by Sebastian Buzzalino
Julien Baker’s delicate folk songwriting feels like a long-forgotten favourite sweater. She is emotive and resilient, leaving wide-open spaces for listeners to enter her songs and feel right at home, tackling tough topics like trauma, substance abuse and self-acceptance. It’s at once comforting and disarming. In 2018, she co-founded boygenius, a supergroup of sorts with Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers.
As this year’s guest curator, Baker uses her powerful voice to add poetry to Sled Island, contributing artists such as Bully, Death Bells, Japanese Breakfast and JPEGMAFIA to the lineup. We caught up with her to talk about the process of guest curating the festival, what her vision was for the bands she brings to Sled Island and how it all fits together into the larger picture for 2019.
What was it like to get approached by Sled Island to be guest curator?
I’ve never done anything similar to curating Sled Island or anything close to that scale, so being approached by the festival was both a massive honour and a daunting task. It felt like an enormous gift to have a say in what kind of acts would be brought to the festival and I was happy I would get to help create a lineup full of artists that bring me so much joy. I also felt a slight amount of apprehension because I wanted festival-goers to enjoy and be able to engage with the music as much as I do. I think it was an exercise for me in letting go of suppositions or trying to anticipate the desires of others.
What are you most proud of in your role as guest curator?
I wanted booking the festival to be a more thoughtful process than just picking my favourite bands: I mostly wanted to make sure that there were a variety of experiences and narratives presented. So I tried to balance things, make sure the acts weren’t all completely obscure and also that they weren’t all within such a similar vein that it was alienating to people who maybe preferred another genre. I tried to view my role as curator as a chance to redirect attention to the artists that I believe have something important to impart to people or who have moved me. I think I wanted to, in the most humble way possible, put music in front of people that has affected me and that I think could affect them in a meaningful way.
You are Sled Island’s youngest guest curator to date. Do you feel that allowed you to bring a different vibe to guest curating?
It was an enormous honour, while a little intimidating. I find I’m usually a student of those much older or much younger than me, those who are either much more privy to the current or much more versed in the past. Both categories of people seem to have a more comprehensive understanding of music’s intricate, constantly emerging history. I suppose that is true of any person, since no two people are going to have the exact same musical taste or preference.
I think one of the great things about this festival is that it sort of eliminates the stratification between those who organize the fest and those who attend. It changes the format, removes the somewhat invisible arbiters of taste who curate a lineup and decide what is worthy of attention. I think getting rid of that perceived superiority gap creates a context that seems much more intimate and more human, the guest curator is just offering their individual knowledge to the communal awareness, saying, “Here is something that feels valuable and important and worthy to me. I hope that you can derive as much joy from it as I have.” To me, music has always been an exercise in shared curiosity and I hope that, if anything, that spirit of curiosity and ongoing conversation is my contribution to Sled Island this year.
Julien Baker performs Saturday, June 22 at the Palace TheatreJulien Baker, Sled Island