Local Current Blog

Interview: Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker is a fortress of vulnerability

Big Thief (photo by Michael Buishas)

Pressing play on Big Thief’s third studio album U.F.O.F. (short for “Unidentified Flying Object Friend”) when it was released in May to immense critical acclaim felt like stepping outside during spring’s tender awakening; from the hopeful uncertainty of “Cattails” to the final release of “Jenni,” when a grungy bass line rips through to an ending chorus of seething guitar riffs, crashing symbols, and whispered lyrics to produce an overwhelming bittersweet euphoria. It is fitting, then, that Big Thief are releasing another album this month as fall begins to set in again.

Since the emergence of Big Thief (Buck Meek on guitar, Max Oleartchik on bass, James Krivchenia on drums, and Adrianne Lenker on lead vocals and guitar) on the indie rock scene back in 2016, Lenker has composed songs with elements of rock, folk, and experimental music that trace infinite expanses of emotion. Those songs, released on both Big Thief projects and her solo work, infuse the unknown, vacant pockets of life with humming potential. Listening to Big Thief, one is tugged into a surreal world where moons drip, questions sing, and words are flipped like playing cards to reveal double meanings. 

Big Thief’s upcoming release, Two Hands, is billed as the “earth twin” to U.F.O.F.’s “celestial twin.” The album’s first two singles “Not” and “Forgotten Eyes” have an edgier, woodier sound than the airiness of U.F.O.F., but are nonetheless haunting. Two Hands was recorded in the desert just outside of El Paso, Lenker explained, because the band wanted a temperate shift.

Climate seems to be a theme in Lenker’s life — she grew up in Minnesota, and recalls how the winter cold was fuel for her creativity. The day she performed at The Cedar Cultural Center last February as the last stop on her solo tour, it was snowing hard. Lenker bounded on stage with a porcelain mug in hand and encouraged her worn-out guitar lovingly throughout the set. I remember leaving the Cedar with a feeling of intense warmth despite the weather.

Recently, I spoke with Lenker by phone. Here’s our full conversation.

You’re releasing a new album in October, and that’s the second Big Thief project of 2019. Can you talk a bit about how these two projects might be intertwined, and is one an answer to the other?

I wrote all the songs for both records during the same time period over the course of the last two years. When we were starting to dream up the records, we had so many songs we didn’t want to get lost or left behind so we realized that we needed to make two albums. We didn’t want it to be a double-record because it just felt like it would be too dense, and slowly the songs started separating themselves into two different projects.

We wanted them to be equally contrasting each other so we chose two different parts of the country to record in: the temperate rainforest in Washington and the dry desert just outside of El Paso. We recorded them back-to-back and I view them as sibling records — they share DNA but they have very different personalities.

I know you have a strong Minnesota connection with having family here, and growing up here yourself. Since you write a lot about childhood and memory, is Minnesota on your mind when you’re songwriting?

I think it definitely is. I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis and in Minneapolis as well — listening to The Current, actually. I would hang out at this coffeeshop called Plan B a lot in Uptown and Caffetto and go to the Wedge and the Seward Co-op and walk around the lakes. I lived in downtown Minneapolis when I was like 14 through 16 and I would often take the bus to Uptown. I was there every day for a while.

I think that the freezing winters and the frozen lakes and the snow, that grey blanket that covers everything in the fall and the winter, I think that impacted me a lot. I would hibernate and go into my creative world during the winters. The seasons are so distinct in Minnesota and I love all the cycles; I think it’s healthy to have everything freeze over and melt away.

I grew up there until I was 17, and then I moved to Boston and was there for three and a half years and then I went to New York. But I think Minnesota’s in my blood, for sure. When I go back there I feel a sense of home in the specific nature that’s there. Most of my family is still there. I think it’s a special place.

You’ve been on the move for a while, are you considering coming back [to Minnesota] or settling down anywhere else? 

I actually come back quite a bit to visit family. I’m actually living [in Minnesota]. I haven’t had a place in four years but as of now I’m temporarily renting an apartment there.

How do you nurture the vulnerability that is necessary for your songwriting under the pressures that come with being in a band? 

I think just by ignoring the whole expectation and pressure as if it doesn’t exist, because it kind of doesn’t. I definitely have a deep love for music that drives me, and I feel so passionate about it and I can get so lost and absorbed in it, and I don’t imagine that changing. It’s beautiful to be able to be working with something where I can be learning endlessly, there’s no end to what you can learn with music and writing.

I think that goes hand-in-hand with maintaining awareness and tapping into what we’re feeling collectively on the planet, as well as facing a lot of fears and conflicts that come with being in the band and not being afraid to communicate and explore how to reach better understanding and how to nurture those friendships. That’s really what keeps me grounded throughout: we’re all just making music and art the way we would be if we didn’t have any support, if nobody knew our music at all. I think we would just continue to make records and burn CDs and play dive bars. We would be doing that either way. It doesn’t feel like we have anything to lose. That liberates us to make decisions based just on what feels right.

Every opportunity that comes up, we look at it just like, if money wasn’t involved, if fame wasn’t involved, would we want to do this thing? And the answer has to be yes in order for us to do it. It has to feel inherently creatively fulfilling and it has to feel like it’s in alignment with our core spirit as a band. We hold that above any other form of currency. However our careers fluctuate, I feel like we’re already rich. We already made it because we have music and we have our friendships with each other. We have our hearts and that’s what drives us.

As a band you tap into a lot of big mysteries and whenever I listen to a Big Thief song, I feel very cozy and warm but also curious about things beyond myself. What conditions make it easier for you to enter those unknown spaces? 

That’s an interesting question because we’re definitely exposing ourselves when we’re recording and when we’re performing — I really feel it when we’re performing. Sometimes it does just feel scary, honestly, but I think it’s just the imagined outcomes that are scary; like if I reveal this part of myself or if people see this flaw or this insecurity or if people see this wound, what’s going to happen? Everything could just collapse or fall apart or maybe I’ll be judged. Oh my gosh everything sounds so bad on stage tonight, what if I let this whole room of people down, whatever the feeling is that feels scary or daunting or vulnerable. I’m going to put my perspective out there, but what if people think it’s just wack? I think it’s just that I’ll be scared and I’ll do it and then it will dissolve, and it’s okay. And then I’ll push myself a little more outside of my comfort zone and I’ll do it again and I’ll push past it and then I’ll get on the other side.

I think there’s so much strength in vulnerability, but instead we build weapons and walls and things like that. I think all that stuff is going to crumble. I don’t think it’s nearly as strong as just showing up and exposing your heart to other people, because it inspires other people to do that and ultimately I think that’s what keeps me doing it and makes me feel safe. To be vulnerable and to share in that way is actually is safer, it actually is more of a fortress and a shelter than anything else.  When I’m most vulnerable at shows people come up to me afterwards and they in turn are wide open and make themselves very vulnerable and are in a more open place. So I think it’s contagious.

Because Two Hands contains a lot of songs that you’ve been playing live for a while or have had on the back burner, do you think the release of these two albums will usher in a new era of Big Thief?

I think because these two albums were made after having performed for three years pretty much nonstop touring — it just feels like a release to have recorded them and now I feel like there’s so much room to explore where we’re at. When the records were finished, we were already working on stuff so I think it is a closing of a chapter in a way. Also it feels very much like the beginning of something. Almost as if all the records leading up to this point were just the prologue to the book of Big Thief. I still feel like a baby in my writing; there’s so much I want to learn on guitar, there’s so much I want to learn how to articulate.

Big Thief will play First Avenue on Oct. 21. Two Hands is out Oct. 11 on 4AD.