Julien Baker’s teenage obsessions: ‘I had Leonardo DiCaprio’s hair. I was a mess’

As she releases her third album, the US indie rocker reminisces about waffles, hardcore Christian punk and her terrible skateboarding

VH1’s Top 20 Video Countdown

Where I grew up in the Memphis suburbs was not the epitome of cool, so I didn’t know what else to be except a goth kid. When I was 13, I wore lots of safety pins in my clothing. Now, the way I form friendships and meet people is so different, but then I would just get home from school and walk around the neighbourhood, finding other kids outside. We’d go behind the storm drain and smoke cigarettes, hide from our parents and set stuff on fire. It was Tennessee! There wasn’t a lot to do.

My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy were the titans of that music scene. Then I got into AFI, the first band I heard screaming. I didn’t have a cool older brother, so I wasn’t listening to Black Flag or bands with cred. I got my new music from the VH1 Top 20 Countdown, which I watched religiously every Sunday. I’d sit through the Natasha Bedingfields or Bubbly by Colbie Caillat, cross my fingers and hope that American Idiot by Green Day would be on. Once I got my iPod, communication with my parents was over.

‘I’d cross my fingers and hope it came on’ ... American Idiot by Green Day.

Waffle House

In the US, Waffle Houses are as ubiquitous as Wetherspoons in the UK. It’s a chain breakfast house that’s open all hours of the night. I loved it, because I was too young to drive, we couldn’t get into bars and none of us drank coffee, so the Waffle House was a neutral place where our parents weren’t around. We’d just hang out and drink Dr Pepper. I ate so badly. We couldn’t afford to go to proper restaurants, but Waffle House would tolerate teenagers and it was really cheap – we could get eggs for 99 cents and make them last for hours. Where else were we gonna go? The mall?

The skate park

Everyone called it Spom: skate park of Memphis. It’s closed down now. The story was that this kid got his thumb ripped off and sued them, then got a tattoo on his thumbless hand that said “10K”. I don’t know if that story is true, but in my teens I begged my dad to take me every weekend.

Bands played there: seven bands a day for like five bucks, pop-punk and metalcore. I’d just sit there and watch bands. I was never any good at skating. In my social circle, kids that were super-good at skating were OK at music and vice versa. I picked music. The kids at the skate park would make fun of me, ’cause I could only do one trick, but I would do it 12 or 13 times in a row and they called it “Baker’s dozen”.

My trick was called the “sex change”, which you’d probably name “gender reassignment surgery” now. Basically, you hop the board to face the opposite direction, then flip it around to the direction you were initially going. I could also come up on the side of the bowl and slide back down, but that was it.

Christian hardcore

When I came out, there weren’t a ton of other gay people around. It was hard, because I was a gay 16-year-old girl and the places in Memphis where a queer community would convene were gay bars, which I couldn’t get into. The only place I could meet other queer or weirdo people who shared my pretty progressive political beliefs was at live shows.

When my mum gave me her old Honda Accord, I started driving around listening to music to get out of the house and be alone. Then I got in a horrible accident. A street pole fell on the car, which crumpled up lengthwise around it, like a bun. Amazingly, I wasn’t injured.

‘Utter chaos’ ... Forget by the Chariot.

I pivoted into Christian hardcore, bands such as mewithoutYou or Starflyer 59 that played [the now defunct Christian music festival] Cornerstone or were on a 2005 compilation called You Can’t Handle The Tooth. In the south, the church was omnipresent. I loved the band the Chariot, who were slightly Christian metalcore. They were utter chaos: really heavy and aggressive. They were insane live, this guy throwing his guitar way up in the air, kids diving off rafters.

Being in a hardcore band before I was a solo musician, I modelled my stage presence on that and may yet do again. I don’t know if I’d throw my guitar in the air, though; I like it how it is. As a female musician among a lot of dudes, I wanted to play scales and wanted my gear to sound good, but it was appealing to hear someone making just … noise.

The Star Killers

Once I got home from school, I was like: “Screw homework.” I started a band called the Star Killers with my friend Matthew [Gilliam, who played drums]. We would practise every night after school and on a weekend we played shows. My lyrics had to do with God, but I wouldn’t call us a Christian band. A friend fronted us the money to put out a double-length LP: four sides of vinyl [300 copies were made]. We paid for the CDs ourselves.

‘It was so proud of our LP that I cried’ ... Vampiretown by the Star Killers, Baker’s first band.

Releasing a record with my friends was the best thing I’d ever done. I was so proud of it that I cried. I was writing those lyrics aged 16 and I thought it was really deep stuff. The lyrics were really sad and I would half sing, half scream. The night of our record release show, I was feeling the lyrics so bad. Everyone in the audience was someone I knew, maybe 100 people, all my friends from school. We were kids with no money who worked stupid jobs in the food industry to keep this band going. The record was called American Blues. People can track it down, but they need to know this: it’s terrible. It sounds like 16-year-olds made it.

My mohawk

When I was 17, I had a friend who was in the cosmetology [beauty] programme at high school. She would come over, I would bring a dining room chair out to the front yard and she would cut my hair. Again, really trashy, but it’s who I was. She’d buzz the sides off and I’d give her a pack of cigarettes. My mohawk was bright red, but would never stay up. I imagined myself having porcupine spikes, but it was always this wild quiff. I looked like Duckie from the movie Pretty in Pink.

When I got to college, I decided to let it grow out, but it took a year to get it like it is now. I spent months in that horrible awkward in-between phase, like young Leonardo DiCaprio hair, parted in the middle. It was soooo bad. I was a mess in college.

Julien Baker’s album Little Oblivions is released on 26 February on Matador


As told to Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr's teenage obsessions: 'When I turned 13, I felt I had to drop out of society'
As he prepares to release Dinosaur Jr’s 12th studio album, the slacker icon discusses his conflicted attitude towards hippies and his unlikely affection for Harold and Maude and All My Children

As told to Dave Simpson

25, Mar, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Dave Grohl's teenage obsessions: 'I learned drums by arranging pillows on my floor'
Ahead of the 10th Foo Fighters album, their frontman recalls the music and scenes that made him – from punk gigs in Chicago to sleeping on floors in Italian squats

As told to Dave Simpson

14, Jan, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Brandon Flowers’ teenage obsessions: ‘I considered an Oasis tattoo’
As the Killers release a new album, their frontman recalls his youthful love of Cheers, the Goonies and bonding over Bowie in Las Vegas

As told to Rich Pelley

12, Aug, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Robert Plant’s teenage obsessions: ‘Stourbridge was our Beverly Hills’
The Led Zeppelin frontman turned podcaster reflects on jazz beatniks reading Camus, the primeval power of Ike & Tina Turner, and taking Muddy Waters’s spot on Alexis Korner’s couch

As told to Dave Simpson

20, May, 2021 @11:39 AM

Article image
Bez’s teenage obsessions: ‘With cider, you can literally taste spirituality’
As the Happy Mondays dancer releases his first track as a vocalist, he reminisces about his youth, from spells in prison to bonding with Shaun Ryder at the Haçienda

As told to Will Lavin

29, Jul, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake: ‘My first band was the Spanking Newts’
Back with a new album, the Fannies frontman remembers his teenage years, from the kindness of the Specials to selling guitar strings to John Martyn – and trying to impress with his ice-skating skills

As told to Dave Simpson

22, Apr, 2021 @2:00 PM

Article image
The greatest songs about the climate crisis – ranked!
As Cop26 opens in Glasgow, we provide the soundtrack, ranging from Gojira’s metal fury to gorgeous environmental paeans by Childish Gambino, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell

Alexis Petridis

28, Oct, 2021 @12:30 PM

Article image
Sean Paul's teenage obsessions: 'My Coventry grandmother cooked me bubble and squeak'
Ahead of two new albums this spring, the dancehall superstar recalls the poignancy of his first love, and how water polo took his mind off his imprisoned father

As told to Dave Simpson

11, Mar, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
Belinda Carlisle's teenage obsessions: 'I was going to be Anita Ekberg in Rome, but ended up in a band'
The singer recalls the joy of 60s California pop, being enthralled by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the Go-Go’s first gig

As told to Rich Pelley

11, Feb, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
Aaron Eckhart’s teenage obsessions: ‘Pink Floyd saved my life’
The Hollywood star recalls his childhood in San Jose, Sydney and Walton-on-Thames, falling for Grease and Macbeth – and his enduring love for The Young Ones

As told to Rich Pelley

22, Jul, 2021 @12:00 PM