I cover one of today’s brightest young voices and minds, Julien Baker

Showing up early to any show can be a little awkward, but last Sunday was not the case. Folks were chatty, enthusiastic, and eager. Perhaps it was the tease of springtime weather hitting Boston.

Perhaps the good vibes in the Sinclair were from the fact we were about to watch one of today’s newest and most vulnerable songwriters perform.

When 20-year-old, Julien Baker, released her debut LP, Sprained Ankle, on 6131 Records last year, it flew relatively under the radar. I only came across it because I follow 6131 on Instagram.

So I checked it out.

By the end of the first song on the album, “Blacktop,” I knew this was a special album. I have now memorized the nine tracks on the album and recommend it to anyone and everyone with ears and the ability to hear.

It wasn’t until Baker was featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk (above) that she really took off and she started selling out rooms across the country. Albeit, my favorite performance came from her Audiotree Live in-studio performance (below), in which she really expanded on her expectations and intentions with music and life—revealing a 20-year-old human being with more maturity and understanding of the human condition than I could ever imagine when I was 20.

I mean, hell, The New York Times just did a big write-up of her as well. At the SAME show we attended, even! (Note: I had my headline chosen before NYT published its story. But check it out!)

Like many others in the crowd, this was my first time seeing the Memphis-native perform her brand of minimalist tunes.

And for this tour, Baker brought along her friend, the equally minimalistic/acoustic, Phoebe Bridgers.
Bridgers is signed to Pax American Records—which is Ryan Adams’ label—as a solo artist, but has played in a punk band called, Sloppy Jane.

Phoebe Bridgers. Photo by Jose Enciso.

What I admired about Bridgers is the unapologetic approach to being a confessional singer-songwriter. I’ve often felt like too many mainstream artists who use songwriters to create their tunes are very disingenuous about their style. But Bridgers wears it like a badge of honor.

Her music is simultaneously beautiful and haunting, which I personally love when an artist can achieve that balance.

“This song is also about being sad and drunk,” Bridgers said to the crowd in a dry voice, signaling for her touring drummer to join her on-stage, to laughs from the crowd. “And despite the drums, this next song is actually sadder.”

Bridgers was a wonderful warmup for the headliner, Baker, who is being touted as a leading voice in the emo revival these days.

Phoebe Bridgers. Photo by Jose Enciso.

“Julien simultaneously inspires me and makes me want to quit music altogether,” Bridgers said before finishing her set.

And then Baker took the stage—the guitar over her shoulder looked larger than her tiny frame, a frame which conceals a monster voice and massive guitar chops.

Baker is very self-aware of her style. Before playing her song, “Brittle Boned,” Baker said, “this next song is optimistic, and I know you don’t believe me, but it’s true,” to laughs.

There was silence during both sets that night—which to a concert-going veteran, is such a rare experience.

Julien Baker. Photo by Jose Enciso.

No one dare speak as Baker bares her soul with the room.

I saw dudes clutching their chests from the feels they got following each of Baker’s songs, and I just nodded because I felt those feels too.

The biggest moment of the night came during my personal favorite track,“Everybody Does,” when Baker screams, “I know myself better than anybody else.” This was the first moment the crowd took over the show—as there was a resounding sing-along moment. To which, Baker backed away from the mic, laughing and getting visibly stoked on life.

“I’m incredibly self-conscious about my songs,” Baker said following the song. “But you’re all here; you didn’t run,” a direct reference to the lyrics in “Everybody Does.”

Baker played her entire debut LP and threw in a new tune, “Funeral Pyre,” as well as a cover of Elliott Smith’s “Ballad of Big Nothing,” in which Bridgers joined her in duet. Bridgers had covered “Whatever,” by Smith earlier in the night.

I’m ashamed for not having made the Elliott Smith connection to Baker’s style before that night. But it is a solid representation of her style. Confessional, simplistic, powerful, and polarizing for the listen.

Julien Baker. Photo by Jose Enciso.

After all, Baker performed many shows on this tour while wearing a shirt that read, “Sad songs make me feel better,” which is a perfect homage to what she represents as an artist—and how I personally prefer listening to music.

Finally, followers of Baker’s social media will know that she has an allegiance to Dunkin Donuts, even having a tattoo for the brand. So performing in the land of Dunks was a big moment for her. And it was a big moment for all of us in the crowd, for we bear witness to one of the most authentic and grateful human beings in music today.

PS: Big thanks to Jose Enciso for being an incredible photographer. I’m excited to work more shows with him! Check out his stuff! And if you’re in the New England area, I know he is down for photo shoots!

Note: this piece originally appeared in The Mass Media.