
It’s really been a crazy time….I had no idea that even half of these things would happen, and I can hardly believe it still. I never, EVER had aspirations this large. I truly thought this would be a record with small appeal that just my friends and locals would listen to, like it’s always been. Stuff really got insane when I heard that the single was going to come out on NPR. Since then, everything that has happened regarding the record has been completely unbelievable and surreal in the way it has exceeded all possible expectations had. On one level, I am so not used to having a publicist and a booking agent and a “team” for that stuff, and it’s crazy to think that I had been hacking away at music for years and suddenly it was in front of certain people and they exposed it more than I ever could have. But those people work hard and genuinely care about the music and its purpose, which I am grateful for. It’s hard to not get overwhelmed, or think “what makes my music deserve this more than other music”…and it’s a lot to process that through the DIY lens that touts the industry, but I think all I can do is think of it as a blessing and try to use whatever good comes of it for positive ends.
In January, you’ll be heading out on tour for a string of headline dates that include support dates with TORRES and Wild Belle, which has got to be an energizing feeling, right? How has the live component to your music evolved since the release of the album and what are some things you’re looking forward to with getting in front of what will primarily be new audiences?
Well, because of the nature and instrumentation of the songs, I can’t say their execution has evolved, per se. I think it has taken getting comfortable for different crowds and different kinds of rooms. The first few tours I did in support of the record were in spaces I booked myself, little basements, houseshows, etc. It was very intimate and low-pressure. Now the dynamic has changed with playing more formal venues, and some larger crowds, the songs are still as personal and the content makes it a vulnerable performance from my perspective. I have gotten over some hurdles, getting comfortable playing the songs in bigger settings is hard, but I still have serious performance anxiety so I have to work on that. It’s also a double-edged sword to play with such awesome acts like Torres and Wild Belle, and those recent shows with Touche Amore, Wye Oak, and El Vy. I am so beyond honored to have the opportunity to play with people who influenced me and are heroes of mine—but I am terrified! I look up to these people, so I get nervous sharing the stage. More and more though, it becomes a good nervous. Playing shows is possibly the best part of music to me, getting to tour and meet new people, interact with other humans is simply amazing. So overall, I’m just excited for what’s ahead.
When you need a “break” from music, where do you turn? Are you reading anything that you’re really enjoying or have you seen any movies that left an impact on you? Maybe ultimately providing you something to bring back to your music?
Right now I am a Lit student, so I spend quite a bit of time reading. I love reading all kinds of stuff, it’s usually really inspiring and thought-stimulating, and a lot of my music reflects the influence of the literature I love most, directly and indirectly. But sometimes when I read denser/headier stuff, like a play by Buchner or some essay by Sartre, I’ll catch myself getting too far inside my own head with whatever idea the work is entertaining and I need to take a step back or I might freak out and go crazy on account of some bizarre theory hole. When that happens, I try to do things that are calming and not intellectually demanding, I go walks to let my brain settle. Even just watching cartoons is great because they make me laugh and are simple entertainment—Bob’s Burgers is my favorite goofy remedy when I’m tired of academia.
For $10, where’s the best place to eat in Memphis? Vegetarian and non…
Imagine Vegan Cafe hands down. It’s affordable and so delicious, and they even have a vegan “pulled pork sandwich”–a comparable vegan dish for a classic Memphis BBQ staple. For meat eaters (because I was one once) I always make the distinction that Central BBQ is the best Barbecue in town. People will tell you its Rendezvous because that place is fancy, expensive, and located downtown. It’s good, but it’s not Central BBQ.
What’s the best joke you’ve heard recently? Mine is “How do you titillate an ocelot?… You oscillate its tits a lot..” Thanks, Caroline Rose….
Hahaha, that’s a great one. I am always a fan of cheesy puns, the favorite I have heard recently is:
“How dos Moses make his Coffee? Hebrews it.”
So awful it’s hilarious.
12/16 – Exit/In – Nashville, TN
12/29 – Belly Up Aspen – Aspen, CO w/ The National
12/30 – Belly Up Aspen – Aspen, CO w/ The National
1/14 – Zanzabar – Louisville, KY
1/15 – Lincoln Hall – Chicago, IL w/ TORRES
1/16 – High Noon Saloon – Madison, WI w/ Wild Belle
1/18 – Big Room Saloon – Columbus, OH
1/19 – Club Cafe – Pittsburgh, PA
1/20 – Boot & Saddle – Philadelphia, PA
1/21 – Mercury Lounge – New York, NY
1/23 – The Red Room at Cafe 939 – Boston, MA
1/26 – DC9 – Washington, DC
1/27 – Cat’s Cradle – Carrboro, NC
1/28 – Aisle 5 – Atlanta, GA