Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker on the Callouses That Come With Success & Her Ferocious Solo Album

Buck Meek
Adrianne Lenker

Adrianne Lenker is something of a philosopher — burdened more by the things that define and shape our existence than quotidian concerns. She describes birth as "violent" and death as "gentle" - a captivating, oppositional way of defining two forces of nature, like herself. As the frontwoman of Big Thief, Lenker is one of indie rock's brightest new voices, whose gut-wrenching lyricism and vivid, nostalgic narratives of destruction and loss (see standout cuts: "Shark Smile," "Mythological Beauty") have earned the band widespread critical praise and a near constant touring schedule since signing to Omaha, Nebraska label Saddle Creek Records — following in the footsteps of label mates and indie titans like Bright Eyes/Conor Oberst, The Faint, and Rilo Kiley.

In the midst of the Brooklyn quartet's breakthrough LPs — 2016's Masterpiece and 2017's Capacity — Lenker never stopped writing, meticulously crafting tracks in hotel bathrooms, green rooms, buses, and the lonely, infrequent solitary spaces between tour stops. When certain demos didn't find their way to a full band rendering, Lenker saved them for an inevitable solo record. The result arrives in the form of new album abysskiss, recorded at the destination recording studio Panoramic House in West Marin, Calif. alongside her pals — producer Luke Temple (Here We Go Magic) and engineer Gabe Wax. "It was just the three of us out near the Redwoods, overlooking the ocean," she says of the "quirky" space that she describes as like a '70s castle. "I was very present, kind of like a child, a kid in a playground. Sometimes I feel like I could just fall into a bottomless pit when I'm playing or trying to capture something. Luke created this reflection, this really beautiful space."

Temple has served as one of Big Thief's chief supporters since their early days self-booking tours out of their van. A mutual friend from New York first connected the band to Luke, with Big Thief jumping at the chance to open for the artist/producer at a dive bar in upstate New York — just to play with their "hero." That one decision led the band to a support slot for Luke's band Here We Go Magic on a full U.S. tour. Luke eventually connected them to their now booking agent — Jim Romeo at Ground Control Touring — who shared their music with Saddle Creek. "Everything sort of unfurled out of that one tour, and really out of that one dive bar show," Lenker gushes. "Years later I went up to Hudson, NY when Luke was living there and we recorded a bunch of songs on a four track that he had. That planted the seed — like, wow, this is what it's like to be in a room with Luke making music."

Speaking to Lenker in the early morning after the band's Sept. 22 show at Wonder Ballroom in Portland, Oregon, the friendly, warm and thoughtful artist is fresh from her morning exercises - something the band does every morning to keep fresh on the road. "It's really hard to keep any form of routine and it's always in flux," she says. "We just make do in whatever space we're in. I'm in a little town that I don't remember the name of right now but it's overlooking San Francisco." Not remembering the name of towns that pass her by is just part of the gig - but Lenker's thoughts are always elsewhere, preoccupied with all things intangible, the deep and the dark.

Below, Billboard chats with Lenker about abysskiss' origins, the pitfalls of the "album cycle," Saddle Creek's legacy, and the physical and emotional callouses that come with success.

What head space were you in when you began writing this batch of songs?

It's hard to remember, I feel like I have amnesia from being on the road. I feel still very much in the present. In terms of time lines and places and even head spaces, shed skins, my cells have rearranged. I've probably experienced so many little deaths between three years ago and now. Writing songs is just this thing that happens, an overflowing of being alive. They come out in really unexpected ways at unexpected times. Mostly I've just been stealing little moments for myself in order to write — in the bathroom at a hotel, or just slipping away for a half an hour. Amidst all of the touring, life has been happening. I've been going through so much in these past years. When I made my last solo record I was 21 and I feel like in a lot of ways I'm still existing in my childhood, still connected to that. I'm 27 now and in these last six years it doesn't feel any less significant than going through puberty felt.

How are the writing processes for Big Thief and your solo project different?

Well the process is pretty similar because I write for Big Thief and some of these I brought to the band. It's usually pretty clear to us what things are calling for, given the alchemy of all of us combined. A lot of these didn't have a place to live and it felt good being able to archive them and honor their original forms. The acoustic guitar is my first love, I've been playing since I was a kid, and I feel the most at home when I'm sitting with an acoustic, I just love it so much. It changes my heart. I love the vibration and frequencies and the resonance. The idea popped into my head while I was on the road like hey I think it's time to make a solo record, and I wonder if I could do it with Luke [Temple] and I just suddenly visualized it. I asked him and it just kind of manifested. I wanted this record to be done with ease, like we were capturing something really organic. We went into the studio for a week and I just played the songs and sang and we didn't really splice them up at all. Can you really do something better? You could make it perfect, or make it free of any mistake or blemish, but that wouldn't really make it better - a lot of it was accepting what naturally came out, accepting our process. I imagine every few years I could make something solo, just to not let the songs slip away.

I've been thinking about that a lot lately - how artists are a bit freer now to release things recorded on the fly. Is that kind of immediacy the answer to the streaming ecosystem?

You're always doing this dance with the "cycle" and the business of things. If you're fortunate enough to have a team of people and be out there doing it full time trying to make a living at it, there are cycles that you have to go by. It takes x amount of time to manufacture records, it takes x amount of time to plan a release, it takes x amount of time to gather all of the artwork and to mix and to master and so then you start going "well ok we finished the record, cool, we're all high from it, let's go out and play the songs!" It's like ok... cool, well in a year you can do that (laughs).

It's just the nature of the medium I guess.

If you think about a sculpture, when you finish, you just let go of it - your part is done. With music, when you finish a record, you are entwined with it throughout your existence in a way which is both interesting and challenging because it's a living form, you have to come back to it. I've noticed that our relationships with our oldest songs are always changing. There's something special in music about the repetition of playing something where it becomes a home and a fortress and a space that you inhabit, like maybe we could move this little thing here, or rearrange the furniture. You're so acquainted with every part of it. That allows you this space to inhabit in a different way and it also becomes this vessel for other people.

What was different about this record compared to your first solo release back in 2014?

The record is an overflowing of life happening. There are these little signposts, pillars, or markers. Like Joni says, songs are like tattoos. When I made that first record at 21, I was sleeping on the floor of a warehouse in New York City in this place that's probably illegal, with 12 other people and no windows. I was waitressing full time and biking up to the upper west side, a two or three hour commute. It was so strange the juxtaposition of working in this really fancy restaurant and sleeping in this warehouse on the floor. I didn't know anybody in New York - Buck and I had just met each other. I had just graduated college, for awhile I thought I was going to go back to Minneapolis and then I realized I just really wanted to go back to New York. I was photographing birds a lot at that time, I don't know what it was, it was just this thing I was intrigued by — the pigeons in Bushwick. I had never seen anything like that. I think of being in that space and being in New York and just being by myself a lot. I remember looking at the birds and at that time I was just transfixed, they felt like they were a part of me, or that they were within me. I was watching them swirling around Bushwick, these flocks of 100 pigeons just dancing in circles.

I've heard about the pigeons. What intrigued you about them at the time?

You know the things that were so mesmerizing when you were a kid? You could understand the magic of it, and as you grow up, it's not so bewildering anymore. But it's also a tragic thing that happens as you get older. I was so wide open, I was sucking in and absorbing so much. One day I was photographing and this guy saw me and said do you want to come up and see the birds up here? And I was like what? (laughs) He had a great energy to him. I followed him up to the roof and I met his family and they were up there conducting the pigeons. They love the birds so much it makes them feel free. It was so beautiful because these were very masculine, tattooed dudes from Brooklyn you know, but it was just so tender in a way. It's this web all over Brooklyn of people who have birds and fly them, and that's why they go in circles and they can call them back. New York is such a maze of heavy material, concrete and metal and cement and stone, all of these human made structures that feel really weighted. It's a maze of structures. So when you see something like a bird or you feel it in when you're in the park, the natural things that are moving in this natural, flowing way, it's something.

You mentioned energy - is that something that you feel like you can perceive or see in people?

If someone is really guarded then I can't really feel their energy, and if people are really open I can. My own ability to perceive and sense changes based on my energy. There are moments where it feels useful. It's this dance - how am I touching things, how am I interacting with things? It feels really good to be present with that and to feel conscious with the how, because the how feels really important. The why of things is totally mysterious. Why do things happen? How we do things is less mysterious, because we can feel how instinctually, that empathy.

How have things changed for you since the beginning of your career in Big Thief?

Sometimes I feel like the veil feels very thin between my heart and other people. I can feel the walls becoming thicker in certain ways. I feel callouses as I'm getting older — callouses not in a hardened sense but the thing that allows you to do what you're doing, to do your craft without feeling too much pain, the way you're fingers callous over when you learn to play guitar. It's not like you're becoming numb or hardened. I can feel the callouses form on my hand when I learned to play the guitar but I can also feel the loss of sensation. When I touch something with my left hand, I really can't feel subtleties with my fingertips. Being on the road, you start forming a callous that allows you to survive and function in this very strange vacuum.

With me it's directly rubbing against this other part of me that wants to be open. There's these two parts at work - the part that's developing mechanisms to survive on the road, and the other part stretching infinitely outward into the edges of my being, to feel things fully. It's a really interesting dance — the dance of being a human being. We're stuck in finite forms, but we have a sense that we're made of something infinite. We can witness the decay of things, and feel the weight of gravity but we're also able to feel the expansive mystery and ether of things that we're also made of. That's the abysskiss, the mystery, the thing that you're staring out into, the unknown and acknowledging it - the kiss as a symbol of the union or an acknowledgment of the abyss — of everything and nothing.

There's a lot of lyrical references to very early life, being born, from songs "cradle" to "womb." What drew you to this imagery?

The themes of this record are very broad, covering the basics of birth and death and ache and longing and curiosity and fascination with mystery and the stuff of existence really - broad strokes. Then there's these little things that are revealing little webs inside myself that are these intricate experiences, communion with those things and it's been really important for me to think about death a lot where it feels gentle. My first experience with hearing about it, there was this aggressive recoiling of any adult who would be talking about death or the idea of death, it's this big thing that everyone knows, it's the most certain thing that we have. We don't really know anything other than we're born into this realm, and we will leave, we'll eventually lose everything - that's all we know. We let go of everyone we love and even our own bodies, that's the guarantee in this place. That is so wild because it makes everything so bittersweet. Every single moment is full and so rich because of that. People are very afraid of it, and I'm very afraid of it, of death and that unknown. That fascination with the void and the nothingness and I think that just having recognition of death as a part of life, being able to talk about it and look at it and feel it, and birth.

On the track "Terminal Paradise" too, you address birth with the lyric: "Screaming in the field / as I was born."

It's looking at the real picture of birth. It's not this sterile thing that happens in a little box under some florescent light where everyone is using chemicals and gloves. You're being pushed through a vagina, from a womb of a woman into the earth and it's bloody and it's painful and it's traumatic. What does that tell us about existence? The most beautiful, miraculous thing we can possibly think of is that another human can form inside another human, it's ingrained in everything, the bitter and the sweet and the blossom and the decay. It's so interesting because in a way death is so heavy, I'm not trying to diminish it in any way of death or loss, but I just wish we could have a bigger conversation about it and hold each other more — cradle ourselves and cradle each other through this existence and in an all encompassing way it's pretty exhausting how judgmental and separate everything is. I so wish we could just wake up suddenly and hold each other. We are all just a tiny part of this one planet, this one body.

Your lyrics are so vivid - who are some of the people that you looked up to growing up, songwriters or poets or authors?

The deepest influences I've had have just been people in my life like friends or partners or lovers or my family. I think that there is so much poetry in everyone, even if it's the most closed off person - it's really just come out of being truly curious and fascinated with the world around me and with other people and beings, and feeling like everyone is my teacher. I've always been an observer. Now that I'm speaking about this, it's a good reminder to get in touch with that part of myself, because it's not as if I'm always there but especially as a kid, my mom told me that I would just stare at people, I was kind of a stoic baby (laughs). Then I became goofy. There have been a lot of books and a lot of poets and philosophers and musicians over the years, but I wouldn't be able to say this one person I'm drawing from, it's a well of things.

The legacy of your label Saddle Creek is so big - with indie artists like Bright Eyes, The Faint, Rilo Kiley. How does it feel to be a part of that lineage?

I was really moved by Saddle Creek as people and their kindness. They're some of the most genuine and earnest people that I've met and they really care so much. It's wild and so inspiring. In this business too, when deciding who to work with, if you can remove what the actual job title is, it's really where you're choosing to spend hours of your life and who you're choosing to spend time talking with, so when I met them I thought I could spend hours of my life talking with these folks, I could share a part of my life with them and that's kind of how it feels.

You're on tour with Big Thief now - what are you most excited for coming up and how has the reception been this year?

Yesterday was one of my favorite shows that we've ever played in Portland. I don't know what it was about that night but I just felt so connected with the band, I felt like we just snapped into place — like we were one organism. We go through these little lulls where we're kind of disconnected, but what I'm starting to realize is that we always emerge from that at a new layer, a heightened place. I feel like all of that muddling through, it's not really a step backward, it's growth - I feel closer with them than ever, our friendships are just strengthening and the Portland show I couldn't say why, it was really an intangible thing but it kind of just felt that I don't think a single thought went through my mind. I don't think I thought anything the entire set.

Are you working on a third Big Thief album currently?

In a way, you could say that it's perpetually happening. You never know how the experiences will integrate, I'm always writing. With the solo record, I didn't even realize that I had started when I wrote the first song "10 Miles" which is the oldest song on the record. Little did I know that I had started my solo record in a way.