An Interview With Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker
Over the past couple of years, Big Thief has quickly gained a passionate and devoted fan base with a rare, quiet force.
Appearing to come out of nowhere last year with its critically hailed, and aptly titled debut, Masterpiece, the band has already taken a quantum leap on its fast (and also aptly titled) follow-up, Capacity. Indeed, Adrianne Lenker's solo performance and conversation at WFUV gave us the rare opportunity to get an intimate glimpse of the vulnerability she wields in powerful ways.
Lenker does not hide behind trauma, nor shy away from it, yet her poetic stories aren't begging for pity or even anger. The secret ingredient is soul-baring honesty tempered with a love and a strength that is so human, it is undeniable.
Big Thief's stories are our stories: family; relationships; power struggles between women and men. It is no wonder her fans are singing every meaningful word.
The night prior to our session, I had a chance to witness it first-hand. At one of their sold-out shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, I stood next to a middle-aged man, who had traveled hours from Philadelphia to see Big Thief, and told me that a band hadn't been this important to him since Nirvana. And then, when the rocking set paused for Lenker to play a song solo, her bandmates knelt onstage, on either side of her, a show of respect, reverence and humility so rarely seen in the world, let alone in the male-dominated world of indie rock.
So listen in. I believe you will understand both the dedicated fan, and her band. There is no question: Big Thief will steal your heart.
Carmel Holt: We're here with the Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief. The new album is called Capacity. My name is Carmel Holt. Throughout the album, there is some really difficult and painful subject matter, and there is an interplay of lightness and dark. I'm curious about how it feels to you. You write the songs, and that that's its own catharsis or process for you. Then you go and you record the songs. But then it's a whole other thing to get out on the stage and perform it in front of thousands.
Adrianne Lenker: Yeah.
What's that experience been like for you?
It's been such a growing experience. I've been learning so much all the time musically but mostly just inner-worldly, emotionally, psychically, psychedelically. It is a trip to be going so quickly and moving through space from place to place. I feel kind of untethered or just unanchored. And we've been without a home base for a couple of years now. I haven't had a door to close in couple years. I haven't had a place to return to. It's just been interesting. I feel so many changes occurring within me, but I feel like I'm so close to the change that's happening that I can't understand what the changes are yet. I feel myself changing though, naturally, because [with] this lifestyle, I don't know how you could go into it and be unchanged. But I don't know I could be in life and be unchanged in general, for that matter. I think they run on separate tracks. I feel that performing is its own art form, and recording is its own art form, and writing is its own art form, and that they all can happen simultaneously but at different paces. So my pace as a writer feels like it runs on its own course. That's why when people say, "It feels so fast that you've already put out another record," or, "Are you working on another record?" or thinking of it in terms of releases and in terms of records, I'm kind of thinking, "Well, I'm always working on songs, so who knows?" Sure, there's a batch of songs that exist that could be a record, but I don't really think of it in terms of that. I just write. I just write as much as possible, not thinking about it like as a product. Writing is a need. It's a need that I've had since I can remember. Then, there's recording, and that's like sculpture. Once we finish one sculpture, it's natural to take a little breather and then move on to making the next sculpture. I really love crafting albums and thinking of albums as a whole, not just individual songs or singles or just tracks, but a whole entire album. It's very exciting, to me and to the whole band. We'll just talk for hours about it in the van in between shows about the next piece that we're working on and we're already sculpting in our minds, and it's really fun. And that's running on its own rhythm.
And then there's performing. In all honesty, we still find so much richness in playing the Masterpiece songs and in playing our older songs. In some ways, we're at a different layer inside of those songs than we are with our newest songs. The things we're learning about performing those songs are different than the things that we're learning about performing our new songs because they all have different layers. You can just get into them in this way. When an audience takes to a song and it becomes older, in a way it changes it entirely. And then the journey just begins. With the song "Paul," for example, we've been playing that for a few years now. Now, it's just taking on this new life that surprises me every time. When everyone in the audience is singing it, or a bunch of people in the audience are singing, suddenly I feel like, "Whoa, I've never heard this song before." They all take their own separate paces, and that's what's so cool about it. That's why I think we can continuously stay energized, because one feeds the other feeds the other. It just keeps turning back in, and I think continuing to be curious and excited and continuing to work on it as a craft and as an art form is what keeps us constantly energized.
We're with Adrianne Lenker from Big Thief. The new album is called Capacity. It's their sophomore effort. I'm Carmel Holt. Several things came to mind while you're describing those three tracks of writing and recording and performing. You were talking about how you're always writing, and I actually just recently learned that you've been writing songs as long as you have, like literally since you were a child. Can you trace for us your musical history a little bit?
Sure. When I was born, my dad was playing music, so I'm pretty sure he was singing to me in the womb. I was born into music, in a way, because he was playing acoustic guitar. I was around an instrument growing up. When I was old enough to hold the guitar, I asked my dad if he would teach me. He taught me a few chords. To his surprise, I came to him two years later when I was eight, with those chords memorized fully, and asking for the next thing. And I also showed him a song that I that I'd written when I was eight. That was my first song that I still remember. So then he continued to teach me. One thing that I really appreciate about my dad is, in a lot of different areas, he would bring teachers into my life. When he knew that he couldn't teach me beyond a certain point about something, he would he would seek out a mentor or a teacher. And so he found this guy, Rick Risch, who was my next music teacher after my dad. When I was 12, I would take two buses to Rick's house.
Which was where?
In St. Paul. I was in Minneapolis. I would get on a bus, transfer, go to St. Paul, [and] hang out with him once a week for the whole day. He would show me records and we would write and just play guitar. That was like two years we were doing that. Then, when I was 14, I had this teacher, Dan Schwartz. He taught me a lot of fingerstyle guitar. I started getting really into finger picking, and alternating thumb bass, and picking out melodies, and really challenging myself on the guitar and really focusing on guitar world for a while. I would bring in songs that I was working on and then he would help me make them more intricate with the guitar. He would work with my writing. I recorded a couple of albums with my dad when I was between ages 13 and 15 or 16, and it was much more in the pop world. My dad was managing me, and that got intense just because that's an angsty time for a person, and it's also an angsty time for parent and child because there's that natural friction and intensity. But then, when you put that in the context of working together, it got intense in that way. But I also started listening to Elliott Smith for the first time. I realized I wasn't making the kind of records I wanted to make, and that I wanted to learn how to get in touch with myself, whatever that magic was that I was hearing in the simplicity of his recordings. So I left that world; I decided not to release the record I was working on with my dad.
When I was 16, I decided I wanted to go to school. I didn't go to high school at all, and I was kind of craving some peer time because I was always around adults. I went to school mainly just for the life experience of school and for being around other kids and for being on my own. That was a really sweet time because my main goal was just to learn and to become closer with myself as an artist. By the time I finished school, I don't think I retained much of the curriculum, but I retained all the experience of having played with a lot of different people and having had a band during those years.
I moved to New York and, starting from complete scratch, had nothing to show anybody that was representing what I did, other than stuff I made when I was 13. So, I decided I should record a solo album of my songs that I had been accumulating. When I was 21 I just went to Minnesota, recorded a solo album called Hours Were the Birds, then I met Buck in New York, and we started doing duo tours. I saved up – I was waitressing full time all throughout living in New York – saved up for an electric guitar, worked more, saved up for an amp, worked more, saved up for our van. Bought this old 1987 Chevy conversion RV.
Began working to book all of our own tours. We'd booked these three month-long tours and live out of the RV, and it would take us three months to book a three-month tour. Emailing, no responses, asking friends of friends, "Can we play at your friend's barbecue in the backyard?" We did that for a few years, maybe like two and a half years, we were touring as a duo like that. [We] made some duo recordings.
Under what name? You weren't Big Thief yet.
No, this was just Adrianne Lenker. When we did a duo album, we did it under Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek. Then, we both wanted to be in a band, so we kept our minds and hearts open and had that intention. Then magically we ran into Max, who Buck had known 10 years back, but they hadn't seen each other. Started playing with him, went out on the road. We had another drummer at the time, Jason Berger, who's a sweetheart. He's incredible and he's on the first album. We hit the road as a band with no representation, no help. We were still in that RV, booking all of our own stuff. We recorded Masterpiece before we met anyone as well. We just saved up pocket change and borrowed as much gear as we could and made the record before we even sent it to anybody.
And that was done in upstate New York, right?
Yeah, in a house. A friend's family lent us their old little house, and we just went there and made it. Our attitude was, "We're going to do this whether or not we have help. Whether or not we 'succeed.'" I'm holding up the air quotes because our idea of success was just doing what we love, and we were already doing that. We already were where we wanted to be. That was very liberating, to have that attitude of, whether or not we have money or help, we're just going to make music to the best of our abilities.
Then we got this tour with Luke Temple. It was a dream of ours to play shows with Here We Go Magic and with Luke. We finally got one show with them. He liked our music a lot and then invited us out on a month-long tour. We'd never played the West Coast, and we'd never played a support tour like that. He introduced us to his booking agent, Jim. He's such a sweetheart. He saw our last show, and that kind of started the whole thing. He sent our album to Saddle Creek and we started to get support and help. We're very blessed, because a lot of bands work really hard and never get that. So we've just been going pretty nonstop, living on the road ever since, and made Capacity shortly after we recorded Masterpiece. We had an opportunity to do it on a friend's land who had a recording studio, and he offered it to us as mostly a gift, just expenses for the heat and helping keep a lookout on his place while he was gone. And now we've just been on the road a lot, and it's been pretty wild.
As you're talking about support – we're here with Adrianne Lenker, if you're just joining us, of Big Thief, and talking about the new album Capacity, their sophomore effort. I want to congratulate you, because you guys were just selected out of a lot, a lot, a lot of bands and artists for this new thing that's happening, a collaboration between NPR Music and VuHaus – which is a video streaming platform for just music – and also NPR member stations like ours, recommended up-and-coming bands to be part of this thing called Slingshot. Big Thief has been selected for that. There's going to be events and special interviews like we're doing today, Tiny Desk concerts, and field recordings, and guest DJ sets all over. We're psyched, because we've been big supporters of you guys since Masterpiece, and we're just so excited for this chapter. You mentioned Luke Temple, you mentioned earlier discovery with Elliott Smith. How do you discover new music?
I've just always kind of got my ear out for it, but I don't necessarily go looking for new things. Often it's through friends. One of the coolest parts about being on the road is that we have all this time in the van. It could be looked at as a negative thing, to be sitting in a van for so long. But it's also cool to not have...you're not actually able to go anywhere else. And so you have to just focus on a few things, and one of those things is listening to music. We listen to a lot of interviews and a lot of music. It's kind of like a musical education, just being in the van. I get a lot of my music from the band. They're always showing me stuff. Also, just playing so many shows, we hear so many different bands. That's probably the biggest way, just through being at a lot of shows and a lot of festivals and in the van listening to stuff all the time.
Can you recall hearing a Big Thief song on the radio for the first time?
Gosh, I haven't heard it on the radio.
You haven't yet?
No, but I've heard it at coffee shops or bakeries. The other day, we played a show, and then the next morning we found this random coffee shop, went in there, and they were playing our record.
What does that feel like?
That feels funny, and cool, and awkward, but in a really sweet way. It's really sweet because everyone's kind of blushing. They're blushing and we're blushing. And I think being able to still blush...like blushing is such a such nice, life-affirming emotion or thing to happen when you're truly like kind of embarrassed but it's also because of something sweet.
Yeah. I love that. So, you're talking about music discovery. What are some of your favorite things that you've discovered recently that your bandmates have turned you on to?
I've been really enjoying Julianna Barwick, her album, Nepenthe, and Grouper's album, Ruins. James turned me on to both of those, actually. And then my friend, Genesis, turned me on to Pauline Oliveros for the first time.
Oh my goodness.
Like, wow. Powerful.
And she just passed away not too long ago.
Yeah. I wish I would've gotten to see them play in person. And then Twain is one of my all-time favorites, and they're coming out with a new record. To me, Matt of Twain is a living legend, just an incredible songwriter and one of my biggest inspirations.
Thanks to Adrianne for coming by. Thanks, and congratulations on both Slingshot and on your new album, Capacity.
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