Adrianne Lenker doesn’t stop. The singer, who in 2019 released two critically acclaimed albums with her Brooklyn band Big Thief, and has just shared two more quarantine-recorded albums – the acoustic ‘Songs’ and sound collage ‘Instrumentals’ – under her own name, is sitting in her newly renovated trailer outside a studio in Topanga Canyon, California, where Big Thief are currently hard at work on yet more new material.
A little over a month ago, Lenker kitted out her new home in New York state, before driving it all the way to Los Angeles. After the current recording sessions wrap up in a week or so, the singer is set to take the trailer across the country again, planning stops in Arizona, Colorado and her home state of Minnesota, before heading back east. “My plan is to live in it the whole way,” she says happily. “I’ve yet to have a winter in it, but I think this little wood stove will do a pretty good job in this tiny space.”
Oh, and she also managed to acquire a new puppy on her cross-country journey. Oso, a great pyrenees/blue heeler cross who Lenker discovered at the side of the road in New Mexico, has been given a bone to chew on for our interview, in the hopes that it will keep him occupied (it doesn’t work).
As for all of us, this wasn’t how 2020 was originally set to go for the singer. Rewind eight months, and Lenker was in a cab on a rainy New York City day, on her way to fly to Europe for a run of headline Big Thief shows, including the band’s biggest gig to date, at London’s 5,000-capacity Hammersmith Apollo. The band’s 2019 albums – March’s sunny, enveloping ‘U.F.O.F.’ and dusty, gnarled October follow-up ‘Two Hands’ – pushed the band to significant new heights, leading them to be quickly heralded as one of the best folk-rock bands of their generation. The 2020 tour was set to be the biggest of their career to date, taking them to South America, Glastonbury, Japan and beyond.
“I heard a muffled news report on the radio of [coronavirus] happening in China,” Lenker recalls of the cab journey, “and I remember knowing that it was going to be global and really intense, on an intuitive level. I heard this thing puttering along the radio waves,” she says, before lifting the Britney mic she’s donned for our interview to her face, and recounting the hazy broadcast: “‘Da da da da da, Covid-19 outbreak in China, looks like da da da da'”. “I got a sense of knowing that this would happen,” she says. “It was like the foreshadowing that you’d see in a movie.”
Less than a month later, the four members of Big Thief were standing on a frozen street corner in Copenhagen, trying to keep warmth in their fingers as they played a short impromptu set outside the 1500-capacity Vega venue. They had played an early show that night, and had just minutes remaining before they were set to return to the stage a second time for a later gig. Which is precisely when the Danish Government immediately outlawed public gatherings of over 100 people due to the increasing threat of the virus, bringing an early end to the tour. The band packed their bags, and raced home to the States.
“It takes a while to sink into not being on tour,” Lenker says of the sudden newfound freedom that followed, a period of stasis that led her to create her stark, gorgeous pair of new solo albums. “I was definitely geared for operating on tour, because I had been touring for six years straight,” she adds. “I felt like I snapped into place and into my routine as soon as I was on tour again. When I was outside of that context, I felt a little bit anchor-less, and not really sure what to do with myself.”
In fact, the trailer she’s currently sitting in is the singer’s first place she’s had to call her own since Big Thief began touring in the middle of the 2010s. “It takes time to learn about yourself in a new context, and where to put your energy, and how to spend your time,” she ponders, finally unplugging from the non-stop touring machine. “I still feel like I’m just starting to get in there, all these months later. I’m just starting to become acquainted with the parts of myself that exist outside the vacuum of touring.”
For the early part of her quarantine, Lenker travelled to visit her sister in the foothills of the Western Massachusetts mountains, staying in a one-room cabin. Going through a break-up as well as digesting the rapidly changing world in the Covid era, the singer was processing personal and global grief at once, and began instinctively writing. Nine of the 11 tracks that make up ‘Songs’ were written while she was staying in the mountains.
“Life dramatically simplified,” she says of the experience. “There was a wood burning stove and compost toilet, and no running water, so I was carrying water and chopping wood and emptying the compost, and cooking meals for myself, and going on walks.”
The “totally unexpected” experience then led her to invite producer and friend Phil Weinrobe up to the cabin to record an album together. “I had most of the songs written that I wanted to record before I started recording,” she says, “but I just kept writing, and the songs I was writing then felt more important to record. It was different.”
She picked Weinrobe up in her truck in New York early one April morning, and they proceeded to create a studio from scratch in the cabin, an inspirational place that she describes as sounding like “the inside of an acoustic guitar”.
The albums created out of this period are records of great beauty and simplicity. Recorded on a sole acoustic guitar on an 8-track tape recorder with minimal overdubs, they find Lenker digesting and processing, in an open and unafraid way, the sense of loss that surrounded her. “Is it a crime to say I still need you?” she ponders on ‘Songs’ opener ‘two reverse’, while she sings longingly of “pulling your face close, wanting the inmost” on the hypnotising ‘forwards beckon rebound’. It’s a record of great longing, but, ultimately, of learning to work with what you have left.
‘Instrumentals’, its companion record, consists of the improvised acoustic guitar Lenker would play at the start and end of every day in the studio. Deeply calming and ambient-like, it features two just tracks, each around 20 minutes long, of Lenker noodling around on the guitar, periodically hitting a thunderous stride before retreating once again into soft plucking. On ‘music for indigo’, we hear the crackle of the tape, false starts, rain outside the window, and a playful chuckle after she narrowly misses one of the piercing harmonics that punctuate the track – it’s flawed, instinctive and wonderfully human.
Lenker says she wanted ‘Instrumentals’ to feel “like a friend playing the guitar to you in the corner of the room,” and the feeling of closeness between artist and listener that it inspires is undeniable. “I’ve been playing guitar like that since I was six years old, just making stuff up,” she says. “That instrument has been my main friend, my companion. It’s comforted me a lot. The way we recorded the instrumentals and how I played guitar almost feels more vulnerable [than ‘Songs’], because it’s not trying to be anything too much.”
“This is a confessional, personal record – and maybe that’s indulgent right now”
The innate calmness and balance of the tracks that make up ‘Songs’ also makes far more sense once having listened to ‘Instrumentals’. It’s easy to imagine writing soothing and grounded songs after beginning and ending every day in the studio twiddling away on such transcendent music.
“When I write, it feels like a really loving gesture towards myself,” she says, and the warmth and closeness of ‘Songs’ and ‘Instrumentals’ feel particularly vital in a world so divided and detached. The records share many of the same feelings and emotions – an earthy warmth, emotional openness, and unguarded intimacy – as Taylor Swift’s recent quarantine album ‘Folklore’, which was produced by Aaron Dessner of previous Big Thief tour mates The National. It’s an album that is likely to be remembered as the quintessential 2020 lockdown record.
“Woah – it’s so weird that you mention Taylor Swift,” Lenker exclaims animatedly. “I had a dream about Taylor Swift last night! It just came flooding back.” She remembers more and more details as she speaks. “We were in some part of the world – I think maybe Trinidad. There were all these gyms and fitness centres everywhere. Taylor Swift rolled in with her party, and invited me to do something with her – and then she kissed me. We were standing there, and we kissed, and then the whole thing dissipated and she had to do her thing. And then I thought, ‘Will she even remember me?! Is this gonna happen again, is this a thing? Wait, hold on – I think I’m in love with Taylor Swift!’”
Sadly, at the end of the dream it transpired that Swift only did it “to get some juice in the press,” and Lenker was left distraught. Well, we‘ve all been having strange dreams in lockdown, have we not?
Though they were ultimately released via 4AD, Big Thief’s label, Lenker originally considered archiving the records and keeping them to herself. She says that she had a “a number of different thoughts” about the world into which the albums were going to be released, and whether it was something that added value right in these darkest and strangest of times. “This feels like a personal confession,” she explains, “and a personal record – maybe that’s indulgent right now. Maybe in an age where everyone’s trying to circulate important information about so many things that are happening in the world, this is just going to clog the feed.”
In the end, though, she concluded that “artists shouldn’t refrain from sharing their art,” and is right to believe in sharing two records that possess such deep, vital comfort into a world that remains upside down. “I think it’s important,” she says, “just to offer it up in some way.”