Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief

Back in June 2016, Alaina Moore of Tennis (whom I interviewed for this site) emailed me about a new band she discovered. She wrote, "I just found a band called Big Thief with a debut album, Masterpiece. It's unbelievably good, and the song "Real Love" has a guitar solo that literally made me cry." 

That guitar solo is played by Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief's vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter. Since Masterpiece's release last year, the band put out Capacity, and on the strength of those two incredible albums (both on Saddle Creek Records), the band has leaped to the top of many critics' short list of best new bands, or just best bands period. And for good reason: the music is powerful and Lenker's lyrics are intensely personal. Much of this has to do, I think, with how Lenker travels through this world. She treats everything she sees and everything she hears as a work of art. The world is her palette. "My mind puts frames on everything," she told me.

Here's an example. While we were talking, she mentioned the wall of white brick across from her, interlaced with replacement red brick. The red brick was there for utility: the wall needed repair. But Lenker saw a pattern in the red, and to her it was art. "That's the kind of art I'm drawn to: it happens as a result of life. It never intended to be art. I try to see metaphor in everything, and it's important to see the story that everything around you is trying to tell."

Read my interview with Adrianne Lenker after listening to the beautiful guitar solo in "Real Love." 

Outside of songwriting, how much writing do you do?

It comes in waves. There are times when I'll get into writing a lot of poetry because my brain gets activated in that direction, but I do keep a journal and write in it every two or three days. That writing is not always about spilling my guts to myself about how I feel. Sometimes it is, but it's usually just abstract writing that turns into poetry or that makes its way into a song.

I like doing that because it's a release. When there's no pressure and it's not intended to be for anything, it's liberating. It's more like therapy instead of thinking This is going to be part of a song. so it's gotta be good.

You mentioned poetry. Do those words ever make their way into your song lyrics?

I keep them separate, but if I'm writing a song, I'll often remember that I've written something else around a certain theme in my journal. If that's the case, I'll go back to it and take some of the words I was using, or maybe just the tone, and use that in the song. But when I'm actually writing poetry, I'm not thinking about songs at all.

It sounds like you don't think it's important to write every day.

I don't think so, at least not for me. I've tried that before, periods where I've forced myself to write every day. And I don't like that feeling where it becomes an obligation. When I start associating the feeling of sitting down to write with a chore, I start to hate it. I don't like imposing the energy of force onto the writing.

Come to think of it, though, I do write every day, but I don't put pen to paper. In my mind, I compose every day. There are so many ways to interact creatively with the world. For instance, my mom isn't a musician. She doesn't actively create art, but she's one of the most creative people I know. She's creative in how she sees things and speaks about them. Sometimes you can see the frame that someone puts around something just by how they interact with it, and as I'm walking through the world, I'm always trying to find the presence that allows me to see things. Writing is about capturing those observations, capturing that space when you can really see things and be with them every second.

But sometimes I don't have time to write down those observations. Even then, they are interweaving themselves into my psyche and coming through in my songs. I might be writing a song for three weeks before I even write it down. It's all in my head, but I may not even know it's there. My being prepares me to birth that thing, almost like pregnancy. When I'm working on a song, it's swirling around every moment, all the time. I'm doing that right now, in fact; a song is circling in my head. I wake up singing it, and it's there. It stays there until I put it down or decide that it's done.

I hear that a great deal from songwriters about songs swirling around in their head, but they usually write them down or record the melody as soon as it happens. By keeping them in your head, are you worried that you might forget them?

photos by Shervin Lainez

photos by Shervin Lainez

It's all about the timing of writing it down. I don't feel comfortable writing things in my phone; I believe in the juju of the pen and paper. The phone cuts off part of the creative process. If I sit down to write a song, my phone is never there. It's always pen and paper. But I've also found that if I put something down prematurely, the creative flow stops. The timing of writing something is significant to me, and I'm still working through that part of the process. There are times when I think I have a great idea and I run to find a pen and paper, but the second I try to capture it, if it's premature, it slips away. I expereince that a lot.

Then how do you know when it's ready?

When I've been singing it for a while and the words form themselves heavily enough that I don't need to write them down. If they stick and they're the right words, I can repeat a verse to myself without writing it down. It's memorable. I'll play a song about twenty times after I write it, and I never have to look at it again.

I don't even have full versions for a lot of my songs written down. I didn't write down the lyrics for Capacity or Masterpiece until the label told me they needed the album and the lyrics. I told them I didn't have them written anywhere. With the song "Masterpiece," I wrote the whole thing on a hill in Kerrville, Texas without a pen, paper, or any kind of recording device. I had gone on a walk and didn't come back to the van until the whole thing was finished in my head. Learning to trust the words when they are right is important. When that happens, they repeat themselves without effort.

Once I begin writing a song, if I get a solid verse or section and I've been singing it, then I write it down, as opposed having a melody and trying to write words before the words form. I don't do much trial and error searching for the right word or line as I write. Once I've written a verse down, it frees up my energy to work on the next section because I don't have to think about it anymore. I don't have to carry it in my brain.

I'm guessing you do almost no revision once the words are on the page. 

Most of it is one page, one draft. Nothing changes. But as I sing the song, certain lines change. I mean, some songs have taken me months to chisel away at, a couple of lines here and there. They were like moving scultpures I had to revise.

Does one stand out that was a particularly arduous process?

"Haley" on the new album. That took me forever to figure out the chorus. And the lyrics are so simple on the chorus. But that was the problem: I was looking for something so much more complicated. It's a simple idea, but my first instinct was to shut myself off to the simple idea. Once I opened myself up, it was much easier. It's funny how easy it is to shut yourself off to simple ideas then eventually realize it's all you need to say.

If  a song is taking you a long time to complete, are you more likely to finish it or toss it aside?

There are some songs that I want to finish if it takes the rest of my life because I just love how it feels to play the song. I can sense how deep it is. It's something that I want to play, that feels good. And even though I don't have all the words, it's going to live with me. I'll keep coming back to it. These are the songs that I become committed to, almost like it's a relationship. Then there are others that, while they excite me, their roots aren't quite deep enough. I try to play them, I try to commit to them, but they keep telling me that they won't become full songs. There's no chemistry. It sounds like dating. Laughs.

Do you prefer pen and paper to write songs, or a computer?

Anything that's around. I've written a song in eyeliner before.

Do you try to adhere to a specific writing routine?

I would love a routine, but I've had to accept that it will never happen at least for a while. We're on the road nine months out of year, and I don't have a residence. All of my stuff is in storage. This life doesn't lend itself to routine. But I savor any time I can get a couple of hours by myself, because stuff just pours out. I can sense that things are simmering, just waiting to get out. I store so much being on the road. Any moment I can get to sit down, there's so much to sing about, and I don't even know where to start.

I used to think that I could only write at night because I'd write all night until sunrise. I've done that a fair amount, but because I've become more adaptable, I can write anytime, anywhere. All I need is stillness. It's not complete silence, but I need a quiet feeling. It might be the stairwell next to the green room, but if I can have the quiet feeling of being alone and still, that's all I need. Early next year, I'd love to find a place to write, like the desert, and write all by myself for a month.

Why the desert?

It's my favorite place at this time in my life. I'm drawn to the vastness of it and how it feels like nothing returns to you. Every thought and idea that you put out travels the way light travels through space. It's so huge. There are mirrors everywhere in the city, and in the mountains and the forest things cover you. That doesn't happen in the desert. I get the truest reflection of myself when there is no reflection. I can feel where I come from, that deep ancient origin. It's still, but there is so much life. And it's tough life.

You mentioned walking earlier. Does movement play a role in your writing process?

Movement and flow in the body helps not while I'm writing, but it helps the soul and mind. If I'm feeling physically shitty or haven't been taking care of myself, I'm not inspired. I'm not able to write. So the more I take care of my body, the easier it is. And movement helps take care of that.

Are there any rituals to your writing process?

I've never thought about that. But I do need my guitar when I write lyrics. I enjoy coffee too. A lot of things that I consume just get in the way when I write. I find that if I eat when I write, it starves the seed of inspiration. Even making love can get in the way of inspiration. Doing things that bring gratification and fulfill other parts of my life can starve my writing process. For whatever reason, coffee doesn't do that. But it has to be black. Sometimes if I'm up late trying to finish a song, I'll roll cigarettes. The classic combination of coffee and cigarettes.

How often do things you read or hear make their way into your songs?

That's a huge source for me. Huge. I learn so much through conversation, more than books or other music. A conversation between an elderly woman and the young boys sitting on the stoop, for example, and the way her back is bent and the way they stand. Even the conversations between things that are not human are important. There's a conversation between the light and a tree, the wall and a shadow. These are example of the conversations I witness. I learn the most by snapping myself back into the present all the time. Remembering to see. Be awake to everything. And I listen with my whole body, not just my ears. That's where most of my songs come from.

I'd like to hear more about how what you see plays a role in your writing process. Does visual art influence your process?

Most of the art I see is around me all the time, and my mind naturally puts frames on things. For instance, right now I'm sitting in the back of the place I'm staying, on a balcony. There's a wall in front of me with white bricks, but there's a place where the bricks have been filled in with red bricks, and it makes a beautiful pattern right up the center. I've been to this place several times, and I stare at that wall every time. It wasn't intended to be a piece of art. The only intention was to fill in where the wall needed repair. And yet it's a beautiful pattern. It could be in an exhibit. That's the kind of art I'm drawn to: it happens as a result of life. It never intended to be art. I try to see metaphor in everything, and it's important to see the story that everything around you is trying to tell.