Last night, Adrianne Lenker played a sold-out show at the Cedar Cultural Center with special guest Luke Temple. The crowd were seated throughout the night in front of the elevated stage, and I quickly understood why as I let the sounds wash over me without the constant distraction of moving around to get a better view. Lenker stepped on stage with a porcelain mug in her hand (along with the acoustic guitar that would serve as her only instrument for the night) and crouched under the microphone to take a few sips, smiling mischievously out into the crowd.
“I like ending the tour in Minnesota because I can just go home to my grandparents’ house,” she confessed. “My family’s here, so it’s good to be home.”
Lenker’s voice is not easy to categorize. It is at once haunting and perfectly clear. In preparation for the show, I spent time reading through the lyrics of her latest release, abysskiss, but quickly realized I could understand almost every word precisely as she sung them live. Her lyrics follow a string of intuitive connections and her melodies are deceptively understated. There is a quality to her voice and performance that goes a layer deeper than excellent songwriting.
She wrote her first song when she was eight years old and living in the suburbs of Minneapolis. She had spent the majority of her well-documented childhood moving from place to place around the Midwest. At 12, she moved in with her father, also a musician, in a downtown Minneapolis apartment.
“He’s a songwriter and he would spend so many nights getting in these trances on the guitar or piano where he wouldn’t want to stop,” she told Pitchfork about her father. “That meditation — where the most important thing was following the path of inspiration and getting everything you can before it disappears — really seeped into me.” Lenker’s father taught her how to play guitar chords and eventually had her playing open mic nights around the Twin Cities as early as age 12.
“My dad was basically my manager from ages 13 to 16,” she told Pitchfork. “I was on this train towards becoming a child pop star. Not that I would have necessarily become a star, but that was the goal. It wasn’t my goal, though, which I learned after making a couple records with producers and professional adult musicians. I just didn’t know what my vision was at 13. ”
By 21 she had moved to New York City, met guitarist Buck Meek and later formed the indie rock band Big Thief after releasing her first solo record Hours Were the Birds in 2014. Last fall she released abysskiss, which she notes as the culmination of songs written while on tour with Big Thief. It was recorded within a week in California in “this old, strange, wonky castle-like building that somebody built a bomb shelter in, like a tunnel,” Lenker told Stereogum last fall.
Last night, she began the show by playing a few older tracks, opening the set with Big Thief’s “Orange” and the title track off Hours Were The Birds before inviting collaborator Luke Temple back on stage for a block of songs from abysskiss. As the title suggests, this latest release is Lenker’s exploration of the infinite and moments of death and loss within life.
The stories conveyed in her lyrics tunnel through these topics from multiple perspectives, ranging from that of a child birthed in a field to an old woman dying in her husband’s arms. Yet her lyrics do not attempt to definitively answer any questions in regard to where life originates, and are instead concerned with the mechanics of the mystery itself. On “from,” she asks whether an unborn baby will know where she comes from, exhaling the word “from” in a long powerful sigh a total of six times — emphasizing the state of being from somewhere cosmic, not necessarily what that place may be. “Please reveal the question to me,” she sings on “womb,” “let the answers leave.”
Though the performance touched on heavy themes, Lenker and Temple still managed to add a layer of warmth. On “cradle” Temple carefully layered synths and what sounded like a faraway organ, and on “terminal paradise,” a heavy reverb turned Lenker’s voice into a beckoning chorus. Throughout the set, both musicians spent time carefully tuning their guitars. During one of these interludes, my friend leaned over to whisper something in my ear. “I feel like they’re going through the process of connecting to another world when they tune,” she said.
After announcing she had two more songs to play, Lenker’s guitar started sounding funny, and tuning again she whispered into its soundhole, “Just two more songs left.”
“I got this guitar when I was 14 at Willie’s; you know Willie’s?” The crowd cheered in acknowledgement. She returned to the stage for a two-song encore and ended with a powerful riff on the storied guitar, before bounding off the stage grinning.
Lydia Moran is a music and arts writer in Minneapolis.