On October 14, American Laundromat Records will release Say Yes!, a tribute album to the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith featuring covers by artists ranging from J Mascis to Waxahatchee. The roster also includes Julien Baker, the rising 20-year-old performer who made a splash in 2015 with Sprained Ankle, her debut album packed with economic guitar playing and somber lyricism that evokes Smith’s melancholy aura.
Baker was only eight years old when Smith ended his life in 2003, but discovered his music through Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums when she was in junior high. “I remember the day that I brought home Either/Or and put it on my record player in high school,” Baker recalls to EW. “I was like, ‘This changes everything.'”
Ahead of her spring tour, the Memphis-based musician chatted with EW about her cover of Smith’s “Ballad of Big Nothing,” which EW is excited to premiere below, getting inspired by Anderson, and balancing school with life as a student at Middle Tennessee State University.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved with the Smith project?
JULIEN BAKER: They reached out to me. Of course I jumped at the chance: He’s such a seminal and important songwriter. They sent over the songs that were taken and I was like, “Oh man, all the ones I was going to do are taken.” I’m glad that happened, because the one I immediately thought of doing was “Angeles.” It would’ve just been Julien Baker’s voice over an identical guitar part — I would’ve done a cover. “Ballad of Big Nothing,” since it has drums and I don’t have drums, and it’s this upbeat song, it required more playing with it, artistically, and ended up being a cooler creative process. The only thing that scares me about that is: How do you ever measure up to a genius like Elliott Smith? I revere him so much that I’m worried.
Your style is different from the style of that song. How did you go about envisioning how your version would sound?
Lyrics are the first thing that sticks out to me about any song. I was like, “OK, I’m in love with these lyrics, what if I just slowed it down?” I went into the studio and I saw the piano in there and I was like “Hm, let’s put some piano on this and just see how it sounds.” And we did and I thought it was pretty — I love some sad piano. I ended up liking it and keeping it that way.
How did you get into Elliott’s music?
Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums is maybe the greatest movie of all time, in my opinion. Perhaps the most moved I have been by something in cinema is the scene where [Smith’s] “Needle in the Hay” is playing in the background. All of the sound from what’s going on is muted and it’s just “Needle in the Hay.” It’s visceral.
I downloaded that song and I was at a record store a while later and I saw a full LP. I had never listened to anything else by Elliott Smith and I thought, “I’m just going to buy this on good faith that it’ll be good.” And it was. [laughs] Either/Or is my favorite record of his. It has all these songs that are just straightforward, [with] that muted acoustic guitar. He’s relying on these lyrics that are almost proto-emo in how they’ll catalog an event realistically, but with such a talent for cutting imagery.
Tell me about the origins of Sprained Ankle.
I grew up playing music, playing in punk bands, playing with [the Memphis rock band] Forrister. I was in college and I was undergoing a lot of change at the time. I was away from all of family, all of my friends. I knew one person on campus when I moved there. I spent a lot of time alone. I would get the custodial staff to let me into the music building. I just wanted to create — had Sprained Ankle never happened I would still just be making demos just for the hell of it. Not the hell of it, but just because a good artist always has a project and is always using music as a tool to work through whatever’s going on in their life.
How do you balance school and music?
I became a non-person. I had a job and I was going to school and touring. That’s how it was the three years I was in school. I just ate, slept, and breathed school and music. I was the nerd who would turn in assignments two weeks ahead of time and people would be like, “Why are you doing that?” And I’d be like, “I’m not going to have time to do it in two weeks when everybody will be trying to do it the night before. I’m going to have to be three states away at a show.” It’s the passion for music that makes you do all the things it takes to get there.
Last fall, when things started to kind of pick up, I was still in on-campus courses. That was difficult because it involved weekend red-eye flights to get to shows. People, now that I’m touring in maybe a different musical sphere, assume that [my touring] is a new thing — but it’s just different. Before I was on red-eye flights, it was Greyhound buses. I was in vans with Forrister and every President’s Day or spring break or fall break or Thanksgiving break we were booking little tours and running ourselves ragged. I’ve been in online courses touring full time and it’s an acclimation process. I think I will take some time off, because at this point dividing my mental focus doesn’t seem productive.
Do you have more songs in the works?
Definitely. I’ve always got a folder full of demos and voice memos and drafts of lyrics on my phone. For the rest of this year I’m just touring full-time, but all of the other free time I have is just writing. I’ve been trying to play new songs [at concerts], just to abate my own anxiety. I’m anxious to stay working on new projects. [I’m] steadily accruing material, so hopefully soon, at the end of this touring season I can go back and really refine it.