I used to doodle on church pamphlets. Each service was a competition between my friends and me. We stifled giggles, drew cartoons, passed notes, mocked the pastor — whatever we could get away with in the few feet of pew space we were allotted. Only the first notes of the organ could move my eyes from my pamphlet to the hymnal, and, without hesitation, I would sing at top volume. I didn’t always know what the words meant, or to whom, if anyone, I was singing, or why, like so many others, I didn’t just stand in silence and leave the singing to the choir. When we prayed I kept one eye open. When we learned about Jesus in Sunday School, I daydreamed about the food waiting downstairs. But when we sang, I felt like someone was listening. I do not know if I believed in God, but I always felt like he could hear me better when I sang.
I walked into the crowd for Julien Baker’s set at the 2018 Boston Calling Music Festival with no context save for a Google search, a quick skim of her music on Spotify, and some second-hand—and by second-hand I mean from Tumblr—knowledge that she was queer and Christian and made music that many described as “healing.” That combination was enough to pique my interest. On a day with a lineup headlined by Eminem, the primary interest of the two friends from home who flanked me on either side, Baker seemed like a bit of an anomaly. She entered to as much applause as the crowd could muster before hands were shoved hastily back into pockets and ponchos — the day was decidedly chilly and rainy — and gave a soft introduction:
“Hi guys, my name is Julien Baker and I’m gonna play you some songs.”
Clad in a black button-down and pants, her rainbow guitar strap the only burst of color on an otherwise dark stage, she opened her mouth to sing. It immediately became clear that her introduction was an understatement. She began her set with “Turn Out the Lights,” a song about self-confrontation in moments of solitude, but it wasn’t until the chorus that she let her higher register go. She sang the line “When I turn out the lights,” raw and repeating again and again into a rapid decrescendo into “Between myself and me.” Her vocals are a far cry from anything other than a far cry, defined as much by their desperation as their beauty. When she sings, she opens her mouth as wide as it can go, as though she’s trying to project her voice far beyond the festival crowd.
At the song “Rejoice,” whatever facade of objectivity or “okay-ness” I had constructed to get me through my third day without sleep fell to pieces. “But I think there’s a god and he hears either way / when I rejoice and complain,” she howled, placing all her emphasis on the extended vowels of “rejoice” and “complain.” Again she fell into a repetition, this time of the word “rejoice,” each time projecting her voice into our ears and up to the sky. In the gasping, vocal tipping point, she asked “Why did you let them leave and make me stay?” and I stopped taking notes. My mother likes to tell me that she has seen God. That years ago, at the intersection of unspeakable loss and grief, what she felt in that moment convinced her to keep going. In listening to Julien Baker that afternoon, I felt something similar.
In watching Baker sing to God, my own days in church didn’t seem so far away. At the sight of my tears, a friend from home (who had come to the festival solely to see Eminem) wrapped her arms around me and said, “I love you, Allison,” and home didn’t seem so far away either. In the song “Shadowboxing” Baker sang, “But there is a comfort in failure / Singing too loud in church / Screaming my fears into speakers.” What Baker knows, and what I can only remember, is that music amplifies sound far beyond where it would otherwise go. By singing hymns on Sunday mornings, I felt that someone beyond the rows of people in pews could hear me. When Julien Baker sang to us all that day, we stood in silence, listening, but we were not the only ones.
When I woke up the next morning, the festival was gone. I walked down Massachusetts Avenue, alone in the drizzle and the haze, wondering how the streets around me could be so empty. I watched Cambridge disappear behind me through the window of a commuter rail train. At my stop I dropped my suitcase and fell into the arms of a person I love and who loves me. As he starts the car I say, “I have new music for the rainy day,” and we listen to the opening notes of Baker’s “Appointments.” I don’t say a word and neither does he. We both listen.
—Staff writer Allison J. Scharmann's column, "Music as Memory," explores music through personal narratives.