Everybody’s Looking for God

A conversation with Matt Berninger (The National), Julien Baker, and Stephan Altman on politics, religion, and artistic collaboration.

“All I Want” was originally written and recorded by The National’s Matt Berninger and film composer Stephan Altman for inclusion in the political documentary American Chaos. But the song took on new life when reimagined as a duet between Berninger and Julien Baker. Their collaborative version is released today as a single as part of the 7-Inches For Planned Parenthood series, which has also been home to tracks by everyone from Mitski to Bjork to Zach Galifianakis. Altman, Berninger, and Baker convened to speak about the song, the benefits of collaboration, and how art can bridge any gap.
—Josh Modell, Executive Editor, Talkhouse

Stephan Altman: About 18 months ago, a friend and colleague of mine, Jim Stern, was involved in making a political documentary called American Chaos. He was a lifelong Democrat who spent time before Trump became the nominee going around America and spending time with traditional Republican voters, like Cubans in Miami and coal-mining folks in West Virginia, and Arizona immigration people—kind of a compassionate look at Trump’s America.

He asked if I could contact Matt about writing a song for the movie. It has this beautiful ending; as the movie unfolds, the reality of the election starts to come into focus, and it comes to this kind of big climax. So they really felt like Matt was a great voice for that kind of thing. We ended up writing the song over a period of a week or so, which was a really cool experience.

Matt Berninger: Steph sent me some music and I wrote most of it pretty quick. Jim Stern came in and talked about the moment in the movie he wanted it for, so it was really fluid and fun and it happened fast. The idea of having Julien sing with me on it—we saw an opportunity to do something for Planned Parenthood, and we thought Julien would be awesome to do a duet with. And I’ve known Julien since… I thought I met you in Aspen, like, several years ago.

Julien Baker: We did meet in Aspen. 2015?

Matt: I think it was yesterday. So Julien and I have done lots of shows together; Julien’s played with The National. We always like to bring people in and open up the doors, collaborating with people we like.

So we sent the song to Julien, and she sang the whole song, and then we tried to figure out how to arrange it as a duet, because it wasn’t written as a duet. But when we heard her vocals, it became more universal in all these ways. I’m on it solo in the movie, but this version for Planned Parenthood is a whole different thing. It’s the same song, but it has a different personality. It became a beautiful mutant.

Julien: It’s interesting hearing you guys talk about the genesis of the song, and about it being written specifically for the movie, how it’s predicated around a scene and trying to elicit or at least reflect an emotion. Oftentimes when visual art and music is paired, it’s chicken and egg, right? I wondered so much about if you had written this song about a personal event, and then it had mutated into something applicable to this documentary, or if the inspiration for it had been derived from the content of the documentary. I especially love the poetry of this song. As a person who’s admired The National’s poetry in general, it’s just a very, very moving concept.

Matt: Thank you.

Julien: I was really excited to be a part of it. When I went to do the vocals, there was a mix of apprehension and excitement. It seems like a daunting task to take on, being a contributor.

Matt: It’s a lot of responsibility, even just joining people on stage for a song.  Julien, you’ve been so amazing, you’ve done it so many times. I almost never do it because I’m afraid I’ll fuck it up, which I always do. I sang on a Chvrches song [“My Enemy”]. In the original, it was really beautiful, Martin [Doherty] sang it, so I had to try to forget about his version a little bit. You’re nervous because you know that they loved the song so much that they’re going to put it on their record, and your voice might just not fit in it right. But you transformed it, you made it your own. You were singing harmonies, and doing all kinds of things, and it just gave it a whole new dimension.

Julien: I guess it’s sort of a courtesy or a decorum question for me: How much do I concede to the original, and how much liberty do I take, or how much leeway do I have with improvisation? The cadence of your lyrics or the way that Steph wrote the piano is much different than I would have written it, so it was really neat to put myself in an interesting headspace using, like, chord progressions I would have never used.

Matt: When you’re singing someone else’s song, it’s like putting on somebody else’s clothes. Being in a rock band, you sometimes get stuck in—not stuck, but you have the same sort of dynamic between, in our case, the five or seven of us, and all the colors that you pour into the water, they all start to become the same color after awhile. You go collaborate with other colors to keep your palette fresh. When you sing someone else’s song, it’s a little bit like putting on colors that you don’t normally feel comfortable going out into the world in, you know?

It takes a little bit of time to slide in and be comfortable in it, and I don’t know how long it took you, but it didn’t seem like it took you very long, because you sent it back pretty quick. And it was perfect. Different people’s words, rhythms, chord choices, phrasings—it’s so fascinating when you try to sing someone else’s song. And it really broadens your understanding of music. I tried to cover “Lose Yourself” by Eminem once…

Julien: No, no, no. That’s so good.

Matt: It was not good. I can sing fast; I mean, I don’t have flow, but I wasn’t even… We slowed it down, but it was just a whole different sort of rhythmic way of putting words together. But it’s really, really exciting to jump out of your genre.

Steph: When Julien sent the vocals back, it was striking, because we’d been sitting on this track for a year, and it was written in these different bursts. By the time it was done, it was kind of carefully sculpted and it was also sculpted to picture, to work in a certain way. What I love lyrically about the song is how it seems like, unless you know that it was written for the movie, it sounds like it’s a guy singing to somebody, but I think it’s Matt singing to America, you know? It’s like a plea to America, to his fellow Americans.

Matt: We were going to call it “Plea to Our Fellow Americans.”

Steph: In parentheses.

Matt: But it was too long.

Steph: What Julien did is interesting because if you compare the Julien version to the original, it was such a subtle thing—like where to be reverent to the original version, the original melody, and where you could start breaking it open and doing something else. It was kind of a shock when I first heard some of the stuff you did, because it was so different, but it was such a fresh thing to experience. There’s a couple of lines where you completely changed the flow of it, you changed the cadence of it and the melodies. It’s a song about the plurality of Americans, and different voices in America, and you’re bringing a second voice into it. You must have had intuition to have the kind of grace and taste to know where and how far to change it.

Julien: Thank you. That’s extremely reassuring and flattering to know that it was perceived as graceful or tasteful. I was very nervous about it.

Matt: And not to bring it back to my lyrics, guys [Laughs], but I knew I had a job to write a song for a film about America, and all these different people in the film, and all these perspectives. And Jim Stern is an incredibly understanding and empathetic and patient person; he was going around and speaking to all these people who were supporting Trump. And all across the spectrum, too—not just a bunch of old white guys that look like my Dad’s golf league, wearing red hats.

It was really enlightening, because everybody gets packaged and labeled as them and us, and it’s been so terribly divided that way. But everyone across the whole spinning marble or infinite nothingness or wherever we are has the basic same desires: I just want to be safe, I want to be heard, I want be able to be my true self, and not be afraid to be that. I just want to love, and to be loved, and to be known. Those are the big things. I want to protect my family, I want to be a good husband or wife or son or father or friend. Everybody is desperate for the same thing. And everybody’s looking for God. Everybody has the same core needs and fears and anxieties and loves.

So I just sung about mine, and if I’m honest, I assume someone else will empathize with that and it’ll connect. I’m not trying to sell a concept or convince anybody of anything. I’m just trying to say, “This is how I feel about everything.” It’s tricky because you’re serving a film, but to serve it, you have to be genuine. And then, what Julien did… We turned it into a conversation. I was grateful, Julien, that you were able to take it the last lap and make it what it needed to be. Sometimes you don’t know when you’re done, and I’m so happy that we weren’t done yet.

Julien: One of the things that I liked most about just seeing this song on paper goes back to what you were saying about what each human being desires, truly, not materially. When you were talking about people being reduced to caricatures of themselves, or archetypes of aggressive, entitled, powerful, rich white people that voted for Trump. There’s also disenfranchised people of color that voted for Trump, because he made these illusory promises. Many people in the working class wanted exactly what you were describing: security. And to be seen, and to be heard, and especially to have their anguish or their adversity recognized and legitimized.

That’s why the employment of “just” at the beginning of every line is great. Because it’s like a conversation but also like a negotiation. You’re negotiating what you can get out of the world, and it really encapsulates in such a beautiful way the sort of constant negotiation that we’re doing with the reality of perpetual suffering. Damn, that’s so dark.

This is something I didn’t even think about until right now, but I thought it was beautiful when you first emailed me and were saying, “Oh, it could be like a call and response, every line or every two lines.” It’s like a back and forth, not just what people are negotiating that they want from the world, but how they want others to serve them. The song is essentially two people saying: This is what I need from you. I just need not be overtaken by all the awful things in my life. I just need a place to stand. I just need to get along with the deity in my life that I either feel is absent or punitive. I’m not trying to make it awkward by doing a deep dive.

Matt: You make me sound so smart. That was the first thing I wrote: “I just want.” And then I did the series of these things, and I think everybody wants the same things. But we end up not talking about those things. We talk about flash points, like guns. Or we talk about abortion. Or we talk about immigration. And then we just start fighting, pulling out all of our weapons to win that battle about that issue. If we stop talking about abortion, stop talking about guns specifically, stop talking about immigration, what is it you want, in your soul? What does your heart lack?

When you, for example, see the kids getting tear gassed because they’re trying to come into our country—to look at those kids and to not see them as your own kids, or yourself in that mother. Those people want exactly what I want, and we all want those things, and we can figure that out. The disparity of resources and wealth across the globe is—we can take care of everyone. We have the ability, we have the minds and the hearts to be way better than we’re being. I’m super naïve maybe, but optimistic, and delusionally positive sometimes, but I don’t think it’s unattainable.

I think we need to realize that we all want the basics. These other things, we can get there together on the really tough ones. Abortion, what this song is for, is a tough thing for people. I absolutely empathize. I was raised Catholic. I was shown all the films as a 10 year old that show that awful imagery. I empathize with the anti-abortion people, and the philosophy and idea. I don’t know when life begins, no one does, or when personhood starts. I just think that if people empathize with the fact that we don’t totally know and we have to let other people make their choices for their personal souls, and understand that they will let you make yours, too. We can be different, we don’t all have to be the same.

Julien: People have core fears and they’re inundated with misinformation that reinforces those core fears. It’s a misdirected anger because people feel threatened, or they don’t have food, or they don’t have resources. And for people who are struggling just to pay their healthcare bills—if a person in a position of power or an entire news network espouses this crazy conservative rhetoric, constantly bombarding you with the idea that X thing is a threat to you and your immediate family, the only way for you to act out comes in a misdirected anger towards a person you’ve been told is a threat by years and years of conditioning.

Un-working that is so nuanced and so hard, but it absolutely demands empathy, and I think it absolutely is possible. When you said you’re delusionally optimistic, I’m that optimistic. I don’t know if it’s delusional, but if it is, I’d rather perpetuate that delusion until I die than cede to it by a depressed apathy. Because that’s true forfeit, right? It’s gonna take so much patience, tiny, incremental change, to start unraveling this mythos that perpetuates prejudice. Or people having more perspective on need and privilege. I feel myself standing on the precipice of a tangent, and trying not to jump off of that cliff. [Laughs.]

Matt: I do feel like Americans, we’ve isolated ourselves, even isolated ourselves from even the Earth, in a funny way. Once you start to separate who’s right and who’s wrong, and who’s good and who’s bad, I think that’s when you know you’re the bad guy. We’re all part of this very, very, very delicate fabric, and until space aliens come down and save us, it’s still just going to be us. And let’s hope that that does happen, but it’s probably not going to. And I think, what are we supposed to do? It’s not like everybody’s going to go back to being polytheistic pagans all of a sudden. But we might, because we realized that the true God that we need to worship and cherish is each other and this planet, you know?

Julien: It’s so crazy to me that religions—the texts of them, or the history and the custom of them—is supposed to be engendering humility and deference to your fellow humans. That those religions, specifically Christianity, are wielded as the tool of power where one authoritarian figure will say that they definitively have it figured out is antithetical to what you’re supposed to be learning. You stop asking questions and you completely lose your ability to empathize, and it’s so dangerous.

Matt: Steph, you have a different perspective on it, maybe, having not been born here.

Steph: I’ve been here for 16 years, and I became a grownup here and I’ve become very accustomed to America. Obviously it’s a crazy time to be in America, but I see what’s happening in America spreading out into the world, and I think it’s a universal lesson. The fragmentation and the influence of social media and media in general is happening all over Europe. I think we’re just in the throes of another wild fling. I’m an Englishman but I live as an American, I’m just like everyone out there. I’m addicted to buying stuff from Amazon, I’m just trying to do the best work I can and have my kid be healthy. And the rest of it is noise.

We’re all going to be manipulated, ultimately, by forces bigger than us. You get shaken up by people who invite the courageous. And to kind of snap out of it, that’s what religion is for me, as well. I’m Jewish, and various Jewish observances and festivals, at least the community that I’m in, are invitations to just shake yourself out of the sleepwalk. So I see the value in that. I think of when America was conceived, it was such a great idea, in the context. The world was a terrible place, and America was a beacon of all the right things.

Matt: So was Christianity. Like Julien was saying, the basics of some of these things that people were drawn to are great. Once you start to accumulate… Somehow that became what made people think they were going to be happy. Capitalism and protecting what you’ve gotten, and not letting other people take it away is, sadly, also a universal thing. And that’s why we have this tiny one percent of companies and people, individuals that have so much power and so much resources, wealth. But the suffering of the rest actually helps stir up fear in everyone else. Trump was able to conjure everybody’s fears. And that, sadly, works. I have tons of great crap, you know? But I really could live in a tent with my wife and daughter and have my friends around, and as long as I’m warm and safe and loved and have food, I’m happy, you know?

Which brings us back to collaborating. You have to be with other people and get out of your bubble. And it expands your mind, and you start to see yourself in everyone else, even somebody that you thought was your mortal enemy in terms of philosophy. If you spend time with them, you will empathize and get to know and get to love that person and they will you, and, because you will see they are the same thing. We’ve been manipulated to fear each other so much, and there’s no reason for that.

Julien: I feel you gently steering us back to the nature of collaboration. It sort of mirrors the practice of empathy or understanding or just conversations. Collaboration can stimulate you and remind you of the gratifying beauty of producing art for art’s sake and not for an ambitious reason. With any of the collaborations that I’ve done, it always seems to be this thing where it exists outside of the feedback loop of your own creative process. I’m not in a band, I just sit and write all of the music. Bringing people into the studio to play horns and strings—even that little iota of it not being about me was so invigorating.

And then getting to write with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, it’s great because it takes you out of yourself. It suspends your ego; it makes you listen to another person’s perspective and what they have to say. I guess that you could turn that into an analog of political activism or social interaction.

There’s a virtue in observing that I think can be mistaken for ambivalence, or the kind of ugly discretion that is letting evils that don’t affect you go on. If you’re not constantly offering your take on a subject… That’s one thing that I struggle with as an artist, too, that I’d love to hear what y’all think about, because this project is benefiting Planned Parenthood. It’s a cause that you’re choosing to be vocal about. I get overwhelmed because there are so many things worth being vocal about. There are so many overwhelmingly worthy ways to engage with the suffering of the world and try to do my part to alleviate it, or at least boost the signal around its awareness so that others can join me in trying to alleviate it.

But if I choose to involve myself in a way that is well meaning but misinformed, and I end up doing inadvertently detrimental work…  And then social media is a whole hydra of conversation that would probably take us another hour to talk about. But it has made it so that our virtues are displayed in this very performative way, because we’re craving togetherness and unity. And what we’re really saying is like, “Do you feel powerless? I feel powerless.” But then when I go to say something about that on social media, in an effort to show solidarity or just scream anything positive into the void, I have this apprehension sitting on my shoulders that I don’t wholly know what I’m talking about. And I’m worried about appearing as if I am using a social movement or the real suffering of an individual as an accessory to my virtuous appearance as an artist.

Matt: I can tell that you think about it a lot, and that you think about it genuinely, because it’s in all your songs, it’s in every song. I think the big problem is people think they have to come into a thing with a position and a set of facts. “Here’s where I stand on this issue.” But my point is that all these religions and all these issues we’re talking about, the basics are the same. It’s empathy with another human and we’re in this together. And somehow, we’ve conjured these abstract paradigms of all of our differences. It’s when we fear that somebody’s going to say we’re dumb, or take away something from us—someone you love or your safety—that fear that can be conjured to make you do almost anything.

But bringing it back to collaboration, it’s when you’re in a room with somebody that you both say, “Oh, we’re similar in that way, we like these same things,” and then also there’s the other thing, it’s like, “We’re so different in that way.” I used to be afraid of that, and now I’m not. I’ve got no reason to be afraid of you because you’re XYZ color, or you’re sexually this way or that way, or you identify as this or that. Or you believe in one God or you believe in worshiping the Moon. When we start to say that everyone else’s truth is wrong, that’s when it all goes haywire. Empathy and collaboration fight against that.

When you make art with people, you’re not building a bridge, nobody’s going to get hurt, so I think art is an area where there doesn’t have to be this hierarchy of who’s in charge. I don’t think anybody got, you know, run over by art. You go into a studio or a bedroom where you start your band, it’s like you’re asking people to come in and pray with you, right? To be good art, you have to be really, really exposed and really, really genuine, and really, really truthful, and it’s hard to let anyone else see you do that. It’s like having somebody there while you’re praying, in a weird way.

Julien: Definitely.

Matt: I feel like the little rooms—Francis Bacon’s bedroom where he painted or Sound City, Julien, where you guys made the boygenius EP—these places are churches. These are the places where people go to confess their sins and to tell God what they really want, you know? It’s an attempt to ask the world or God or the rest of us something. “I feel this way, does anyone else feel this way?” And that’s the communication, that’s prayer.

I don’t spend too much time with something unless I feel like somebody was really telling you something that they truly wanted, or were truly ashamed of or truly afraid of. Unless I really heard them praying, you know? I did that in the Catholic Church, a bunch of false praying, you know? On the west side of Cincinnati, in my church. There were wonderful people, but I was learning nothing about mankind and humankind or myself until I started making art. Good songs or a good painting or a great movie just make me feel so much more connected to everybody else around me. I feel less alone, I just love other people more. It’s just connection, that’s what art does.

Julien: You can’t tell other people about their experience or else it will immediately seem artificial. The primary part of art for me, for writing, is to feel understood by others, and then performing is the inversion of that, to make others feel understood.

Matt: I love so much what you said about, when you’re writing music, and you’re making the thing, you’re desperately begging to be seen. And in a truthful way, even with all your flaws, and even with it incomplete. The incomplete, messy you. You’re desperate for people to see it, and be okay with that. Even your ugliness. And that’s so courageous, because you have this need to do that. And then when you say you go perform it, once you’ve written it, once you’ve gotten it out there, once you’ve gotten it down on that record and you’ve got the package just right, then the job switches. It’s about telling other people, “Show me you,” you know?

Julien: Yeah.

Matt: And then people come to your shows, and they see you be you so courageously and beautifully and nakedly, and maybe they leave the concert and go back and cover themselves up. But people are crying and singing along; it’s an open, joyous thing because they’re letting you in. So it’s beautiful, how you put that, that the job all of a sudden mutates into an outward thing. It’s just wonderful.

Steph: I’m super proud of this song, I’m proud of how we created it. It was a series of unexpected mini triumphs from the moment it started. And it unfolded all the way through to Julien being involved. I’m proud of being involved with the two of you superb artists, and I would love for people to hear it.

Matt: We owe this whole thing to you, because you and Jim brought the song to us, or the need. When you get something started with people you like, you’re gonna carry it somewhere. You’re gonna turn it into something. Any silly idea: Let’s make a movie, let’s start a band, let’s do whatever. Let’s build a house or put on a play. Once somebody starts that idea, and you pass it off to somebody that sees you and gets you or is open to you, it’ll turn into something. It’ll turn into a beautiful flower.

Memphis, Tennessee’s Julien Baker, formerly of the band Forrister, released her debut solo record, Sprained Ankle, in 2015. Follow her on Twitter here and like her on Facebook here.

(photo credit: Jake Cunningham)