Adrianne Lenk is not afraid of sadness


Singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker was involved in a bicycle accident when she was 21, knocking out one of her front teeth. For a while, she walked around with a fake gold hat in her mouth. But after she was able to purchase porcelain teeth, Lenk realized she didn’t actually want to forget the injury.

“It feels a little weird to not see the scars after all this time and just have a gap,” she said in a recent interview.

Today, Lenk’s smile sparkles with a permanent gold replacement. Over the past few years, she’s earned a reputation as a “songwriter who sees scars and turns them into something beautiful.” Much of that acclaim comes from her work with the band Big Thief, which has released five albums of folk-rock music since 2016 that are stylistically adventurous and completely unguarded—just Like Fleetwood Mac, if it had received group therapy. Although Big Thief is a band of four equal parts, singer, songwriter and guitarist Lenker is the engine of their sound.

Music producer Philip Weinrobe, who has known Lenk for nearly a decade, describes her earthy, crisp singing as “so honest, so real.” “She was willing to push the limits of her skills without fear or embarrassment,” he said.

In person, Lenk, 32, is heartwarmingly genuine and attentive. “I still like to look at the world around me with tenderness and openness,” she said in late January at a Manhattan diner, where she was discussing her fifth photo over coffee and eggs. Personal album “Bright Future”. The night before, she’d stayed late at Mona Jazz Club in Alphabet City and didn’t get much sleep. She took off a beanie, revealing a mess of brown hair.

“There are so many opportunities to get numb and go on autopilot — and to me, that numbness is the enemy of songwriting.”

Lenker dedicated her life to staying in close touch with her emotions, and her music came first. She has no fixed base; when she’s not touring, she rotates around the country staying with family and friends. She was married to Band member Buck Meeker for three years. They separated and divorced while continuing to tour, and continued to remain close. (She expressed reluctance to define her gender identity, but Lenk said she is currently dating a woman.)

Despite Lenk’s past injuries, she is entering a moment of clarity and confidence. “Bright Future,” out March 22, is a restatement of the goal: to prove that she’s getting through it, and that the resilience she’s developed doesn’t make her callous to a cruel world.

Lenk points out that the title is not inherently positive—it could be the brightness of a sunrise or an explosion. Yet there’s something peaceful about its austere arrangement and calm mood: a sense of acceptance of the world and all its human joys and pains. They also have a strong commitment to staying connected to other people rather than remaining alone. “Living in this kind of life, whatever existence is, carries a heavy burden,” she said. “I feel this burden through everyone I know — it’s like a cycle.”

The album includes some raw, contemplative songs like “Sadness as a Gift,” which were originally written in the aftermath of romantic heartbreak. But its sad lyrics are imbued with a sense of nourishment and appreciation: “You can hear the music in my head/You show me a place I can find even when I’m old,” Lenk sings, her voice tender And knowingly, her orchestra played enthusiastically around her.

“Your grief doesn’t have to be so scary if you can really allow yourself to feel it,” she explains, noting that her therapist pushed her to see this perspective. “If you don’t have this tremendous caring, you don’t feel it — so you can see your own love through the lens of grief, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

in the process Over a half-day and follow-up phone calls, Lenk was happy to offer many self-reflective and curious observations—about herself and her work, but also about the world around her. Although her music is known for its seriousness, she is more improvisational. (Wayne Robb called her “the silliest, funniest person I know.”) When she laughs, it sounds thoughtful, like she’s secretly thinking about why something is funny at once and welcoming You come in and share the joke.

She talked about how her friendships with older musicians like Tucker Zimmerman and Steve Fisher helped her view songwriting as a craft that she could work on for the rest of her career Continue to improve this craft over time. She asked about the purpose of music criticism in a serious way, without displaying the skepticism of someone who has been written about by many music critics, and asked in conversation the definition of “autofiction.” (“I’m happy to know that word because I think a lot of my songs are about that word,” she says.)

“She wakes up every day feeling like she’s at the beginning of exploring the depths of life,” Mick said in a phone interview. “I think the reward for a job well done is to do more work with her.”

Lenk was born in the Midwest and briefly raised in religious worship. Her family moved around the country, living only briefly in what she calls “a real house” (the title of the opening track to “Bright Future”). She starts writing songs at 10 o’clock: “To me, it’s the most important friend,” she said, finishing her last cup of coffee as the restaurant slowly filled up. “Sometimes I feel like I have to check: Is that 10-year-old still inside me?”

As a teenager, she dropped out of school to focus on music. A few years later, she entered the Berklee College of Music in Boston through a personal interview with the admissions director and received a full scholarship. There she met Mick and later reunited with him when they lived in Brooklyn.

Along with bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia, Big Thief began what Lenker calls an endless cycle of recording and touring—nine months a year, six years in a row. Beginning with 2016’s LP Masterpiece, the band has won critical acclaim and become strongly beloved by a growing fan base for its ever-changing live shows (the set list never repeats) and its counterculture appeal. They looked like a group of people who met at a health food store and ended up having an all-night potluck together.

Bandit’s forest vibe also belies serious virtuosity: all of its members attended Berklee and developed telepathic musical connections through practice and talent. Mick said Lenk “had a real exploratory relationship with the guitar, and if you analyze it, it’s very complex — but for her it was all intuitive in service of the song and the lyrics.”

But building an independent band into a credible brand put a huge amount of pressure on Lenk, both emotionally and physically. “I had a turbulent childhood, full of pain,” she said. “When I was working, it was all put on hold – it was impossible to deal with it on the road.” When it all caught up with her, she described herself as hitting a brick wall at full speed: “My body literally couldn’t move. “

In 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic began, she was hospitalized. Since then, she has worked hard to let go of what she calls a scarcity mentality, a legacy from her past. “When I was a teenager, I used to perform for a bag of coffee beans,” she said. “It’s weird not worrying that everything might fall apart or something. But I feel like I’ve gotten better at trusting that everything is going to be okay.

Although he’s now focusing more on his physical and mental health, Lenk has mostly been writing songs. “I had a lot of stuff that was bottled up and I had to get it out,” she said of “Bright Future.” The album was recorded in the fall of 2022, during a time of extraordinary turmoil for Big Thief. That summer, the band announced plans to perform concerts in Israel (where Oleartchik was born and currently lives), but canceled the dates after backlash on social media.

Lenk made the point casually, calling their belief that they could play the shows without attracting criticism “naive and ill-thought-out,” and saying she believed such inner turmoil could lead to the band’s breakup. They eventually solved the problem through hours of talking to each other and reaching out to “people smarter than us.” Lenk expressed her gratitude that the incident prompted her to remember, “Okay, I have to always work on myself,” while also being upset by the vitriol she received online.

While she didn’t directly point out the connection, it’s clear that it all influenced her approach to “Bright Future.” “When I worked with Big Thief, I put a lot of energy into it—it brought out another part of me,” she said.

Her last two solo records, Songs and Instrumental, released together in 2020, were recorded during the early days of lockdown and stemmed from “despair” and “heavy sadness” about the world and her personal life. But in “Bright Future,” she tries a lighter approach. “Quiet can be powerful and intense—when I’m just sitting and playing, I like the feeling that I don’t need to push at all,” she says. “I really wanted to push the naturalness of not pushing.”

Lenk recruited Nick Hakim, Josefin Runsteen and Mat Davidson, all multi-instrumentalists who have gone on to have stellar careers , she considers them friends. (She had known Hakeem since she was a teenager.) Before recording, she told album producer Weinrob that she didn’t want to tell anyone what to play. Instead, they made every arrangement on the fly. “It was just her and her friends playing music together,” Weinrob said. “There was no psychological imposition on this project; we were able to stay in this super pure music-making environment with almost no studio feel.

The band recorded at Double Infinity, a New England studio where Lenker and her collaborators lived on site and spent all their time together: walking in the nearby woods, cooking, and listening to Joni Mitchell and Beverly records. Len Copeland. “I don’t think anyone has their phone out all the time,” she said.

Lenker doesn’t differentiate between the songs she writes for herself and the songs she writes for the band: “Vampire Empire,” a Big Thief live staple for years, appears on “Bright Future” in a faster, bouncier style. The yearning ballad “Freedom’s Treasure” encompasses many kinds of love, she says: parental love; romantic love; the platonic love she felt while recording “Double Infinity”; even that of her dog Oso like.

“I think somewhere inside of us we all long for this: to be truly seen and to be given time,” she said. “Even if someone gives you five minutes, those five minutes can feel infinite. I found myself craving that as an adult.” She noted that it was very different from the earlier “Big Thief” songs, in which she sang to “True love turns your lungs black/True love is a heart attack. “

“Finding someone who can give you patience, understanding and time in a really gentle way – I think 10 years ago I wouldn’t have been okay with that,” she said.

In New York, Lenk and Hakeem performed some “Bright Future” songs to a private audience at Electric Lady Studios and are still working things out. “But there’s something special about it because it’s very present,” she reflects. “In any case, its imperfections are consistent with the record.”

Part of Lenk’s anti-celebrity comes from the fact that her songs seem like a pane of glass between herself and the wider world—fragile, but a way of seeing her clearly. Some of the songs on Bright Futures are about specific heartbreaks and specific experiences of love. Yet she’s pursuing something bigger and wants listeners to hear something beyond what people might expect of her, or try to discern from her relationships.

“We don’t know where we came from and we don’t know where we’re going,” she said as strangers strolled by her post-dinner perch on the High Line. “All I know is that we’ve lost everything, everyone we’ve ever loved – it’s no wonder life is so hard.”

As she spoke, her voice became faster and faster and more passionate. Her pauses became more deliberate. “All we really have is the state of our hearts and souls,” she says, “so my main goal is to become more humble, more gentle, more graceful.”



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