As frontwoman of Big Thief, Adrianne Lenker has spent the past few years being most known for writing and performing intricate and moving folk songs alongside her bandmates, but on her new solo record ‘abyskiss’ she shows a different side to her work as an artist.
A quietly moving and introspective record, ‘abyskiss’ arrives as a stream of consciousness, recorded over the space of a week from a collection of songs Arianne had been writing over the past two years during stolen moments in between Big Thief’s steadily expanding and busy touring schedule. Following on from her 2014 solo record ‘Hours Were The Birds’ and Big Thief’s two albums - last year’s ‘Capacity’ and 2016’s ‘Masterpiece’ - the album is arranged mostly around Adrianne’s delicate guitar work and distinctive vocals, allowing her storytelling to take centre stage.
A few days after its release, we spoke to Adrianne about making the record, birth, death, life and everything in between.
Maybe the first thing you notice with ‘abysskiss’ is that it’s a lot more stripped back and acoustic than your work with Big Thief - was that a conscious decision?
Yes, definitely. Big Thief is the alchemy of four people and when I’m by myself writing it’s usually just me and an acoustic guitar so I wanted to do something that kind of captured that. I didn’t really think when I recorded it about the timing. I just like felt like I was just ready to record the stuff. There were a lot of songs that didn’t really fit on a Big Thief project and I didn’t want them to slip away. I just recorded them based on that. I don’t really mind when it comes out, it was just a timing that kind of worked.
Could you explain a bit about the experience of recording it? Did it all come together quite quickly?
I had left Minnesota, I was visiting my family, I left there like early January. Went down to New Mexico by myself… I just took a road trip by myself for a few weeks, then drove to California and met up with [co-producer] Luke Temple and Gabe Wax, who engineered it. Basically, we just set up some microphones and I recorded for a week, just like played through a bunch of songs a few times each and we just, through stream of consciousness, added one or two elements per song.
What kind of atmosphere was it like?
The studio was pretty quirky, like this old hodge-podge castle thing that this professor built in, I think, anywhere between the 50s, 60s or 70s… It’s an interesting space. It’s somebody’s stream of consciousness space for sure and it’s perched up on this big hill overlooking the ocean. There’s like redwoods and bay leaf trees. There were so many beautiful, vibrant plants and the air was crisp and fresh. The whole front of the house was just windows and I set up in this giant room kind of like I could see the ocean which was pretty amazing.
Do you feel like you draw from the scenery when recording? Is it an inspiring thing?
Yeah, but I could be quite happy recording in any environment really. It’s basically inspiring in its own way. Each form of nature can be inspiring. I definitely don’t feel like I need an ocean view, but it was really cool. I think it did bring a lot of calm and I did feel a lot of calm while I was there and I’m grateful for that because I think these songs particularly required that space. That kind of calm space internally. So it was just nice, there was not really any distraction.
“Everything is both being born and dying at the same time at the same time, it’s pretty wild.”
What sort of themes or experiences were you working through when you wrote the album?
It’s hard to say exactly what I drew from because I feel like I’ve shed so many skins being on the road just like seeing so much so quickly, but I kind of would steal moments. I feel like a lot of my particles are scattered all over the place and then when I’m writing it feels like a gathering moment where all of the pieces come to one form and focus. The kind of wounding feeling, the constant feeling of pain and then it mending and repairing, where things sort of callous and scar but that’s also so beautiful.
It’s interesting, I’ve always been afraid of losing my softness and tenderness on the road which I don’t think is going to happen just because I’m aware of it. You have to develop some sort of callus in order to make it doable. It’s just like if you’re learning how to play guitar you have to develop calluses on your fingers so it doesn’t hurt you, but you lose a little bit of sensation as a compromise. I think in my nature I feel like I strive and flourish when I’m grounded and I can like cook meals and I can have some fun with routine and kind of connect with the earth and be in stillness. But my whole lifestyle and my choice and my journey has been kind of the opposite of that because it’s moving so quickly, so I’ve had to develop this way of existing on the road and also trying to keep all the essential parts of my being intact and being in contact with my spirit and that can be challenging sometimes. I think I’m just always pushing into feeling alive and not being numbed out. There’s moments where I suddenly feel like the connectedness of everything and it’s so overwhelmingly sweet, or bittersweet, and there’s so much on the album that focused on the duality inherent in everything. Like everything is both being born and dying at the same time at the same time, it’s pretty wild.
So when you’re writing a song, would you say that you use songwriting to process a feeling and then move on from it, or is it more to just capture a moment in time?
I think writing a song is often the beginning of looking at a feeling. Something about capturing the essence of the process. I think songs often encapsulate these moments of clarity. I might not understand the meaning of something until months or years after so often times it’s just the beginning of recognising something, and sometimes when a song comes through, there’s a feeling that happens that feels like I’m exploding, like I’m being burst open.
That’s what feels so good is feeling awake and connected. But in terms of cognitive understand and comprehending the meanings of things, that always takes so much time and forms. I feel like a lot of my songs are getting at the same thing that I’ve been wondering since I was five or six old and they may continue to be exploring the same things until I pass away. Just the same questions, they’re huge, there’s no much mystery. So, I don’t feel like I have anything figured out…
What’s your process when writing in deciding whether it’s going to be a solo song or a Big Thief song?
I don’t really know until later. I kind of bring everything to Big Thief first and if it doesn’t work or fit then it feels important for me to archive somehow or document somehow because otherwise the song will just disappear or slip away. Some might stick around but it feels good to capture them. It feels like a release like I don’t have to carry them around with me anymore. So it’s really something that reveals itself later, a lot of the songs don’t make sense with the whole band. A couple of them might appear with Big Thief, but most of them I feel like you know it feels good to me to just do something for myself as an individual as opposed to just part of a collective.
How does it differ if you’re performing by yourself as opposed to the whole band? Is that a different experience for you?
Yeah, very much, ‘cause they’re like my family and by this point we’ve spent almost every waking hour together for the past four years. I love it. We’ve all given ourselves up to it completely… well, almost completely. So, so much of my functioning in the world right now is through this organism of the band and when I’m by myself it’s just so different. I’m not really reacting to or responding to or bouncing off of these other humans putting out energy. It’s more solitude and more like solitary. It’s just a little more naked or a little more bare I think.
You’ve said before that you’ve been travelling on tour for basically three years now. So when you go home now, where is home for you? And what do you do when you’re there?
I don’t really have a home. I haven’t had a place for three years that’s my own, so I’m always in somebody else’s space but when I have time off I try and see my loved ones because I guess that is my home in a way. I just try to find them and be with them, spend time on earth with them. As far as alone time goes, I try and get some of that too but I don’t get too much of that. I just try to reconnect with all the other parts of myself, because I’m not just Adrianne the musician, or Adrianne of Big Thief, Adrianne the songwriter or guitar player…
Sometimes I feel like that part of my identity is just like so huge and all encompassing, but that’s just a part of me. It’s the part of me I’ve been feeding and focusing on and concentrating on for so long that I sometimes forget that I’m more than that. Like if all of that crumbled, if people suddenly lost interest, if it didn’t matter to people, who would I be and what’s my worth? And I think [that’s why] I just try to reconnect. I mean I believe my worth isn’t wrapped up in my ability to write songs or to perform to travel like this, but I think the things that make me feel grounded are just like connecting with nature and my own spirit and finding spaces to take care of my body, to make food or to work with my hands or to help other people with their projects or to have long conversations with friends or to just feel my soul or whatever ways i can.
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