First Dates

A Pensive, Museum Date with Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker

As the Brooklyn band release their third album 'U.F.O.F.', I took Lenker to a slightly creepy childhood museum to talk tours, John Prine, and the intangible.

by Lauren O'Neill; photos by Chloe Sheppard
01 May 2019, 11:00am

All images by Chloe Sheppard

Big Thief's work ethic is an unstoppable force, kind of like a careering train, or a dad in a B&Q. As of Friday 3 May, when the band's third full length U.F.O.F. is released on 4AD, they’ll have released three albums in four years. On top of that, in 2018 vocalist and guitarist Adrianne Lenker also released a solo album, abysskiss, and performed a full tour behind it. This level of output is a huge feat for any band, but especially jaw-slackening when you consider just how wonderful – how considered, how illustrative of evolution – each of Big Thief's pieces of work have been.

Officially Big Thief are based in Brooklyn, where they formed in 2015. Lenker met fellow guitarist Buck Meek in a bodega, on her first day living in New York. Lately, however, the band have been unmoored, on a constant touring cycle. You can hear the impact of that dynamism on their always-propulsive music, and on U.F.O.F. in particular. The album hums with a forward-moving energy, and an overarching awareness that nothing stays the same. The first lines of the title track are pretty emblematic of these twin themes: “To my UFO friend / Goodbye, goodbye / Like a seed in the wind / She's taking up root in the sky,” Lenker coos.

The album is particularly artful at capturing small, ephemeral moments, and expanding them to tell what feel like profound truths, and to show that everything around us is connected. It's a timeless record that just so happens to be about the passing of time: its sounds are classic, its subject matter ever-relevant, feeling almost cosmic in its graceful understanding of the ebbs and flows of the universe. We give, we receive; we find, we lose.

Recently I met with Lenker for a tour of east London’s Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood – a fitting spot to discuss transience, acceptance of change, symbolism. As well as all of those big topics, we found time to talk about Joni Mitchell, the place of nature in Big Thief’s music, and the allure of wide open spaces when you’ve been touring in a van for years of your life. You can read our conversation below.

Noisey: So you’ve just been to Paris as a stop on your press tour, how was that?
Adrianne Lenker: This is my first press tour, but I've been touring for the last three years solidly. It was interesting; I was in Paris first to play a solo show and that was one of my favourite shows of the tour. I just like Paris a lot… then I came back a few days later by train – I've been travelling by train a lot, which I hadn't really done much previously.

Adrianne Lenker Chloe Sheppard Noisey 1

That must be different to the van touring I've read you describe before.
Yeah it's mostly driving and taking airplanes but I like the trains – they're probably my favourite mode of transportation. They're smooth, steady, and you've got a lot of room and can walk around.

And you can see outside.
Yeah, you can really see out and watch nature. Also the train tracks go through pathways that highways don't go through so it's cool. It also seems like you have to destroy less to build a train track – you don't pave the whole thing over, you just lay them down on top of things.

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I noticed a repeated theme of touch and tactile-ness throughout the album; it felt like hearing your thoughts on bodies and their relationship to the world.
It's interesting because I think through touch and the sensory experience, I'm discovering more about the intangible which is really interesting. It's like, the more you zoom in and focus on the details, the closer to the invisible and immeasurable qualities – like consciousness and energies – you get. And expanding outwards, into the cosmos, you learn more about the invisible or perceptible things. Everything stretches infinitely outwardly and inwardly, microscopically and macroscopically. To be at this sweet spot, this middle point in between, to be able to zoom into the cells it can just look like the cosmos, and you look out and it's all the same stuff really.

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Little moments feel like the main meat of U.F.O.F.'s lyrics, and Big Thief in general. How do you get to that point? Do certain things just stick out at you that you then want to explore?
I don't know what it's like to be another person so I'm not sure if other people experience it, but I just have these really vivid images that come to my mind and memory that really shape it. Some things feel so intense, in dreams and in my past and in my future they all kind of stick out, and time doesn't really feel linear. Even right now I really feel like I'm in a dream. As a kid too, I remember asking my mom "Is this a dream? Is this a dream?" and asking my parents all the time and I think I was seeing things from outside of myself, and watching it happen.

I appreciate that there are songwriters who contain the whole within every part, and every part is contained within the whole. So one little thing – like the way the table feels on my knuckles right now – there's worlds within that, when you zoom into that sensation and notice the small details. You can say the thing without saying the thing, and that's one of my favourite parts about writing. I think it's the part that I could endlessly expand. I want to finesse that, I want to learn. Like these masters… you know John Prine? He has this song, “Far from Me” that comes to mind. It goes like:

“As the cafe was closing / On a warm summer night / And Cathy was cleaning the spoons
The radio played the hit parade / And I hummed along with the tune
She asked me to change the station / Said the song just drove her insane
But it weren't just the music playing / It was me that she was trying to blame.”

It’s like, he's describing these details: first he's in the restaurant waiting for her to finish polishing the spoons to close down, then they're getting in the car and she opens her purse. And like, yeah OK, he's saying she's cleaning spoons and opening her purse, but that's not what he's saying.

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I think Joni Mitchell is amazing at that also.
Definitely, she's one of my favourites.

I love the line on “My Old Man”: “The frying pan's too wide.” You don't need anything more than that; it's so clever, such a skill. To be able to evoke what you want to evoke without actually saying the thing.
Gosh, Joni is actually so masterful with it. It's pretty incredible. Being able to articulate that thing we can all experience and relate to, and saying it, and it doesn't mean it's complicated… that's the thing. It's not about it being more flowery or decorative or even intellectual. It's actually just finding this little secret key into this portal of energy where things just line up, The eye, just like this magic spark.

Also, something in Joni Mitchell that I observe in Big Thief is when the music sort of mirrors and enhances the words she is saying. I was wondering what the process is for you, do you write lyrics and music after each other or in tandem? Because it really emotionally lifts the entire piece.
Usually, the music comes first: I'm sitting with my guitar, and for the most part, the guitar inspires me so much. Just feeling the vibrations through my body or finding a chord progression that gives me a feeling or serves as an outlet for something you are feeling – it's already enhancing this entire vibe that is already supporting itself. It's saying something that I don't know how to say and then the words trickle out of that.

I'll get a few words and then go back to the music and then back to words, and play them off each other – and then I'll bring the song to the band. There we'll do the same sort of fluid, stream-of-consciousness process, guided by feel and intuition. The feel is a priority. It's just, tapping into the most natural thing that's already there. I don't know, it's like figuring out the landscape of a song, as if we're excavating it and removing stuff and not cluttering it. It's more about the removal of things than it is adding things.

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I feel like the last record was more centred on relationships to other people; now it feels more like a relation to the world. How do you feel about that?
I think it's all getting at the same stuff. An album ago I was one layer removed, so maybe I was interpreting and processing the world more through relationships. I feel as though I deal with global stuff, but I try to stay away from political language because I feel like it's a language of opposition which immediately polarises. I think there's a layer below that I'm focusing on where we unite as human beings.

I want everyone to feel very welcomed in the space of our music and our songs, it doesn't matter what you believe or think, I just want to cultivate a space of peace and to touch on these things that bind us as humans. But there's also the wounded-ness of the world contained within that – and specifics too but without using specific language. I've always been aware of that stuff in my writing it's just becoming more and opening more and expanding more, while at the same time also becoming more detailed. There's more breadth to it.

I think as you're able to refine and get into the very fine details that's what gives the songs even more breadth, which is cool because what you're saying about contracting and expanding and it all being the same... it's really clear that this U.F.O.F. is more refined than anything you’ve done – it feels like each time it is the your vision is getting.
I feel like I'd like to even continue that. I feel like now this record's made I'm already feeling this call to simplify in a way. I'm trying to figure out how to do things even more simply and to do something more straightforward. How to reduce something to its simplest form is so interesting to me – but it doesn't mean it is diminishing the meaning. It’s amplifying it.

Pre-order U.F.O.F. from 4AD right here, before its release on Friday (then you can stream and/or buy it, obvs).

You can find Lauren on Twitter.