This was not supposed to be the year Adrianne Lenker went solo. The 29-year-old frontwoman of indie cult favorite Big Thief had expected to tour with the band and make new music with it — but instead she’s in upstate New York, tinkering away on a camper trailer that she plans to hitch to her truck and drive west. And, oh yes, she’s created a pair of solo albums, one instrumental and one lyrical, a surprise to no one more than herself.
Big Thief, which released its first album in 2016, was touring in March when the virus caused everything to come to a halt. As the shows were canceled, Lenker flew to New York, got in a car and drove to Massachusetts to be with her sister, who was living on land where there “just so happened to be a cabin that was empty in the woods near her.” Lenker didn’t intend to start writing music, but “it’s just something I do when I’m alone,” she says over a Zoom call, wearing a beanie lying down in bed, a candle lit just out of frame. “It was just simple and natural. It was just a small cabin, with a really simple structure and no running water and a composting toilet, like a bucket essentially, and a wood stove that I was cooking on. I was chopping wood and carrying water and stuff like that every day. And also just playing guitar. I just naturally was playing a lot of music and writing a lot and started getting visions and ideas and just wanted to make a record — that was very clear in my mind.”
The result is “Songs” and “Instrumentals,” which is just as it sounds: a record of songs with words and a record of songs without. Lenker describes the final product as attempting to capture the sensation of being inside an acoustic guitar, which is how the cabin she wrote the music in made her feel.
“It felt like the whole room was just like a bigger version of what I was playing and that the way the sound picked up was that it was so natural,” she says.”I don’t know how to describe it, but the room itself didn’t feel like it added overtones and things that weren’t there in the instrument. It felt like it actually was this extremely organic-sounding amplification of my guitar and the environment of my guitar.”
Embracing her guitar was an act of risk for Lenker, who is unaccustomed to hearing herself playing without the protection of her voice layered over.
“I was honestly feeling quite vulnerable about releasing something instrumental. Because I feel like I’m still improving as a guitar player. And in my mind, the people who are qualified to make instrumental records are virtuosic players,” she says. “But then I realized that was the whole point: something doesn’t need to be good, it doesn’t just need to be shredding or masterfully crafted in order to be worth sharing. It can just be meanderings of thoughts or of feeling and lots of fumbling. It can be just if I were sitting in the kitchen noodling around on guitar and you were reading or two people were just doing their thing. That’s what I wanted the effect to be: just like a little bit of company.”
Creating a solo acoustic project forced her to accept herself in ways she hadn’t during the years of rampant touring with the band.
“It’s this idea I have a creative spirit that doesn’t need to be quantified and judged and measured in such a way. It’s more just about sharing your heart and less about presenting something that feels perfect.”
That said, she’s not baring it all in this project. She says she experienced a “total breakdown” that left her in one of the lowest points of her life, which she is sure comes through in parts musically — but she’s still not revealing all.
“I think I speak of them in music, but it’s one thing to write about something, and it’s another thing to be able to completely convey an experience [through music],” she says. “Writing and making art about something brings a little window into it, but it doesn’t actually transfer. Thank God.”