Adrianne Lenker on education, vulnerability and why Big Thief’s albums couldn’t be more different

Big Thief are a band on the rise. Capacity, released in June this year, demonstrated that their critically acclaimed debut Masterpiece was far from a one off. Building on the dynamic musicianship, intimate storytelling and startling honesty of its predecessor, Capacity proved to be the perfect outlet for the band to exhibit their artistic growth and progress.

It’s a fluid, diverse, slippery record that is difficult to pin down. It’s also exceptionally powerful and rewarding.

Following the announcement that Big Thief will be returning to Australia in December, we jumped at the opportunity to check in with Adrianne Lenker; the band’s intense, charismatic, softly spoken singer/songwriter.

The interview took place over a long distance telephone line that threatened to give up at any moment. Thankfully, it didn’t…

big thief adrianne lenker interview happy mag

Before Big Thief return to Australia for a second run of 2017 dates, we stop by with Adrianne Lenker for the latest.

HAPPY: You were here with Big Thief late last year and played one of the final gigs at Newtown Social Club. It was a great show and a pleasure to see. During that gig you said you would be back next year, and barring any unexpected catastrophes, it looks like you’ll be a person of your word.

ADRIANNE: Well I said I hope to be back and yeah, it looks like we are coming. I’m finding that you can’t have too many expectations. It’s an interesting paradigm because on the one hand this business requires you to have a lot of future planning and to be forward thinking, but on the other hand it is very fluid. I don’t know, that is something I like about it as well. It’s kind of like not having expectations but being very delighted that we are coming back.

HAPPY: Definitely. Well that is great news from our point of view. I wanted to ask you a little about the new album. Some people have been quick to connect Capacity with your debut Masterpiece. There appear to be some similarities in the lyrical themes and, to a lesser extent the music, but I was interested in what you feel differentiates them.

ADRIANNE: Gosh I would have a hard time finding things that I thought were similar. I have been refining this thought because I have been asked this a lot. The difference between Masterpiece and Capacity… I mean I would hope that one could simply listen to each of the records and make their own distinctions; just feel however they feel them. But also I just think that it is in their nature, having recorded them in different places, at different times, with different lengths of time designated for the recording process, and just growing and going through life.

We couldn’t have made the same or a similar record. I mean we could have if we really tried. We could have made something similar but we couldn’t have recreated it. So instead we just let it take its natural place and shape. I think it is just different in so many ways, but mainly because all a record is is a recording of a time and a place. And of people, not always of people, but in this case.

We were different people; we had shed like 87 skins by the time we got to recording Capacity and that was only in a few months. There was only a few months time between recording Masterpiece and Capacity. But truly there is a new skin every day. We could make a record every day and each one would be different. I honestly haven’t spent too much time trying to draw similarities or differences but it is a natural continuation, and they are connected, but they aren’t necessarily meant to resemble one another.

HAPPY: You just spoke a little about how people contribute to making a record what it is. I think you may have been referring to you guys as musicians, writers and performers. However, your writing does often focus on individuals and their role in your life. You seem to have a propensity for naming songs after the people that they are about; Mary, Paul, Lorraine. I was wondering if that has gotten you into hot water before?

ADRIANNE: Not that I know of. If it has, it has been kept secret (laughter). I don’t think so, I don’t think I’ve written anything about anybody that I wouldn’t have wanted them to hear.

HAPPY: That makes sense. Your lyrics are full of empathy and compassion so I find it hard to believe someone feeling exposed or burned by them.

ADRIANNE: Oh gosh well I hope so. Yeah, I mean if anything I have felt a vulnerability in sharing certain things. Certain songs are very vulnerable and so it is less about worrying if the other person is going to be hurt or feel bad. I’ve never felt like my lyrics were pointed in that way. But more so about the delicateness of sharing certain things with masses of people that are so personal. And yeah, I’ve had special and specific moments of intensity when certain people who are in the songs have been in the room when I have played them. It is fragile, delicate… but not negative.

HAPPY: I read that three of the four members of Big Thief were educated at Berklee College of Music. People are sometimes a bit dismissive of music education, the implication often being that it breeds artists that are less “authentic”and lack originality. I wanted to ask how this environment affected you as an artist.

ADRIANNE: Well I can say that I understand how people would flinch at the idea of being taught music, or learning to write music, or learning about music as a thing that can be figured out and calculated. I cringe at that thought. I somehow got through Berklee without really retaining too much of the “standard” or “specific” way of thinking about music. It can be really challenging when you’re in that system to filter out the voices that are saying “you’re a 7.3 rated guitar player” or “this is music theory, this is how you do this, and this is a desirable sound or this is a desirable chord change, or this is not desirable, or here are all the notes that are the right notes”. But then it’s all how you look at it because you could go in there and take that as the thing, but that’s not the thing. The thing is the intangibility…

(Lost connection…)

ADRIANNE: Gosh I keep losing you… it’s almost like you’re on the other side of the world!

HAPPY: I know right!

ADRIANNE: I was just saying that the thing they are trying to teach in music school actually can’t really be taught. That is the dilemma that people get into. The magic isn’t something that can be taught. So if you go there looking to learn magic you can’t really do that. But if you’re going there with the mentality of picking up tools, carving out a tool that you could use along your journey to finding the magic then I think it’s a useful place to be.

For me, I started gathering tools based on what I felt I could really use and sometimes that tool was chords and different inversions. But sometimes that tool was how I can talk to my friend in a practice room late at night about things that I’m feeling. Or realising how some really special teachers that I had, what made them such powerful teachers was that they were adults who were so curious and really just wanted to learn. They were the moving teachers. I think that just internalising that was really cool.

Just like “wow, so why do I like these teachers so much, how come they resonate with me?” I guess what I found out was that the teachers that resonated with me the most were the ones who are just learning themselves and have a lot of questions; they are curious about you. That taught me a lot about how I would like to be with other people in my life. Those were the kind of things that I was gathering. You know general patience, being able to collaborate. So basically that’s all, I was kind of trailing off there.

HAPPY: Saddle Creek Records is a pretty iconic record label, located in the the Mid-West, which is where you are originally from. However, at the time that you signed to them you and the band had been based in New York for some time. Is there a story behind you ending up with them?

ADRIANNE: It was chance. I mean it was just this beautiful alchemy of us working on the stuff we wanted to be working on regardless of the outcome, regardless of getting support or representation. Just doing what we love and doing it with our whole hearts and then you know, being in a certain place where somebody was in the room when we were playing and really loved it and shared it with Rob from Saddle Creek. I mean it really was just being ready when the opportunity came. We were ready for it because we were just being as present as we could be, putting our hearts into it. But we had been playing and booking our own shows without a label for a few years. I was doing duo tours with Buck and then we did about a year of touring as a band pre any support or help.

HAPPY: You just mentioned that Buck (Meek) and you have been playing together for a number of years. During your Sydney show last year he sang a very beautiful a cappella song. I have heard rumours that he has been working on some solo material. Can you share any information about this?

ADRIANNE: Oh just that he is a really incredible songwriter and that he’s working on a beautiful record. It’s going to be something really special and I think it’s just full of magic. I’m excited that he is going to bring it into the world.

HAPPY: Sounds great, we are looking forward to it here. Last time you were in Australia you seemed quite impressed by the local bands you met and played with such as Body Type and Gabriella Cohen. Has this fostered a desire to investigate more Australian music? What are you all listening to at the moment?

ADRIANNE: I remember those shows playing with Gabriella Cohen and Body Type, they were awesome. Body Type was an especially awesome surprise, I had never heard them and they were so fun. I have really fond memories of our show in Sydney. It was one of my favourite shows that we have ever played and Body Type ruled and so did Gabriella Cohen. It was just really fun. Recently, we have been listening to mostly instrumental music. I’m really excited about the music of Julianna Barwick and John Luther Adams and Pauline Oliveros. It’s been very refreshing because we play shows every night hearing people sing lyrics a lot. It’s been very refreshing on long drives where we just have soundscape music that kind of supports and lays a beautiful pool of softness for our thoughts to sink into.

HAPPY: Definitely, thanks so much for chatting to me. Before you go I wanted to ask you one final question that we like to end our interviews with here at Happy. What makes you happy?

ADRIANNE: This. Yeah, this right now. Talking with you makes me feel happy.

HAPPY: (Uncontrollable gushing) Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure talking with you and I can’t wait to see you guys when you come back.

ADRIANNE: Thank you. I really appreciate it and we will see you all soon.


Catch Big Thief on their Australian tour this December:

7th December – Fly By Night Musicians Club, Freemantle – Tickets
8th December – The Howler, Melbourne – Tickets
12th December – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney – Tickets
13th December – The Foundry, Brisbane – Tickets
14th December – Brunswick Picture House, Brunswick Heads – Tickets

Big Thief also playing Meredith Music Festival. Grab your tickets here.