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Julien Baker explored the literary arts on ‘Little Oblivions,’ now she’s ready to educate

Singer-songwriter Julien Baker will play House of Blues Boston on Friday, Sept. 17, in support of her new album, "Little Oblivions".
Singer-songwriter Julien Baker will play House of Blues Boston on Friday, Sept. 17, in support of her new album, "Little Oblivions".Alysse Gafkjen

“Sorry if you can hear the cicadas,” said Julien Baker, as she stepped outside during our August phone interview. Baker, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter, was calling from Nashville, Tenn., where she’s been preparing for the North American-European tour to promote her newest LP, “Little Oblivions,” which debuted in February. She said the pandemic had been the longest period she has spent stationed in one location since childhood. Her constant touring schedule kept her on the road so much she had a cicada tattooed on her arm — “I missed hearing them,” she explained.

Julien Baker's "Little Oblivions"
Julien Baker's "Little Oblivions"Handout

Baker’s “Little Oblivions,” her third studio album, has garnered much praise for its full band sound (new accompaniments she performed herself) and confidently intentional lyricism. The 12-track album is more pared down than equally emotionally-grounded “Sprained Ankle” and “Turn Out the Light.”Baker worked with producer and sound engineer Calvin Lauber, who will tour with her this fall (Matthew Gilliam, who played in Baker’s high school band, the Star Killers, will also join), to record the album at Young Avenue Sound in Memphis.

Baker also returned to Middle Tennessee State University, where she completed her degree in English, while recording “Little Oblivions” on weekends and school breaks. “I was really gratified by how different it was than my musical life,” she said. “I didn’t have to perform the persona of the artist that I had begun to collapse myself with. It was a gift, honestly — you are no longer performing, you don’t just disappear. You just become the person that you are.”

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The re-introduction to education influenced Baker’s songwriting, she explained, teaching her to be a “more attentive listener.” “I can see myself doing it with records, listening to them over and over again to see if I can find something new. Like how scholars read the same book over and over again,” she said. “It makes me more deliberate in how I write. Everything doesn’t have to be so pure.”

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And like a scholar, she quoted William Wordsworth: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” “Everyone focuses on the ‘spontaneous overflow’ part,” she said, “and forgets the [recollected] part. But you have to have that to make things clear, concise, and informed.”

Her songwriting approach on “Little Oblivions” is rich, smoldering indie rock that soars and swells. Baker’s musical style is thematically the “main character,” her literary chops shine as she always keeps her listener close and engaged, offering the lyrical intimacy and earnestness that initially made her a favorite among teens and their parents alike. “The smoke alarm’s been going off for weeks/No one showed up/And half the time it isn’t what you think of,” she sings on the first single, “Faith Healer,” a questioning of faith in every facet.

The tour — which stops in Boston this Friday at the House of Blues — is Baker’s first since the pandemic led US venues to close doors for 2020 through this year. When she spoke, she was readying for Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival — the lineup also included her boygenius collaborator Phoebe Bridgers. “It seems like a swarm of people,” Baker said. “But there’s a tugging in me that’s like, ‘Wouldn’t it be so great to play shows again?’ ” Though she needn’t worry; the festival was canceled days after our call.

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Still, Baker is excited to head back on the road. She cited the third member of boygenius, Lucy Dacus, who went on a brief US run with Bright Eyes this summer. “None of them got sick, none of their crew got sick,” she said. “I was excited to hear that news. And while they might have had trepidation, I haven’t done anything like that yet.”

At her shows, Baker will sell a $10 zine featuring a series of sketches she did during the pandemic. The proceeds will benefit OUTMemphis, an LGBTQ+ drop-in center in Memphis. That said, she hopes to release a body of work for young adults in the future, citing Tegan and Sara’s 2019 memoir, “High School,” as inspiration.

“I’ve just read so many musicians’ biographies that are like, a no-holds-barred of all the messed-up stuff that’s happened to them and their rock star stories,” Baker said. “But [Tegan and Sara] just wrote about their childhood as queer women speaking to queer youths. It was such a sweet, deliberate choice to do that. And I think it could be a way to reparent my inner child.”

Sept. 17. $25-$35. House of Blues. 888-693-2583, www.houseofblues.com/boston