Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief interview: "I've been screaming a lot lately."
A couple of weeks before meeting Adrianne Lenker to discuss U.F.O.F., the third album from Big Thief, I had witnessed her solo performance at London’s Union Chapel. While I had thoroughly enjoyed all of her recorded work, it was in seeing her in this hallowed arena that I first fully registered just how preternaturally gifted a musician and songwriter she is. She didn’t merely play the songs, they moved through her, and simply being in her presence allowed us to conjoin in that mystical energy conduction.
So, meeting her to discuss U.F.O.F. was nerve-wracking. To sit with this woman - who in my mind was pretty much a deity - was something I wasn’t sure I was worthy of. I had only had the album for a week – nowhere near enough time to get beneath its surface – and when I sat across from her in a hotel in Bethnal Green, my questions suddenly seemed simplistic, naïve, childish.
Thankfully, Lenker turned out to be more loquacious than I had anticipated, taking the nub of my questions and spinning them out with her own unfiltered thoughts, feelings and memories. Although in a much less impressive surrounding than Union Chapel, Lenker still made the encounter seem special, holy. As in her songs, the connection with life and the thin membrane between emotions was present in her thoughts and monologues. While we talked she savoured the taste of an orange, got lost in the shifting light on the skin of a pear – but mostly just gave herself over to her thoughts, speaking slowly but heedlessly with whatever happened to bubble up in her mind.
The result is a long discussion, with her going on at length and whimsically beginning to unlock the many secrets held within U.F.O.F..
Only a couple of weeks ago you were here playing a solo show at Union Chapel; have you been home yet or is this part of the same trip?
This is part of the same trip.
Wow, they're keeping you busy.
Yeah, it's kinda wild. I suppose it's a busy career choice; it keeps you on the road. It's kind of a 24/7 experience.
You don't seem to get jaded about it, you enjoy being on the road right?
Yeah, but I have definite moments where I break down and it gets really challenging.
There's hardly been any break between albums, do you find that being constantly active keeps you writing? Or would you prefer more time off?
I've adapted to writing on the road out of necessity, so now I actually find it easier to write while I'm on the road and touring than I do when I'm still and in one place with time off. I think that's just because, in a way, I relax more when I'm traveling now; it's what I'm used to because I've been doing it for the last three and a half years. Then the creative energy starts to flow. When I'm still I get really uncomfortable and it takes me a while to get used to being still.
Has the rest of the band adapted that way too?
Yeah, although just recently [drummer] James [Krivchenia] has rented a little cabin in New Mexico, and [guitarist] Buck [Meek] has found a place in LA. Because we have the longest chunk of time we'd have off in three and a half years, since we started as a band. This is the longest time I've gone without seeing them, by far; I probably haven't spent more than a month apart from them at the longest. But this stretch of time is 5 months.
Wow, crazy. But you guys are good at letting each other have space; I remember you came on tour with Big Thief but Buck wasn't with you at the time, nevertheless you guys were happy to continue without him. Is that freedom key to keeping everyone happy?
Yeah, I think there has to be some level of fluidity in it, in order for it to have longevity. I think it really becomes such a lifestyle to be constantly traveling; we've all had to make a lot of sacrifices in order to do it, because it really does take you away from pretty much everything else, all your relationships. I think to have rigidity feels like it could break somehow, or crumble. If it's fluid and soft, and we can still integrate other parts of our lives, then we can adapt to playing as a trio. For the most part it's the four of us, but if we need space or distance or time to feed other outlets, we allow that to come in so no one ever feels stifled.
It's really been nice, actually, because when we play as a trio we learn a lot about our core as a band. Then when we come back to playing the four of us we learn more again. And then when I'm playing in just a duo with Buck... in any configuration I feel like it's teaching us about these different layers of our relationships together; it's interesting.
I find it fascinating that you've written this album on the road, because like your previous albums it's a quietish, rural sound. It's always a surprise to me that you live in New York, because it doesn't seem to feature in your music as much as the wilderness. How do you get into the right head space to write; do you have a ritual?
I must have, but I'm not aware of it if I do, because it seems like I just grab my guitar and start playing in these little in-between moments. I think we spend so much time in urban environments, in cities with human-made structures everywhere, and we spend most of our time in these little capsules of hotel rooms and green rooms and venues and stages and cars and airplanes and trains - it's all these little boxes. I think that I start to feel really desperate for connection with nature, and so I think the music does have a lot of nature in it because we bring the nature through our music, to sort of wrap us up and surround us in that energy. It's something that we're longing for. Also, we do make a point to spend time in nature as much as possible.
What kind of thing?
Stopping at natural bodies of water, looking for springs to swim in. Just stopping off on the side of the road for a while and just going on hikes. And when we're recording we try to record in nature, because I think that connection is so important.
For this album you went to Washington, how did you end up choosing there?
Just through researching and looking around. It looked beautiful, the space itself looked beautiful, and also we liked the idea of being in the Pacific Northwest. It ended up being this old barn/house space in the woods. The air was really crisp.
Do you think the surroundings affected the outcome?
It would have been different if we had been anywhere else. I think everything goes into the final result of the record. I think that the record is a result of the alchemy of us as energies; our relationships with each other, the food that we were eating (my sister and my cousin came and cooked for us), the environment, the weather, the season, the space itself. Everything goes into it. The music is just an overflowing of that.
The instrumentation and the production on U.F.O.F. seem more sophisticated on this record; there's extra layers without being overwhelming. Do you feel more confident in the studio?
We learn a lot from everything that we've made. I felt a lot more freedom to explore and experiment and play - play in the deep sense of the word, play like a child. I think we've become less serious, but also more, because of that. It's becoming a deeper process for me, all of this. I look at the studio like a space that's equipped with all these tools for exploration and excavation; it's not a place to go and make some product and make it perfect. I look at it as a place to go and document the process of learning and document the process of exploring. It feels more explorative but also somehow more rooted; a truer capture of our instruments and the beauty of their raw sounds. It's also reaching out and up more into the ethereal celestial space, more abstract sounds. I think that Big Thief has both, with all of our combined influences. It's exciting to reach into that more and start to play with sound and layers, but without leaving our foundation.
The album's called U.F.O.F., which stands for “UFO Friend”; why did that song end up lending its title to the record?
I like it when there's a song that sums up the whole record. It's kind of this apocalypse story, being afraid of aliens coming and landing on Earth, but also watching for them all the time and being curious and going out there as a little child with all your gear, looking for the beyond, for the unknown, your own special connection with that mystery and abyss. Being also simultaneously frightened, because any time there's a mystery it's frightening.
[In ‘UFOF’] there's this apocalypse playing out where you can see what would happen if we had polluted our planet and it had become so hostile to the point where extra-terrestrials just moved on, didn't land, couldn't come down to this vibration because it was too toxic. They just left and we missed out on our opportunity to make contact with other life, to learn more about this universe. Yes, it's scary to make contact with extra-terrestrials, but what's even more scary is not, and self-destructing on this planet, wounding the Earth beyond repair, creating such opposition and so much separateness and so many borders that we are just at war with each other and basically destroy ourselves.
Anyway, so UFOF is UFO Friend, and it is offering the idea of making friends with the unknown, the alien parts of ourselves and of each other and all that lays beyond. Rather than meeting things with fear and hostility, meeting things with love and acceptance and curiosity. Even just from across our own borders. I feel like these are abstract, we put these lines in the Earth and then decided that that's yours and this is mine. It creates this "otherness" that I feel is basically the disease of humanity, and we're cutting ourselves off from our own body, because we're all one organism. You don’t have to back up very far to see it all as one living breathing tiny little speck. It's just so strange how everything's polarized.
A lot of what you're talking about is fact, but it definitely has a speculative fiction or sci-fi tinge to it as well, which brings us back to the feeling of U.F.O.F.. Are you a sci-fi fan?
I haven't read nearly enough sci-fi yet, but I'm starting to read some Ursula LeGuin. James, the drummer in our band, he's a sci-fi buff; he reads tons of sci-fi on the road. Anyway, I have sci-fi in my head as well... the short answer is yes.
The sci-fi and fantastical elements are certainly more distinct on this album than the previous ones; almost every song has something supernatural about it.
I didn't write the songs with that intention, they just came out that way. Then I started realising that they were that way and then I started forming an intention, with the band, we all talked consciously about amplifying that aspect of the songs and the music, that they have this ethereal quality to them; supernatural and magic. We grouped the songs together in that they all felt like they had elements of magic and mystery in them. We would talk about that a lot; it was really exciting to us in thinking about the album as a whole.
The instrumental choices really bring that out as well. It sounds like there's a lot more synthesizer in this one than before?
You'd think, but we didn't actually use that much synth. Max [Oleartchik] played bass with the sustain pedal and made all these layers of landscapes and long drawn-out realms, and then we also did stuff with guitar and guitar pedals. We used one synthesizer, but I don't even know if you'd call it a synthesizer. And then also there was one mystery element called The Magic Box, that James made. It's on almost every song.
Does it sound the same in every song or different?
Does it work with the instrumentation around it or does it make its own thing?
I think both.
Cool! That's sci-fi in itself.
[Laughs] It had a blanket over it. I didn't even know what was in it. James was the mastermind of that.
'Contact' is the first song on the record. You don't have to tell me what it's about, but my interpretation is that you're inhabiting an older body, especially the end part where you're given pills... and then the screaming. Is that you screaming? We haven't heard anything like that on a Big Thief album before.
I've been screaming a lot lately. In shows too, it'll just come up randomly. Only if I feel it though, I don't ever really do it unless I actually get this huge urge. There's so much to feel, and if you are sensitive and tuned into yourself and the people around you, who you love, and your community, Mother Earth and nature... it's a lot to feel... it's a lot to feel, and I think that we can all feel it internally. We can all feel each other.
I think the entire Earth's vibrations are running through all of us, and that we're also made of the Earth and the more wounded the Earth becomes we can feel it in ourselves. When other people are suffering I think we can feel that suffering, because I do think there is a collective unconscious, something that is collective and shared. We can totally isolate ourselves from that and feel it less, but I think it's a certain amount of numbness or being desensitized, and I think when you actually feel it it's pretty intense. But I actually don't know for sure, maybe we are all separated and we only think there's a collective... I don't know. I believe that there is a shared consciousness.
Yeah, you can feel it sometimes, I think.
Yeah, there's so many... synchronicities.
Even simple things like laughter being infectious, or tears making people cry, compassion...
Exactly. We've given them words but what's actually happening is this energy exchange. You can feel each other. I think telepathically too; we can communicate on so many other levels besides just speaking. We know each other on a deep level. If someone falls and hits their head, and you see that happen, you know instinctively what that person needs and you go to them. You go to their side; you make contact with them.
Someone in an interview recently asked me I was happy; it seemed like I wasn't a happy child, or that I'm not happy. And so I was like "what's happy and why is there all this fixation on being happy or having to be happy?" I feel like joy and sadness are essentially part of the same thing, actually. The arrival of a really good feeling, you can't escape that it also comes with the passing of that feeling, letting go of that feeling, feeling the absence of that feeling. Also, when you love somebody, the more deeply you love them the more sadness you can feel. When they die, or even if they just move on, even if you lose that relationship, it's so intertwined. It's all so intertwined from moment to moment in life, I think.
I just think that feeling is something that I think is really beautiful; to be able to feel sadness or happiness, to be able to feel the pain of loss, or to really feel it when someone dies, to feel how they've become a part of you and they are integrated into your being, and to feel such joy from that but also such pain. So I would take that, it's alright with me, I'm OK with going through this constant fluctuation and feeling the duality of everything, even though it's really intense. I would take that over being numb. Sometimes I go into numbness, and for me that's the worst suffering. I'm always trying to get back from that place, because sometimes I just sink back into that space, for periods of time. I feel like I could just be run over or something and I wouldn't feel it. It's really strange, sinking down back and back and further into myself.
I feel like in this song ['Contact'] it's brooding around in this space of numbness; being in this physical body and feeling the body as more of a prison, having to medicate yourself and deal with the challenges that come from being in this physical form, and feeling like you're sort of sinking down into this cold water. You see the light just above you though, but you can't quite come out of it. You can't break out of it. You can see that it's there, but you just can't quite move yourself to experience it or to feel it. Then part of you just wants to surrender to that feeling of falling away from yourself, and surrender to that feeling of just leaving, disappearing. Then there's another part of you that's wanting, longing so desperately to feel connected again, to feel alive, to feel all the sweetness of life and all of that life force…
Then the end [of ‘Contact’] is just as if you're drowning, and someone grabs you and suddenly you're pulled out of the water and you're just like "EURGH" and all the oxygen comes back, and all the blood and all the feeling, suddenly, something breaks and you suddenly can feel again. It's like all this pain that you're feeling, that you were cut off from, and also all this life. It's just like "RAAAAHHH" because it's just like... yeah...
[Laughs] But even birth is painful. Even our very first moments on Earth, it's gory, it's bloody, it's strange, it's intense. Your mother has to go through pain, and she's also maybe screaming. Like "AAAAAAAAAH." It's painful. This is also simultaneously the most miraculous, beautiful [event]. Pain is truly interwoven into everything.
Well, I don't know what to say after that. It's too much to think about. Let's go to something dumb, maybe patronising, but is it too simple to relate 'UFOF' to E.T.?
I don't think so. I think that's a really beautiful story, E.T.... sad... it is like that.
Yeah, and E.T. shows Elliott how to feel in some ways. That idea of connection is in there...
I really want to re-watch E.T.; it's been a long time since I've seen it.
It'll make you cry your eyes out. It's harrowing....
Anyway, 'Cattails' was written at the studio; was that just a moment of inspiration?
Yeah. I felt really inspired at that studio. The environment and the air and everything. The energy was moving. I started a song and then the next morning I kept working on it when I was outside playing my 12-string guitar. Then I finished it and I was like "can we record this song today? Because I just wrote this." Then James sat at the drums, and it was kinda one of the most magic moments of that time recording.
We worked with this engineer Dom Monks, he and [Andrew] Sarlo together were the masterminds of the sound, but Dom was like the master of placing microphones and stuff. He would so quietly come in and put up a mike; I'm in there just practising or playing something and we've got this energy going, and suddenly Dom's got these mikes going up and he's ready to go before I know it. I just played it and sang it while James played the drums, and I had just written the lyrics, and I was really hoping that I would get through the lyrics, I had kept fumbling on them. And then we did this one moment where I started it and I kept hanging onto this thread and we got to the end of the song and I had almost felt like I was... I felt such an energy washing through the room. I got through the whole thing and we had both felt it, it was such a good energy. Then we just listened back and that was it; we had captured the core of the song, in one take, singing and playing live both at the same time.
'From' and 'Terminal Paradise' were on your solo record; how did it work re-recording them with the band? Did you want to make it a different mood or was it the same feeling done differently?
I just really appreciated the intimacy of playing 'From' and 'Terminal Paradise' by myself; there was some special magic that I could feel when they were in their original forms. But also I felt there to be a lot of value in the landscape that Big Thief brings to it, when we all play together. It just felt like they really fit on both projects. I just love playing them with the band also, but I also wanted to archive a version just on the acoustic guitar, a softer version. They just really fit, thematically and feeling-wise, with the record, so we just did it because it felt good.
One of my favourite moments on the record is you and Buck singing together on 'Century'; "we have the same power."
He just started singing it with me and it really felt right.
That song is quite seductive, at least that's what I feel about it.
I suppose it's like noticing all these details in this moment of having intimacy with somebody. What does it mean to have that kind of intimacy and closeness with somebody? And just the uncertainty of what it means in light of the fact that everything is impermanent.
I don't know what I'd do for love; I still don't know the breadth of my own love and my own way of loving, and my own way of being in a relationship - but all that exists is the present. For instance, when you're making love you're accessing that collective, you are essentially becoming one entity, you're both touching the core source energy, you're connected to the same power, the same energy is flowing through. I suppose there's a lot of sensuality and sexuality in it. But I think those are encompassing so much: birth and death, the bugs that die on the windshield, the dog's eyes in the headlights reflecting light back, the moth flying in the window, the cold lips, the glistening eyes... I think it's just like these details.
Also, someone's been on a journey, where were they coming from? Is the person who is greeting them in their home telling them "let's have a hot shower"? In my mind they've known each other for a while, they have a familiarity, but it's unclear if he's just coming home... I don't think so though, I get the feeling that he's been on this long journey, because there's enough bugs on the windshield that he's probably been driving for a while. There's a familiarity and he's probably been driving for some time and then she is taking this lover but feeling uncertainty and impermanence. So what is their relationship? It's interesting to me, that song, I feel like it's a tiny little glimpse into the longer, bigger story, but there's a deep love that they share. They're able to be like "Listen, I don't know where you're going next, or how long we'll be together, or what's gonna happen in life, but let's be here together now in this moment and enjoy this eternal feeling of accessing this deep power that flows through us." Through intimacy with each other we can access the intangible... or something...
Big Thief’s new album U.F.O.F. is out now on 4AD.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 7th May 2019