Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker on Releasing Two Albums in Six Months

The band's frontwoman also spoke to us about the earth's energy and focusing on your surroundings.

Fate does not smile upon the initial attempt at an interview with Big Thief frontwoman Adrianne Lenker. What starts as technological difficulties—navigating her Brooklyn apartment for a clear signal—escalates when a balcony window pops out of its frame and falls onto her girlfriend’s head.

When she calls back later in the day after making sure no harm had been done, Lenker uses the incident as a point of departure to discuss the intention behind Two Hands, the indie-folk outfit’s second album of 2019. “The earth is like a body, like a vessel. It’s our truest home, just like our bodies are homes. And if I get a cut or if I hit my head, I’m suddenly aware of all this fragility,” she says with a laugh. “‘Oh it’s the only body I’ve got, I better take care of this precious being.’ That’s Earth.”

It takes a disarmingly short amount of time Lenker to ease into the philosophical on the phone. She’s discerning in a way that would cause whiplash if not for her humility, preceding every point with “I wonder if” and punctuating her insight with laughter and nearly audible shrugs. Long silences elapse as she gathers her thoughts, and when she does speak, the words emanate from a profoundly thoughtful place.

“…if you’re really tuned in, there’s just this giant aching, throbbing pain that anyone could feel.”

Big Thief’s open-heartedness and commitment to surviving like “an organism, as one entity,” has led them to a remarkable place. Not only did they release U.F.O.F. (Unidentified Flying Object Friend) and Two Hands just six months shy of each other, but they managed to do the two projects in such a way that they merge into a broader metaphysical inquiry. The two records, nicknamed “the celestial twin” and “the earth twin,” respectively, wonder about individuality and collectivity in an era marked by acute isolation and helplessness.

If U.F.O.F. wanted to venture into the cosmos to befriend “the other,” then Two Hands redirects that gaze earthward and inward. The latter is grounding: “maybe to realize that there is no other, maybe to dissolve that feeling,” Lenker says.

Lenker wrote fervently over the last two years during two back-to-back world tours. A demo session in Topanga Canyon in 2018 resulted in 40 or 50 songs, enough music for the band to create multiple records. Yet a double album “would’ve been too dense, specifically with this material,” Lenker explains. “So, we decided to make two albums.”

“[U.F.O.F. is] more ethereal, celestial, and cosmic. [On Two Hands], we wanted to be like bones and blood—very human. It felt ambitious, but it all made a lot of sense once we got into it.”

Big Thief leaned on the Pacific Northwest rainforest’s opposing natural environments and the New Mexico desert to guide the sonic differences between both albums. Their U.F.O.F. sessions in the middle of a forest outside Seattle “just flowed,” the lush greenery and plentiful oxygen translating into the album’s soft, airy sounds.

Less than a week later, the foursome evaporated that fluidity under the scorching El Paso sun. They grew “wily” in the 105-degree weather. “We needed to shake off the desert dust, to push through it.” They needed to fight. Creating in such a hot and barren climate birthed songs that sound burnt to a crisp. After a few failed sessions, the band experimented by placing their instruments as close together as possible.

All but two songs feature live vocal takes so that Lenker’s voice hovers, suspended in the dry air, clear and vulnerable. James Krivchenia’s muted percussions and Buck Meek’s guitar are cracked clay earth.

With Two Hands, Big Thief has tapped into the vulnerability, immediacy, and universality of the corporeal realm to craft an intensely political record without using political language.

Lenker writes about the human body — the most immediate and relatable thing — to bring listeners into a shared sense of grief for our disconnection to each other and the earth, while simeltaneously pleading with us to refocus our energy into our “immediate surroundings.”

“I think we can all feel the wounds of the earth and the wounds we impose upon each other. It’s very easy to distract from that feeling, but if you’re really tuned in, there’s just this giant aching, throbbing pain that anyone could feel.”

For her, most pain is ancestral and inherited by each generation, but we still have the agency to change it by “working with that energy and transforming it through many, many, many acts of love over time.” Lenker wonders what would happen if everyone poured love into themselves, worked on their relationship with their grandmothers, and “grew a little garden.”

“If everyone turned inwardly and worked on that microcosm, we would then have a big, beautiful, peaceful macrocosm. It would just be contagious.”

 *This article was originally published in 2019.

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