When: Fri., Oct. 13, 8 p.m. 2017
Memphis native Julien Baker delivers devastatingly beautiful reflections that are wise beyond her years, with an emotional weight as powerful as any of today's best songwriters. After spending her teenage years leading the angular emo quartet Forrister, Baker used her solo debut, Sprained Ankle—recorded when she was just eighteen—to wrestle with such heavy topics as existentialism and faith, identity and acceptance, and substance abuse and broken relationships.
Identifying as a queer Christian Southern woman, Baker reveals her own vulnerability as she grasps for elusive conclusions to unanswerable questions, often to a jarring but relatable degree. On "Blacktop," Sprained Ankle's opening track, she asks God, "But if no one sings along in praise/Are you still proud when I open my mouth?" She questions whether He would reject the "love letters" she's written Him if her audience does the same. The latter instance seems to have become rhetorical; that LP landed on plenty of 2015 "best of" lists and was later rereleased by Matador Records, and Baker now plays headlining shows for moderately sized theaters rather than small clubs, before rapt crowds that sit in pin-drop silence, hanging on and echoing her every word.
Baker's musings on her forthcoming follow-up—and proper Matador debut—Turn Out the Lights are just as complex and intimate, though with the addition of more instrumental layers, like the elegant, mesmerizing piano accompaniment she teased with "Good News," the closing track on Sprained Ankle. "Maybe it's all gonna turn out alright," she repeats on lead single "Appointments," then adds "I know that it's not but I have to believe that it is." Like the rest of Baker's work, her arresting vocal haunts a sparse arrangement wrought from little more than a meditative guitar line and bits of piano, with a melody nearly as potent as her words.
Before Baker takes the stage in Saxapahaw, there's electro-infused Brooklyn project Half Waif. The band's members also play in Pinegrove, and the group is spearheaded by Nandi Rose Plunkett, whose ethereal vocals, confessional lyricism, and lush synth textures take center stage. Together, the trio crafts dreamy moods that pulse to fluttering beats around which Plunkett's voice flits and soars. —Spencer Griffith