Adrianne Lenker's Songs Are Never Done: "It's a Collaboration with the Universe"

"I don't look at brightness as a positive or a negative. The stars are bright, the sun is bright. But if you are too close to it, it'll burn you up in a second."

Photo: Stephen McGill

BY Chris GeePublished Mar 21, 2024

"I would say that every song I write is a love song," Adrianne Lenker says with a calm exhale. "And understanding love is like a lifelong journey, and even then we might not fully understand it. It's as natural as breathing, and yet it's as mysterious as breathing. Like… why?"

She continues, "It's got an incredibly nuanced gradient. There are infinite variations. It's not just romantic love, friendship love, this kind of love, that kind of love, falling in love, falling out of love, loving your father, not loving your father — it's so much bigger than that. And I think, within that theme, all the other themes exist."

On her newest solo album, Bright Future, Big Thief's singer-guitarist explores the indescribable subtleties of love, from thoughtfully looking back on her past to possibly contending with what it could be like in the future. In her mind, reflecting on her personal experiences won't provide any definitive answers, but writing about it helps her maintain a "certain amount of curiosity and wonder and openness and with the world around." It's a universal subject, but not a simple one to distill into a clearcut interpretation.

For example, Lenker sings about a breakup on "Sadness as a Gift," but realizes that the sadness she develops is not necessarily a bad feeling, but something to experience and grow into as it becomes a part of the fabric of all of the personal connections we make as human beings.

"It's about looking at sadness as an indication of love and treasuring it in a way, even though originally in the moment I was writing it, I might have thought I was writing it about a person. But I feel like a lot of my songs are about more than one thing. And that's what makes them feel big to me, big enough to inhabit and for other people to also put their own stories into them."

Lenker's balanced outlook on life is something she has spoken to Exclaim! about before, so it's no surprise that she has continued to make her deeply mindful outlook on spirituality and our own emotional responses a focus on Bright Future. The album was recorded and mastered entirely with analogue equipment, which "invited the whole room" into the results. She and producer Philip Weinrobe capture this raw feeling particularly well on "Real House," a song that recalls both euphoric and intensely hurtful moments from Lenker's youth.

"You can't only take the joy and the warmth and the love; you also have to see the void and the lack of those things everywhere, as well." Lenker continues, "But that can also be hard, because there's also a lot pain and suffering everywhere, too."

Lenker constantly sees the profound beauty, tragedy, and humour in life's most naked moments. She often incorporates wordplay ("Evol" or "Donut Seam") or hints of humour — sometimes very directly, like on Big Thief's "Spud Infinity," and sometimes it's just a subtle line, even in her most emotionally intense songs. For Lenker, being funny is just another element that makes her songs grounded and tangible.

"My real self is not like this one-dimensional cryptic poet or songwriter person. I'm also a goof, and that's a real part of me. And so it feels in a way, the most sincere thing to do is to include some humor, because that's how I am, you know? Playfulness and humor can be as sincere as sadness, as crying. Being in humor, being in lightness, being in play – that's an important thing to tap into. Because that's what we tap into when we're children and it's what helps creativity flow."

She adds, "There's vulnerability in crying, but there's also vulnerability in laughter, and they come from the same place. Joni Mitchell has a line in her song ('People's Parties'), like, 'Laughing and crying / You know, it's the same release.'"

The lightness and careful nurturing of her inner relationship with her own curiosity and imagination is perhaps how Lenker keeps from burning out. After writing at least nine albums — depending on how how count them — between her solo work and Big Thief catalogue — Lenker has penned so many timeless songs over the last decade that the whole process just feels natural to her.

"It's a collaboration with the universe or a higher power, I feel like," she reflects. "It doesn't feel like it's just originating from my brain. It feels like I'm following an invisible thread of intuition, from one choice to the next."

Lenker confesses, "Maybe I don't even fully understand once I've written it, but it just feels right. And I just trust that. And then over time, it reveals its layers of meaning to me. That's a mark of what I feel is a good song. It keeps me wanting to play it."

One unique aspect of Lenker's work is that it is constantly evolving as she plays it more and more, with many of the songs existing in different versions, either as fully fleshed out recordings with Big Thief or as ever-morphing live songs, as the band frequently plays unreleased material years before any "official" version comes out. Similar to how "From" and "Terminal Paradise" existed as gentler tracks on Lenker's solo album abysskiss and appeared shortly after as full band songs on Big Thief's U.F.O.F., the more recent "Vampire Empire" is also heard on Bright Future with the original lyrics as a rougher, dustier edit.

Will any of Lenker's new solo songs also appear on the next Big Thief album? It's impossible to say for sure, but for Lenker, the next step in her career holds an ambiguous uncertainty, even though she calls the future "bright" on the title of the album.

"I don't look at brightness as a positive or a negative. The stars are bright, the sun is bright. But if you are too close to it, it'll burn you up in a second. And brightness can be blinding, but it can also be so beautiful, like the reflection of light on the water or a sunrise."

She continues, "It's also like how darkness isn't inherently bad. The womb is dark — like, the place of where we are all formed and created is dark. Perhaps the most clarity is found in darkness, like the feeling of the night or outer space, the quietness. It also can be enshrouding, and it can also be a scary place."

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