Sweet 16: Julien Baker never wanted to be Homecoming Queen – but kids are the worst

For our latest Sweet 16, the Tennessee artist looks back on a year that changed everything for her

Julien Baker: It was such a wild time for me. There was a lot going on. I had just come out to my friends. I remember I had short hair before I came out to my parents and I was like, “How did you not know?” I had moved in with my dad, as well. My mom and I were in a fight about something non-related to my sexuality. I was being a vindictive, mean little kid. I was like, “Well, I’m gay,” and my mom immediately without skipping a beat retorts: “I know.” I thought I had been doing such a good job!

I was playing in the band The Star Killers [later known as Forrister]. We played every show offered to us. We’d play two house shows a weekend for three or four straight weekends. I quit my part-time job at Country and Western Steakhouse because we were supposed to play a show with a band called Joyce Manor, who I was obsessed with.

If you threw a dart at all the moments in that year of my life, there’s such a high probability that I’m just standing in some random person’s living room watching a band or playing a show. That’s where I felt most at home. All my friends were there. Instead of going to the mall, that’s where we congregated. When we weren’t playing music we’d be hanging out at Taco Bell or the Waffle House.

I actually went to school out of town (Memphis). I would go out to this quasi-rural farming community to go to high school where the culture was a lot more hicky, but not in a derogatory way. I didn’t like school. I felt like I was always in trouble, but looking back I guess I wasn’t in that bad of trouble.

Around then I ended up in a weird situation of being Homecoming Queen of my high school – I had a bright red mohawk at the time. One of the people in my class nominated me to make fun of me. I didn’t know what to do. I guess I was like, “haha funny.” Like, I was actually kind of pissed and really self conscious about it. It’s just classic: queer girl doesn’t know how to assimilate into, like, straight feminine normalcy trope. But that’s what I felt like, you know? I mean, there’s a photo of me where everyone’s wearing the straight up ball gowns, like for a pageant. And I didn’t get the memo on it. So I’m just wearing a day dress, which is already wild for me. Shoes I got from Goodwill.

I mean, it sucks, because I feel like that’s exactly the thing that gets made into the manic sexy dream girl trope – this ‘she’s quirky and weird’… but I was actually so uncomfortable. It was really uncomfortable to be around a lot of people who knew how to act in a certain environment that I was completely foreign to. It’s just so inconsistent with my personality, or the things that I value.

The homecoming reception was on a weekend, and then my band was releasing a record we’d recorded in our friend’s attic the following day. So there was me, playing in this church basement venue screaming at a whole bunch of house show kids and wearing the homecoming queen sash. Ridiculous.

I also got in a car crash around this time. I was driving this old school Honda Accord that got absolutely smashed to death. I was fiddling with the consoles where all my mix CDs were. Like my Manchester Orchestra, Colour Revolt and whatever Christian adjacent indie rock I was listening to. I just didn’t look at the road like an idiot 16-year-old and drove straight into one of those giant concrete street lamps, and it collapsed onto my car. The pictures are wild because the entire hood of the car is caved in. But I didn’t get hurt at all. Zero injuries – and the car was entirely crumbled.

It was crazy. I was leaving evening church. The first person that got there was my dad and he just like sprinted up to the car. I was just sitting inside and shocked. Its weird to talk about for many reasons, but then everybody stopped church to have a prayer circle until an ambulance came and made sure I was okay.

I was going through old memorabilia from this time and I’m looking at this heinously tacky belt buckle that says ‘music = life’. And it did. It was everything. It’s like a self fulfilling prophecy when you discover music as a child, and then you latch on to it being the only thing that matters.

Earlier than this age, I wanted to learn every instrument so bad that I used to sit and arrange little towels on my desk in the spaces approximately where I thought a rack tom, floor tom, a snare, and a hi hat would go, and try to mine play along to Fall Out Boy or whatever. I just thought about music.

As told to Greg Cochrane

Julien Baker’s new album, Little Oblivions, is out tomorrow via Matador.