Julien Baker employs a particular vocabulary when she talks about music: Vulnerability. Transparency. Safe space. She sees it as "a means of acknowledging valid emotions, no matter how bleak or sad or angry."
Those qualities are clear on her second album, "Turn Out the Lights," which was released Oct. 27 on Matador. The sparely produced songs detail relationships, depression, addiction, therapy and her Christian faith with an intensely confessional vocal delivery, typically backed by not much more than guitar and piano.
The record built on the underground success of "Sprained Ankle," the 2015 debut from the 22-year-old songwriter originally from Memphis, Tennessee. She played opening slots for Dashboard Confessional, and the Decemberists brought her to Missoula in August for Travelers' Rest, their curated festival at Big Sky Brewing.
Ahead of a return performance in Missoula on Wednesday, Baker talked about recording the new album, playing sad songs live, growing up in church bands and more.
"Sprained Ankle," originally released independently on Bandcamp, brought Baker from the DIY circuit to a national audience. Asked if her thoughts on the personal nature of the songwriting evolved as she played them live for large crowds, Baker said "I think that seeing the interpretation of the songs and those emotions kind of mirrored back to me through other people gave me a lot of distance and perspective and allowed myself to see the possible implications of what I was saying."
She analyzed and revisited them but stuck to her core conviction.
"I think it's important to be able to acknowledge valid emotions and be honest about what you're feeling: maybe the hopelessness or bleakness or sadness or anger," she said.
While the "Sprained Ankle" material didn't lack for "cathartic expression," she said the newer songs have more nuance and "a more obvious consideration of others and the gray area of what I'm feeling and what others are feeling."
But in crucial ways, gaining a wider audience didn't change the confessional nature of her music.
"I still write songs as a means of exorcising negative emotions," she said. If she found herself wondering if she should make a personal reference more vague or abstract, she'd stop herself.
"Precisely the reason why I love music and have loved music my entire life and what I ended up talking about most in interviews with the last record was the importance of vulnerability. And so, knowing that there were people on the other side of the songs this time, I think just made me want to hold myself to a high standard of transparency when it's hard — even when it's harder than it was before," she said.
Sonically, Baker said she wanted a more expansive palette for "Turn Out the Lights." Her vocals and harmonies are backed by minimal guitar and piano dipped in reverb, with some strings and horns.
"When I recorded 'Sprained Ankle' I think it was spare because of the way that the songs were written, and the environment in which the songs were written. We recorded them in three days, where I guess we recorded this record in six days," she said.
Incredibly, they were allotted about five hours a day on that previous album. For "Turn Out the Lights," she and collaborators could work from 8 in the morning until 10 at night.
Camille Faulkner contributed string arrangements, piano and organ; and Cameron Boucher of Sorority Noise played clarinet and saxophone. Baker returned more to piano, her original instrument, than she had before.
In the future, she wants to continue a more collaborative approach, writing with others before recording and possibly incorporating percussion, an element she hasn't used very much before.
Baker's upbringing played an important part in the way she performs. She started on guitar when she was in her early teens and played with the "praise bands" during Sunday services.
She had the unusual dual experience of playing in church and with post-hardcore bands, but she sees similarities in the two. The Sunday concerts informed her writing and live performances, both "both ideologically and practically," she said.
"Basically, every week you get sent songs that you may or may not have ever heard, and then you just learn them and you just improvise," she said. If they were playing a musical interlude to back an announcement and it ran too long, the musicians would have to wing it.
"Learning to be in a backing band was very formative and gave me a sort of active skill, to learn how to find my way in whatever musical situation I'm placed in," she said.
She uses it frequently to this day. "When I'm on stage and something goes wrong or something's off, or I feel that a song should take a different path, I think it allows me that ability to navigate in a fluid manner," she said.
The difference between the church performances and the often "eccentric, performative quality" of a secular show has remained with her.
"I use this word a lot, it's very interactive [and] inclusive of the congregation because they're as much a part of the exchange that's going on. The purpose of you playing songs is not to perform a spectacle for the congregation to view [and] I never thought of it that way in my band either. If people at a house show or at the basement or the bar or whatever, if people weren't singing along then something was wrong. Your job is to get people engaged. So I think that is kind of how I feel, always, about music: That it's supposed to be an exchange."
While her music is quite serious, she tries to create a different mood during live performances.
"I want to be able to establish a rapport with the audience and joke with them, and be candid with them," she said.
She likes to be disarming and "move through the songs as if they were a conversation."
"I'd rather not construct the mystique that a performer might. For some people that works: You go see someone who has a carefully curated sound and imagine and performance method," she said.
She likes to keep the performances fluid, embellishing the vocal melodies, the core of her music.
"The songs are very organic things to me, that can change. Or the word can change depending on a phrasing," she said. "I never know if that's jarring to a person who has come to a show and expects to hear a song a certain way, or if it's interesting."
For this tour, Baker brought along a keyboard and switches between that and electric guitar and pedalboard. She uses looping pedals to build up the layers of her songs while she sings, which she compared to "live painting."
The album jacket for "Turn Out the Lights" is a striking hand-painted image that could be either purely abstract brushstrokes or a bouquet of red, blue, purple and pink flowers. Regardless, it seems to complement the mood and expressive quality of her voice and songs perfectly.
Baker said her band Forrister used to play with a Nashville group called Ill Patriot. That group's lead singer, Ryan Rado, is now with a hardcore band called Worker. Baker admired the way he spoke live on stage about his own experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder and Tourette syndrome.
"He is one of the first people I saw be very adamant and vocal about not being ashamed of having a mental disposition that's not common, or talking about mental health and trying to destigmatize it," she said.
He's an activist and artist as well, and Baker was deeply affected by his nonrepresentational paintings. It turns out that both of them have a synesthesia-like tendency to "see" sounds in terms of color and shape. She sent him the record and asked him to paint what it "looked" like to her — the result nearly matches a color codex of the songs that she had made herself.
"I think it's probably just like a statistical probability, but I thought it was very like, it's something almost mystical that he was able to take a sound and kind of translate it into this medium that like supersedes words," she said.
She has the original canvas, which is almost 5 feet tall, hanging in her living room.
"It's a beautiful painting," she said. "It seems so chaotic and disorganized, but then when you look closely you realize it's very meticulous and painstakingly balanced, which I think is a great metaphor for the human mind."