A review of Julien Baker live at the Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, Tuesday 29th of November
“Wish I could write songs about anything other than death” is a rather ominous first line for the night, and begins the first of three sold out shows at the Northcote Social Club for Julien Baker. The title track to her debut release Sprained Ankle sets to the tone for night ahead, but luckily for Baker the crowd are well versed in her, well, verses, and therefore know what to expect.
In fact, the line isn’t even true, the 20-year-old singer songwriter from Memphis has many other subject matters, although they aren’t exactly light hearted. The album, released towards the end of 2015, was inspired by the loneliness felt whilst at university, finding herself for the first time away from family and friends. The result was nine songs, beautiful in their simplicity, brave, honest, tackling subject matter including car crashes, depression, substance abuse, and anxiety.
Onstage with just a microphone and a telecaster, the singer’s presence is just as unassuming as her songs. A loop pedal allows for a bit more depth in sound, and it is clear from the outset that Baker is an accomplished guitarist. Singing a long way off the microphone, the resulting breathy vocal delivery adds to the ethereal quality of the songs. Subtle and simple, yet beautifully melodic, her music is devastating in its honesty.
It is an often repeated cliché to suggest you could hear a pin drop, however from the first note there was not a sound to be heard in the room, the silence broken only by the clinking of glasses and murmurs of conversation from the bar next door.
‘Everybody Does’ was greeted with a huge cheer, and was the first big sing along, introduced rather jokingly as “The most up-tempo song I’ll play, it’s all downhill from here.” The crowd enthusiastically singing the repeated line “You’re going to run, it’s alright, everybody does.” The lyric “I know I’m a pile of filthy wreckage you will wish you’d never touched” an example of the deeply personal nature of her lyrics.
‘Good News’ was another highlight, and despite the title, isn’t really a song about good news, as the singer dryly points out. The guitar and vocals start off subtle but slowly build in intensity throughout the song, the audience joining in for the later verse “And I’m only ever screaming at myself in public/I know I should act this way in public/ I know I shouldn’t make my friends all worry/When I go out at night.”
The capacity crowd was treated to three new songs, the first of them having only been written the day before. “Dream catcher on the rear-view mirror/Hasn’t caught a thing yet,” clear that the dark poetry is a continuing theme. ‘Funeral Pyre’ was another newer song, the instrumental outro is wonderfully melodic, a song captured live from her set at the Newport Folk Festival.
Julien Baker’s music is poetic and intensely personal, written from her perspective as a young, gay, Christian from Memphis, Tennessee. The surprising thing is how well her music resonates with a crowd of all ages, genders, religious beliefs, and sexual orientations, on the other side of the world. Yet it is very clear from the faces in the audience, staring up at the five foot nothing Baker on stage, how much her music means to them. So many in the crowd know the words, singing their favourite moments in full voice, certain lines and phrases holding special meaning.
Perhaps part of the appeal of Sprained Ankle is the liberating feeling that comes from hearing someone tackling these subjects with such eloquence, speaking the words and thoughts that so many people keep quiet. Despite the heavy lyrical content, Baker is chatty and light hearted between songs, albeit in a self-deprecating way, repeatedly thanking the crowd for their enthusiastic responses, pleasantly surprised by the audience’s quiet attentiveness.
An intricate guitar melody begins ‘Something’, her most well known track thanks to rotation on Triple J. Baker really belts out the high notes, her voice wavering without ever really going off key. The crowd try their best to join in, singing along as the song reaches it peak; “I just let the silence swallow me up/The ring in my ears tastes like blood/Asking aloud why you’re leaving/but the pavement won’t answer me.”
‘Go Home’ ends the night, as it does the album, the loop pedal recreating the piano chords of the recorded version. “More Whisky than blood in my veins” references the battle with alcohol, amongst other substances, these days preferring to sip only water on stage. With a small wave she was gone, with no encore, rapidly heading offstage as the house lights came up, leaving a cheering crowd in awe of the young American’s brave and brutal honesty in front of a room full of strangers.