Julien Baker on the Recording of "Turn Out the Lights"

Julien Baker’s 2015 debut album, Sprained Ankle, began its life as a demo, recorded by Baker and a friend, Michael Hegner, while they were studying audio engineering at Middle Tennessee State University. Hegner got an internship at Richmond’s Spacebomb Studios, where the album really took shape. But Baker never expected the wide acclaim that followed its quiet release on Bandcamp and its eventual proper release by 6131 Records.

Julien Baker - Turn Out the Lights

Baker’s sparse songs about doubt, death, and heartbreak quickly found a large audience. She toured extensively, got signed by Matador Records, and, in late 2017, put out Turn Out the Lights. The new album landed on many critics’ year-end lists, and generated further interest in her songwriting and lyrical themes. But it also served as a vehicle for Baker to flex her production skills. As the album’s sole producer, Baker recorded the album at Memphis’s historic Ardent Studios, where artists and producers like Isaac Hayes and Jim Dickinson once worked.

Turn Out the Lights, while still sparse in its instrumentation, was a big sonic leap forward, full of colorful, reverb-drenched vocals, piano, and guitar. We decided to talk to her about the production work behind the album, how she sculpts her tones and textures, and her enviable pedalboard.

I want to ask quite a bit about the recording process of Turn Out the Lights. Considering all of the equipment at Ardent—the echo chambers, reverb units, Eventide Harmonizer, etc.—how much did you experiment with everything there? What was particularly thrilling to you as the producer?

I think the thing that was the most fun to play around with was the old B3 organ with a Leslie speaker. We used that for "Televangelist" and "Everything To Help You Sleep," and it was really cool to just have a vintage instrument like that around to play with.

I think that having modern keyboards and endless sample libraries is really useful for live performance and in certain writing scenarios, but there’s something really interesting about having a single instrument with a very specific sound, like a vintage organ, and experimenting with how it changes the texture of a song, how you can make it interesting given much fewer parameters.

Julien Baker - "Appointments" (Official Video)

Since the record was pretty sparing in instrumentation, though, we didn’t end up incorporating too many instruments besides the keys/piano, guitar, and the strings/woodwind part. Which, in a way, I think was also good—not to feel like we had to create an immense wall of sound just because we had the tools.

There’s something to be said about knowing when to leave things out, not to feel like just because every color is on your palette it has to go into a painting. Of course it's hard not to feel that way when you’re surrounded by possibilities, but it just means that the mixing and editing becomes a task of discernment, deciding what’s adding to the song and what’s cluttering it.

So, ultimately, I guess what was most thrilling to me as the producer was having a comfortable space and such a free working environment. It gave me the time and liberty to add and subtract and try out sounds just to see if it served the song.

When comparing a song like "Rejoice" from Sprained Ankle to "Televangelist" on Turn Out the Lights, your vocals sound more present and dynamic. How did the vocal chains differ for the albums? What mics and preamps did you use for the new record?

I think so, too. There’s a lot of clarity to the vocals on this record. Despite the copious reverb, it’s still a very clear and present sound. When we were tracking vocals, we used a vintage Neumann U 67, and ran that into a spectrasonic preamp taken from the original console at Stax, then a 1176 compressor. Then for all the other instruments, guitars, piano, etc., we used Neve VR preamps.

Julien Baker (Photo by Nolan Knight)

With all the layered guitars, piano, and vocals, there are many moments when the reverb tails and echoes all seem to combine into one lush background. How did you go about determining what kind and how much reverb to use? Was it some combination of the physical echo chambers and outboard units? How much were you using while recording and how much was added during mixing?

I think the goal on this record was to have everything sound very dramatic and dynamically intense, and one way that we accomplished that was by how we employed the reverb sound, particularly on the vocals but also on the other instruments, like piano. Both vocals and piano were tracked in the big live room in Studio A—it has really high ceilings, reflective surfaces, so Calvin [Lauber, engineer] set up some ambient mics, which we left on and blended with the close mic sounds to create a really realistic, spacious reverb sound on the raw tracks.

Then, during mixing, we tried to match the reverb that we applied from plugins to match what was taking place within the lyrical content, so when the words are communicating something very delicate, we used a drier sound and made the vocals sound present, intimate, hushed. Conversely, when the lyrics and vocal performance are isolated, desperate, singular, then we used a heavy count of reverb so that those parts are very distant and washed out.

On your performance of "Appointments" on your latest Tiny Desk Concert, you brought along Camille Faulkner on violin. I’ve also read elsewhere how you enjoyed having Camille and other musicians collaborate on Turn Out the Lights. Will you be bringing other musicians along with you on your upcoming tour?

Yes, I have loved being able to bring on other musicians for the record and having Camille out on tour. She accompanied me on both legs of the U.S. tour I did for the record in the fall and it was such a different dynamic to have another person up on stage with me—something I missed a lot through the couple years of playing alone I did around Sprained Ankle. Hopefully, as I continue in my career, I’ll be able to expand even more and have more players with me.

Julien Baker Performs "Turn Out the Lights" on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Can you tell us about your current live setup? On Colbert, it looked like you were playing through two Deluxe Reverbs. Are you playing through those in tandem or switching between them?

Currently, I tour with two amps: a 1x12 Blues Deluxe and a 2x12 Twin Reverb. One is an extremely mid-rangey, warm amp and the other is a notoriously bright amp. For about 75 percent of the show, I leave them both on, and just have them blended, but I have a three-way ABC-Y splitter on my board that I use to kill signal to one amp or the other at various points in the show for added dynamics.

I send two input cables (one dry and one from my loop pedal) out to a high-gain and low-gain channel on the Twin Reverb, and then send one input cable to the lower gain channel on my Deluxe.

What all do you have on your pedalboard?

Right now, right after my tuner, I have an Emerson Paramount drive, which is my only gain stage, surprisingly. Then I run to a Walrus Descent Reverb, after that is a Mel9—this interesting EHX pedal that mimics a Mellotron. Then, I put a volume pedal before the rest of the reverb effects so that I can sweep into the reverb without clipping the tail when I roll the volume off. After that is the Mooer ReEcho which I use to make weird, spacey delays that almost work more like textural sound effects.

Then I have a Walrus Fathom. I love that pedal because it has a sustain switch—essentially a freeze pedal function that you can use to control the reverb tail—which is really helpful for creating weird and surprising dynamics without doing as much footwork.

After that is the Matthews Effects Cosmonaut, which is also very useful for quick changes in reverb sound, because it has two settings that you can toggle on and off independently or run at the same time. I have one set at a very short and simple plate-sounding setting, and the other a huge cathedral setting so that I can cut back and forth between those two sounds easily.

Next is a Strymon blueSky and then a Walrus Bellwether tap delay, and after that I go into a Morley Tripler that I use to split my signal into three outs (two into a Boss RC-30 stereo looper, one dry) and then those three outs go into a final Morley ABC-Y I use to send out to my two amps.

During the Colbert performance, there was a moment near the end where it almost sounded like a low vocal harmony underneath everything. Was that some kind of octave or harmonizer pedal or just some combination of everything else going on?

It's actually the combination of my Walrus Descent pedal and the Elecro-Harmonix Mel9 pedal. The Descent reverb pedal—probably the most versatile pedal I have ever played with—gives you the ability to play with the frequency of the reverb signal using these +1 and -1 octave controls, and if you boost certain octaves on the shimmer settings the tail has an almost POG-like sound.

I turn up both extremes of the high and low octaves and leave it on a really long decay so it just sounds like a pad underneath my guitar. Then, I run that noise into the Mel9 on the vocal choir setting, which creates a bunch of harmonics in that synth voice. I leave the effected signal from the Mel9 up, about the same volume as my guitar, so you hear that over-distorted vocal pad noise mixed in with the guitar like it’s one huge sound.

Was that also a new Telecaster (with the soapbar neck pickup)? What’s your guitar lineup like these days?

Previously, I used a Standard Telecaster that I had wired to be able to switch between running the pickups in series or parallel, and I left it on the series setting pretty much all the time. Recently, though, I have been playing a new American Tele that I had reworked at Martin Music in Memphis.

We replaced the stock pickups with G&L pickups actually! I have seen people putting P90s in telecasters, but those pickups are just a little too hot for my taste. The G&Ls are really versatile, full sounding but not overwhelmingly aggressive—really perfect.

You’ve talked before about how Death Cab for Cutie (and particularly Ben Gibbard’s lyrics) and Pedro the Lion have informed your songwriting. Have you discovered any newer artists that have informed your writing or inspired you?

Recently (as in the last couple of months), I’ve become really intrigued with how guitar is used in the context of music that I don’t think of as guitar-driven. As in, not within an indie band, but maybe within more beats-driven music. Artists like Moses Sumney and Sampha and SZA are able to incorporate melodic instruments like piano and guitar into songs in interesting ways, or use percussion and electronic production as a melodic component in a song.

Right now, that is what is really inspiring to me, seeing how people are testing the boundaries and experimenting with how the ingredients of music are combined in an unexpected way.

Julien Baker: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

Have you already started envisioning (or writing/recording) the next album? Are you going to be adding new collaborators, new instruments, and just generally continuing to add to your expanding sound?

For the next record, I definitely want to try to collaborate with more artists and musicians. I want to try to spend as much time listening to and observing other artists’ processes as I can so I can learn how they do things differently. I think, for the next record, I just want to keep myself as open as possible to new ideas and ways of creating sound that I’ve never pursued—that’s the thing that's exciting for me about making new music.

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