As the pandemic hit Big Thief's nomadic leader headed for the foothills of Western Massachusetts, and emerged with two albums of her most personal folk music
It’s a Sunday morning in upstate New York and Adrianne Lenker is waking up. “Generally not really an early riser,” she says, each word slowly punctuated with the elongated effort not to yawn, grinning as she fails to stop the end of her sentence tailing off into a squeak. “Well, I’ve been getting up,” she yawns again, “sorry. I’ve been getting up at various times. It just depends on the last night. Generally, it’s somewhere between eight and… eleven?” She buries the last word embarrassedly in her sentence, like a bug going to nest. The time difference suits me on the other end of the line, complacently settling into a warm London afternoon.
The once Brooklyn-based four-piece Big Thief has found a quiet, devoted company since their debut album Masterpiece came out in 2016. It’s music that exists between full human application and fragility. In the last four years, they’ve written and recorded as many studio albums, including two end of year title contenders in 2019, alongside a couple of solo records each from vocalist/songwriter Lenker and guitarist Buck Meek. It’s not so much the work rate that justifies the applause. The perplexity of Big Thief is that nothing feels rushed; their music sounds strangely unearthed, dissecting intimacy at a distance like a televised archaeology dig, uncovering medieval patterned kitchenware that might once have been a gift from one person to another. But it’s a brave artist who believes their own mythology; Adrianne Lenker’s debut solo album, after all, was made during a period of her life when she worked in a restaurant and photographed pigeons in her spare time.
“We had Tacos last night,” she grins, telling me dotingly of the community she’s found during lockdown. She’s been staying with friends, next door to a small farm run by a couple of brothers, where the community has regular dinners together. She calls this area her little pod. “I’ve kind of been away from everywhere for a while,” she says, thinking briefly about how it feels to be back there. “I’ve basically been living on the road for the last six years, ever since Big Thief took off when I was 23. I feel like I can develop a relationship with places now, no place more or less than anywhere else, so long as there are natural elements around.”
Given her prolificacy, the September announcement of two new Adrianne Lenker solo albums was an inevitability of slowing into a global lockdown. The only surprise, perhaps, that it was only two. Tentatively titled songs and instrumentals, they began when Lenker’s nomadic lifestyle took her to isolating in the foothills of mountains, Western Massachusetts.
“I was just in the forest, surrounded by streams and springs,” she says. “The main presence was birds, you know. I feel like I get tired of most places that comprises mainly of humans; I fatigue a lot sooner than being in a place where it’s just… I don’t know, it feels like it’s such a deep world to get to know a certain part of the land. Like, after some time here, I was slowly starting to understand, okay, the red oak trees are the last to…” The phone signal trails off, reconnecting some minutes later with Adrianne still describing the sensory details of the forest, unaware that I’d left. “You know, the beech leaves look like this, these are the different type of birch trees and these little creatures live here. You know that kind of stuff is just endless.
“I felt like I was really just getting to know the place when I left,” she says, frustratedly. “There was a woman, an older woman called Patricia, she taught me some stuff. She’d been living there for 40 years, and living in any one place for that long I guess you’d just start getting to recognise all these things. All these subtle things. I started to feel like my eyes adjusted. You know, we were pulled out of our tour very abruptly, and I went straight there and it was such a jarring switch from all these city centers around Europe, going straight to the woods. At first I felt all this anxiety, my eyes took a while to adjust to the forest and everything I was seeing kind of blurred together. Only slowly over time did my eyes start adjusting to all the details: individual trees and plants, starting to recognize all these different parts of the forest. Different shades of colour that I hadn’t been able to see. That transformation started happening and I feel like I could’ve been there for years.”
The songs started coming after a couple of weeks of being in the mountains, she says. They’re in good supply at present; there are plenty more demos in reserve, too, unrecorded sketches and ideas not voiced in these collections. “There’s always a pile of songs,” she assures me. You can hear the room in these ones, though, in a way that her previous recordings haven’t let others in. Moments of static crackle make way as rain hits the wood cabin walls, bedding Lenker’s finger pick and strum. Channels drop in and out mid-recording (“oh that’s cool,” you can hear her say in the distance). The room, she said, felt like the inside of an acoustic guitar.
“It was this little pine cabin – it was very simple. One room, essentially, with a big wooden stove which I used for heat and cooking on in the colder months. Well, weeks.” She laughs. “When I was first there it was winter and everything was completely covered in snow. I was sledding down the hills in my sister’s house, and then everything turned to Spring slowly. We were in the foothills of mountains, there was a little elevation, so it was a lot cooler than down in town. And there was no running water so I was carrying water everyday. Classic – chopping wood, getting water. Really basic things.” She imitates carrying water and chopping wood, aware of the stereotype she’s drifting towards. “Then there was the main house,” she says, “built by the woman who owned the land or, you know, was tending to the land. And then my sister’s cabin was probably like a kilometer into the forest. There was crystal quartz everywhere, these big giant chunks of stone. And yeah, like I said, these big red oaks, a lot of beech trees and birch trees, maple trees, hemlocks and white pine.”
As you can imagine, building a studio in this place was a challenge. “Oh my gosh,” she reels back. “It was fun but it was a puzzle. I was kinda worried about the power out there. I mean, we had power but it was really just an extension chord that we’d trailed all the way through the woods. Phil [Weinrobe] was the mastermind behind this. We’re really good friends; we’d spent some time living together on the road when he was doing sound for Big Thief. He’s just an incredible recording engineer, producer and record maker, and I was just imagining him coming out here because he feels like family.”
At this time, Phil was in New York and he wanted to get away for a break, she explains, almost dutifully. “We had to be really safe about it as the pandemic was breaking out, but he gathered all this gear through friends. I drove out to the city, directly to him; he had been quarantined. We had to be super safe, wearing gloves and masks, our friend Shahzad [Ismaily] had put some gear down in this little corridor entrance area, said hello from his window, we picked it up and went on to our friend Eli [Crews]’s, then drove back to the cabin and started setting up. It took us about two and a half weeks. The first thing that happened was the power blew our tape machines up. Like, all four of the tape machines we’d brought out had died just by turning them on. All we had at that point was just this portable handheld Walkman cassette recorder. That’s what we recorded ‘come’ and ‘not a lot, just forever’ on. Just on what we had – just vocals and guitars. We weren’t discouraged because, like, even if everything we could do was going to be recorded on this then that’s cool, so be it. And Phil’s so optimistic, we both just worked on setting it up and the solution was just having to order this wild power converter thing.
“We were hanging out with my sister a lot. Then Brian, my sister’s partner, he built the desks and a makeshift studio really fast. Within a day he’d built these desks around the room from big slabs of wood that he had lying around…” She pauses a little at my silence. “Oh, he’s an arborist, and he also has a wood mill. He screwed them into the wall and we just had this customized wooden area for all the tape machines and stuff.”
The clarity with which Lenker describes her environment makes sense. Her songwriting is so specified to her, so founded in her own poetic, nomadic experience. There’s only so much universality that can be found in stories about carrying water on your head, tripping over the crystal quartz, blowing up a tape machine and being stuck in the wilderness with no kit, an album to record and an arborist in-law. The fondness and the eye with which Lenker writes is what lets these songs belong to other people, rather than the subject. Take the flawless opening couplets of ‘anything’ that traffics nostalgia (“Staring down the barrel of the hot sun/ Shining with the sheen of a shotgun”), and then compare it to the surreal dream of ‘zombie girl’ (“I almost couldn’t wake/ because I was frozen in bed with a zombie girl”).
“I feel like, since I was little, all of the music comes from the same place,” she says. “Like, I almost feel like I’m trying to describe this same thing that I’ve had since I was like, eight. And it just keeps getting more refined and I’m just weaving through it and hopefully growing as a person. I feel like I’ve grown so much since Hours Were the Birds when I was 21. I’d just moved to New York City and hadn’t put the band together. I hadn’t even started doing duo stuff with Buck yet. I was seeking and searching for this resonance and connection, an intangible thing that I’m still moving towards and searching for.
“I remember one, actually,” she says, when I ask what kind of things her eight-year-old self was writing about. “‘So Little Life’, it was called.” She corrects herself, “I think I was actually nine. It went, ‘Leaves are blowing, summer’s fading, I’m not even hesitating, so little life to live, so many words to say, when I stop and try to say them everything fades away.’” She’s almost shy of its completeness, recalling its melody and its mindfulness to life’s sanctity, you know, at a time when everyone else was collecting football stickers. I tell her that, in contrast at that age, I’d written a poem about a magic box, found in Egypt, filled with marshmallows and a thousand free wishes, still pinned to my Grandma’s fridge. “Jheez, that’s profound,” she says, without a trace of irony or humouring me. “I mean, I worked on that song for like a year. I think I finished it when I was ten. ‘When I drift out of this dream world, it’s usually just in time to realise everything will be fine.’”
In her own published discography, a lot of her music is candidly directed towards people. The tracklisting of 2014’s a-sides was almost exclusively people’s names. Big Thief’s list is even more comprehensive, with a veritable yearbook of fan favourites – ‘Lorraine’, ‘Paul’, ‘Randy’, ‘Haley’, ‘Betsy’, ‘Jenni’, and the quiet hit ‘Mary’. More than ever, though, songs sounds rooted in geography and location. Even ‘dragon eyes’, the penultimate ballad of heartache, written about a will to be and belong – “I just want a place with you” – is a world away from its fanatic pop equivalents that will gladly be anywhere, so long as they’ve got that one person. It feels like the importance of love and relationships for Lenker is becoming rounded.
“I think,” she pauses, cautious to phrase it truthfully. “Maybe I used fewer names, but in a way I feel it links more directly to actual people than anything I’ve made before. It’s probably the most personal thing that I’ve made. I noticed one thing: in the past I’ve been quite hesitant to use…” she stops again. “I don’t know, I’ve just been conscious of saying, ‘I this’ or ‘I that’. You know, ‘I feel this.’ I’ve always wanted to maintain a poetic distance from stating things as simply as that, being aware of pronouns – of ‘I’s and ‘you’s, like ‘I’ feel this, and not wanting to be indulgent. I’ve wanted to maintain a frame of an emptiness that people can fill in. But I didn’t care about that, this time, I didn’t care. I needed to express things in a more utilitarian way. These songs emerged from feeling a lot of pain and a lot of grief internally, acknowledging a lot of feelings… and it felt really brutal.
“I was waking up in the morning, and writing on my guitar was helping me get through it all. I don’t know how I was writing; I was barely even eating. It was a really hard time. So yeah, I wasn’t too concerned with poetry, I feel like I just wrote the things and a lot of it just came out in one go. A song would come out in the morning and I would play it and sing it and I didn’t care; like, maybe this record’s never going to come out. I’m not trying to make something cool, you know. There was so little thought, and it just resulted in this language.”
The analog, relational tenderness of Adrianne Lenker’s writing clashes with most people’s new routine of structural and digitised distance. It’s like trying to translate the core mystery of friendship, while breaking up with all of them. “It brings about this whole other world,” she says, on the other hand. “I mean, for me, my closest relationships, I find, and am finding, transcend space and time, and it’s okay not to be in close proximity when I can feel the solemnness of the friendships, or the solemnness of family, which is something this [lockdown] has brought to light. Things that maybe weren’t as strong maybe fall away. But I’ve spent so long away from people I love because I’m constantly on the road that it’s actually… I’ve spent more consistent time with my sister than since we were kids, which has been really beautiful.
“On the other hand, I’ve been separated from the person who was my partner. When the pandemic hit, we’d already been apart for three or four months, just basically from tour and the fact that she was living across the world. But then, we went through a whole break-up and it really hit when I started recording that album, and a lot of it, yeah… It was fucking brutal. Going through anything meaningful with someone you love and care about when you only have this screen and these words, you know. There are so many other forms of language we have as humans. Words start feeling very thin very fast. And, you know, people have gone through deaths and the passing of loved ones over Zoom. Virtually saying goodbye is happening everywhere. It’s all well and good going about life with FaceTime, having some amount of distance from people, but there’s nothing like that feeling of ‘I need to be physically with you right now.’”
In March, the physical distractions Lenker was afforded by virtue of Big Thief’s European tour abruptly ended. Despite their projections as introverts, where the thralls of performance can be awkward, leaving a tour is just as jarring as preparing for the adoration of one. “Oh my gosh, yeah. I mean, it’s harder,” she says. “For me it’s more challenging to readjust to not touring and not having that pace. I mean, maybe because we’ve been doing it so much and for so long, this time I’d felt more comfortable in motion. I’d felt more comfortable in that rhythm of waking up and loading and sound check and eating and playing the show and travelling. Like, you know what you’re supposed to do in routine and rhythm – there’s a modality that you adjust to so hard and so heavily that when it stopped I didn’t really know what to do with myself. There’s the first week which is notably challenging, then there’s this trick week that’s like, ‘oh I’m fine, I’m good, I’m great, I’m adjusting. The woods, nature, it feels so good to relax.’ And then when it’s a month, it sets in that you’re actually not so good.” She coughs a little, suppressing a laugh. “And yeah, all of the things that you’d been able to repress over the course of travels and not having any solitude and not having a sort of reflective space… Suddenly your real stuff comes up, and you have to get to know your real self again.”
This process of self-rediscovery is one that would have been impossible to undergo within a routine, and the same idiosyncrasies become a facet of the creativity, too. “For instance, it’s not that we don’t like recording in studios,” says Adrianne, “but for the most part I think we’re finding that a living space that has its own limitations… it sparks creativity in a different way. You have to react against all these different factors. I feel like houses breathe more. I’ve learnt that I don’t like to be in a vacuum sealed highly-controlled studio space. It can feel kinda dead. There’s so much life in spaces that aren’t built specifically to be creative in.
“The small cozy room is important for us humans. I mean, seemingly,” she qualifies. “We could just sleep out under the stars, but to have a reasonable shelter where you can simultaneously venture out – it’s very gentle. As much as I want to be totally wild and live off the land, be nomadic and sleep out on a mat, it’s a romantic idea. The idea of not having a home or a shelter is actually a brutal reality that so many people involuntarily face. And what one wouldn’t give for a small, but, like, nurturing place that feels safe to sleep and eat, and do the basic things that you need to feel able to do to enjoy the world that is everywhere. Having a place that feels good is a privilege… it shouldn’t be. It’s wild to think about.
“I’m soul searching on this one level,” she says, tangentially flying through hours of deep conversation, “wanting to feel a sense of home, not knowing where my home is, but I’m privileged to be able to choose and to have enough energy to explore. That’s a facet of this time, of course, too; I think in addition to the pandemic there’s starting to understand what that means. I’ve dealt with a lot of issues surrounding womanhood and being a woman, or being a queer person, I’ve dealt with that in my writing and in my own way, but really facing the fact that I’m a white person was this new layer – we’re being called to unpack our own selves and understand what that means. There are so many things that can escape awareness when you don’t have to think of politics, or live it.”
A childish curiosity permeates songs. Words are seen as structures and buildings rather than necessary vehicles for meaning. The outro for ‘heavy focus’, for example, just spirals away – “focus, focus focus, kiss, focus, fokiss”. “Oh, that’s cool,” she says, visibly pleased when I point it out. “I feel like children are just profound. Like, we start out pretty good, and then all the world happens and we spend the rest of it unweaving, unwinding, unravelling. We’ve just basically got to undo everything for the rest of our lives. I mean, we’re so highly absorbent as children; it’s dangerous. It’s what weirds me out about children being on iPads or iPhones at such an early age, because you’re so absorbent. And you become what you fill yourself with. It just makes me nervous when I see four year olds watching the screen.”
I ask if having Candy Crush on her phone would have stopped her writing ‘So Little Life’, as an eight-by-nine-by-ten-year-old. “Probably. And especially if I was playing it in the time I was really little. There were so many moments where I didn’t have anything to reach for, so I reached for the guitar. And it has given back to me throughout my whole life. But the phone can’t give back to you in that way. I’m not saying there aren’t beautiful things that can come from children learning, like… these genius little kids with their heads filled with so much information, who knows, I can’t say there’s no benefit to that. But it’s not just children. We’re all children. We’re only really alive for a blink of an eye, and what we spend this precious and short and transient time doing, like, I don’t know, where should we pour our focus in that time? There are things that swallow time and things that expand it.”
A guitar, for all of music’s digital potential, is still an endless excitement to Adrianne; it’s an example of that thing that, she says, can expand time. As the companion release to songs, instrumentals is the first time her craft has really been explored and recorded as a separate entity to her voice. Two pieces of music, ‘music for indigo’ and ‘mostly chimes’, were created amid the ritual of starting and closing the days with improvised acoustic guitar. “Really, it’s been a part of my musicality since I was really little,” she says. “Even before singing, guitar has always been this place of comfort for me, and I think it’s easy to place a lot of significance on a part of yourself – like, ‘this is my expertise, this is my craft’. Writing songs has been something I’ve worked on and tried to refine over the course of many years, so much of my thoughts and my brain is in it, but playing guitar, noodling around and not choosing a direction, and not judging it or putting weight on it – that in a way has been a part of me that I wouldn’t have ever chosen to capture or present before, because I wasn’t bringing any significance to it.” Even now there’s a little focus on it, she doesn’t want these songs to be anything more than white noise, pieces to warmly accompany you in a room, whenever you’d like them to.
“The guitar is a really a deep world that, certainly I will die having not explored nearly everything there is to explore in it. The subtleties and the options, all the different roads you can take and it’s all in your fingers, it’s all in your hands. I love the wood, it’s like a gift given by these trees. Or, it’s taken from the trees, really,” she laughs. “But it’s a beautiful gift from the tree. Like, the guitar I play on the record, I got when I was 14 and it was my only instrument up until I got my first electric guitar that I play with Big Thief. I’ve had it for 15 years, and it’s changed shape all through those years, moving and contracting. Like, what will that thing feel like in another 15 years? What will my relationship with it be? Also, you play a chord and put your ear up to the side, it just fills your whole body with vibration and resonance. I like that you can kind of do anything on there without consequence. Like, if you’re sitting by yourself, you can put your finger on any string, on any fret, play any note, and there’s no negative consequence. You can play whatever note you want after that. You can play and it’s free and you don’t have to play well, it’s this totally free and limitless space. It’s so beautiful, just the way it sounds.
“Think of that feeling when you’re falling in something,” she says, returning to her earlier sentiment. “You’re falling in love, or you’re just completely absorbed in a sensation or moment or instrument, similar to when you’re taking a camera to focus on something. You see it first, and then take the time to see it. Falling in love is this involuntary jolt of presence, but presence is generally so hard to exercise on things. You can do that with yourself in nature and your own internal world, but it’s a lot harder. Whereas when someone else triggers it, with that person you can bring this part of yourself to attention that otherwise is sleeping. That focus and that power of attention… like when you’re a child,” she laughs, “or if you’re a dog. You can see that one thing is all they want.
“You just need to witness something rather than change it,” she says, “rather than alter it or integrate it into yourself. You just need to see something. I think that is… something.” Her voice trails off again in thought, similar in all but sound to that slow squeak when you first wake up and try to calibrate yourself. “Sorry,” she says, “I forgot the question. I was focused on something.”
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