Adrianne Lenker On Carving Out Space To Recover

Nov 10, 2020

Adrianne Lenker's latest music takes you straight to where it was recorded: a cabin in the Berkshires. Lenker was supposed to be on tour with her band Big Thief this year, but once the pandemic upended those plans, she holed up in the mountains of Western Massachusetts and recorded not one, but two new albums.

Simply titled songs and instrumentals, the two releases have an earthy, lived-in feel, with the cabin itself becoming an instrument in its own right and lending its sound to the recordings. Lenker says the decision she and her engineer made to record entirely on analog tape only added to the effect.

"It's like recording on a film camera versus a digital: You have to work with the physical material of the tape. And the machine, too, is imperfect in its capturing — it has this waver and fluttering that happens if it slows down or speeds up even just a tiny bit," she says. "For me, digital can be more like working with a fluorescent light, where it's a really fast flickering ... that you can feel on the subconscious level. Whereas tape is like waves."

Adrianne Lenker spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about the making of songs and instrumentals and their emotional backstory. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Mary Louise Kelly: I gather you were in a lonely place writing these two albums — literally, in a little cabin way in the Berkshires. You were living through the pandemic and through a breakup at the same time. That sounds really hard.

Adrianne Lenker: Yeah. It was really hard. I was really sad, and I hit a wall — I kind of hit the bottom of myself and went to a pretty dark and sad space for a while. And the music itself, and writing these songs, was a thing that was getting me through it.

Point me to a song that captures some of that.

Lenker: "ingydar," I think — that one helped me a lot, because it's looking at actual, physical death, but then also, relationships have deaths within them. I was observing a lot of nature at that time, and I was watching these ants eat the body of these worms.

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There's a lyric in there about Buck and I — Buck [Meek], who's in Big Thief. We were married for a while, and that relationship went through such a transition which I never really got to process while I was out on the road. There was a birth of this idea that we would have a family, or that I'd have a child or something — and I can see that, even that idea, dying. There's so many layers of that in nature ... so it's just kind of helping me process, trying to understand violence in humanity versus violence in animals and plants. What a strange place.

Tell me how the other album that you were producing at the same time fits in. instrumentals is actually just two long tracks, a pair of guitar pieces.

During this time we were beginning and closing each day with an improvisation — where I'd just sit with my guitar to warm up, and kind of get into the rhythm and start to connect with my guitar for the day, and then close the day that way as well. I realized that that's actually a huge part of my musicality, and it's one that I keep really quiet and to myself. [So] the recordings are actually me exploring and fumbling, as if I was sitting in the room while someone was making something in the kitchen, just exploring my guitar.

That's a lovely way to describe it. It makes me wonder if one album was almost saving you from the other: You were wrestling with such deep stuff on songs, and it sounds like with instrumentals, you got to just stretch. You got to breathe.

Yeah, and I wanted to offer that to the listener too — just a space. It's a duration of time, encapsulated, that I hoped could allow for their own thoughts to wander, not have to think so much about meanings, and sort of just existing and meandering. [Laughs] And relaxing, maybe.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Adrianne Lenker's new albums take you straight to where they were recorded - a cabin in the Berkshires.

ADRIANNE LENKER: There's just this little one-room pine cabin with a wood stove and a compost toilet, no running water.

KELLY: Lenker was supposed to be on tour with her band Big Thief. The pandemic upended those plans, so she holed up in the mountains of western Massachusetts and recorded not one but two new albums titled simply "Songs" and "Instrumentals." The albums have an earthy, lived-in feel. You can hear rain pattering against the cabin roof on the track "Come."

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIANNE LENKER SONG, "COME")

KELLY: And the cabin itself became something of an instrument, lending its own resonance to the recordings.

LENKER: All the pine was unfinished and just rough, which made for beautiful sound. I felt like the room was just amplifying the sound of my guitar, the way it sounds when I put my ear up against it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME")

LENKER: (Singing) Come help me die.

KELLY: Adrianne Lenker and her engineer recorded the album entirely on analog tape, which, as a radio person, I was curious about.

LENKER: It's like recording on a film camera versus a digital. You have to work with the physical material of the tape. And the machine, too, is imperfect. And it's capturing - it has this, like, waver and fluttering that happens if it slows down or speeds up even just a tiny bit. And for me, digital is more like - it can be more like working with, like, a fluorescent light, where it's a really fast flickering that's happening - kind of like, on, off, on, off, on, off. Like, it's this super-fast flickering that you can feel on a subconscious level, whereas tape is like waves. That's how it feels to me and my body. It's like a continuous wave. Like, it can be - like, on a psychoacoustic level, it just feels different. It feels a little bit more natural.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIANNE LENKER SONG, "MY ANGEL")

KELLY: I gather you were in a lonely place writing these two albums - literally in a one-room cabin way in the Berkshires. And you were living through the pandemic and through a breakup at the same time. That sounds really hard.

LENKER: Yeah, it was really hard. I was really sad, and I hit a wall. Like, I kind of just hit the bottom of myself and went to a pretty dark and sad space for a while. And the music itself and writing the songs was a thing that was getting me through it.

KELLY: Point me to a song that captures some of that.

LENKER: "Ingydar," I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INGYDAR")

LENKER: (Singing) Fragilely, gradually and surrounding, the horse lies naked in the shed. Evergreen anodyne decompounding, flies draw sugar from his head.

I think that one helped me a lot because it's just looking at, you know, actual physical death as death, but then also, relationships also have deaths within them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INGYDAR")

LENKER: (Singing) Everything eats and is eaten. Time is fed.

You know, I was observing a lot of nature at that time. And I was watching these ants eat the body of, like, these worms. And, you know, the horse lies naked in the shed. The flies draw sugar from his head. Everything eats and is eaten. Time is fed. There's a lyric in there about, you know, Buck and I, Buck who's in Big Thief. We were married for a while, and that relationship went through such a transition, which I never really got to process while I was out on the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INGYDAR")

LENKER: (Singing) The juice of dark cherries cover my skin - six years in, no baby.

There was a birth of this idea that we would have a family or that I would have a child or something, and I can see that - even that idea dying. And, like, yeah - just so many layers of that in nature everywhere, too. Just - it's just kind of helping me process and trying to understand, you know, like, violence in humanity versus violence in animals and in plants and in how it all - like, what this paradigm is. Like, what a strange place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIANNE LENKER'S "MOSTLY CHIMES")

KELLY: Tell me how the other album that you were producing at the same time - how that fits in. This is "Instrumentals." It's a pair of guitar pieces.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIANNE LENKER'S "MOSTLY CHIMES")

LENKER: During this time, we were beginning and closing each day with an improvisation where I would just sit with my guitar to warm up and just kind of get into the rhythm and start to connect with my guitar for the day and then close the day that way as well. And I realized that that's actually - that's a huge part of my musicality, and it's one that I keep really quiet and to myself. The recordings are actually just recordings of me exploring and fumbling and just sitting with the guitar as if I was sitting in the room while - you know, while someone was making something in the kitchen and I'm just sitting there, kind of exploring the guitar.

KELLY: Oh, that's a lovely way to describe it. It also makes me wonder if one album was almost saving you from the other. You were wrestling with such deep stuff on "Songs," and it sounds like "Instrumentals" - you got to just stretch. You got to breathe.

LENKER: Yeah, yeah. And I wanted to offer that to the listener, too - like, just a space. It's a duration of time encapsulated that I hoped, anyway, that it could just allow for, you know, their own thoughts to wander and just sort of not have to think so much about meanings and sort of just existing and meandering and relaxing, maybe.

KELLY: Well, Adrianne Lenker, thank you so much for talking to us.

LENKER: Thank you so much for having me. I'm a big fan of y'all.

KELLY: Her new albums are titled "Songs" and "Instrumentals."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANYTHING")

LENKER: (Singing) Staring down the barrel of the hot sun, shining with the sheen of a shotgun - Carol has a little if we need some. Joa has a ride if we want to come. Hanging your jeans with a clothespin, skin still wet still on my skin, mango in your mouth, juice dripping, shoulder of your shirtsleeve slipping, Christmas Eve with your mother and sis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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