“I think I can love the sickness you made,” Juilen Baker sings on the closing track of her excellent second album, “Turn Out the Lights.” The 22-year-old singer is open in her songs and in interviews about her struggles with anxiety, depression and her previous bouts of drug addiction. Baker spent the latter part of her teenage years in and out of rehab.
Baker is also a Christian. The “you” in that line is directed at God, containing at once bitterness, sadness and also an earned optimism — emotions that take to heart the gravity of suffering and her “sickness” while finding hope and even beauty in life’s shadows. “I changed my mind, I wanted to stay,” Baker wails with urgency and defiance, the lyric a direct reversal of the last lyric of her last LP, “Sprained Ankle,” in which she defeatedly sang, “God, I want to go home.”
Produced by Baker herself, the songs on “Turn Out the Lights” are stripped performances consisting of Baker’s emotive voice bursting through a sea of fingerpicking acoustic guitars, shimmering piano and delay pedals. Baker takes the melodramatic melodies and chord patterns of 90s/00s indie/emo and gives them the weighty subject matter they deserve. Baker has opened for The Decemberists and Death Cab For Cutie, and many concertgoers have noted skeptical audiences suddenly silenced by her gripping performances. There’s also something satisfying about a self-identifying queer women and punk-rock lover taking the song skeletons of self-involved emo boys and remaking them into empowerment music.
And “Turn Out the Lights,” despite its often depressing subject matter, is empowerment music. Baker herself calls what she tries to do “radical vulnerability.” In “Appointments” she tells a loved one to just leave her because she knows her mental issues make her a disappointment. In “Happy to Be Here,” she confronts God as she laments, “I was just wondering if there was any way that you made a mistake.” In “Hurt Less,” she confesses that she used to not wear a seatbelt because she didn’t think it was worth it. In “Turn Out the Lights,” she shares even the simple act of trying to fall asleep can be a major struggle because “when I turn out the lights, there’s no one left between myself and me.”
The power in Baker singing these seemingly fatalist lyrics is that by simply naming these feelings and stories and putting them out there in all their raw honesty, she honors them as real and dignifies them as part of the human experience. As a pastor, I’ve been aware of some with mental illness who feel as if their struggles are belittled and not taken seriously. In “Shadowboxing,” Baker names this uncomfortable truth herself: “I know that you don’t understand, cause you don’t believe what you don’t see. When you watch me throwing punches at the devil, it just looks like I’m fighting with me.”
I honestly feel guilty that it takes someone bravely and boldly laying out their deepest vulnerabilities for me to really take to heart the lived experience of those with mental illness seriously, and it shouldn’t have to be like this. But then again, Baker doesn’t have to prove her worth to anybody. The true testament to the power of her music is how Baker has taken her own path to self-acceptance and to a complex but genuine faith in Christ and decided to share it with people so that all who carry similar burdens can have their journeys feel just a little lighter and less lonely.
“Over the past years of getting to a healthier place, it’s been important for me to get rid of my really finite standard of normalcy and understand that maybe the bad and ugly things are part of me, but I don’t have to submit to them,” Baker said in a feature with Pitchfork. “And that the existence of anxiety or depression does not negate my own capacity for joy, or my intelligence. It’s really helpful to accept those bad things instead of trying to make it out to be some sort of Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy; when I can embrace those things, I can have power over them.”
CHRISTOPHER DE LA CRUZ is the associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, located in Queens, New York. Follow him on Twitter @cdlc.