Adrianne Lenker Isn’t Scared of Sadness

When the singer and songwriter Adrianne Lenker was 21, she was involved in a bike accident that knocked out one of her incisors. For a while, she walked around with a fake, gold-colored cap in her mouth. But after she was able to invest in a porcelain tooth, Lenker realized she actually didn’t want to forget about the injury.

“After all that time with just a gap, it kind of felt strange to not see the scar,” she said in a recent interview.

Today, Lenker’s grin twinkles with a permanent gold replacement. And over the past several years, she has earned a reputation as a songwriter who sees the scars, and turns them into something beautiful. Much of this acclaim has come through her work in the band Big Thief, which since 2016 has released five albums of folk-indebted rock music that’s both stylistically adventurous and totally unguarded — like Fleetwood Mac, if it went to group therapy. Though Big Thief is a band of four equals, Lenker — who sings, writes and plays guitar — is the engine powering its sound.

The music producer Philip Weinrobe, who has known Lenker for nearly a decade, described her unadorned, crisp singing as “so honest and so true.” “She’s willing to go to the edges of her skill without fear or embarrassment,” he said.

In person, Lenker, 32, is disarmingly sincere and attentive. “I still like looking at the world around me with softness and an open heart,” she said at a Manhattan diner in late January, where she’d met to discuss “Bright Future,” her fifth solo record, over coffee and eggs. The night before, she’d stayed out late at the Alphabet City jazz club Mona’s, and hadn’t slept much. She pulled off a beanie to reveal a tousle of brown hair.

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

Lenker has devoted her life to maintaining close access to her emotions, and her music comes first. She does not have a fixed home base; when she isn’t touring, she rotates around the country, staying with family and friends. She was married to her Big Thief bandmate Buck Meek for three years; they separated and divorced while remaining on tour and carried on, remaining close. (Though she’s expressed reluctance to define her sexual identity, Lenker is currently dating a woman.)

Though she’s been bruised in the past, Lenker is emerging into a moment of clarity and confidence. “Bright Future,” due March 22, is a renewed statement of purpose: proof that she’s navigating the storms, and that her cultivated resilience somehow hasn’t hardened her to an often cruel world.

The title, Lenker noted, isn’t inherently positive — it could be the brightness of a sunrise, or an explosion. Yet its austere arrangements and calmed emotions tap into something peaceful: a sense of acceptance about the world, and all its human joys and miseries. There’s also a firm commitment to remaining connected with other people, rather than floating off in isolation. “To live in this life is to be burdened by the heaviness of whatever existence is,” she said. “I feel that burden through each person I know — it’s like a loop.”

The album includes raw, contemplative songs like “Sadness as a Gift,” initially written in the wake of romantic heartbreak. But its mournful lyrics are threaded with a feeling of nourishment and appreciation: “You could hear the music inside my mind/And you showed me a place I’ll find even when I’m old,” Lenker sings, her voice tender and knowing, her band playing warmly around her.

“If you can really allow yourself to feel it, your sadness doesn’t have to be so scary,” she explained, noting that her therapist had nudged her into seeing this perspective. “You wouldn’t feel it if you didn’t have this immense care — and so you can see your own love through the lens of the sadness, which is a beautiful thing.”

OVER THE COURSE of a half-day and a follow-up phone call, Lenker was comfortable offering many self-reflective and curious observations — about herself and her work, but also the world around her. Though her music has a reputation for being serious, she is much more off the cuff. (Weinrobe called her the “goofiest, funniest person I know.”) And when she did laugh, it somehow sounded thoughtful, like she’d instantaneously and secretly processed why something was funny, and welcomed you in to share the joke.

She talked about how her friendships with older musicians like Tucker Zimmerman and Steve Fisher — veteran songwriters who didn’t achieve much traditional success, but never stopped working — had helped her conceive of songwriting as a craft she might continue to refine for the rest of her life. She asked about the purpose of music criticism, in an earnest way that did not telegraph the skepticism of someone who’s been written about by many music critics, and inquired about the definition of “autofiction” when it came up in conversation. (“I’m happy to know that term because I think that’s what a lot of my songs are,” she said.)

“She’s someone who wakes up every day and feels like she’s at the very beginning of trying to unearth the depths of her life,” Meek said in a phone interview. “I think the reward for good work is more work, with her.”

Lenker was born in the Midwest, and briefly raised in a religious cult. Constantly moving around the country, her family only fleetingly lived in what she called a “real house” (the title of the opening track of “Bright Future”). She started writing songs at 10: “It’s been a friend to me more than anything,” she said as the diner slowly filled up, and she finished what would not be her last cup of coffee. “Sometimes, I feel I have to check: Is that 10-year-old still in me?”

As a teenager, she dropped out of school to focus on music; a few years later, she enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston off the strength of a personal audition for the dean of admissions, and received a full scholarship. While there, she met her future bandmate Meek, later reuniting with him when they were living in Brooklyn.

With the bassist Max Oleartchik and the drummer James Krivchenia, Big Thief embarked on what Lenker described as an endless cycle of recording and touring — nine months out of the year, for six straight years. Beginning with its 2016 record “Masterpiece,” the band won critical praise and intense devotion from a growing fan base attracted to its constantly changing live shows (set list are never repeated) and countercultural charm. They seemed like a group of people you’d meet at a health food store, and end up at their all-night potluck dinner.

Big Thief’s woodsy vibe also masked a serious virtuosity: All of its members attended Berklee, and forged a telepathic musical connection born from repeated practice, as well as natural talent. Lenker, Meek said, has “this really exploratory relationship with the guitar that, if you analyze it, is super complex — but to her, it’s all intuitive in the service of the song and the words.”

But building an indie band into a reliable brand exerted tremendous pressure on Lenker, both emotionally and physically. “I had a turbulent childhood, and a lot of pain in there,” she said. “It was all put aside when I was working — it wasn’t possible to deal with it on the road.” When it all caught up to her, she described it as running at full speed into a brick wall: “I literally, physically, could not move.”

In 2020, right after the coronavirus pandemic began, she was hospitalized. Since then, she’s worked hard at abandoning what she called a scarcity mind-set, a holdover from her past. “I used to play shows for a bag of coffee beans, when I was a teenager,” she said. “It felt weird to not be afraid that it could all collapse, or something. But I feel like I’ve gotten better at just trusting that it’ll all be OK.”

Though she now pays closer attention to her physical and mental health, Lenker is basically always writing songs. “I was pent up with a lot of stuff that I was keeping to myself, and it had to come out,” she said of “Bright Future.” It was recorded in the fall of 2022, following an unusually tumultuous period for Big Thief. That summer, the band had announced plans to perform concerts in Israel — where Oleartchik was born, and currently lives — but canceled the dates after intense social media blowback.

Lenker freely brought this up, calling it “naïve and not thought out” to believe they could play the shows without arousing criticism, and said she felt it was the type of inner turmoil that could break a band up. They ultimately worked through it, over hours of talking with each other and reaching out to “people who are smarter than us.” Lenker expressed both gratitude that the incident had pushed her to remember, “All right, I have to work on myself, always,” and discomfort with the online vitriol she’d received.

Though she didn’t directly make the connection, it seemed clear that all this had influenced her attitude on “Bright Future.” “When I collaborate with Big Thief, I put so much energy into that — it brings this whole other part of me out,” she said.

Her two last solo records, “Songs” and “Instrumentals,” released together in 2020, had been recorded in the early days of lockdown, and derived from “desperation” and “heavy grief,” both for the world and in her personal life. But on “Bright Future,” she tried a more relaxed approach. “Quiet can also be powerful and intense — when I’m just sitting and playing, I like that feeling of not having to push at all,” she said. “And I really wanted to push into the naturalness of not pushing.”

Lenker recruited Nick Hakim, Josefin Runsteen and Mat Davidson, multi-instrumentalists with their own robust careers whom she considered friends. (She’s known Hakim since they were teenagers.) Before recording, she told Weinrobe, who produced the album, that she didn’t want to tell anyone what to play. Instead, they worked out each arrangement in real time. “It was just her and her friends playing music together,” Weinrobe said. “There was no psychological imposition on the project; we were able to stay in this super pure music-making environment that had almost no recording studio-ness about it.”

The group recorded at the New England studio Double Infinity, where Lenker and her collaborators lived on-site, and spent all of their time together: taking long walks through the nearby wooded areas, cooking group meals, listening to records by Joni Mitchell and Beverly Glenn-Copeland. “I don’t think anyone had their phones out for the whole time,” she said.

Lenker makes no distinction between songs she writes for herself and the ones she writes for her band: “Vampire Empire,” a Big Thief live staple for years, appears on “Bright Future” in a faster, scrappier take. The yearning ballad “Free Treasure” encompasses multiple types of love, she said: parental love; romantic love; the platonic love she felt while recording at Double Infinity; even the love of her dog, Oso.

“I think somewhere in our hearts, we all desire for that: to be truly seen and be made time for,” she said. “Even if someone has five minutes to give you, that’s five minutes that feels infinite. I find myself longing for that as an adult.” This was very different from an early Big Thief song, she pointed out, where she sang “Real love makes your lungs black/Real love is a heart attack.”

“Finding somebody who gives you that patience and understanding and time in a truly gentle way — I don’t think I would have even been receptive to that, 10 years ago,” she said.

In New York, Lenker performed some of the “Bright Future” songs with Hakim for a private audience at Electric Lady Studios, and was still working out the kinks. “But there was something special about it because it was just very present,” she reflected. “The not-perfectness of it is fitting to the record, anyway.”

Part of Lenker’s anti-celebrity appeals from the way her songs can seem like a pane of glass placed between herself and the broader world — fragile, but a means of seeing her clearly. Some of the songs on “Bright Future” had been written about specific heartbreaks, and specific experiences of love. Yet she was chasing something bigger, and wanted listeners to hear that instead — something that transcended what people expected of her, or sought to discern from her relationships.

“We come into it not knowing where we came from, or where we’re going,” she said, as strangers ambled by her post-diner perch at the High Line. “All I know is we lose everything, and everyone we’ve ever come to love — which, no wonder life’s so hard.”

As she spoke, her voice grew faster and more passionate; her pauses became more intentional. “All we really have is the condition of our hearts and our souls, so my main goal is to condition myself to be more humble, more soft, more graceful.”

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