JULIEN BAKER This 20-year-old has already accomplished more than you ever will.
JAKE CUNNINGHAM

"MY LIFE is very structured," says Julien Baker from her home in Tennessee. Between touring and time spent opening for the National, the 20-year-old singer/songwriter is juggling online college classes and recovering from a busy 2015—a year that saw her heart-wrenching solo debut, Sprained Ankle, become a fixture on year-end lists.

Even a cursory listen to her album reveals the irony of this "structured" existence. Sprained Ankle is a pained, sparsely instrumented chronicle of Baker's life, from religious reconciliation, to addiction, to relationship angst. Her voice is simultaneously fragile and pleading, with little more accompaniment than a guitar. It's not exactly new territory—think Chris Carrabba on a Mazzy Star kick—but it's incredibly effective.

"There are so many songwriters I respect for their ability to make something meaningful without overcomplicating it," says Baker, who also plays guitar and sings for post-punk band Forrister. "I'm a huge fan of the Fall of Troy and the Mars Volta, these very technical bands. I started thinking, 'Can I make a good song that's just one chord?'"

The subdued two-chord track "Good News" is an exercise in repetition centering on a self-conscious protagonist's dark intentions, with Baker's minimally distorted guitar only just holding the narrative together. "When I play that song live I can tell everyone is bored," she admits. "Or at least I worry that they are."

On Sprained Ankle, Baker psychoanalyzes her past. In every lyric she longs to be healed, but instead gets stuck in an existential rut. Although writing the album was therapeutic, Baker sees others' dissection of her lyrics as a natural byproduct of the music's minimalism.

"It forced me to be more analytical about the songs; it's not just an organic creation—like you make art and there it is," she says. "It's subject to interpretation. When people ask you to explain your lyrics, you think really hard about 'Why did I phrase it that way?' Whether it's conscious or not, I think it reveals a lot about your psyche."