Words by:
Photography: Christelle de Castro
Photography assistant: Duck Feeney
Grooming: Yuui Vision using Verb and Laura Mercia
Studio: Ground Work

Adrianne Lenker is doing karate kicks in the middle of a residential street in Bushwick, New York.

She almost looks tough – the oversized jacket, black carpenter jeans and spiky silver chain certainly help – but as cars approach the stop sign, the small photoshoot production crew on the sidewalk yells out “car!” like a group of suburban kids playing hockey in the cul-de-sac, and the facade is quickly broken. “She has a black belt in karate,” her manager promises me.

Lenker and the photographer are lost in the moment on this sunny winter afternoon and hesitant to stop. As she gracefully poses in front of the gate of a small rowhouse, a construction boss with a thick Brooklyn accent yells out directions over a bullhorn to men in a crane, increasingly losing his patience. “Move over to the left… your left!!!” he bellows. Meanwhile, Lenker cocks her cowboy hat to one side.

If Adrianne Lenker seems good at playing the front person, it’s because she’s had a lot of practice. Big Thief’s rise over the last eight years has been fuelled by near-constant touring and a prolific string of albums; shaggy yet technically impressive, the Grammy-nominated quartet can come across at times like modern indie rock’s answer to a jam band or Neil Young. Lenker started writing songs at just eight years old, encouraged by her musician father and entranced by how it lifted her out of her corporeal form (she grew up in a Christian cult in the midwest). She made an album as a teenager and ended up at Berklee College of Music on a scholarship funded by famed guitarist Susan Tedeschi. She’s been making music with her Big Thief bandmate Buck Meek for over a decade, but also records acoustic folk songs on her own, the latter showcasing the calming whirl of her fingerpicking and the beautiful way she captures details of everyday life.

As we stroll to a nearby Japanese restaurant, the 32-year-old says it never quite comes naturally, having her photo taken, but she’s gotten better at playing along. Lenker’s in New York for just a few days to promote her forthcoming solo album, Bright Future, and she wants to take advantage of it. After sitting down and soaking in the empty restaurant’s spa-style soundtrack, we sip on two different types of cold sake and agree to the lighter variety for a carafe. Plates of yellowtail, salmon and tuna sashimi are brought to us, along with a life-changing bowl of purple potato fries.

Lenker lived in Brooklyn in the early years of Big Thief but considers herself somewhat nomadic, travelling by truck and trailer with her dog Oso. She’s at peace in nature (despite being stung by a scorpion, twice) and often spends time in Minnesota (where she has family), the Texas hill country (where her girlfriend lives), and the northeast (where she recorded Bright Future). Accounts of the new album’s recording session make it seem like a magical woodland weekend trip with four of Lenker’s most talented friends, including neo-soul singer-songwriter Nick Hakim, violinist and composer Josefin Runsteen, and multi-instrumentalist Mat Davidson. “I collaborate so heavily with my band – every decision we make, we make together. In my solo work, it’s nice to not have to run anything by anyone,” she says. “I also chose these people because I wanted to just let ‘em fly. I didn’t direct them at all, really.” Daytime writing blended into cosy hangs in front of a fire at night, where Hakim and Davidson would play whatever was on their minds, much to Lenker’s delight.

The group’s contentment might also be attributed to some secret advice from co-producer and engineer Phil Weinrobe, who recorded the project live to tape at the remote analogue studio, Double Infinity. “Throughout that whole session, nobody ever stopped a take,” Lenker says. “Little did I know, Phil had talked to them about that very thing: ‘Don’t wait for a cue if she’s playing.’”

Had they stopped rolling, she says, they wouldn’t have made the album’s lucid opener, Real House, with the same level of immediacy. You can hear a sigh and a smirk before Lenker even says a word, putting you in the room as first-take magic comes to life, and that fly-on-the-wall quality is ever-present throughout the record (floors creak, strings squeak, Lenker’s voice is warm in your ear). “We all had these elaborate parts that we were going to play. I had this rhythmic guitar part and I just didn’t play it because Nick was playing the chords on piano, and they sounded so beautiful to me that I wanted to try singing over them. Inevitably, the songs you put the least pressure on end up being the most honest ones.”


Real House drops you into scenes from Lenker’s childhood, picking up on the familial universe of earlier tracks like Mythological Beauty, from Big Thief’s Capacity. Moving to the family’s first real house in Minnesota, rather than their previously transient way of living, is a core memory for Lenker, right up there with watching the disaster movie Deep Impact at age seven (“I didn’t really know that the world could end, and every night I was scared,” she admits). But the emotional climax of Real House comes when Lenker recounts seeing her mother cry for the first time, after their family dog died. “There’s something about writing to my mother,” she explains. “I’m always going to be doing that throughout my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever written something so autobiographical. I felt like I was archiving some of those pivotal moments in my life out of necessity.”

The piano-driven songs on Bright Future – such as Real HouseRuined and Evol, a ballad fit for an old music box or A Moon Shaped Pool – are among some of Lenker’s best, and eeriest-sounding. But more frivolous tunes also get their moment to shine: the album features a stripped-back, twanged-up version of the raucous Big Thief fan favourite Vampire Empire, where the yodel-like quality of Lenker’s voice and the satisfying cadence of her words can be fully appreciated (along with a killer fiddle part). She’s done this kind of thing before; her meditative 2018 LP Abysskiss opened with the gorgeous death dream Terminal Paradise, which later appeared on Big Thief’s sprawling U.F.O.F. album. But this time feels different, like unlocking an already great song’s truest version. “I really, really like this recording. The energy of it…” Lenker continues, “I felt so passionate and I wanted to include it, even over the title track, because this is kind of the time for Vampire Empire.”

"I hope to fall in love every day. I am in that state often but it's not necessarily pertaining to people as much as really falling in love with myself"

Another Bright Future highlight, the fleet-footed folk track Free Treasure, connects to earlier songs in the Lenker-verse, specifically Real Love, from Big Thief’s debut, Masterpiece. “I think of it as this landmark from when I wrote Real Love, where I was really in the throes of some pretty fresh trauma, and I knew that wasn’t real love, but I was processing real love as a heart attack,” she tells me. “I was able to write Free Treasure because I understand better now what actual love can feel like.” I ask her what she considers true love today. “Not criticising you or trying to change you, but more so the kind of love where you’re actually being seen and allowed to be everything that you are, in all of your imperfections.” Lenker recalls a work by the Persian lyric poet Hafiz: “Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that, it lights the whole sky.”


At one point during our lunch, I tell her that it seems like she’s always in love in her songs. She smiles and says she’s glad it seems that way. “I hope to fall in love every day. I am in that state often, but it’s not necessarily pertaining to people as much as really falling in love with myself,” she says, closely considering her words. “Relationships are the most important thing to me and also the hardest. I think I’m going to be on an endless journey of discovering all facets of my sexuality and how I want to be in relationships. I have so much nuance and complexity to what I need, and I do not feel by any means I’ve wrapped my mind around it.”

The topic of polyamory arises, and Lenker’s perspective is interesting. “I don’t believe you can get everything from one person, but for me I don’t think that necessarily equals, ‘OK, I don’t want to be with just one person.’ It’s also about my connection with myself. There are infinite ways relationships can look outside of these boxes of monogamy, polyamory, friends, romance. You can have deep romance with your friends that’s not sexual – it’s in the way you look at the world together. But it’s really hard to communicate through the differences.”

Still, she says, part of her has always wanted “that long, old, deep love” that her grandparents had. It would need to just evolve that way, though – by choosing to fall in love each day for decades. I’m reminded of her 2020 song Not a Lot, Just Forever, where her entrancing guitar parts are as tangled up as the closeness she sings of: “Through your eyes I see/ The smile you bring to me/ To your joy, I tether/ Not a lot, just forever/ Intertwined, sewn together.”

In conversation, Lenker gives the impression of being both wise and childlike, humbly and curiously embracing everything she’s learned along the way. She is generous with her time and energy, and nowhere is this more apparent than in her recent songwriting course through the School of Song, where thousands of fans tuned in for her weekly Zoom lectures and song dissections. “I have a deepened appreciation for teachers,” she says. “It is not easy to figure out how to articulate ideas.”


Lenker’s methods included a hand-drawn chart of how she balances the guitar drone, chords, vocal melody and lyrics within a song; a colourful array of dots and loops and smiley faces (one student on the course mentioned wanting to get a tattoo of it). She showed clips of guitarist Michael Hedges’ meditative tapping technique and analysed patterns in Lucinda Williams and John Prine tracks in order to teach the art of the metaphor (colour coding was once again involved). “The placement of the key” was how Lenker described it in a frankly mind-blowing lecture on how she tries to approach lyrics, meaning the place where the writing turns from literal to symbolic. “You’re saying this feeling is contained within this object and suddenly, after that point, it flipped on the switch in your brain that recognises objects infused with meaning,” she explains.

"I'm not scared of no one liking me, or not touring, or working in a diner, or even not having any records out for ten years. I'll always be able to write songs"

Lenker decided not to take songwriting classes while in music school, one of the main reasons being that it seems almost impossible to teach. “I do believe there’s a certain amount of lightning bolt strikes, and that’s when a song that feels really special comes out,” she says. “You can’t control that, but there are so many things you can practise to encourage that flow.” The building blocks, in her eyes, are curiosity, intuition and unblocking – listening to and taking care of yourself but also tapping into the micro moments, like staring at a patch of grass for a long time. “The more I zoom in, the more universal something becomes,” she told students during the first lecture, with a snowy window scene behind her.

Before each question and answer session, the folks who run School of Song would flash the Urban Dictionary definition of “punisher” and ask students to keep their questions succinct. Lenker has no shortage of these types of fans. “I think the punisher idea is somebody who’s unknowingly asking for a lot,” she tells me. “To be approached by someone in a respectful way like, ‘Just want to say I appreciate you, have a good day’ – that is very different from somebody lassoing you and trying to pull all of your energy. What a lot of people don’t realise is that you gave all your juice in the form of the show.”

A public-facing life doesn’t come without its frustrations. “Artists have to put up with a lot of abuse because you just have to,” Lenker sighs. “I’ve gotten the nastiest, meanest messages. I get so many that are just a long list of swear words. I tune it out and I’m good at it. But the fact that you have to tune stuff like that out, that it’s there and coming at you, it does affect you. It would be cool in general if this line between audience and artist, or human and celebrity, could be dismantled so that people could see that there is no difference. That’s an illusion.”


It is hard to imagine Lenker doing anything else, though – something that she herself confirms. “I’m not scared of no one liking me, or not touring, or working in a diner, or even not having any records out for ten years. I’ll always be able to play guitar and write songs.”

If Bright Future is any indication, she’ll also always have her friends to call on, and the desire to keep evolving. Song after song, the drive is in Lenker’s ear for catchy but creeping melodies, the way her fingers never seem to stop moving when they hit the fretboard, or the musical chances she continues to take. Whether she’s making 90s-indebted country strummers, traditional folk, Blake Mills-style song paintings, or haunted parlour music, Lenker sounds undeniably like herself on Bright Future. It may have something to do with learning to quiet her inner critic and trust her inner editor. Call it soft toughness or self-possessed tenderness, but she has that rare balance of extreme vulnerability and strength that, when employed correctly, can change the world around a person.

“As a performer, you get so used to the ‘customer is always right’ type of mentality,” Lenker admits as our lunch comes to a close. “Serve the people what they want. They’re making you money – they’re the reason you’re here. But the reason I’m with people is because I want to connect to something real and I want us all to be able to feel each other in a way that we couldn’t even imagine possible.”

Bright Future is out on 22 March via 4AD