Adrianne Lenker is calling from Wimberley, Texas. The Big Thief frontwoman is enjoying her stay in the Lone Star State, particularly the balmy weather and time with friends. The other members of her band (Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik and James Krivchenia) are based in Brooklyn, but she describes herself more as “based on Earth as an individual.” Having the ability to go where needed and wanted suits the singer/songwriter. And right now, hill country seems to reflect her headspace.
“This is a place I feel like is embodying something I use in my music,” she says. “When I look at nature, I feel like there’s a lot of metaphor in it. The way I see a tree or a plant growing, everything feels so meaningful and rich. I think [my music] comes in response to that. One sentence can be interpreted so many different ways. I want to create vessels for other people to inhabit. It feels bigger. It feels wider to me that way. It feels like I’m not trapped by the things that I’m writing. I can change and still sing them and they can encompass my form of inhabiting. They can be with me through my process of evolution and growth. Better than being specific. I don’t even know how to write that way.”
Big Thief’s sophomore album, Capacity (out June 9 on Saddle Creek), is a guitar-driven, folk-kissed exploration of those expansive ideas. It’s a tribute to Lenker’s sanguine soprano that she can deliver damning lines like “Don’t take me for a fool/There’s a woman inside of me/ there’s one inside of you too/and she don’t always do the pretty things,” and imbue them with a glimmer of hope.
“I find it easier to be more kind to others sometimes than I do with myself,” she says, weighing her words carefully. “I realize that I can be more receptive and empathetic to the people that I love, the deeper I can embrace myself.”
It’s that belief that things can change—sometimes even for the better—that often leads fans to approach the musician at the merch table after shows, eager to share their thoughts and feelings. Lenker treasures these conversations (“It’s awesome, that’s what it’s for,”), but often worries that difficultly of reconciling the art with the artist will leave some fans disappointed. She’s in there, sure. But like most things in the Big Thief world, it’s complicated.
“I can’t take myself out of it, no matter how much I want to,” she says. “I was asked recently if [the songs are] all autobiographical, or if they’re all true, or if they’re fictional. They’re not such different things. They are all autobiographical. They’re all true. I’ve never really written a fictional piece. But sometimes I choose symbolism and metaphor in place of literal action. I feel like that can better express the core of the idea. There’s so many different ways to look at something or to tell something or to tell a story. I think metaphorical or symbolic language can be equally as true as literal language. They’re just different choices…It’s interesting to talk about the songs because nothing explains the songs like the songs.”
Capacity’s dense cast of characters run the emotional gauntlet. Big Thief’s restrained instrumentation is a backdrop for sprawling stories—from the man on a road trip to catch a fatalistic flame, a sexual encounter with questionable power dynamics, and, in the case of “Mythological Beauty,” Lenker’s own mother, who struggled as a young woman to raise a family while still a child herself.
“I find it easier to be more kind to others sometimes than I do with myself,” she says, weighing her words carefully. “I realize that I can be more receptive and empathetic to the people that I love, the deeper I can embrace myself. Seeing the way I naturally love other people is a good teacher. I think there’s a longing for that, for giving that inward. I think singing through, or for, or to my mother or my best friend, or a lover, or anyone, I think it’s all singing into myself. It’s just sometimes easier to push into it. Sometimes it’s too challenging to speak directly into myself. But then I’ll realize later that every single person I’m singing to this person I feel empathy, or passion, or love for is completely applicable to myself. If I apply it, it’s good medicine.”
Okay, so maybe it’s not just an artistic exercise. Lenker believes the world is bigger than what we can see. She believes in magic. But fate? Like everything else she holds dear, there are many sides to consider.
“I think it’s always in flux,” she muses. “It’s beyond anything anyone could truly know. I’ve witnessed how putting thoughts are like planting seeds. They can be watered and manifest and grow. I think just setting intentions of my core spirit has brought me to everything I have in my life. I don’t know. The big answer is I don’t know! The smaller answers are that I like the idea that it’s some form of fate or destiny that’s actually shaped by us. It’s all at once meant to happen and it’s also chosen. Will and fate are actually the same thing, and it’s all existing. That’s just an idea. I think my thoughts on this will be constantly moving, but it feels powerful. There’s magic everywhere. It’s so incredible how things grow. Just being able to watch something grow and move and change. Everything is such a mystery. That’s the magic of it.”