Adrianne Lenker performs with Big Thief at their NPR Tiny Desk Concert. — video still
The few people who didn’t hear about Big Thief’s 2016 debut, Masterpiece, likely learned about them through Capacity, released in June of this year — some of the most gorgeous, yearning music being made in America today. I was able to talk to lead singer Adrianne Lenker, who offered an in-depth explanation of her unique life in a Pitchfork interview earlier this year, about how she generates such devastatingly beautiful songs of joy and sorrow. Her insights into art are incredible: See them put to action on Oct. 13 at 9 p.m. at the Mill, with MegaBog opening. Tickets are $15.
Speaking musically, what is the origin point of your songs? Where do they start?
They’re all different. The question of where they come from, I don’t know.
I meant in terms of your process:
For me, guitar has always been my vessel; the instrument that’s been the portal for me. I always find sparks of inspiration through playing it … a chord progression, or something I want to play over and over. Melodies and lyrics occur at the same time. I’ll start mumbling melodies.
Your songs remind me of the way Van Gogh painted, with a lot of texture on the canvas. How do you decide which textures to put on songs?
It’s less of a decision — it’s more just a natural process of nurturing something while it grows, to listen and attend to what the song is asking for and then allow the song to be. It’s like feeling through the dark, feeling for magic. You’ll know when you find it. The textures are added by following instincts. It’s more like being nurturers of a garden than builders of a construct. It requires removing the ego.
What’s the actual practice of nurturing like? Is it a passive sitting and waiting? Or do you put scaffolding around the growth as you cultivate a song?
I bring the song and we [the band] put ourselves in a space. It isn’t formulaic. If there was a recipe we could make the songs feel great, but there’s nothing we can repeat. We sit in a room together, holding our instruments, and we start really listening … and as we listen, we learn what to play. Sometimes nobody hears anything, but if there’s an arrangement, it’s just because people hear it. What’s needed is an openness or an egolessness that avoids a need to play cool parts. It’s like [the band is] becoming a whole organism — not just playing just to play.
So as you develop a song, is it the process of the song becoming the song, or the band becoming the band? As in: Does the band get out of the way so the song can become itself, or does the band being itself allow the song to come into existence?
Both — those are the same things. Our band … I’m trying to picture the band without songs. I think becoming a band and realizing songs are things on different tracks. Becoming a band happens over years — if you’re a band, it doesn’t matter what you’re playing. You’re responding together. You could make a painting and do it in a Big Thief way. It’s 90% being a partnership and 10% making music.
The songs are like something that we as a band feel … they’re the most important element to us musically. We want to serve the song, and when we try to bring a song to the light, it’s about the song and we work at forgetting ourselves. Bobby McPherson said something at Berkeley, and this isn’t an exact quote, but he was working to get to the place where the music is so big that his body could disappear when making music. We’re trying to get closer to that. Indirectly, the care we put into songs and how we hold space for it makes us the band we are. It is a result of truly sharing our songs.
How satisfied are you with the recording as a final product?
We have to be satisfied to a certain degree — we wouldn’t put it out if we didn’t see it as a good translation of the song. We wouldn’t release something for a deadline. Deciding to put it out requires a certain level of acceptance. I wouldn’t call it satisfaction — we’re left unsatisfied. We learned worlds of things since Masterpiece we put toward Capacity. And that — it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t going to be more it than it is — when mastering, it’s like sculpting and removing the last bits of clay. And if you remove too much it is altered beyond itself. We have to accept what it is.
But I’m always unsatisfied. We’re hungry, our worlds are being blasted open with each step of the process of making music and touring and making music. It’s a blessing with each layer, and each layer is a new world of things to learn. There’s a lot we’re thinking of for the next album. But we try to be kind to ourselves, and gentle, and not put down our own work. Just like with a kid finger painting — you wouldn’t call it shitty or say these elements won’t cut it. The child in us is what is activated when creating, and we have to keep it alive and well and nurtured and unafraid. Putting out records doesn’t need to be too precious. When we leave it, we accept it as what it is, so the record is a time, place, and stage in the next evolution
Do your songs continue to unfold and evolve as you tour with them? What’s your relationship with them like?
Usually they grow and we get better at playing them. It’s cool. We’re still getting better at the Masterpiece songs. Records just capture a point in time in the life of the song. We keep learning how we want to play the song — but in that way its cool; it’d be boring if the life of the song ended with the recording and everything else was on repeat. The songs are hollow vessels we inhabit and we inhabit them in our given present forms.
Lyrically, there’s something raw and true seeming about what you write: How much is this your personal truth rather than something you recognize as the truth of the song relative to its needs?
I can’t separate them. I don’t know what the truth of a song is or the truth of me is. When I resonate with something in a song I may not understand it. It may just be something that comes out and over time it comes out differently, like later I hear it for the first time, too. Over time, I learn what it means. There hasn’t been a song yet where over time it didn’t become stronger and more clear that it’s a part of me, or learn the part of me that it is speaking to. Often, the songs are medicine for me in that way. I’ll write something before I have consciously worked through it or thought about it, but it feels good or right. There’s a lot of lines like that. I don’t judge lines as they come out. It could be two years later, and I’ll say, “That’s what that line is.” I don’t know the truth in any case. but all the songs feel true to me.