Interview

Adrianne Lenker Leans Into The Abyss

The Big Thief frontwoman talks love, loss, fear, birth, death, and everything in between

When Adrianne Lenker attempts to put a feeling into words, she narrows her eyes and moves her hands around like she’s physically trying to grab onto something. Gesticulation is, of course, a thing that a lot of people do, but the way Lenker does it feels intentional. Like she can see that one crazy feeling hovering somewhere in front of her, like she needs to hold it in her palm in order to accurately explain it to me.

A conversation with Lenker can be described as “mystical” without exaggeration. She’s the type of songwriter who taps into states of mind and ways of being without reservation. In person and onstage, she is a quiet force, the type who doesn’t seem to worry too much about how she comes across as long as it’s genuine. The day I meet up with her in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood is a dreary one. Hurricane Florence has made its way north, and when Lenker arrives at the cafe we arranged to have lunch at she’s soaking wet, shivering. Despite her obvious discomfort, Lenker leans into conversation, getting more animated the longer we chat, volleying questions back at me the deeper we go.

Lenker doesn’t live in Brooklyn anymore. She doesn’t really live anywhere, actually, ever since her touring schedule picked up. Lenker’s been on the road more or less nonstop since her band, Big Thief, debuted their breakout album last year. Capacity anointed Lenker as an exciting up-and-comer in the music industry, but she’s been releasing music under her own name for a long time. Lenker put out her first two albums when she was just a teenager, and now the 27-year-old is about to put out a new collection called abysskiss. It follows 2014’s Hours Were The Birds and will be out on Saddle Creek.

abysskiss is a small sampling of new songs Lenker’s been writing in the year since Capacity was released. She’s a prolific writer, and Big Thief have a reputation for breaking out new music at their shows regularly. The songs on abysskiss were recorded in West Marin, CA alongside Luke Temple (Here We Go Magic) and Gabe Wax. The resulting collection of folk songs is comforting as much as it is ominous, a hearth to sit by and await the storm. Lenker interrogates the small moments that give life meaning, she searches for the divine in everyday experiences. This is no small task, but the ease with which Lenker performs these songs, using only a guitar and an occasional synth, makes even the most existential thought spirals seem like puzzles waiting to be solved.

When I tell Lenker that there are moments on her album that sound upbeat — like recent single “symbol” or the lo-fi ditty “out of your mind” — she smiles, exposing a missing tooth. “That’s so nice to hear,” she says. “Really, I’m glad you experience that ’cause I wanted it to feel like a warm space. Cradling or like uplifting …” She trails off, searching for the right words. Read our Q&A below.

STEREOGUM: How do you determine which of your songs will go on to be Big Thief songs and which will be solo? Do you have a conversation with the whole band or is it more dependent on if the vibe fits?

ADRIANNE LENKER: It’s less of a conversation and more a feeling. We just try things and if it doesn’t open up on its own, we don’t try to force it. It’s usually pretty clear within a few times playing something or trying something if [it’s going to work]. There are some songs that we work with and try different arrangements on, and it can be cool, but there’s just something about it that doesn’t feel incredible. It’s just kind of like, it opens itself up if it’s meant to be played with the band.

It was really, really exciting for me to work with Luke Temple [on this record], because he’s one of my best, best friends. [Laughs] I mean, I want him to be one of my best friends. He’s one of my favorite artists, one of my favorite living songwriters, and his creative spirit is just so wild and beautiful and endless. And he’s a painter as well. He’s just such an artist to the bone, it’s crazy. He’s always reinventing and reshaping himself. We’ve become friends over the years just from doing little tours and stuff. But I was pretty stoked, I just asked him, “Do you want to do this little thing?” And he was like, “Yeah.” It felt really good to work with him and to get his brain on things, and there’s some little melodies he plays throughout. I’d be recording and he’d just kinda let me go in front of the mic, and like have this really beautiful way of producing, where he knew when not to interrupt a creative flow but also knew how to give me little bits to help me get into the headspace. And it was also just a really goofy time, cooking meals.

Panoramic, the studio, has this view of the ocean, and it’s like in this old, strange, wonky castle-like building that somebody built a bomb shelter in, like a tunnel. And that tunnel is now used as like an echo chamber, but it’s just like a really quirky place. It was [Luke] and me and Gabe Wax, who was engineering, and it was honestly one of the most light-hearted and easy times I’ve ever had making anything, or recording. It was just a week, and it just passed by, and if something didn’t feel good, we’d just do a different thing. Like, if the song wasn’t feeling right, we’d just flow into a different song.

STEREOGUM: If you worked with other people do you think the result would’ve been way different?

LENKER: Yeah, I think it is what it is, it sounds how it sounds and it feels how it feels because of my songs, and my performing them, but also because of the place and the energy that Luke and Gabe brought to it. And the alchemy of all those things. When I hear the recordings, I really think of that place. And I really think of that time and it puts me at ease to think about that week that I spent with them. It was actually really healing, it was a restful week. And when I hear the album, it sounds very restful to me. I’m like “Yeah, that’s about right.” It just sounds just like … It sounds exactly like how it felt to be there.

STEREOGUM: Big Thief tours a lot. Do you consider music your full-time job now? Are you working any day jobs?

LENKER: No day job at the moment. We’ve been on the road for three years solid. I haven’t had an apartment, of any kind, for three years. It’s really been quite non-stop, going back and forth between Europe and the US, and Australia, and when I have time off it’s usually like, for a few weeks or maybe a month, sometimes. And I’ll just go visit my family, or visit my friends. So that’s how it’s been for a while now. It’d be impossible to have a job somewhere. But also, I don’t really know where I want to live now. It’s become so abstract. I feel like my family and close friends are spread out. I am craving a community and craving some sort of anchor because I feel like, you know … have you ever liked a band or an artist and then they start gaining more recognition and getting busier, and over the years their music starts to [lose its power]? I think that’s one of my biggest fears … I don’t want to lose touch with the original spirit that I have had since I was a kid, the curiosity and exploration of sitting in a room and working on music, not for anything, not for a product, not for a performance, not for a career, not writing a song for an album, and not practicing things to be able to perform them, but just exploration and feeling that there’s nothing at stake. So I’ve been really wanting that time to explore and create and learn more stuff on the guitar and learn more about singing and just practice and read and cook and make things with my hands. I feel like that kind of thing requires so much more time. Like, more than just going home for a week.

STEREOGUM: Like a working break?

LENKER: Yeah. Or maybe … find a home and incorporating touring. Where it doesn’t feel like it’s like full-on, and then a break. Where it feels more interwoven — go out for a couple of weeks and then come back home, and be home for a couple of weeks. That’s just what I’m chewing on right now. Like, I’d rather tour maybe six months out of the year, instead of nine.

The amount of crazy that I’ve gotten is relatively manageable, after three years. [Laughs] I think another sign that [touring] is good, that it’s something that we’re meant to be doing, is that we love each other more, and we’re closer as a band. We’re closer than we’ve ever been. And we enjoy each others’ company maybe more than we ever have, and just continue to deepen our bond. It’s been three years of living together non-stop, and we’ve worked through so much stuff. It’s like a family. And there’s so much stuff that we’ve learned from each other. I feel like with a lot of bands, the opposite kind of happens. They start hating each other.

STEREOGUM: Where do you imagine yourself making a home some day? What are some places that call to you?

LENKER: Well, whenever I visit New York it feels pretty romantic, so I sometimes think about coming back here. But then I wonder if it’s just ‘cause I’m visiting that it feels so good. But also, Minnesota. I could imagine myself finding a place in Minneapolis.

STEREOGUM: Are you a big nature person?

LENKER: It’s so important for me. I love the city, too. I’m attracted to wilderness in any sense. Which is why I’m attracted to New York in a way, because I feel like it’s a wilderness of people and textures. Just like, there’s so much life and richness here. And you can get lost in it. I like that feeling. And also in nature, when you’re in a place that feels like … it’s different. I think I like things that make me feel small. They remind me of, being in private, like kind of disappearing into the fabric of something and feeling its power and feeling like a part of it. In a way it reminds me what I’m made out of.

I grew up in the suburbs, sometimes country-like suburbs because we moved around, but mostly suburbs. And that for me is an example of sort of the opposite, where everything is in place around you to make you feel like the biggest thing in your world, in a way. The houses and the streets and the developments and everything’s structured for convenience. And there’re the little complexes of businesses that pop up, but there’s no character and it feels like … I don’t know what it is, it’s like the manifestation of … There’s something really sad about it. Just going from the house and getting into the car, and then you go in your car to whatever building you’re going to, or maybe you’re going to the lake, you’re going on a trip, but like, you get back in your car, and then you go back to your house. There’s something about just stepping out into New York City and feeling like there’s so much chance for unexpected collision.

STEREOGUM: When everything around you is in extreme order there’s less of a chance you’ll get derailed.

LENKER: If you have like a wild and restless spirit, not to sound corny, but that type of life really does feel stifling. The suburbs have their own extreme beauty, too, though. There are all these shelters and all these kids — shelters being like the houses — just like, there’s all these structures. And it’s orderly, and it’s neat. And you go to the public school for eight hours a day and you get picked up in, you know, in an SUV, and you go back to your air conditioned [home]. And people in Minnesota [where I grew up] stay relatively isolated from each other and kind of gaze at each other from across the street and don’t look very far to make themselves vulnerable. As a kid there, I think it contributed to my creative mind developing so much, because there were other kids there and we would kind of just run around the neighborhood, and there was intensity and passion and wildness like pouring out of the edges of everything. You could feel it.

We have a tendency toward chaos and disorder as children. I wonder why that’s something that we quell as we get older and try to shape it into such order. It’s interesting. I feel like we forget a lot of things as we get older, and then we spend the rest of the time trying to remember. And then eventually you’re back where you were when you were born or something, I don’t know.

STEREOGUM: Did you write most of abysskiss on tour?

LENKER: During lots of little in-between moments. There’s not big long chunks of time on the road where we have a break, but there’s tons of little moments when we’re not doing anything. So, out of necessity, I developed the ability to write in front of my bandmates, in front of Buck and Max and James. I can just sit there, and get lost and forget about the fact that they’re there. I’m not nervous to open up into that place. I think it really did develop out of necessity, because songwriting has been such an important outlet for me. If I couldn’t write in front of them, I’m not sure how much I would write at all, because I’m always with them.

STEREOGUM: Is it an unconscious process or do you sit down with the intention to write?

LENKER: I actually don’t really know if I think about it. I guess so, in a way. I just need to play guitar, and then maybe a song comes out, maybe it doesn’t. But it usually starts with a guitar. I don’t write songs without the guitar, really.

STEREOGUM: A lot of artists I talk to can’t write on tour, they need to find a separate space and time to do it. It’s interesting to hear that you’re able to tune everything out and work.

LENKER: I feel like it’s imperative for me — it’s such a deep form of healing for me to write. I’ve been processing a lot in these last years. While being on tour I’m always processing so much stuff, because life happens. It’s not even just like, “Oh, I want to make something.” It’s more like, “I need to feel something.” I need to feel connected to something bigger. That kind of connects to what we were talking about with the wilderness and feeling like a small part of something big. [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: What were you processing with this record?  

LENKER: I was thinking a lot about intention. And will. And about like, clarity that just falls on your head. Forces that just move through you, when you’re witnessing something like a sunrise or something, where you’re just like, “Woah, that … that feels real. That feels true. It feels so beautiful and it feels like I’m not controlling it at all. It’s just happening and I’m witnessing it, and by witnessing it I’m able to take in its beauty and sort of absorb it.” And then there’s intention, willing something into being and creating something that’s beautiful that you can witness. I feel like maybe [these songs] balance the two things. I’ve wondered about this in relationships as well — say you’re in a romantic relationship — willfully bringing yourself into like a new space with that person, shaping things with intention. And then there’s this other way of thinking that’s just letting [a relationship] be what it is and letting it become what it’s meant to become. And just letting it take whatever shape it will naturally take, and not inserting your own ideas onto what it should be. And I feel like with songs, it’s like… it’s like that kind of balance as well. I actually think there is a certain amount of intention and will that I need in order to bring myself into a place where I’m holding my guitar and ready and wanting to create.

But then there’s a certain amount of letting go that I feel I need to do in order for anything to happen at all. Like I’m sitting in a space with invisible energy, invisible material, and just [thinking], “Is there anything here that’s like shimmering right now that I could try and sing to?” And sometimes there isn’t really anything at all. I’ve made many songs where I’ve felt that I was just doing it as an exercise, because like nothing’s coming through, there’s no inspiration, so I’m just going to write words. And it’s never the same. It always just crumbles. I feel like when that sort of sunrise happens I’m just standing there being like, “Wow, that’s the stuff that really lasts and really just holds up.” And every time I sing it or look at it, I’m like, “That wasn’t really even me. I’m still understanding what it is.”

STEREOGUM: I have a friend who — whenever anything’s really out of control in her life — says that it feels like things are “happening to her,” because she has so little control of a situation. You’re sort of describing the same thing, but in your words it sounds more like the divine.

LENKER: It resonates. I can also relate to the negative end as well, where I’m just like, “Look at this shitstorm, this feels awful.” Pain feels that way sometimes, when you’re truly overwhelmed with pain. Like, that sensation of just aching, from whatever it is, from loss or grief or sorrow. It feels so powerful, it feels like being swept up in a riptide, like how powerful the ocean is. Have you ever been tossed around in the washing machine of waves? You literally don’t know where the ground is, and you just have to completely surrender yourself, just trust that you’re going to surface and breathe and let it pass.

It feels equally crazy in the way you experience out of control love. I think they’re very connected — I think that pain is love. That sorrow, that sadness is love. Somebody told me this recently — it’s obviously completely subjective — but I liked their idea about it. I was feeling really sad, for a lot of reasons, and he just said: “sad is love.” And I really thought about that, and suddenly it made my sadness feel somehow sacred. It suddenly had a place. Instead of being like, “I need to get out of this sadness ’cause I don’t like this sadness in my body anymore, I gotta find a way to feel better.” I was just like, “Oh yeah, the reason why all this struggle is happening right now is because there’s so much care and so much love.” Feeling the pain of everything ripping away, feeling the pain of everything disintegrate. When you’re grieving somebody, you’re feeling love, you’re feeling the very essence, the deepest part of your love for them. And that’s … you can’t separate grief from that.

Everything will end. That’s what so crazy. We pop out into this existence, we don’t know where we go when we die, but we do have one guarantee, and that’s that everyone dies; we’ll lose everything essentially, including our own bodies. And what a crazy reality to create in! But it also makes everything so sweet, ‘cause if everything just lived forever, there’d be no importance in each moment, like there’d be no … there’s so much in each sweet moment of life. [We’re always in a] process of letting go of everything in a way, and with friendships, I can imagine, there’s never an expiration. With my close friends, I don’t feel scared of losing them in this lifetime, other than in death. We have a bedrock of understanding that we’ll lose everyone to death. But with romance, you can lose that in so many ways within this lifetime. It’s more volatile.

STEREOGUM: Do you feel like this record tries to capture those moments when things are really radiant or really painful? Like you’re collecting moments, in a way?

LENKER: I do not have this thought through. I don’t know if what I’m about to say is going to work, I’m just trying it. abysskiss is [about] this whole conversation we’re having right now, about death and loss, and the deaths within life that happen. It’s something like this bridge between the infinite and the finite and the mystery and the abyss of complete wonder, and maybe even that spirit of witnessing something, something really powerful and not knowing what it is, and feeling small. It’s like “Why does the sun rise and set? Why are we spinning and flying through space? Why do all these things look beautiful? Why is there color? Why do we perceive color the way we do? Like, why do we have all these feelings?” All the “whys.” Like, “why” is something [the way it is]? It’s just the mystery and it feels like an abyss to me. But in a good way. Just like, there’s an abyss, and that’s infinite and it’s swirling and its wondrous and scary, but terrifying, and death is also part of that abyss, I think. And then the kiss is this symbol of like, using our finite forms to sort of have communion with the infinite. So, kissing it as a symbol of recognition and acceptance of … I don’t know, blessing it in a way.  

The first song is “Terminal Paradise,” and the first line goes: “Is warm so warm/ screaming in the field as I was born.” It [describes] being birthed into this world as this intense thing — it’s like traumatic just to be born. And then the last song of the record is “Ten Miles” and its final line is: “To die in your arms/ Your words forming again.” [In between] it’s a cycle — really just looking at birth and death, looking at love and looking at these big things that I guess everyone thinks about, but I feel that’s kind of the essence of a lot of the songs on the record. Just processing death, love, birth, pain. [Laughs] Confusion, emptiness.

abysskiss is out 10/5 via Saddle Creek.