Julien Baker is a pin-drop performer, a singer who holds listeners at rapt attention with only the sound of her voice and electric guitar.
Not to be that annoying indie-rock name-dropping guy, but the first person who told me about Baker -- who will open for the Decemberists in a sold-out show Friday at the Fillmore -- was Will Toledo, the songwriting wunderkind known as Car Seat Headrest.
I interviewed Toledo last year at the South by Southwest Music Festival. “She has these intense acoustic-style songs, and she performs and looks like Jeff Buckley -- but in a good way,” he said. “She has that kind of power.”
Curiosity piqued, I found a usually noisy bar on Austin’s Sixth Street strip hushed as if at church service as Baker sang emotionally and spiritually fraught songs from her graceful 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle. Plus, she did a killer cover of Hank Williams’ hallowed “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Since then, the now-22-year-old Baker has signed with the prestigious Matador label and recorded a follow-up at Ardent Studios in her native Memphis. The new album is due in the fall, but she has just released the pained “Funeral Pyre” and dreamy “Distant Solar Systems.”
On tour with Colin Meloy’s folk-prog Decemberists, she’s gaining exposure “at some of the biggest venues I’ve ever played,” Baker says cheerfully from a tour stop in Richmond, Va. “I try not to look at the cap of the rooms so I don’t freak out. It’s kind of crazy. I’m not used to playing shows this large.”
Her acutely intelligent songs are open about faith and sexual identity. Hanging out with other skateboard kids, she started playing in bands when she was 13, singing Bill Withers and metal-core covers in coffee shops, and playing in punk bands in DIY spaces.
Growing up in a religious household, she rebelled in “a nihilism stage where I was questioning everything,” she says. But she returned to the church, welcomed by friends with “an understanding of Christianity as an act of love in this present world, not just preaching hellfire and brimstone and salvation in the next one. I was like, ‘Whoa, that is what love as action looks like. I want to be part of that.’ ”
Coming out as gay as a teenager, she worried: “If I do believe there is a God, what if I am truly doing something wrong? Am I going to hell? I couldn’t really make it make sense as I was trying to suss out my relationship between my sexuality and my faith.
“When I finally came out to my church, I was afraid my worship pastor was going to holy-water me. Instead, she said, ‘So?’ In that moment, I started realizing those two parts of me don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s not a big deal to love who you love.”
When her father saw her with a girlfriend, “I was embarrassed and shameful, crying. ... And he just wordlessly pulled me into a hug and pulled my girlfriend at the time into the hug, too.” Later, he read her Bible verses to show hellfire did not await. “It was like, ‘I’m going to use the Bible, which is so frequently weaponized as a tool of persecution, to show you that you are beloved.' ”
Baker is Memphis-proud. Big Star drummer Jody Stephens told her that “in some bigger cities, everyone’s trying to knock someone off the ladder to get to the top, but in Memphis, everyone has their own ladder. I thought that was so beautiful and simple. Just do your own thing and hope everyone gets to be the best them they can be.”
When songwriter friend Lucy Dacus visited, they went to see a screamo band and bluesman Robert Cray with the Hi Records horn section on the same day.
“That is the most quintessential Memphis thing, to slide between those shows so seamlessly. Those things are preternatural, they’re compulsive. ... You learn that elasticity.”
Making the follow-up to Sprained Ankle, “doing it in my hometown, was a great experience,” Baker says. “I’m nervous about it, but I guess that’s natural if you care deeply about the art you make.”The Decemberists with Julien Baker at 8 p.m. Friday at the Fillmore Philadelphia, 29 E. Allen St. Sold out. 800-745-3000.