Q&A: Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker On Inhabiting New Characters & Fighting Fear With Music
When I reach Adrianne Lenker by phone it’s raining in New York City — not just misty and overcast, but pouring — and it’s kind of cognitively refreshing. Lenker agrees. “I don’t mind it,” she says. “It’s kind’ve a cliche but I like when it’s raining. I like the feeling of staying in and not being told I should be outside.” Lenker fronts the Brooklyn-based group Big Thief, and in past interviews, she’s emphasized the importance of experiencing the outdoors with her band, whether that means bowling in Australia or swimming in upstate New York. Yet after speaking with her for a bit, her admiration for the serenity of rain is philosophically and personally fitting.
Lenker’s speaking voice is just as subdued and enchanting as her singing voice, emanating sage wisdom despite her being only 25 years old. On Big Thief’s albums, Lenker’s voice has an airy, almost mystical quality to it. It’s comforting and warm, which translates to her personality, making her an easy person to talk to. Lenker speaks in metaphors and similes, breaking down slightly existential or grander concepts into relatable anecdotes. It’s laughable when, at the end of our conversation, Lenker says that she feels too young to give interviews sometimes, considering her very composed way of speaking and the timelessness of her answers.
Big Thief will be releasing their sophomore album Capacity in early June. It hasn’t even been a year since the band released their full-length debut, Masterpiece, which Lenker says is connected to their sophomore album. Capacity feels more visceral and more comfortable in its vulnerable state, and all of the songs are based on personal moments. Take the album’s first single, “Mythological Beauty,” which is a narrative account of the time part of Lenker’s makeshift family treehouse collapsed and hit her in the head as a kid. Lenker almost died, and the song describes the trauma from both her and her mother’s point of view. I suspect the reason for the tangible and emotional veracity of Lenker’s songwriting and wisdom is her wide range of life experiences: she was born into a cult, moved around an unbelievable amount of times as a kid, was on track to be a pop star, and attended Berklee College of Music all before moving to New York City and forming Big Thief.
Through her intuitive songwriting, Lenker opens up portals to other worlds filled with imagery and symbolism. Though Capacity is informed by Lenker and her band’s life experiences, there’s a strong sense that her writing comes from subconscious inklings — mythological motifs, recurring characters, and bubbling emotions all slipping through the seams of Big Thief’s folk-rock catalog. Over the course of our conversation, Lenker and I chatted about the strength of her subconscious, the infinite curiosity that inspires her music, and the power of both femininity and masculinity, as opposed to their binary counterpositions. Read the conversation below.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been spending a lot of time touring your last album. What have you been doing in your downtime?
LENKER: I’ve been going to my sister’s place for the last three weekends. She’s my younger sister. She lives in Massachusetts near Northampton. She lives out on this woman’s land, and there’s 100 acres of woods and it’s like right up against a state park. The forest goes all the way into Vermont. So, it’s like real woods. She has this little cabin there with a wood stove and a compost toilet. It’s so nice to get out of the city. I’ve been doing that on the weekends, and then during the weekdays I’ve been practicing with the band and doing some writing, also just like general self-care. Like cooking meals and doing laundry and stretching.
STEREOGUM: That sounds pretty relaxing.
LENKER: Yeah, it’s been good. I’ve really needed it because I kind of feel like we just came off of this year of nonstop and after this last tour, which was three months long without any breaks, I’m like just now starting to feel grounded and relaxed. Not that it is stressful to be out on the road consciously, but in a subconscious way I have to have my guard up. We’re in transit so often and when we’re moving from one place to the next and I have to be very alert and present and aware of where we are. You know, just like protecting our gear and making sure we get from one place to the next safely, being around so many people’s energies. It’s not just like a totally open and relaxed state to be in.
STEREOGUM: I am sure that it’s exhausting.
LENKER: It can be, but the thing that makes it OK is the music. The experience of the exchange with the audience during the shows is replenishing.
STEREOGUM: Was there a favorite or particularly poignant part of the tour for you?
LENKER: There were a lot. We had a great time in London and Brighton in particular. There was a stormy, cold beach experience where we all felt really invigorated and alive. That was one of my favorite parts of the tour, and then also in Australia when we went to this little town called Wombarra. It’s like a two hour drive from Sydney and it’s this small beach town, and the venue [we played at] was this old bowling alley but bowling in Australia takes place outside. It was a small, kind of quiet town, not very touristy at all from what I gathered. The beach was empty. The bar we played in was kind of old and divey, but unexpectedly there was homemade Thai food. We just played through this little PA system that they had set up, and it felt like the whole town was there. We went bodysurfing, and after bodysurfing we walked back to the venue sopping wet, dried off, and played.
STEREOGUM: How long did it take you to write Capacity? I know you were writing it while you were working on Masterpiece.
LENKER: That’s a little blurry for me. I’m not sure, but I think some of the seeds for the songs happened simultaneously. I feel like each new song or each new project sort of takes off from where the last one left. It’s like going into different layers of writing, of asking the same question. Masterpiece happened and I guess there was this time period from July to February where a lot of writing happened. July 2015 we recorded Masterpiece, then that February we began recording Capacity. It was really only a few months, but during that time I was doing a lot of writing.
It felt like a relief to record and lay down the Masterpiece songs, which I had been working on for like two years, and then once those were recorded and captured we felt all this creative space freed up to work on writing more. I suppose in another medium of art it would be pretty natural to like, finish a painting or sculpture and then immediately move on to another one. Capacity came together pretty quickly. It felt like a natural pace. We were in upstate New York recording for a month without leaving, and we really got in the zone. A couple more songs were written after that initial recording session.
STEREOGUM: Which songs?
LENKER: “Capacity” came after that February. “Breathe Into My Lungs” is another one but “Breathe Into My Lungs” didn’t end up on the record. We just put it out for a B-side as a 7-inch that we just put out. Some of the songs we revised as well after initially recording them, like “Mary” and “Black Diamonds.”
STEREOGUM: How are Capacity and Masterpiece specifically connected?
LENKER: [Releasing Masterpiece] was a pretty vulnerable experience. But it felt good. It was cathartic, and it has been cathartic to play those songs and have that release of energy. In a lot of ways it has been part of a healing process and part of coming into understanding more about myself and also the way that the band translates the songs live, all of the energy that goes into expressing what those songs are about has been a release of angst, kind of. A lot of those emotions were really raw when we were capturing them on Masterpiece, and I think on Capacity those emotions and experience are just settling in and now it’s as if they’ve woven themselves into a bigger, deeper picture.
A lot of our creative flow comes from a place of curiosity and exploration. It often feels like we’re excavating and asking questions and not just giving answers but really just exploring. I feel like Masterpiece was this beginning — like digging a shovel into the Earth and cracking the hardened topsoil. It felt intense. It felt difficult and challenging and there was a lot of learning happening. We’re still there with our shovels digging into the same thing, but we’ve gotten deeper now.
I feel like there’s a new feeling of calm on this album that wasn’t on Masterpiece. I don’t think it’s a calm that comes from having figured something out. I think it’s calm that comes from being more at peace with [continuing to] ask questions.
STEREOGUM: After working on Capacity do you feel like you’ve come out with a sense of clarity or you just have more questions that will roll onto whatever you work on next?
LENKER: Both. The more questions I have the more clarity I have, in a way. It’s like I’m in conversation with somebody and it’s a really good conversation. You might enter into the conversation with some basic questions and the more you learn the more clarity you actually have, the more you’re actually internalizing, the more intricate your questions become.
I try to write [songs] in a way where I can leave a space for whoever is listening and even for myself to change. I like leaving a space hollowed out, where as I change I can inject new meaning in the shell of the songs all of the time. Where anyone who listens can hopefully inhabit them in their own way.
STEREOGUM: I know “Mythological Beauty” was inspired by a story from when you were a kid. Are the rest of the songs biographical?
LENKER: None of the songs are fictional. I haven’t really figured out how to write a fictional piece yet. Not that fiction doesn’t contain truth, but if there are any fictional elements that surface in the songs, they can still be true. There’s symbolism and metaphor on Capacity meant to describe very real [feelings and events]. It’s maybe a more tangible way of saying what I want to say than it would be to say it literally.
STEREOGUM: The lyrics are so graphic and visceral. It feels very tangible and corporeally grounded. You use a lot of different perspectives, it seems. What is it like to inhabit other points of view?
LENKER: You know when you’re dreaming and you can become someone else? You can be yourself and then suddenly you’re your friend from school. And then suddenly you don’t know who you are in the story? You’re just seeing things happen. You’re switching perspectives in dreams all the time. I feel [like my songwriting is] sort of similar to that. I really admire people who can truly do character shifts and write from deep inside of a character like Tom Waits. But I wonder what he would say about this, whether he feels truth in all of those characters? I would like to explore writing from a another person’s perspective even more consciously.
STEREOGUM: What does Capacity’s opening song, “Pretty Things,” reference?
LENKER: Well the main thing that I’ll say without ruining the song is that the chorus is something that I like to focus on as a mantra. “There’s a woman inside of me, there’s one inside of you too.” It comes from a place of wanting to equate femininity with strength. Femininity is not something that is weak or dainty in any way, or pretty even. Femininity is like this energy that is inherent in all things — in men and in women and however you identify. Femininity is there. It’s in a leaf. There’s this woman that is singing the song, and she’s been given this toxic, violent energy from a man. She’s talking about how “there’s a meeting in my thighs where in thunder and lightning men are baptized in their anger fighting their deceit and lies.” It’s about feeling like a receiver — someone who receives this anger and this fear and ego-driven toxic poisoning — and being able to see beyond all that [aggression].
But the song is also saying that masculinity shouldn’t be equated with violence or aggression. It speaks to both masculine and feminine energies, trying to make some sense of how they can be balanced. In the same sense I could say that there’s a man in me that I have masculinity in me. But it’s just saying, “OK, that’s there,” but also this is somebody that has been violated and hurt through experiences with men, but she’s really strong and she can see beyond herself. She can see what’s happening and witness it in slow motion like she’s disassociating from herself but at the same time she’s holding this incredible space for humanity, for human beings. That what’s being given to her is this sort of violent energy and she’s taking that toxicity and transmuting it and putting it back into the person, saying that, “I know at your core there’s more, and I am not blind to what’s happening.” I don’t know, now that I am trying to put it into words it is really difficult. There’s so many layers [to that song].
STEREOGUM: When you perform these songs live and there is such a heavy meaning, do you ever find it difficult to articulate that to a crowd or inhabit these spaces?
LENKER: No, I feel actually that that is the very thing that allows me to do it every night. There’s so much meaning, and I don’t know if I could do it if there wasn’t. That’s the richness of it. Even though [our music] can be heavy and sad, it can also be vibrant. That’s the pillar. That’s the thing that I am holding onto. That’s at the center. That’s where the audience, the band, and me are meeting at this center, and the center is the meaning. The vulnerability of going there is also what makes it so beautiful. I feel like the band and I will essentially get naked on stage, and it can be scary, but mostly everyone in the audience gets naked too. It will feel heavy for a moment, and then we’ll all feel this release. In talking about the heavy things and looking at them and asking about the meaning there is such a release. That can create a lot of feelings of joy and lightness actually.
STEREOGUM: You mention mythological and folkloric imagery in a few of your songs. Can you talk about that?
LENKER: Well those [references] specifically represent embodiments of dark demon-like things. The things that inspire or trigger fear. The use of those dark, intense images come from needing words to embody the thing that I don’t want to be afraid of. [Writing about those creatures] makes those things seem very tangible and small next to all of the other energy that is happening and moving around it, moving around them. That even like a vampire who sinks her teeth into your neck and sucks your blood until you die, even that is something that you can give a kiss on the cheek and it’s alright. You can exist and I am not afraid.
STEREOGUM: There is a consistent contradiction of sweetness and bitterness on the record. One song is titled “Shark Smile,” or you’re talking about kissing vampires and werewolves, where it’s a meeting of beauty and harshness.
LENKER: Yeah, I guess that’s because I found that is the only way to fight… or that in the struggle of becoming unafraid, or free, that is the only way I’ve found. It doesn’t make sense to meet the shark-like bitterness with more bitterness. That just makes everything become bitter. [It’s better to] dispel fears and dispel even the the craziest demons with an unconditional love, or unconditional acceptance, rather. I have no idea what it feels like to not be afraid of anything, but I can imagine it would be very liberating.
STEREOGUM: I’m curious whether or not religion or spirituality plays into your connection with music?
LENKER: If I ever went to any kind of dedicated practice, it’s sitting with my guitar and forgetting to eat meals because I’m so focused on this thing I’m creating, and then feeling like I’ve changed or shed a skin after the thing is done. [Music] can feel transformative and transcendent. [The feeling] gets lost and funny when I try to describe it aloud. I think I’ll be able to describe it when I’m about 80 years old. Sometimes I feel like I am too young to be doing interviews.
I think of someone like Leonard Cohen giving interviews and bringing so much grace and real wisdom to a conversation. I’m just an explorer right now, and I don’t really have solidified ideas of anything, really. I’ve got moving parts, moving thoughts. I’ll probably think something different tomorrow or in two hours.
Capacity is out 6/9 via Saddle Creek. Pre-order it here.