Tennessee songwriter’s sad, poignant songs aim for the heart

Julien Baker is a Memphis-bred singer-songwriter whose solo debut “Sprained Ankle” has earned critics’ raves.

CAMBRIDGE — When she was 15, the singer and songwriter Julien Baker had a suspicion: “Maybe God made me gay on purpose, and has chosen me for hell.”

It sounds like a precociously dark thought, but at that age, Baker was already moving past years of drug abuse and struggling to find the deeply held faith that now lives alongside doubt and self-laceration in her chiming, biting songs.

Over the past few months, Baker, now 20, has quickly built a sizable and devoted fan base. Her debut solo album, “Sprained Ankle,” initially self-released, was picked up by the independent label 6131 Records. Critics took notice, including Jon Caramanica of The New York Times, who named it one of the best albums of 2015.

Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Baker, an only child, attended church with her mother and father, with whom she’s still close. Her parents separated when she was in elementary school, and the ritual fell away. Baker started spending more time with older kids, smoking and drinking, and eventually turning to hard drugs.

She remembers hearing someone talking about OxyContin and thinking, “That’s gonna be the thing I do all the time.”

Baker was speaking recently at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hours before a performance. Her addictive tendencies have migrated to the chain’s coffee, which she often playfully writes about on Twitter: “mostly excited to be back in Boston: the holy land of @DunkinDonuts.”

While in the grip of addiction in Memphis, Baker would wander the streets “at ridiculous times,” and members of a local church took an interest in her well-being. “They didn’t ask any questions about my eternal soul,” she said. They fed her when she was hungry, she explained, and “they just took care of my needs because they loved me, and that was amazing.”

Because of her experience at progressive churches, Baker is convinced that being gay and religious don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “There’s a lot of tolerance out there,” she said. “But even more than tolerance, acceptance and support.”

In conversation, Baker talks about her large circle of musician friends, and about her favorite writers and thinkers, including Rilke, Kierkegaard and C.S. Lewis. (She recently made the decision to focus on music full time, taking a break from her studies at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, where she has nearly enough credits to graduate.)

Her thoughts on Kierkegaard and company, and on her own experiences, are perhaps uncommonly articulate, but not extraordinary in a smart, earnest seeker of her age.

What’s atypical for any age is how she transubstantiates those thoughts into such potent songs. She performs them with a haunting, expertly modulated energy. Some, like the title track of “Sprained Ankle,” pass in a uniformly plaintive key. Others build to shrieking displays worthy of an exorcism.

Baker has roots in the punk and hardcore scene. Her band Forrister, which she started with a friend when she was 14, made a much denser, louder noise than “Sprained Ankle.”

She fondly recalled playing her song “Rejoice” for a crowd of about “10 kids” in a church basement in Detroit last year. Near that song’s end, she screams: “But I think there’s a God and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain lift my voice that I was made and somebody’s listening at night with the ghosts of my friends when I pray.”

Despite such sentiments, Baker is leery of peddling inspirational messages to her fans.

“I don’t know how explicit to be with ‘It gets better,’ ” she said. “I wouldn’t say it gets better. We just get better at dealing with it.”