We might as well call 2017 the year of both Cameron Boucher and Julien Baker. Putting the two in the same musical conversation may seem odd — the former churned out a punk-rooted emo-rock album with his band Sorority Noise earlier this year, while the latter went between piano ballads and stripped-down indie rock on her recently released solo LP. But their continually blossoming friendship reminds of the beautiful thing that brings both of their ends of the sonic spectrum together: raw, intimate and uncompromising emotion.
If that’s not enough, they’ve recently combined efforts on a musical level as well. Cameron provides instrumental and engineering help on Julien’s new record, and the collaboration works because of the purpose the music serves. Following the Tennessee native’s unexpected breakthrough with Sprained Ankle in 2015, the two have found a connection in their shared lyrical themes surrounding death, depression, addiction and faith.
Cameron plays woodwinds on “Over” and “Appointments”, a subtle touch behind echoing piano taps and carefully strummed swatches of guitar. As the singer comes in on track two, she begins depicting the breakdown of relationships — something present in many of her other songs. It’s ironic, considering how she and Cameron have grown close enough to play on the same track. But, with the destructive power of mental illness and drug addiction present throughout the musicians’ catalogues, it seems right at home.
Julien asserts herself on the title track, the line “I’m staying in tonight” a statement of struggle tattooed across the four-and-a-half-minute runtime. While picking up from “Go Home”, the final track on her previous effort, there’s a darker ambience depicting the atmosphere in which she navigates. The new album is called Turn Out the Lights, and it’s all about dealing with struggles “in the dark.” But, though it seems like no one else is present, Cameron pointed out a few weeks ago — filling in the title to Sorority Noise’s recent full-length — that you’re not as alone as you think.
Cameron’s guidance on the March release surely helps. “This is the part where I’m a marathon runner and both of my ankles are sprained,” he says on the song “No Halo”, letting the words fall out of his mouth like he has to, not because he wants to. That’s because it serves as his therapy — he wrote the song as a way of coping with the suicide of his friend Sean.
The line he sings is partly Julien’s, with “sprained ankles” acting as the shared message about perseverance. Quoted in a story by Observer, she said, “You have to walk on it to make it better, because if you coddle it, it’ll stay sprained.” But the lesser-thought-of motif is one of endurance, the “marathon runners” that we become amid each and every injury. Cameron embodies this on You’re Not As ____ As You Think, a record that deals closely with death. He recaps many experiences following the loss of Sean — in “No Halo” specifically, driving past his house only to remember he’s not there.
“So if there’s a race to heaven / I will surely come in last”, the singer states near the end of the song. He describes a lack of strength, whether from dealing with the grief or not feeling present in his friends’ lives as a traveling musician. But, with moody guitar packing behind him, he’s able to honestly express the moments when he finds himself losing the marathon.
For Julien, it’s the same intuition that pops back up on Turn Out the Lights. She recognizes the role of time in struggle. It’s easy to think that effort is what keeps you from drowning, but it’s something that requires a sustainable pace. “The harder I swim, the faster I sink”, she pens on “Sour Breath”, suggesting that the intensity of her exertion is burning her out rather than helping her.
Cameron and Julien are both marathon runners in their own ways, continuing to endure every personal hardship with an understanding of how it shapes them as people. The former has certainly been inspired by the latter’s usage of the metaphor, as it’s even led to him covering “Sprained Ankle” on acoustic guitar as a part of his solo Some Covers release last year. It’s not his most beloved of her songs, though; that would be “Good News”, which Sorority Noise has covered numerous times live. In between bouncy, rough-edged pop-punk anthems like “Nosley” and “Blonde Hair, Black Lungs”, it still manages to hit hard.
“That’s a song I never could have written,” Cameron said in an interview with American Songwriter. In the song, Julien speaks about keeping her nose clean and the blue out of her arms, referencing how drug addiction is once again interfering in a relationship. But in this case, she’s not talking about a lover; instead, she’s talking about the God she believes in. Substance abuse is certainly a heavy topic, but the musician lets it give way to bigger questions about our existence: Why is there a God if he allows us to continually struggle?
Cameron talks about faith on his band’s new album as well, titling a song “Second Letter from St. Julien” after his friend. She has had a big impact on Cameron, her connection with him affecting his own connection with God. He said in a Stereogum interview, “Julien’s so vocal about her belief, and that helped me to realize that there was value in that. There is a greater thing to all of this. I’m asking a lot of questions that I don’t know the answers to, and kind of hoping that someone can answer them for me.”
It’s easy to think that God isn’t answering the questions our struggles pose, but the kind of love she sees in God despite everything she endures is what keeps her believing day after day. “I think there’s a God and he hears either way,” she had previously said on “Rejoice”. On “Televangelist” off her new record, she reflects on the things she doesn’t like in herself, suggesting, “All of my prayers are just apologies”. Yet, she focuses on the other side of the conversation in “Happy to Be Here”, mentioning God’s “humiliating grace.” While unconditional love is beautiful, it can’t help but remind her of her brokenness.
Julien often describes God as a lover, and in that, also a comforter. She brings this to mind on Sprained Ankle’s climactic “Rejoice”, suggesting that “somebody’s listening at night with the ghosts of my friends”, and it’s what has kept Cameron at ease with his beliefs as well following Sean’s passing. On “A Portrait Of”, he continues to ask questions, but he doesn’t need answers to be comforted by the thought of his friend in a better place (“If you’re with God, am I making you proud by waking up each day? / And if you’re with God, well I hope you’re proud, with a smile on your face”).
Hope is still at the core of Julien’s music, but a lot of what Turn Out the Lights rests on is the personal battles of everyday life. As she points out in “Shadowboxing”, it often seems like she’s not fighting anything at all. In that, she gets to the ultimate thing that’s brought her and Cameron together: the mental health struggles they both have experienced.
“Tell me that I shouldn’t blame myself / But you can’t even imagine how badly it hurts”, she says in the song. Without getting too deep into her headspace, the line aptly summarizes her personal marathon. She may not be as alone as she thinks, but it’s incredibly hard to not feel that way.
The feelings Julien expresses across her first two albums have attracted the attention of many, but one fan has taken advantage of the opportunity to grow close with this 22-year-old budding solo artist. The musical mentality Cameron shares with her has made their intersection immensely graceful — like the unconditional grace of their God. That’s because their connection comes not despite their struggles and shortcomings, but because of them.
Cameron’s little touches on Julien’s new record may not seem noticeable on the surface. But with the thick catharsis the two of them contribute to contemporary emo, their combined impact appears massive. While Julien suggests across Turn Out the Lights that her struggles are fought in the dark, her friendship with Cameron reminds that the heavy emotion they both amass in their music is incredibly brightening.
Featured Photo Credit: Eric Ryan Anderson/New York Times (Julien Baker), Andy Deluca (Cameron Boucher).