If you have paid even passing attention to independent music in the past few years, you have undoubtedly heard about Julien Baker. The singer-songwriter burst onto everyone’s radar when her debut album Sprained Ankle was re-issued in 2015. The album was recorded while she was still a student at Middle Tennessee State University at just 19 years old. The album is a very personal examination of depression, substance abuse, and questions of faith, all set to sparse acoustic guitar. Before the success of her solo career, Baker toured and performed in the punk rock band The Star Killers (later renamed Forrister). While sonically that music is very different from her solo work, there is a groundwork of earnestness that runs through all of her music.
“Shadowboxing” is a song off of Baker’s second album, Turn Out the Lights. The song uses the art of shadowboxing (a training exercise where a boxer throws punches at an invisible opponent to prepare themselves for an actual match) as a metaphor for describing struggles with mental illness. It can often be hard for someone who does not suffer from mental illness to understand what it can put someone through. It can appear as if the afflicted is battling non-existent problems, as if they were just fighting with themselves:
"I know that you don't understand
'Cause you don't believe what you don't see
When you watch me throwing punches at the devil
Ooh, it just looks like I'm fighting with me"
As someone who suffers from mental illness myself, I relate pretty strongly with the lines:
"Tell me that I shouldn't blame myself
But you can't even imagine how badly it hurts
Just to think sometimes
How I think almost all the time."
For many people grappling with mental illness, it is something that they are contending with almost constantly. As long as they are awake and thinking, they are struggling with it. It is not an occasional annoyance, or something to deal with when things get stressful. Furthermore, since mental illness is confined to the mind, and is not like more conventional and physical diseases like cancer, it can be hard for the afflicted to not blame themselves for it. They may feel that if they just had more willpower, they would be able to push aside those mental bothers and get back to their lives.
I am grateful that Baker was brave enough to channel her own pain into songs like this and help show others that they are not alone in their battles with mental illness.