“Some songs just fall out of you,” says Julien Baker. “And some you have to wrestle out like an abscess.” She performs at the Neptune on Friday, Dec. 8.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A conversation with the singer and songwriter Julien Baker veers quickly toward the philosophical and theological. “Music is everything,” she said on an fall afternoon, in what had begun as an interview about “Turn Out the Lights,” her second album. “Evidence of the divine. The possibility of man to be good. The possibility of improving our surroundings and expressing ourselves. All of these things are collapsed together in my mind.”
That seriousness fills the songs on Baker’s two solo albums, “Sprained Ankle” from 2015 — an independent release that found a snowballing word-of-mouth audience — and now “Turn Out the Lights.” She writes sparse, devastating ballads and sings them with a voice that’s both richly melodic and disarmingly natural. Her lyrics chronicle sadness, doubts, self-destructive urges, frail physical and mental health and a constant reckoning with faith. “Some songs just fall out of you,” she said. “And some you have to wrestle out like an abscess.”
At concerts, her songs have the power to draw audiences into silent communion; after shows, fans often thank her for putting their own traumas into words. In “Shadowboxing,” a new song about battling inner demons that no one else can see, Baker sings, “You can’t even imagine how badly it hurts just to think sometimes.”
With Half Waif and Adam Torres. 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8, Neptune Theatre, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; $16.50-$18.50 (800-745-3000 or stgpresents.org)
The indie-rock songwriter Lucy Dacus is a friend and admirer. “She gives a shape and a form to darkness and contains it in a way that makes it manageable and helps other people manage their own pain,” she said. “There’s a lot of solace in the bravery she has. It’s the duality of bravely admitting fears.”
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Baker, 22, grew up in a religious family, soaking up evangelical doctrine and participating in church music. At 17, she came out as gay to her parents, expecting the worst. But instead, her father combed the Bible for passages about love and acceptance.
Baker’s own melodies often have a hymnlike solidity. “Many of my songs just come together in quatrains because that’s how a hymn goes,” she said. “Another thing that I love about hymns is that despite being antiquated modes of worship — maybe — they contain these really emotive phrases. All of my favorite hymns are admissions of faults, and finding redemption even in those.”
When Baker initially released the songs from “Sprained Ankle” online in 2014, she was a student at Middle Tennessee State University, writing music she only expected a few friends to hear. The recordings, made in three days, were stark solo tracks with a handful of overdubs; they often used only a few picked guitar notes tolling behind her voice, as she sang troubled, at times suicidal thoughts. But the independent label 6131 discovered the songs, signed her and issued the album, in mastered form, in October 2015. By the end of the year, Baker had reached listeners nationwide. Jon Caramanica of The New York Times chose “Sprained Ankle” as one of the best albums of 2015.
“Sprained Ankle” was a measured cry in the wilderness, a distillation of solitary despair. Just two years later, “Turn Out the Lights” is the work of a songwriter who has resonated with an international audience and who is moving beyond the apocalyptic self-absorption of adolescence. It’s the rare second album that, despite new self-consciousness, stretches beyond an unspoiled debut to reach for even bigger things, with all its passion intact.
Her newer songs continue to practice what Baker calls “radical vulnerability.” But where “Sprained Ankle” was entirely focused on the singer’s inner turmoil, “Turn Out the Lights” has a wider perspective. Baker is determined to at least consider some distant possibility of hope. “I know that it’s not gonna turn out all right/but I have to believe that it is,” she sings in “Appointments.” And through much of the album, her lyrics recognize other characters enough to engage them in arguments and pleas: “You’re everything I want and I’m all you dread,” Baker sings in “Sour Breath.”
“To realize that you’re not the most important thing, that you’re not even close to the most important thing, is really comforting,” Baker said.